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Flinder Boyd | April 11, 2013

The Re-education of Chris Copeland

How a 29-year-old rookie made it to the NBA

We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. ~ Ben Okri

An hour and a half before the Knicks-Pistons game in London’s O2 arena this past January, Chris Copeland was already shooting around, sweat dripping off his practice jersey, and the squeak of his sneakers echoing off the nearly empty seats. I was in town for the week to analyze the game for the BBC and looked forward to catching up with my old teammate.

Aside from the rare, brief phone conversation, the last time I spoke to Chris Copeland was more than five years ago. He was stuffing whatever clothes he had into a duffle bag in a rundown hotel outside of Santiago de Compostela. We were briefly teammates in Spain before management decided he wasn’t good enough to play for even the lowest of second division teams and suddenly terminated his contract. I still remember his sense of failure and how the fear of the unknown reduced him to an anxious child.

Management decided he wasn’t good enough to play for even the lowest of second division teams and terminated his contract.

Even at 6’8 it was sometimes easy to forget Copeland played professional basketball. He’s friendly and unassuming, and his round, vibrant face and long lanky arms covered in a layer of baby fat often made him seem younger than he was. When I knew him, there was nothing in his game, at least visibly, to suggest he could ever, even in the most outlandish of clichéd fairy-tale stories, end up playing for the New York Knicks. Yet here he was, a 29-year-old NBA rookie coming off a 22-point master-class performance four nights earlier against New Orleans and in the starting line-up against the Pistons in London. "I can’t explain it," he said. "It’s just what I always dreamed about it." Sure, I thought. Every boy who has ever picked up a ball dreams of playing in the NBA, but to make it at his age, with a limited basketball pedigree, after spending the last few years in the roundball backwaters of northern Europe, is not only unheard of, but virtually impossible.

He’s overcome his fair share of requisite obstacles that have helped define the person he is: At just 13 years old, in 1997 the painfully shy boy lost his only sibling and childhood idol, when his brother, Vincent, 10 years his senior, was suddenly killed in a hit-and-run accident in northern New Jersey.

Shortly afterwards Copeland and his mother moved to Richmond, Va., where he attended Hermitage High School. "He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen," assistant coach Joe Coulter said. Copeland put all his pain and frustrations into basketball, and despite limited interest from local college recruiters, he earned a scholarship to the University of Colorado.

At Boulder, Copeland struggled to adjust, "He was a super quiet dude," said James Wright, the point guard on the team. "The guys used to make fun of him because he was so quiet, but he had a huge heart, and all he wanted to do was play ball."

After his sophomore year while attending a campus football party he was hit by a stray bullet in the shoulder. Fortunately, it was not serious and he spent only a few days in the hospital before eventually recovering to gain a starting spot the following season.

He had his moments at Colorado but developed a reputation for inconsistency as he struggled under the tyrannical methods of head coach Ricardo Patton. In his last college game, an 18-point blowout loss to Old Dominion in the first round of the NIT, he scored 12 points, his season average, a quiet end to an unremarkable college career.

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As a virtual unknown from a second-tier college program, he went undrafted by the NBA. He then spent one mostly forgettable year in the NBA’s D-league with the Fort Worth Flyers, averaging less than 10 points a game.

Whatever his hopes and ambitions were, one year out of college there were only a few people in NBA circles who had even heard of him, let alone considered him a prospect.

This is the point when common sense usually takes over. Where any lofty ideals fizzle and the daily grind of life takes their place and quite possibly the words "I used to be a basketball player," begin to find a voice.

Yet every so often there is something, perhaps inexplicable, which drives a man to clench his teeth and swallow those words and continue to pursue a seemingly unattainable dream, when most of us – perhaps, all of us – allow the reality of our lives and the sting of disappointment to dictate our destiny.

Copeland, for reasons most of us could probably never understand, stubbornly stuck with his dream with a singular focus against the skepticism and better judgment of nearly all of those around him.


***

In 2007, a year removed from the D-League, Copeland headed to Spain where he accepted an invitation to play with the now defunct second-level professional club Rosalia de Castro in the beautiful medieval city of Santiago de Compostela.

Without a viable soccer team in the city, Rosalia was the pride of the town and its basketball crazy fans. Run by a former high school math teacher, and funded on a shoestring budget by an ever-changing patchwork of local businesses and tax money, salaries were low and often came months late, if at all. Still, for a young player, it was a good place to start and build a solid European foundation.

I was beginning my second year with the team and sixth season in Europe. Despite lofty ambitions early in my career, I had long ago accepted my lowly place in the pecking order of European players and was now mostly content to trade a lack of money for the currency of a cultural experience. When Chris arrived, he and I connected almost immediately.

It is sometimes easy to make assumptions about basketball players, and sometimes even other basketball players make those same assumptions about their colleagues. Chris, however, was different. The qualities that make some athletes successful — narrow-minded focus, and a bloated sense of self — just didn’t register for Copeland. He was quiet yet charming, and possessed a curiosity about nearly everything. A psychology major, he’s a deeply analytical person, sometimes to a fault. We’d sit for hours over dinner talking about the last practice and dissecting each moment on the court. I tried to talk him through the differences in the European game, and he’d tell me, sometimes through nervous laughter, about his dreams of one day playing in the NBA.

He is blessed with an inherent understanding of floor spacing and action without the ball.

Despite his bow-legged, plodding movements that hindered him against more athletic players, Copeland has a rare sense of court awareness and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He is blessed with an inherent understanding of floor spacing and action without the ball. Even now, when I watch him play with the Knicks, he’ll float a few feet away from his defender, or slip a screen into the only open space on the court before unleashing a lightning quick fade-away jump shot, the same shot he developed over the course of thousands of hours in the gym. He’s an unselfish player who takes what the game gives him and knows precisely what he can and cannot do.

In our training camp, however, he was too unselfish. He would over-pass and personally apologize to the coach every time he made a turnover. He wanted so badly to be liked and needed, for his dream to remain in reach. In many ways, I saw a lot of my own insecure 23-year-old-self in him.

As we look back at our lives, it’s always interesting to pinpoint the people, often unbeknownst to them, who have such a profound impact on our journeys.

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Our first preseason game was against local rival Lugo, led by Devin Davis, the former star of Miami University (Ohio) who now made a living rebounding and doing the dirty work inside. He was a rugged, inside banger with veiny, bulging muscles on nearly every ounce of his body and long dreadlocks that hung nearly halfway down his back.

On one of the first plays down the court Davis, who felt the weaker Copeland on his back, demanded the ball. A quick drop-step and a forearm into the chest and Copeland went flying across the baseline. Davis’ gathered himself and laid the ball in, glaring at Copeland as he jogged back on defense.

Davis, as Copeland would find out, was decidedly not a dreamer. He didn’t cling onto some unfettered idea of a vainglorious oasis off in the horizon. He knew full well that no basketball contract in Europe is ever really guaranteed and played each possession as if it was the only possession that mattered. He was a man planted firmly in the reality of his situation, and didn’t care if he was playing in a preseason game, or if there were 100 fans or 10,000 in the stands.

"Devin Davis." Copeland would later say, as if recalling a nightmare, "I’ll never forget that name."

it’s work, it’s survival, it’s a constant state of fight or flight.

Davis recognized he was merely a commodity, and an easily dispensable one at that. We all were. Players in Europe learn that very early on. Basketball is no longer about the so-called ‘love of the game’— it’s work, it’s survival, it’s a constant state of fight or flight. You know that there are a thousand guys back home in the States who would gladly play for next to nothing to be in your position, and the moment you slip up another dreamer takes your place.

Davis didn’t believe in "exhibition" games, he just saw Copeland as a threat to his livelihood, an obstacle to overcome and eradicate. Throughout the game Davis out-muscled Copeland for offensive rebounds or let Copeland front him in the post only to pin him on his backside for lay-ups, easily exposing Copeland’s lack of quickness and defensive mobility. Devin Davis, who had played on three continents his first three years out of college in search of a steady income, understood the paucity of professional basketball jobs and the grind it took to keep one. He didn’t just want to win this game, he wanted to pulverize his opponent, he wanted to make sure Copeland didn’t have any lingering doubts about his place in the hierarchy of Spanish league forwards or harbor any fantasies that someday he’d be able to stand in Davis’ place and take his job out from under him.

Copeland did not yet understand this. He was merely playing to be part of the team and to be included amongst the boys.

Our coach, who saw Copeland every day in practice, knew he could play and thought he needed a little more time to adjust and adapt to the Spanish lifestyle. The general manager and the team president, however, only saw an inexperienced kid who couldn’t keep up with faster, stronger players like Davis. After we lost to Lugo, they convened an emergency meeting and before the sun rose the next morning, Copeland was gone.

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Copeland, however, appeared to land on his feet. L’Hospitalet, a second-division team located near Barcelona, comprised mostly of local players not quite ready for the big time, heard about his outside shooting touch and signed him within the week. The roster included a young Serge Ibaka, later to become a star with the OKC Thunder and currently second in the NBA in blocked shots. His intimidating inside presence would allow Copeland to float around the perimeter and do what he does best; spread the floor with his ability to score from anywhere inside 25 feet.

It started well. After a solid shooting first game, Copeland seemed to have found a team that understood his skills. But in sports things can change in an instant, and any sense of self-belief he held onto quickly began to unravel. The one skill he could always rely on, the one that separated him from the multitude of would-be professional basketball players and that always gave him a sense accomplishment, suddenly and completely vanished.

The next few games were abysmal. His jump shot was gone. He never shot more than 30 percent from the floor and averaged just four points a game. He was forced to learn, at the most inopportune moment of all, a lesson that all athletes must learn at some point in their lives: confidence is delicate and unpredictable and can, when you need it most, vanish from beneath you, like a slender thread that breaks and slips away. The constant balancing act of body and mind is done on such a precarious tightrope that it can take years to find the right symmetry, if at all.

Copeland was questioning each shot before it left his hand, hoping he’d make it, but weighing the consequences if he didn’t. His analytical brain went into overdrive, thinking through each movement.

Perhaps there is something to be said about the "dumb jock," the athlete who simply reacts without internally debating the reasons for doing so, often to great success, rarely worrying about the outcome when the game is over. Copeland’s intelligence, on the other hand, was strangling him. He started isolating himself from his teammates, embarrassed by his play.

When his coach called him into the office after his fourth game with the team, Copeland’s heart sunk. The team appreciated his work ethic and attitude, the coach said, then handed him a one-way ticket back to the United States.


"I was staring in the mirror with tears in my eyes thinking, ‘It’s over. I can’t do this.’"

James Wright, his college teammate, who himself was playing in Europe, had come to Spain to visit his friend. "I had always tried to encourage him. I believe good things will happen to good people," he said. "But after he came back to the room and told me what happened, I didn’t know what to say. We just stood there staring at each other."

Cut by two teams within two months in the nether reaches of professional basketball, Copeland’s basketball resume appeared tarnished beyond repair. He packed his bags, then stepped into the bathroom and locked the door behind him.

"I was in the middle of Barcelona, in this beautiful city, and I felt completely alone," Copeland said. "I was staring in the mirror with tears in my eyes thinking, ‘It’s over. I can’t do this.’"

***

After he was cut by L’Hospitalet, Copeland hung around Barcelona, spending hours at a time walking around the city, trying to stretch out the last few dollars to his name. He knew if he flew back home, it was unlikely any team interested in him would be willing to invest in a plane ticket for his services back to Europe. He called his agent every day, to see if any teams had asked about him. He was just hoping for a try-out somewhere, anywhere.

After a couple weeks he was thrown a lifeline. A small club in the tiny Dutch municipality of Nijmegen, near the German border, was looking for a scoring forward. They didn’t have much money but it didn’t matter, Copeland probably would have paid them for the opportunity to play.

"I had never heard of basketball in the Netherlands but it was all I had. No one else wanted me," he said.

If you were to equate the European professional basketball leagues to college basketball, the second division in Spain or LEB Gold, as it is known, is the equivalent of the Missouri Valley Conference or Conference USA, a solid mid-major conference, a couple of steps below the big boys of Italy, Russia, the Spanish first division and Turkey, and just slightly below the solid yet unspectacular basketball of countries like Germany or Belgium. The Netherlands, on the other hand, is more like the obscure Northeast Conference, or the MEAC, full of guys with big dreams but little to show for it in their careers, guys like Chris Copeland with no place else to go.

There basketball is unglamorous, a working class game.
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There, as it is in most of Europe, basketball is unglamorous, a working class game. Most Dutch teams are located in gritty, gray, industrial towns where on a good night 1,000 supporters pay 3 or 4 euros to forget their lousy jobs and vent and scream their hearts out for an hour and half. The invisible, intractable barrier of celebrity that normally separates the fans and the players in the United States and some other European countries doesn’t exist in the same way, if at all, in the Netherlands.

The fans are able to imagine that if these players weren’t blessed with abnormal height and athletic skill, they’d be sitting right next to them and working in the same factories that they do. Players are not exalted, but rather strive to be accepted, seen as equals, something that is both humbling and comforting.

Copeland felt at ease. There was a kind of family atmosphere surrounding the team that he hadn’t experienced in Spain, where expectations were higher. He was able to relax, and unpack his bags. He didn’t feel the constant sense of judging eyes burning a hole through him every time he touched the ball, and his play reflected it.

He led his team in scoring at 18 points a game and shot 50 percent from the field, albeit against inferior competition. Nevertheless, it was a start.

Still, if not for a fateful encounter with Yves Defraigne his career would have likely plateaued and Copeland would have simply settled in, another solid player content with his place in the European game.

Defraigne, from TBB Trier, in the well-respected German League, heard about Copeland, a shooting forward, from a coaching friend in the Netherlands. He called and left a message. The 6’4" former player with the chiseled face and near-permanent stoic stare was initially skeptical. "We had a lot of doubts about his recruitment, he was slow, not quick in agility, but we needed a power forward who could shoot outside," Defraigne said.

Copeland didn’t have any reservations and called Defraigne back right away.

"The first talk we had, he told me he wanted to get the maximum out of his potential," Defraigne said. "I told him ‘Germany is three times better than Holland so to do that you will have to work harder than you’ve ever worked.’"

From the first practice, Copeland learned Defraigne wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection. He pulled the player aside, standing just inches away, his face tinted bright red, veins bulging from his neck and berated him in his gruff, heavily accented voice for missing a box-out assignment. "The first year was my worst year with him. Screaming a lot, a lot of back and forth," Copeland said.

All coaches understand, in most respects, that their job is to guide their players toward their potential through a certain level of constructive and tailored pain. The way in which they do that, however, varies greatly and can have lasting effects on the psyche and performance of their players.

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Copeland’s coach at Colorado, Ricardo Patton for instance, would "pick on Chris," as teammate James Wright explained, "and feed on that and try to test him." Patton inflicted suffering for suffering’s sake to weed out players he felt couldn’t meet his warped Darwinian sense of "toughness." Defraigne, on the other hand, was different. "He pushed me really hard," Copeland said. "But I know he respected me a lot."

Defraigne came from the most celebrated family of rowers in Belgium. His sister competed in the Montreal and Moscow Olympics and his brothers in the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics. He was himself a respected heavyweight rower who, in his teens, woke up before dawn each day to train with his siblings, usually to the point of exhaustion. He reveled in the sense of accomplishment each completed race gave him and in the quiet solitude he felt outside, connected with nature. Eventually however, his love of the constant movement of basketball and the infinite ways in which each play could manifest itself became too strong and he gave up his Olympic rowing dreams. But the lessons he’d taken from the water, he carried with him onto the hardwood.


"Every human being is naturally lazy and will always try to do it the easy way."

"What I learned from rowing is an athlete can go a lot further beyond his limits than an athlete knows," Defraigne said. "Every human being is naturally lazy and will always try to do it the easy way. Athletes have to be taught that they can go further than these limits."

Early in coach Defraigne’s playing career he was nothing more than a big scoring guard armed with a deadly jump shot. After a move to a top club in his native Belgium he found playing time hard to come by despite his extra work on the practice court. Unsatisfied with his role on the team, he began spending nights in the video room, obsessively dissecting every play and transforming himself into a defensive ace and ultimately earning a starting spot. Through untold hours of self-taught training and rigorous mental exercises, he developed into a local star in the Belgian league in the ‘80s and ‘90s, eventually playing for 14 successful seasons.

Though their backgrounds were vastly distinct, Copeland’s quiet confidence and inquisitive mind reminded Defraigne of himself.

"What I really noticed about Chris was when we would show him video of our practices he could really go deeper into the game," Defraigne said. "He could talk for an hour and a half, he was very curious and eager to learn. Chris was unique. He didn’t just want to be good, he wanted to constantly improve."

Defraigne was able to see something in Copeland that no one else saw, maybe even something Copeland himself didn’t understand about his own abilities. Defraigne decided he wanted to mentor Copeland, in a way he’s never done with any other player, before or since.

One evening, early in the season, Defraigne called Copeland into his office. When Copeland sat down Defraigne laid out, in detail, a two-year plan of objectives for Copeland’s improvement that would be re-evaluated on a weekly basis. Copeland, if he agreed, would have to commit fully. Every second of every day would be dictated by Defraigne as a focused and patient step toward Copeland’s goals.

Copeland was initially skeptical; he desperately wanted his game to progress, but openly wondered how monitoring his life on such extreme levels could improve his faults and allow him to become the player he wanted to be. Nevertheless, he decided to try Defraigne’s methods, but only for a few weeks, and only the aspects he felt he needed.

Defraigne was furious. Either you do it with everything you have, or don’t do it at all, he told Copeland. Defraigne explained to Copeland that basketball, like rowing, is a spiritual endeavor and unless you give your entire soul to it, it will always betray you.

This was something Copeland could understand. After his brother had suddenly died, Copeland had sought the deeper meaning to everything he did; it’s part of his thoughtful nature. Basketball was no different. He still had big dreams and wanted to believe there was more to the game than just statistics and chasing the next contract for as much money as possible. A few days later, before practice, he walked into Defraigne’s office and signed on to his coach’s plans, with no reservations. Soon Trier became his ninja samurai encampment.

The first thing Defraigne wanted to change was Copeland’s work ethic. He didn’t dispute the hours Copeland put in the gym, but Defraigne, the Flemish-born utilitarian, loathed the way in which he did it. "He wasn’t educated in the proper way to work," he said. "You have a lot of players who practice six hours a day, but they’re practicing in a bad way."

Every aspect of Copeland’s life was scrutinized for optimal performance, no detail was too small.
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Every aspect of Copeland’s life was scrutinized for optimal performance, no detail was too small, "We talked about his sleep patterns, his diet, how to behave, the structure of his life," Defraigne said. "He studied religiously his opponent and the game. He was very open-minded to everything we threw at him."

No detail was too small. Copeland would eat breakfast with the team doctor who monitored every calorie he put in his body. Defraigne regulated his computer usage, even his posture. They discussed Copeland’s sprinting biomechanics at great length and his thought process before and after every shot. Defraigne’s intentions, more than anything, were to teach Copeland how to use his intelligence to his advantage, rather than as a hindrance. Every single movement and idea became a building block to overcome any of Copeland’s perceived physical or emotional walls.

Copeland trusted Defraigne like no one else in basketball and felt he had finally found someone who understood the unyielding competitive fire that simmered inside despite his amicable nature.

"We’d talked every day. Every. Single. Day. He changed my whole mentality. Got me believing again," Copeland said.

However, the seemingly never-ending gray skies of Trier and the constant criticism, constructive or not, finally began to wear Copeland down. His freedom had been taken away, he was Defraigne’s experiment and although his game had greatly improved, there is only so much criticism a man can take. One evening late in the season, during a routine practice a heated shouting match broke out between Defraigne and his star player.

"Chris told me, in the middle of practice, ‘I’m finished, I’m leaving.’ I told him, ‘If you leave, don’t ever come back,’" Defraigne said. Copeland turned and marched through the door, slamming it behind him.

An hour later after practice, Defraigne came outside and Copeland was still pacing back and forth. Defraigne could see by the tears stained on his cheek and the pair of overturned trashcans that he had pushed the genial Copeland too far.

The two sat down and talked. Nearly three hours later, they were still in Defraigne’s office.

"I think after we talked things really changed for him, he understood how much the coaching staff cared about him and wanted to help him. And I think we knew how much Chris cared about us," Defraigne said. "After that we took a step back and he really started to become the player we hoped for."

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After a solid first year, other teams soon called. Bremerhaven, on the north coast of Germany, gave Copeland the VIP treatment, calling him daily and offering to double his salary. Defraigne gave Copeland his blessing to leave; he understood the unpredictable nature of the professional game and wished his star pupil well.

Copeland, however, turned down Bremerhaven. "In the back of my mind, I always picked a team and situation that would get me more looks to give me a better chance to come back and play in the States." For now, that was Trier.

After a stellar second year with Defraigne, Copeland graduated Magna Cum Laude from coach Defraigne’s personal academy, finishing second in all of Germany in scoring, improving his defense and earning an invitation to play for Aalstar, a bigger club across the border in Belgium. This time he said yes.

Coach Brad Dean at Aalstar gave Copeland more freedom offensively than he’d ever had before, and he flourished. He quickly became a fan favorite as he settled into his role as the team leader. Confident that his physical and mental abilities had finally began to mesh; he was more vocal than ever before and led both the Belgium league in scoring and the Euro Challenge, a second-tier season-long continental tournament.

We stayed in touch. I talked to Chris by phone a few times in the intervening years, and he sounded content; all the struggle, it seemed, had finally paid off.


He had finally found a home and was a star in his tiny corner of the universe.

By now, in his fifth European season, he was settling into his reality as a European player, and a very good one. He had finally found a home and was a star in his tiny corner of the universe.

Like many Americans who come to the European leagues thinking it’s just a quick stop-over on the way to the NBA, Copeland had spent so much time trying to keep his head above water that when he had finally made a name for himself he just wanted to enjoy it and take a breath. Perhaps the NBA dream was just that, a dream.

"As the years go by, you start being complacent," Copeland said. "You think, ‘Life is good, the people are nice to me and I’m happy here.’"

This is what happened to me, and to Devin Davis, and to most players who make a career in Europe.

You are never fully at ease, but you begin to transition. Maybe you date a local girl, or even marry her. You begin to buy tighter jeans, learn some of the language and before you can blink, you are in the twilight of your career. Eventually, you do move back home and tell anyone that will listen that you did, in fact, play pro basketball. You try to find a 9-to-5 job while fighting off the inevitable depression that comes from losing the only thing you’ve ever truly loved, and, over time, you forget you ever had a dream in the first place. It’s a good life, at times an amazing life, filled with peaks and valleys higher and lower than you could ever imagine. And then, it’s over.

For Copeland, however, there remained a gnawing inside his gut. No matter how well he did, it wasn’t quite enough. "I was feeling sad even though I was having a lot of success. In my head," he said. "I just still believed I could do better. I knew if I didn’t make it, I’d look back with a lot of regrets."

Wanting to play in the NBA is one thing, but, by all accounts, Copeland was still not an NBA player, not even close. Despite his success, he was virtually unknown outside of his mid-level Belgian league and had never even played against the best players in Europe. Even now, it seems almost laughable—that a player closing in on his 30th birthday with no top-level European experience could make the NBA.

At best, it seemed possible that his performance in Belgium might earn a move to a top-level Euroleague club in someplace like Italy, or Turkey, and a potential salary in the mid six-figures, enough for a very comfortable life. For Copeland, however, that was never the objective. He was willing to forego any partial guarantees in Europe for a shot at the NBA and called his agent almost weekly hoping for a chance.

"I knew how hard it was to get a look, let alone an opportunity," he said. So when the Knicks offered him a spot on their summer league team, he saw that chance.

He ignored the whispers that he was an unknown or maybe not quite good enough. And it didn’t bother him when he discovered he was there to serve as little more than fodder for the younger players, a glorified practice dummy the rookies could use to show off their skills. As one of 15 players on the summer league team vying for a possible invite to training camp and maybe an opportunity to play in a couple preseason games, he was still light years away from an NBA roster.

Yet from the opening tip in his first summer league game, Copeland played with the authority of a man who knew he belonged. The timid kid, always so eager to please, had been transformed into a calculated and clinical professional player. Defraigne had trained him to think in a tunnel, one thought in front of the other, one play after another, marching forward, barricaded against self-doubt.

When he made the 19-player training camp roster, he didn’t celebrate, and he didn’t celebrate after a 34-point performance against the Celtics in the preseason. Neither did he get frustrated if he missed an open shot or found himself out of position. He had learned that every play was new and unique, that every possession was a chance to prove himself, and that a career was built out of moments.

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On the last day of training camp, when final cuts are made, Copeland was called into Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s office. Copeland felt he had done enough to make the team – he’d outplayed more well-known players – but knew his defensive shortcomings were still an issue, which meant he might not be the kind of player Woodson wanted.

NBA coaches don’t care for sappy stories about dreams. They operate inside a zero-sum world and Woodson is no different. The stout, hard-nosed disciple of Bobby Knight is a pragmatist and believes in basketball in its simplest form – defense, box-out, rebound. He knows that despite the never-ending maelstrom of statistical analysis, basketball is, at its heart, a subjective game, decided by individuals and individual decisions. Copeland’s future hinged on Woodson’s coaching philosophy and his overall gut feeling about trusting a roster spot to a 29-year old rookie.

They locked eyes. Woodson kept a stern face as he weighed a man’s future in his hands. Dreams are never linear. They morph and change, halt for years, only to resume later on. Sometimes unrealistic dreams merely mask a deeper fear of failure—the 35-year-old career minor leaguer who hopes that one at-bat in the major leagues will somehow fulfill an indescribable emptiness. Or, when life becomes too hard or too comfortable, destiny will lead us on a simpler path and dreams are merely forgotten altogether.

Whatever his reasons for sticking with this particular dream—perhaps a promise to his brother, or simply fulfillment of a life’s ambition—didn’t matter. Copeland, for better or worse, had staked his entire life on this one outcome, and there was never any alternative. His sense of being was directly tied to his ability to achieve the seemingly impossible expectations he’d placed on himself. Woodson’s decision would, in many ways, validate the choices Copeland had made and the man he had become.

"We’re making some cuts Chris," Woodson said looking down.

Copeland felt a familiar tightening creep across his chest, something he hadn’t felt in a while.

Woodson smiled and let out a long, protracted laugh.

Copeland, uncertain of what it meant, looked around the sparsely decorated room.

"You won't be one of those cuts, Chris. Congratulations. You made it."

"You won’t be one of those cuts, Chris. Congratulations. You made it." He thanked Woodson, shook his hand and shut the door behind him. Copeland breathed deeply, not sure what emotions he should feel—relief, joy, contentment? All of them? In his dreams he had never allowed himself to think through this precise moment.

He walked slowly back to his hotel room to get ready for practice. Nothing had changed of course, except—everything.

***

A few weeks ago I saw the Knicks play the Raptors on TV and hoped to get another glimpse of Chris in action, but Woodson never played him. He sat on the bench the entire game with his warm-ups on. At one point, the camera caught him for a moment, gazing intently and quietly at the action, but nothing more. Other guys had come back from injury and despite playing well earlier in the season, Copeland was relegated to the role of cheerleader.

When the game finished, I took a ball down to the local school, climbed the fence and shot for hours outside in the dark. My career is over, and the thrill I used to feel when I was part of a team is now something I mostly just have to imagine. I dribbled a few times and pulled up from all over the unmarked concrete court with a lightning quick fade-away shot, mimicking Chris Copeland.

In many ways it makes sense; our roles have reversed. As I look for inspiration in my new life away from the game, the insecure kid who once constantly pulled me aside to ask about his role on the team is now my inspiration. His journey has helped me see how to break down the invisible barriers that so often restrict us from our true potential.

A security guard finally showed up and told me to wrap it up, time to go home. I nodded and took one more shot, clanking it badly off the side of the rim.

I picked up the ball, and walked toward the security guard, then stopped. And took one more shot.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler

About the Author

Flindermugshot

Flinder Boyd is a former professional basketball player who played 10 years in Europe. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of London, Queen Mary and his writing has appeared in The Classical, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, Newsweek and BBC online among others. His story for SB Nation Longform "20 Minutes at Rucker Park" will appear in "The Best American Sports Writing 2014." He can be found at iwishiwasalittlebittaller.org and @FlinderBoyd.

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