In the fall of 2000, a seemingly ordinary 21-year-old enrolled at a small college in Michigan. He didn’t look like a basketball player, and he certainly didn’t have the credentials, but he said he wanted a chance to play. He lobbied the coaches and earned a spot on the school’s JV team.
In the next three months he would destroy half the junior colleges in Detroit.
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On the peaceful wooded campus of Rochester College there is a lake beside the practice gymnasium. The lake is surrounded by trees and cut off from outside view. It is a body of water without movement and without feeling, like a reservoir of sad things. Lake Norcentra has seen hundreds of basketball players hike down the winding trails to get to practice. I was there in 2000, the year a ghost moved through the campus and possessed the gym.
Chris Blankenbaker looked exactly like a basketball star shouldn’t. He was precisely six feet tall, he was white, and he was not particularly muscular. He had played basketball at nearby Brighton High School but had never distinguished himself. By the time I met him in college, he was a 21-year-old freshman. He never talked about his past, never about where he had been in the years following high school, or where he learned to play basketball the way he did.
Chris was assigned to the JV team, along with me and a handful of other underclassmen. From the very beginning it was clear that Chris was on a different wavelength. He tore through the drills with an intensity that made the hairs on your arm look for someplace to hide. He was a prodigy, a wild-eyed bastard child of the basketball gods and mortal man. His practice armor consisted of a long-sleeved shirt underneath his practice jersey, plus a camouflage bandana rolled up into a band and tied around his head. Some days he was quiet like a brooding assassin. Other days he was constantly screaming, at himself and at his teammates and at the coaches and anyone else in the gym.
I have been around basketball most of my life. I have seen shooters come and go, watched the accolades melt off of them when the game turned and their stroke vanished. Chris was simply the best I have ever seen. He would stay in the gym for hours, launching threes from everywhere inside halfcourt, in repetitions that spoke more of obsession than dedication. Chris practiced with fear, with a sort of cold sweated abandon, like he had been let out of hell to play ball one last time. At full speed, racing around the perimeter, catching and shooting off the dribble, Chris routinely dropped in dozens of threes without grazing the rim. Sometimes you just had to stand there and count, so you could tell your friends that you saw a guy hit 219 out of 250.
Who was he? Where had he learned these skills? Why had we never heard of him before? No one seemed to know. The bitter and the jealous mused that he was a gimmick, a streetball novelty that could never perform in an actual game. We were about to find out.
In the first game of the JV season, Chris dropped 37 points on Wayne County Community College, one of the toughest junior colleges in Detroit. Chris willed us to victory despite the fact that we were outmatched and intimidated. While Wayne County pushed us around, controlled the boards, and generally bullied us up and down the floor, they simply had no answer for our 21-year-old savant sharpshooter. Chris buried three after three after three, confounding their zone schemes and double teams. When they pressed us, Chris took the ball and broke the pressure almost singlehandedly. By the second half we weren’t even pretending to run an offense anymore; all we did was screen and rescreen for Chris.
Word of his feat spread like wildfire. Teams like Wayne County did not lose to Christian college JV teams. It didn’t take long for opportunistic college coaches to start sniffing around the program, hoping to talk to the young man who had walked off the street and become an overnight sensation. Sensing the sharks in the water, our coaches quickly pulled Chris off the JV team and inserted him into the varsity roster.
During his first game on varsity, Chris was brought off the bench to get some minutes at shooting guard. However, something strange happened. When his feet hit the floor Chris was different. Tentative. He was like a wild animal that couldn’t trust his surroundings. The way the game moved, the way his new teammates flowed around him, something was off.
Two shot attempts, two points.
After the game Chris approached the coaches and matter-of-factly requested to be demoted back to the JV team. Unsure of what else to do, the coaches acquiesced. Chris rejoined us on the JV squad, sliding back into his role as alpha dog. We were utterly under his spell; he could have led us onto the floor to face the Detroit Pistons and we would have charged out behind him, latched on to his dark and mysterious confidence.
Early in the season we played at a four team classic, where each team plays two games over the weekend, regardless of whether they win or lose. In the first game we went up against Henry Ford Community College, and they edged us in a close contest. After the game, as the JV team was sitting in the locker room getting changed, I remember hearing a strange sound. I walked into the shower area, and – I will never forget this – I saw Chris. He was doubled over on his knees and was weeping uncontrollably. His chest shook violently, and with each quaking breath it seemed like he might choke on the stream of tears and sweat pouring down his face.
He didn’t say anything. Not one word.
Losing affected Chris in a way we could never understand. It hurt him in a way that made the rest of us feel ashamed. Chris had scored 43 points in the game, which was far beyond what any other player on either team had done. It was of no solace to him.
We played early the next morning in the second half of the classic, our bodies still sore from the game the night before. The stands were full of junior college coaches and an assortment of university scouts who had been scrambled from their weekend routines to come see Chris. The best players on the best teams on our schedule, the Division 1-bound athletes, rarely scored over 25 points in a single contest. Chris was averaging over 35, and doing it against sterling competition. Seemingly oblivious to the powerful spectators in attendance, Chris teemed with unbridled passion from the opening tip. The soles of his shoes scarcely touched the floor in the opening minutes, and with his each movement on the court the collection of onlookers jotted down notes in their ledgers. Chris unleashed a barrage of perfect threes that ripped through the net and buoyed us to a halftime lead over the host team, Delta Community College. During halftime Chris stomped up and down the rows of lockers, his eyes crazed with a look of overdue satisfaction. This was his game.
The second half began, and Chris picked up where he left off. He zipped up and under and over and through the elaborate screens we laid for him, eluding the Delta defenders at every spot. Now he was driving, storming to the rim with impunity for layups. Delta tried fouling him, knocking him down hard. It didn’t matter; his free throws fell through the net with the certainty of seconds ticking on a stopwatch.
Ironically, it was the rest of us that got tired. Our JV team consisted of only 8 players, and after the grueling game with Henry Ford the night before, we were running on fumes. Slowly, cruelly, our level of play began to slip. The lead that we had spent the first half carefully constructing began to ebb away. Soon we were walking while Delta ran. We were tugging on our shorts during stoppages in play. We left Chris exposed, dancing alone with the swirling packs of Delta players nipping at him from every angle. As good as he was, he couldn’t stem the flow of their advance alone. For every basket his sweat purchased, they seemed to score two.
In the waning seconds of the game, with Delta safely ahead by double digits, Chris could not let go. As Delta inbounded on the final possession, intent on running out the clock, Chris charged forward toward the ball handler. He paused just before reaching the Delta player and bent down and slapped the floor with both palms, the resultant smack echoing throughout the spacious gym. With ten seconds left in a decided game our best player was beating the floor and hounding the ball until the bitter end. No one had called for the press; everyone had conceded but him. His heart just wouldn’t let him give up. In those fleeting seconds the last of his manic fight bled out all over the gym floor.
When the buzzer sounded, Chris pulled his jersey up over his head, hiding the tears that were already streaming out of his bloodshot eyes. He walked silently off the court, shoulders slumped underneath an unseen burden. He had scored 37 points.
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Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the magic stopped. A couple of weeks before the semester break we played an unheralded junior college from northern Michigan. From the opening tip things did not feel right. Something was wrong with our star player. When Chris was open to shoot, he drove into a congested lane. When defenders were crowding him and daring him to dribble, he threw up ill-advised shots. Something was amiss, but no one knew how to approach him.
Two hours later, our team sat in the locker room, dejected. We had been drubbed by 30 points in a contest that was never close during the entire second half. Chris just sat there, shaking his head.
A few days later, Chris was absent from practice. Calls to his cell phone went unanswered. The coaches worriedly tracked down his professors. One after another, his professors gave the same answer: Chris had been AWOL from class for almost two weeks.
Just like that, he was gone.