Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #159 Man in a Suitcase

Man in a Suitcase
The Basketball Odyssey of Chris Charles
by rick olivares

Chris Charles was chasing the player he was guarding when he ran into a teammate’s knee causing him to fall to the court in pain. As play action continued since there was no dead ball situation, he felt a wave of fear engulf his body.

God, please. Let me be okay.” he quickly prayed as he clutched his right knee.

Charles is one of America’s oldest global exports – a basketball player who lives out of his suitcase to eke out a living in far away lands where Pidgin English and hoops are the only means of communicating.

And that livelihood is dependent on one’s ability to play and to stay healthy. Charles, the former Villanova Wildcat center, would be sidelined for two matches for Al Riyadi Lebanon’s campaign in the 20th FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia along with its star Fadi El Khatib (who was out with back spasms).

He returned to action in their final match of the eliminations (albeit in a losing cause) against the Philippines notching 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 1 block as he played the entire 40 minutes.

Yeah, the expectations are somewhat crazy,” he admitted of the “savior” tag unfairly heaped on American players. “I think everyone expects us to be like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. But that’s okay. I accept it as a challenge.”

The curly-haired seven-footer out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin suited up for the Villanova Wildcats although that is somewhat of a misnomer since he hardly got any playing time. Charles knew right away that there was not going to be any invite for an NBA team since he didn’t have the statistics to show. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Charlie Villanueva, who went to the University of Connecticut, was someone he once played against and seeing him make the pro circuit only motivated him to try harder.

I grew up a Bucks fan,” said Charles of what became his mission. “Whether it was the bad days or the good days I was a fan. So it was always a dream for me to not only play in the NBA but for my home team. And if the road to the NBA means playing overseas then I’ll travel that road.”

Travel was the order all right as he began the journey of filling his passport with immigration stamps.

That first opportunity was in the Dominican Republic and he immediately researched on any bit of info he could gather on the country and its basketball league. On the flight to the Latin American country, Charles felt a little queasy about venturing into the unknown. He had heard from many others horror stories such as Americans not getting paid or being sent home after a poor game. “I was nervous about making a name for myself,” he explained with conviction. “But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Except that an ankle injury knocked him out after two weeks of action. The club replaced him right away but paid him in full for his services anyway.

He went back home to Milwaukee and worked at a car dealership while contemplating his future. The decision was easy… play basketball because Charles was driven to not only prove himself but because he was pursuing a dream.

The good vibes of his initial sojourn abroad dissipated when in his next destination, Serbia, he encountered money problems with his club. While the case was elevated to FIBA for a resolution, Charles went home, but this time, the homecoming wasn’t well received as family and friends strongly advised him to hang up his sneakers and join the rat race.

Why do you continue to ball when you don’t have too many things to show for? You have a college education, sure you can find a job in America.” they all chided. It was “a crazy time” in the former Sociology Major’s words. At this time, a former college teammate of his Randy Foye of the Minnesota Timberwolves, opened his home to him. Foye told him find means “to control your destiny” and this opened up a pipeline with Minnesota coach Kevin McHale who later helped get him a tryout with an NBA club.

Yet he still wouldn’t give up. “I was young and felt that it was still to early to give up. And quit? That word is not in my vocabulary.”

He continued to rack up the frequent flier miles at a dizzying pace. There was a stint with the Elkhart Indiana Express (where he teamed-up with his ever-supportive cousin Philwaukee) in the International Basketball League that brought him to a tournament in China. When the contract was done, he found himself packing his two suitcases and duffel bag to Lebanon, Dubai, and soon after that in Syria.

At first the constant relocation battered his confidence. It wasn’t so much the being alone since as an only child he was used to the solitude. It seemed that the road to the NBA was nowhere in sight.

It would be easy to give up and if it weren’t for three things, I might have too,” admitted the Charles.

Those three things? His laptop, iPhone, and the Holy Bible.

“Thank God for the invention of the laptop and the internet! And mobile phones are also a lifeline. They keep me in touch with all the people in the world who care about me and they push me to continue as well. Just give me an internet connection then I’m alive. But some places have terrible connections!”

The saying that there are no atheists when one finds himself at the lowest ebb doesn’t hold true with this Wisconsin lad. Raised a Baptist, he reads the Bible and prays everyday. Life on the road has only strengthened his belief. “Every time I step on the court, I pray to God to keep me safe, healthy, and free from injury. I also pray that for my teammates and opponents.”

And it has taught him to quickly adapt to new lands and cultures. With basketball the fastest growing sport in the world, there are thousands of Americans playing outside the United States and their proliferation somewhat helps with the transition and translation. “Next to the language, one of the things you have to learn fast is the currency and prices of goods because as an American, store owners will try to make a fast buck on you. Then there’s the food…,” he laughed as he left his sentence dangling.

“In China, they served us a bunch of dishes where they asked us to figure out from what animal it came from. Believe me, the less you know the better it is. But you do not want to offend them so I try it. But it always helps to cook your own food or know where the nearest KFC or McDonald’s is.”

Making the finals in the IBL and winning an MVP Award in Syria (with Al Jalaa Aleppo) gave him the stomach to continue for after a while, his friends had jumped off the bandwagon.

His perseverance paid off when he was invited last summer by the Chicago Bulls (as McHale also came through) for their summer league team. Although he didn’t make the opening day roster of the team, the fact that he excelled and was included on their roster in the Las Vegas league proved that he was getting somewhere.

That’s when my family and friends said, ‘Ah, okay. Now we can see what you’re driving at,’” Charles recounted of their reactions. “Making it to the Bulls' summer team also let me know what I need to work on so I can build for the future.

His luck in the past year has turned as he now admits that it is good enough to earn a living and save money. His strong play in Lebanon (where his team, Champville made the playoffs but was ousted in the first round) got him an invite to join Lebanese champions Al Riyadi in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup.

The club finished third in the ten-team field despite injuries to Charles and El Khatib. The end of the tournament brought much relief for now he could really stay up late to chat and surf and update his blog where he keeps a journal of his basketball adventures. The team was to fly back to Lebanon the following day for debriefing, claim his pay then ultimately pack his bags.

It was time to go home to Milwaukee.

Author's Note: Thanks for hanging out with me at the coffee shop, Chris. See ya 'round. That sure was fun.

Watch out for a collected piece on Priest Lauderdale and other American players @ the 20th FIBA Asia Champions Cup.

* I cribbed the title from the song by the Police from their masterful album Zenyatta Mondatta.

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