Experience, perspective are two teachers of basketball player Chris Burgess
“I wish I could have been man enough to just stop playing and go. I don’t say I regret it, but I wish I had gone on one,” Burgess said. “That said, in the past 10 years I have been able to do a lot of missionary work, both hands on and as an example. But to anyone who is thinking about it, I would say do it. At some point my wife and I would love to serve a mission together.”
Pursuing a career
Burgess played two seasons at Duke alongside teammates like Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Corey Maggette. He logged seven minutes of action in the 1999 NCAA national championship despite Duke’s 77-74 loss to Connecticut.
That summer he transferred to Utah to play for coach Rick Majerus. Although his two years at Utah were plagued by injuries, he credits both college coaches for teaching him the game, as well as life lessons.
“Whereever I have played in the world, I may not be the flashiest player or jump the highest, but everyone tells me I am the most disciplined player. I credit Majerus for that,” Burgess said. “Coach K was amazing in how he balanced basketball and family. And each year, he takes his team of all-Americans, gets them to drop their egos and play together. I can go anywhere and fit in.”
Following college, Burgess went undrafted in 2002. He played for a few summer league teams, but failed to make a roster.
That fall he married his college sweetheart, Lesa Zollinger, in the Salt Lake Temple. They met at the University of Utah, where Lesa played for the women’s soccer team.
After a short stint in the old Continental Basketball League, Burgess started his international career playing in Izmir, Turkey. Over the next decade, Burgess played basketball in Ukraine, South Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Australia and Poland.
“The ups are seeing the world on someone else’s dime, our family gets to experience other cultures and see historic sites, the kids are learning foreign languages. Basketball is still fun. It’s not NBA basketball, but it’s still competitive,” Burgess said. “The downs are leaving home for nine months a year and dragging your family along. My daughter is sick of being the ‘new girl.’ You hope money is wired once a month. Fortunately, I’ve done fairly well, only had problems twice in 10 years.”
His scariest moment came during his rookie year when his team played near the Iraq border shortly after it had been bombed by the U.S. military. Two bodyguards accompanied Burgess as the team played in a very hostile environment. Fortunately, his team won without incident.
“I never told my mom; she would have freaked,” he said.
A major highlight came in 2006 when Burgess’ Puerto Rican club won the first championship in its team history. A huge party ensued and tradition called for players to be dunked into one of San Juan’s big fountains.
"That was the most fun I’d had since going to the Final Four with Duke,” Burgess said. “It was special. To see the joy in the faces of thousands in the square at midnight was unforgettable.”
The gospel and standing out
Throughout his career, Burgess and his wife have done their best to seek the Lord’s will when making decisions. “Without fasting, prayer and the scriptures, you are going in blindfolded,” he said. “Receiving answers is something we rely so much on.”
They once declined a nice offer from a team in Germany, a country they really wanted to experience, because they didn’t feel good about it.
When they have felt prompted to go, they have forged new friendships and felt welcomed in every country. In South Korea, communication was a struggle, but Burgess appreciated the cheers from a small section of ward members. Season ticket sales jumped 20 percent in Australia when members realized the large American was playing for the local team.
“I don’t think they even liked basketball,” he said.
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