The Montreal Mutombo: Oregon's Chris Boucher Hardened by Poverty, Long Journey

Shaun PowellSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 24, 2016

Oregon forward Chris Boucher (25) blocks Arizona State guard Tra Holder shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Oregon defeated Arizona State 91-74. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The country's most weirdly wonderful player can be found in Eugene, Oregon, because, well, why not? When you're born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, then immigrate to Montreal, trek to New Mexico and from there to Wyoming, you always parachute next into Eugene, right?

A 6'10" forward with a body by Twizzler who swats shots with alarming frequency, Chris Boucher bravely holds his ground in the paint against huskier players. For kicks, he also steps out 20 feet from the rim and drills shots from deep, which makes him rather typical in that regard, no? A springy shot-blocker who often shoots threes like a guard. Those players cost five cents a dozen, right?

It wasn't but four years ago when Boucher confined his game to a neighborhood park, dribbling to nowhere special and standing tall on absolutely nobody's college basketball radar. He didn't play organized ball until he was 19, although his Oregon coaches and teammates, marveling at his rapid development and realizing his importance, suggest he's right on time.

It's been quite a journey to go from way over there to way over here, which means Boucher has covered more ground quicker than anybody who ever blessed the Oregon campus except Steve Prefontaine, the fabled distance runner.

As profound a story as Boucher's basketball history appears to be, the Ducks are too busy being excited about the immediate future to reflect on it. They're tied for first in the Pac-12 and trying to capture a high seed for the NCAA tournament, a leap for a program that recently stood on wobbly ground after dealing with a legal case that saw three players suspended.

This reversal of fortune is due in part to the raw Haitian-Canadian who crystallized from nowhere and now has the Ducks going, perhaps, someplace special.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

"I like his activity," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. "Chris is a unique player, a good worker, very gifted."

Oregon and Boucher were a match from the start this season. He was the National Junior College Player of the Year in 2015 and a transfer who was projected to supply energy off the Ducks bench.

When sophomore center Jordan Bell missed the early portion of the season with a foot injury, Boucher filled in and fit in right away. In the season's second game, a victory against a Baylor team ranked No. 20 at the time, Boucher led the Ducks with 15 points and eight rebounds, and he hasn't pumped the brakes since.

Blessed with a 7'4" wingspan, he's among the top five in the country in blocked shots, which comes instinctively for him. But while Boucher has taken advantage of the shot-blocking skills most inexperienced post players lean on until they figure out the nuances of the game, he has not remained a one-dimensional talent.

His coaches see his basketball intellect expanding, his footwork improving, his court awareness sharpening. And his ability to hit three-pointers (35.4 percent through 27 games) is impressive for someone his size.

It's not a coincidence that Oregon is a mild surprise in the nation's Top 20.

"Chris has turned himself into a fan favorite and all the kids on the team appreciate him," said Mike Mennenga, the Oregon assistant coach who recruited him. "He's a smart, responsible kid who isn't satisfied about where he's at and how quickly he's gotten this far, although he should be."

If only Oregon could discover a way to nourish his body to grow with his game. He's roughly 200 pounds after dessert, a playing weight that gets stretched like taffy when placed on a 6'10" body. His pipe-cleaner arms and legs are disconcerting at first, but then you see how he manages to block shots and be a presence on defense in spite of his lanky body.

Oregon's Chris Boucher ranks second in the nation with 3.2 blocks per game this season.
Oregon's Chris Boucher ranks second in the nation with 3.2 blocks per game this season.Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

"Coach Altman has given me confidence, and my teammates make it feel like family," Boucher said. "I'm happy that I've played a role, and everyone is always trying to make me better."

To know Chris Boucher, you need a good sense of geography or a GPS. His family left Saint Lucia when he was a toddler and relocated to Montreal, where his father was from. After his parents soon separated, Chris lived primarily with his mother and younger brother and sister.

Finances were tight, so they settled in a community that fluctuated between lower-middle-class and grim, depending on the mood. Even tougher challenges awaited Boucher in keeping connected to his father, who lived nearby in Montreal North, the meanest part of town.

Montreal North is where you're conditioned to walk briskly. It's often referred to as the Bronx of Montreal, sharing with its New York City cousin its share of social conflict, unemployment, gang activity and mistrust of police.

Home to a large percentage of the city's ethnic population, and Haitians in particular, the North stands in stark contrast to the majority of Quebec. It's a place where, in August 2008, police shot a teenager from Honduras to death.

The incident caused an uncomfortable ripple effect in a country that rarely sees the level of racial tension that flares in America. Riots followed, and an officer was shot. Since then, the North residents have maintained an often-tenuous relationship with the political establishment and law enforcement.

Mennenga knows the turf well, having recruiting connections in Toronto and Montreal as well as the American Northeast corridor. He knew the challenges Canadian players face, which go far beyond the weather.

"You're dealing with first-generation immigrants—no money, no jobs, crime is rampant," he said. "Situations like what happened with the riots in '08 don't happen overnight. That's developed over some time, with frustration and oppression.

"When that kid got shot, enough was enough. The citizens went off. The problem is any type of social reform was difficult to get done because of the cross section of people and the language barriers."

During that turbulent time in the North, Boucher was just about to enter his teenage years and was in danger of being swallowed up by his surroundings. There weren't many options for kids. When his mom lost her job, the family hop-scotched from one apartment to another.

"For about two years," said Mennenga, "Chris didn't really have a firm address. Chris was just kind of living day to day, which isn't unusual for some kids around there. School was secondary."

Boucher also was growing, literally. In 10th grade, he was 6'2". Soccer and hockey were his games—"that helped my coordination," he said. The next year, he was 6'9", and he beat a path to Camp Park, where his friends played ball. He became a regular, the tallest on the playground, but that's as far as his game went. He never played in high school.

Word about Boucher filtered out, though, and reached Ibrahim Appiah, who grew up near the park. Appiah had survived the neighborhood and played at High Point University before returning to Montreal. Appiah and his coaching partner, Igor Rwigema, had started scouring Montreal for young talent to train, learned about Boucher and brought him to Alma Academy, a prep school a few hundred miles away that offered what Boucher never had.

"He had [at Alma] some…stability in his life," Appiah said. "He had a place to play, a place to stay, a schedule to follow, going to practice and studying. He also had us whenever he needed us. When a kid has all of those things in his life, you finally see the real potential. So many kids are just discarded because they don't have those benefits. They're never given a chance."

Boucher leads the Ducks this season with 7.6 rebounds per game in less than 27 minutes per contest.
Boucher leads the Ducks this season with 7.6 rebounds per game in less than 27 minutes per contest.Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Boucher did post-graduate work at Alma, and it opened doors educationally, socially and athletically.

"Ibrahim and Igor, they saw so much potential in me," said Boucher. "They said, 'You're talented, you can do things in this game.'"

His basketball breakout came in a prep-school tournament in Rhode Island, where Boucher had a beastly performance against Blair Academy, a traditional New Jersey basketball powerhouse that had previously produced Charlie Villanueva and Luol Deng.

"When we came home from that tournament, we figured we'd have Chris for another year, but that put him on the map," said Appiah. "We realized we had to let him follow his dream."

That dream didn't take him to a glamorous Division I program, but to New Mexico Junior College, because his grades, though adequate, kept him off the radar of some major programs. Boucher was joined by Nicky Desilien, his close friend and Alma teammate. Boucher averaged 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in a promising debut, but he left after one year when the coaches refused to bring Desilien back.

"It was difficult because I came from a big city to a smaller one, but it also helped me concentrate on basketball and school," Boucher said.

Boucher and Desilien transferred to Northwest College in Wyoming, and the former became an instant smash. He averaged 22.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game, a performance that earned him recognition as the nation's top JUCO player.

What struck the Northwest coaches was how well Boucher developed into a smart and more efficient player almost overnight. His offensive skills were raw, but he nonetheless shot 44 percent on three-pointers and gained the confidence to step beyond the paint.

"A hard worker," Northwest head coach Brian Erickson said. "Chris puts so much into his preparation. He wants to win and he wants to improve. When he came to us, he couldn't dribble with his left but worked on it, like he did with other parts of his game. And it happened so quickly. He ran the floor hard, did a better job of taking it off the dribble and attacking the rim and stepping out for threes. He did it all."

With Boucher emerging as a force in the paint, the Ducks are likely to finish in the Top 20 of the AP poll and secure a solid seed in the NCAA tournament.
With Boucher emerging as a force in the paint, the Ducks are likely to finish in the Top 20 of the AP poll and secure a solid seed in the NCAA tournament.Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Erickson remembers his first meeting with Boucher like it happened an hour ago: "He comes into my office and says, 'Coach, we're going to win a championship.' No smile, no nothing, just levelheaded. And when we won the region championship, which hadn't happened in 46 years, he gives the biggest smile. He was saving that smile."

After helping Northwest to a 31-5 record and to the quarterfinals of the JUCO tournament, Boucher received some interest on the D-I level, but not a lot. The Kentuckys and Michigan States didn't call. Those types of schools were thrown by his weight. Boucher came to Northwest at 175 pounds and added 20, but that still wasn't enough to ease some schools' fears.

Mennenga had none. He knew of Boucher since that Rhode Island tournament and had followed his progress. The day before the Ducks played in Omaha for an NCAA tournament game last season, Mennenga drove to Kansas to watch Boucher get 24 points and 14 rebounds in a loss to eventual JUCO champ Northwest Florida State. Oregon was sold.

One of Boucher's unmistakable gifts, one that helps him even the tactical scale against D-I counterparts who sometimes outweigh him by 40-50 pounds, is an indefatigable desire to run. He constantly zips up and down the floor. His junior college coaches are convinced that if not for basketball, Boucher would excel in track and field.

"Maybe if I was bigger, I wouldn't be able to run the floor as well," he said.

This is a welcome period for Oregon basketball. Two years ago, the program was hit with a sexual assault scandal that saw three players jettisoned. And men's basketball still trails football in prestige. But there still is the presence and generous contributions of Nike. And now there is a rosterDillon Brooks, Elgin Cook, Tyler Dorsey and Boucher—that gives the Ducks a shot to make an enjoyable run this spring.

"We were excited about the guys who were returning without Chris," said Mennenga, "and Chris has really elevated us to an elite team."

The only question about Boucher is whether he'll be back next season. He's technically a senior, since the NCAA insists his eligibility began with his one year in prep school. Oregon plans to seek a waiver, but there's also the chance he could be one-and-done at Oregon and bolt for professional ball. has Boucher pegged for the second round.

"I think I have a chance to make the NBA, that's what I see, and if not, I'm trying to get my degree," Boucher said. "I feel like there are no limits. To go from where I was two years ago to now has given me the confidence to do more and work harder. I have to challenge myself."

Boucher is ready to change locales again? The Ducks can only hope he brings them along for part of the trip, starting with a plum first-round NCAA site.