PROVO — For the record, Chris Burgess finally met Roger Reid again. Some 22 years after they found themselves in the middle of a controversy over a few words spoken in frustration, they were reunited. Reid showed up at the BYU basketball office to meet new head coach Mark Pope and his assistants, which included Burgess, who was so pleased that he had someone take a photo of them together.
What, you expected hard feelings?
“It was the first time I had talked to him since I was a recruit,” says Burgess. “I felt like I was a 17-year-old kid again. It was so good to see him. It made my day.”
When Reid saw Burgess, he put his arm around him and told him, “It took a long time, but you finally made it to BYU. I just want you to know I love you, and I’ll do anything I can to help you.”
Reid, the former BYU head coach who had been consulted by school officials when they began searching for a new coach this spring, spent more than two hours with the new coaches as they picked his brain about everything from the matchup zone to out-of-bounds plays.
Burgess texted him later and arranged for another meeting for further discussion of the matchup zone that Reid’s teams executed so well.
So Burgess and Reid — once portrayed as protagonists in a silly mini-drama — are friends, and Burgess has finally found his way to BYU. When Pope, the Utah Valley University head coach, was hired last month to replace Dave Rose as BYU’s head coach, he brought two of his UVU assistants with him, including Burgess. Just like that BYU finally landed the big one that got away, two decades later.
This time he won’t be wearing a uniform, although, even at 40 years old and six years removed from a long, wide-ranging international professional career, he looks as if he could still mix it up on the court — and does. He frequently participates in practice, especially when it's half-court offense, and he guards the bigs in drills.
At 6-foot-11, 230 pounds, he is long and lean and 15 pounds lighter than his playing weight. He does regular crossfit training sessions and plays basketball a couple of mornings each week with an all-star cast of former local collegians — Mekeli Wesley, Russ Larson, Britton Johnsen, Randy, Robbie and Darren Reid, Ken Roberts and Eric Franson, among others.
“We get pretty competitive,” says Burgess. “Some days are grumpier than others. Usually the last three points get pretty chippy. But there’s great camaraderie.”
It seemed inevitable that Burgess would end up at BYU. His sister Angela was a star basketball player there. His two brothers, Josh and David, played basketball for BYU, as did his cousin Sam. His father and uncles attended BYU. Chris, the best player of them all, passed up a chance to play for BYU, twice.
As most BYU fans with long memories recall, Burgess was a 1997 McDonald’s All-American and The Sporting News high school player of the year, as well as a member of the school’s faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s a rare combination, and Reid, BYU’s head coach at the time, began recruiting the kid when he was 14. So did a lot of other schools. In the fall of 1996, as his senior season was beginning in Irvine, California, Burgess made his decision. Rather than take the easy way out with a letter, he called each coach who had recruited him to tell them what he had decided.
That meant Burgess had to personally reject the holy basketball trinity of Roy Williams, Dean Smith and Rick Pitino, as well as Reid, the highly successful coach of his church’s school.
“I had grown close to all the coaches,” he says. “It’s never easy telling someone no, and I was 17 years old. As an assistant coach now, when I get a text from a kid saying no, I get it. He’s got to do what’s best for him. You have to be happy for the kid. Make sure you’re positive with him. But coaches put so much time into it, too. The very least they earned is a phone call and a thank you. I’m glad my dad taught me that lesson.”
Burgess’ decision was easy to understand, for most. Duke was and is college basketball royalty and coach Mike Krzyzewski mass produces first-round NBA draft picks. Reid’s reaction was easy to understand, too, for most. How often does a McDonald’s All-American come along who shares BYU’s faith and values?
Reid was crushed by Burgess’ decision, and he was never one to speak through a filter. He told Burgess he was letting down “9 million Mormons.” When Burgess revealed this to a reporter, it ignited a controversy. How could he hold that over a kid? What he said was true; apparently, he just couldn’t say it. Reid was left to deal with the fallout.
“I was very sympathetic,” says Burgess. “Absolutely I felt bad. That was not something I wanted to see happen at all … I loved my relationship with Coach Reid and his staff. They were fun to be around and made an awkward 16- and 17-year-old feel comfortable. I’m extremely happy with the relationships I’ve built with the Reid family over the last few years.”
It didn’t work out well for anyone, as it turned out — Duke, BYU, Burgess or Reid. Reid, whose comment to Burgess only exacerbated a tenuous relationship with school administrators, was fired after a 1-6 start that season. The team wouldn’t win another game and followed it up with two more losing seasons, winning only 10 games from the fall of 1996 to the spring of 1998.
The firing of Reid was considered a rash decision. Reid is among the best, most knowledgeable coaches BYU has had in the last half-century, perhaps the very best as a tactician and floor coach. He was one of the few coaches who could go toe-to-toe tactically with Utah’s gifted coach, Rick Majerus, who had immense respect for his rival and was very critical of his firing.
Then there was Burgess. He was a role player at Duke for two seasons, during which time the team was 69-6 and played in the 1999 national championship game (a loss). Burgess transferred following his sophomore season — he says it was to be closer to home, but his father Ken ripped Krzyzewski in a newspaper interview for lying about his son’s role and playing time. Burgess transferred and disappointed 9 million church members again when he not only passed up BYU for a second time but chose the school’s archrival, Utah (and Majerus).
“I wanted to play for a coach who was doing a good job developing bigs,” he says. “They had done that with Josh Grant, Keith Van Horn, and (Mike) Doleac.”
The next three years at Utah did not go smoothly. During Burgess’ NCAA-required redshirt year, a bulging disk in his back kept him from practicing with the team. As a junior, he was sidelined for several weeks with a broken ankle and returned to play limited minutes late in the season even though the injury wasn’t completely healed. He underwent surgery in the spring.
He got off to a fast start as a senior, leading the team in almost all statistical categories, but in late December he tore the plantar fascia. He tried for three months to play through the injury, but it was too painful. He asked Majerus if he could rest during the week and play 15 minutes in games, but Majerus had a rule that players had to practice in order to play in games. Burgess dropped out of school to heal and prepare for the NBA draft.
He was invited to the NBA combine, but was not drafted. He made the Phoenix Suns’ summer league roster and played well enough to be invited to training camp, where he was the last cut before the season began.
He went overseas to play professionally and returned the next two years to play for the Celtics' summer league team. He was invited to training camp both years but didn’t make the final cut. When he was invited to an NBA training camp for the fourth consecutive year the following summer, this time by the Washington Wizards, he turned them down.
“I finally told my agent, no more summer league for me; I love where my career is overseas,” says Burgess.
He decided he liked seeing the world through his basketball career, so he and his family — which has grown to include his wife Lesa and five children — embarked on an international adventure. In many ways, this was where much of his coaching education began. Burgess actually has formally coached for only five years (plus a year as a volunteer student assistant), but his vast experience overseas — in which he played for 17 clubs in eight countries during an 11-year career (2003-13) — was a big part of his preparation.
“I draw to my overseas experiences all the time as a coach now,” he says. “How I relate, coach and cultivate relationships with players. I played for so many coaches and with a new group of 10 teammates every year.
“I had to find different ways to talk to them, listen to them and learn what made them tick. That’s huge in this era with the players I get to coach. What makes them tick? What makes them talk? These are two things that are huge in building relationships and trust with these kids that will allow me to coach them.”
Burgess was an itinerant basketball player, moving annually from club to club, from Tuborg (Turkey) to Cairns Taipans (Australia) to San Miguel Beermen (Philippines) back to Cairns again, and on to Criollos de Caguas (Puerto Rico), Mobis Phoebus (South Korea), TTNet Beykoz (Turkey), Gigantes de Carolina (Puerto Rico), BC Donetsk (Ukraine), Erdemirspor (Turkey), Al Wasl (United Area Emirates), Sharjah (UAE), Zastal Zielona Gora (Poland), Trefl Sopot (Poland), Guaynabo Mets (Puerto Rico), Baniyas (UAE), Al Ahli (UAE), and Al Shabab (UAE).
“It was by design,” says Burgess of the frequent moves. “I always signed a one-year deal. I loved seeing the world on someone else’s dime. I liked the travel.”
It was hardly the pampered life he would have found in the NBA. International basketball is legendary among players for misadventures, long bus rides, shady ownership, dangerous arenas and non-payment (Burgess wasn’t paid for half of a season in Poland).
Burgess and his family once found themselves stuck at the border between United Arab Emirates and Oman because of visa problems.
While living in Ukraine, his pregnant wife concluded that none of the hospitals were suitable for delivering a child. Burgess worked out a deal with the team in which he would be released to a team in Turkey with one caveat: He had to play in the Turkish team’s next game in 48 hours, or there was no deal. In a matter of six hours, the Burgesses packed up their belongings, their children and a 50-pound dog, raced to team headquarters to collect his last payment of $25,000 in cash, which he had to carry with him in a briefcase on the journey, and pay bribes to officials at two airports to enable him to take his dog on the plane.
While playing a road game for a team in the Philippines, he was told by teammates, “This is dangerous for Americans. Stay close to us.” He was escorted everywhere by bodyguards who carried automatic weapons. “They even stood by the bench,” says Burgess.
While playing for a team in Puerto Rico, he had his own personal security team each game and the driver of his car kept a pistol under his seat. After Burgess’ team advanced to Game 7 of the championship series, his parents flew there to watch the showdown. But after observing the scene in the arena — which included fights in the stands — he told his mother and wife not to come to the game.
He finally retired in 2013 while playing in Dubai. He and Lesa had just had their fifth child and travel was difficult and strenuous, plus the kids were being pulled out of school a couple of times a year. They’d spend 10 months in a foreign country and then fly home to Utah — they’d made their offseason home in Pleasant Grove — for the other two months before returning overseas.
The last three years of his playing career, he spent summers holding big-man basketball camps with former BYU player Trent Whiting and realized he wanted to be a coach someday. “I loved it; I knew I wanted to do it then,” he says.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had been coaching or at least mentoring teammates overseas in the later years of his international career. He was the older, experienced American and young American players tended to look to him for guidance. He was a successful veteran who had a family and had been around the world.
“I tried to teach them to be professional,” he says. “It was more than just playing well. Act like a professional. Show up on time. Be a good teammate. Talk to the local guys. Learn a little of the language. Take care of yourself. Don’t get in trouble. Having played for Majerus and Coach K, that was ingrained in my DNA. After that, it was an easy transition to coaching.”
He enrolled at Utah to complete his degree and wound up serving as a volunteer coach for the Utes during the 2013-14 season. He landed his first official coaching job the next season when former BYU assistant coach John Wardenburg hired him as an assistant at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. Nine months later he returned to Utah as an assistant to Pope at UVU. This spring he moved three and a half miles to help Pope try to revive a BYU program that has slipped into mediocrity in recent years.
It is not without irony for Burgess and Pope, two church members who passed up BYU twice to play for other schools (Pope played for Washington and Kentucky). So what would Burgess tell a McDonald’s All-American or a blue-chip recruit to convince him to come to BYU?
“I would say,” Burgess begins, not missing a beat, “this university is special. The Marriott Center is special. The fan base is second to none. The standards here are something we embrace and want players to embrace. We want guys who want that challenge to play in front of 19,000 and compete against a top-five school in Gonzaga.
“I want them to play for coach Pope, a former NBA guy who won a national championship (at Kentucky) and knows what it takes to win and how to make the most of a career. When he recruits players, I sit there thinking this guy can turn them into big-time players. He’s the guy everyone said there was no way he can go to Kentucky or to the NBA and did it.”
He pauses a moment, then says, “I’d love to help take this program to where it belongs, in the NCAA Tournament. I’m excited about it.”