Chris Burgess has established a solid playing career overseas. The former Ute sat down with Block U for an exclusive interview.
Chris Burgess' basketball journey has not been entirely easy. It started right out of high school when he signed with the Duke Blue Devils - a move openly and harshly criticized by then BYU head coach Roger Reid and ultimately led him to Salt Lake City, where he played two seasons with the Runnin' Utes.
It was at Utah where he suffered a major injury in his senior season and was left contemplating his future in the game he loved.
But not content with just giving in, Burgess recommitted himself to the game in hopes of one day receiving a spot on a NBA roster. Unfortunately, life sometimes doesn't work out as planned. For Burgess, the path he took didn't ultimately lead to NBA fortunes. Yet he continued down that path, knowing the outcome wasn't necessarily what he thought it would be when the journey started fresh out of high school.
Today, Burgess is a professional basketball player in the Tauron Basketball League. He plays for Zastal Zielona Góra, a Polish team located in Zielona Góra, Poland.
It might not be the bright lights of the NBA - but it has allowed him to continue playing the game he loves.
I was fortunate enough to discuss that journey with him and the highs and lows of his playing career.
You can view our interview after the jump...
Block U: Much of your legend locally is based around Roger Reid and his comments about you letting 9-million LDS Church members down when deciding to sign with Duke instead of BYU. That comment, coupled with a slow start in 1996, led to the firing of Reid and really brought to light the challenges LDS athletes face when deciding whether or not to attend Brigham Young University. When you heard that from a respected coach of a major Division One program, how did you react? Did you feel regret for your decision - or did you just easily brush the remark off?
Chris Burgess: When going through the recruiting process with BYU and Coach Reid, I really enjoyed my time getting to know them. I had the coaching staff over to my house for a home visit and they came to countless summer AAU and high school games of mine. So I grew to admire them and could also see myself playing for them but in the end it was more about playing for Coach Mike Krzyzewski and fullfilling a childhood dream of mine by playing for Duke.
So, when Coach Reid made these comments, I remember feeling really bad for turning them down and began thinking to myself "Did I just make the wrong decision?" I remember saying something to my Dad after my conversation with Coach Reid that although I may have let these 9 million members of the church down, I'm the one who has to make the decision that's best for me, not them. Of course this statement about letting members of the church down were untrue but at the time I didn't know that. I was able to brush it off pretty easy because 10 minutes after talking to Coach Reid, I called Coach K and it was a memorable conversation when I let him know that I'd be signing and playing for him and the Blue Devils next season.
Any bad or frustrating feelings I had after I talked with Coach Reid were completely forgotten because of how good it was to hear how happy Coach K was on the phone.
Block U: When you arrived at Utah, expectations for you as a player were pretty high. Unfortunately, much of your time with the Runnin' Utes was spent battling injuries. As a fan, I remember when you were injured in that win over Texas in late 2001 and how deflating it was because, heading into that game, you were the team's leading scorer and I believe, also the leading rebounder. It essentially ended your playing career at Utah and though the Utes bounced back despite your injury to make the NCAA Tournament, there is a sense of what if when dealing with that injury. As a player, that obviously was very frustrating and certainly impacted your professional playing career. Yet you kept at it and even managed to play on some NBA summer league teams before eventually turning into a successful overseas player. A great deal of players in those situations decide to move on to another career. You didn't, though. Why? And what course did you take to get to where you are today?
C.B.: That injury to Texas in 2001 will forever haunt me because at the time we were playing well as a team and individually I was playing pretty well. Not once did I ever think "this is it, I'm done with basketball" because of my passion and love for the game. I know that sounds cliche but I enjoy playing this game so much that as soon as I got healthy I flew to Bradenton, Florida and began training at the IMG Basketball facility. They prepared me for the NBA DRAFT camps such as Portsmouth Invitational and Chicago NBA Pre-Draft. Even after I wasn't drafted, some teams contacted me and invited me to play on their summer league teams.
As a rookie, I was invited to Phoenix Suns training camp and after being the last one cut, I really felt like I could find a spot in the NBA but first I needed to go overseas and get better and gain some professional experience. This was actually the advice from then assistant coach Mike D'Antoni who had a successful career as a player in Italy. For four straight years I would play internationally and then play in the NBA summer league and after that fourth summer I realized that the NBA door was closed. However, I was really happy with my international career and still considered myself a professional who was making a living and playing the game I love.
Block U: You mention discussing your potential pro career with then Suns assistant Mike D'Antoni and the impact he had on you going overseas. D'Antoni is best known, beyond his coaching, of course, for his accomplished career with Olimpia Milano, an Italian basketball team located in Milan. He then went on to become a successful head coach in the NBA, even though he had a limited playing career in the Association. Do you see yourself as a possible coach at either the professional or collegiate level in the future?
C.B.: I would definitely like to coach after my playing days are finished. I've played for many coaches from my college days to my professional days and I've been able to see all different types of offensive sets, individual workouts/skill developments drills and also how to run a practice. I've seen what works and what doesn't. Having said all this, I'm not sure yet what level I would like to coach. I enjoy working with younger players, especially on skill development, so coaching at the high school level or being a skills coach working with teenagers is very intriguing. I do think I have a lot of knowledge of the game having played for such great coaches and I think I could be a solid assistant coach of any college hoops team. From there, I would try to work my way up to a head coach while learning as much as I can on what it takes to run a team and gaining experience.
These thoughts are always going through my head because I definitely want to stay involved with basketball as a coach, just not sure at what level yet.
Block U: Speaking of coaching, even though Rick Majerus is long gone, he's still a very important and lingering figure in Utah basketball. I know with the program struggling as it has recently, it's easier to get lost in all the great things he did here with the Utes. Of course, Ute fans have heard their fair share of stories involving the often hotheaded coach. I'm not going to ask you to divulge anything earth shattering, but how was it playing for him - especially in contrast to Mike Krzyzewski?
C.B.: Playing for Coach Majerus was not easy but I'm not sure how many college basketball coaches are supposed to be easy on you. Coach had a unique way of trying to get the best out of his players. Some people may not agree with his tactics but in the end he got results and wins at the University of Utah.
You have to have a thick skin to play for him and try your best not to personalize his comments he makes towards you. I lost count of how many times he told me to quit. I was leading the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks and in the film room and/or practice he'd hold up his hand and tell me, "I'll let you keep your scholarship and finish school but just shake my hand and quit. There's the door."
This is his way of motivating you and bringing the best out of you. Coach K was completely different. Coach K would never verbally attack you in a personal way when he was upset with you. He had different methods where sometimes he'd just stop coaching you and let you try to work things out yourself and if he felt that wasn't working, he'd bring you into his office and talk to you.
Every now and again Coach K would let you have it but it was all basketball related and why you are not playing well. With Coach Majerus, it was everyday he would let you know where you stood with him, good or bad. However, every team I've been to since my collegiate days the coaches have said you are such a good system player because you pay great attention to detail and I think that's a credit to both Coach Majerus and Coach K. I am very fortunate to have played for both of those hall of fame coaches.
Block U: You told me last week you were flying back from Poland, where you've been since September playing in the Tauron Basket League. Is it difficult playing overseas in many of these culturally different countries? Do you adapt quickly to each country's customs? How different is professional basketball over there than here in the States?
C.B.: There are a few difficulties when it comes to playing overseas because as your American import, you are required to do a lot more and if you're not you will be sent home packing. European, Asian & Latin basketball contracts are never really guaranteed but you are more than likely one of the highest paid guys on the team, so if you're not performing to their liking then you are the first one to be blamed and sent home by the team. If you can block that out and just play then basketball overseas can be an enjoyable experience.
Adjusting to the new cultures can be eye opening and take some time to getting used to. Having just finished my 9th season overseas, I've seen some of the strangest things that at 8 or 9 years ago, I'd say to myself "Well...you just don't see that everyday!" Now if I see such things like, cars parked right up on the sidewalk, motorbikes or vespas weaving in and out of traffic, people cutting in front of me in line or if I have to stop my car for animals, such as stray horses and dogs, to cross the street, I don't even think twice about it.
Professional ball overseas is a more controlled, slower tempo game than the States. You're more likely to see scores in the 60s and 70s than in the 80s and 90s. The NBA game is more 1 on 1 isolation offenses and you will see guys in the NBA averaging low 20s and low 30s. Overseas, your league leading scorer might be 17 or 18 points.
Block U: Do you still keep in contact with the players you played with at Utah?
C.B.: I still keep in touch with a lot of players from Utah. Last summer Michael Doleac started a basketball alumni BBQ up at his house in Park City and this has been a great way of staying in touch. Also, I've just recently started my own personal website and one of the things I'm going to be doing is a segment called "RUNNIN' WITH MY FORMER UTES". This will either be a Q & A, or just a Video Log of what these former Ute basketball players are up to. I can't tell you how many times I run into people around the city asking me what's Britton Johnsen up to or what's Nick Jacobson up to. So I thought this would be a great way of letting everyone know what some of their former Utes are up to.
Block U: Have you been surprised at how much the basketball program has struggled since Rick Majerus left? With the move to the Pac-12 on the horizon, what do you think the hoops program needs to do to really start contending in their new conference?
C.B.: I've been a little surprised at how the Utes have struggled since Majerus left. Obviously Bogut's sophomore year and then the 2009 NCAA team were 2 years that stick out but other than that, they've really struggled and it's been frustrating as a former player but also a fan to watch. There's a sense of pride as a Ute basketball player and you want to see your former team play well year in and year out. To compete in the Pac-12 there are a few things the team needs to do, in my opinion and it all begins with recruiting. We need to start securing the best players in Utah and stop losing them to BYU and Utah State. I also feel getting some recruits from the Southern California/Las Vegas area will help. I also feel we as fans need to be patient with the team and not get down or frustrated and start playing the blaming game as they enter the Pac-12.
Block U: Of course, those struggles have brought about another coaching change. Do you know much about Larry Krystkowiak? What do you think of his hiring of Tommy Connor, who's a former Utah player and assistant until 1997?
C.B.: This past Friday, I went up to the Huntsman Center and met the new coaching staff. All were in the office except Coach Tommy Connor, whom I know. I left thinking that Coach Krystowiak and his staff were the right fit to turn this program around. Hopefully Coach Slocum can do a great job of your southern California / west coast recruiting with his ties to Las Vegas and the AAU basketball circuit. I know Coach Connor will do a great job with the Wasatch recuits. All of these coaches know the game and can coach but with the right recruits, they can turn this program around and be successful in the Pac-12.
I think the hiring of Coach Connor is huge for our program. I think he has the credentials to be a college head coach in the NCAA, so to get him as an assistant is huge. He not only knows the game but has run a very successful NAIA Westminster team for a long time and probably has turned down number of NCAA first division jobs. He and the rest of the staff are exactly what the Utes need.
Block U: Are you satisfied with how your career turned out? What have been the most memorable moments of your collegiate and professional careers?
C.B.: I have had a very satisfying career overseas. Obviously as a kid growing up, I dreamed of playing in the NBA but unfortunately it did not happen. Having a plan B by playing overseas has been more than what I could have expected.
There are a number of memorable moments but my top 5 would be 1) 1999 Final Four with Duke 2) 2001 & 2002 Mountain West Champions 3) 2006 Puerto Rico BSN national Champions 4) 2007 South Korea National Champions 5) 2002 NBA Preseason with Phoenix Suns.
Block U: When you're not playing basketball overseas, how do you occupy your time? What other interests do you have?
C.B.: A lot of my time is occupied with spending time with my family. I have 3 daughters and my 2 older ones are actively involved in sports during the off-season and I enjoy watching them play soccer or help coaching them in baseball or basketball.
My other interests include playing XBOX 360, catching up with friends while I'm back in States and most recently working on my website. I really enjoy blogging about my basketball career as I find it fun to not only write these thoughts down but also keep some of my family, friends and fans involved with my journey overseas.
I would like to thank Chris Burgess for taking time out of his day to do this interview and, of course, wish him the best of luck in his playing career.
You can stay updated on Burgess by visiting his website and keep a look out for those video logs he'll be doing with former Utes.