BOUNTIFUL — Seated on a basement couch, clad in crimson University of Utah gear and surrounded by his collection of basketball memorabilia, 32-year-old Chris Burgess spoke of his two great teachers — experience and perspective.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Burgess said of the past 16 years. “I’m sure I need to learn more.”
Amid countless games, teammates, coaches, jerseys and itineraries, there is little that basketball hasn't offered to Burgess. He's been a McDonald’s high school all-American and highly touted recruit, lost an NCAA championship, experienced frustrating injuries, failed to realize his NBA dream, married his sweetheart, started a family, and traveled the world, playing for 10 different teams in seven countries on four different continents. In late February, he suited up for his 11th foreign squad in Puerto Rico.
With a wide smile, the slender 6-foot-10 journeyman recounted some of the experiences and lessons he’s gained over the years.
Two major do-overs
Burgess was born in Provo, Utah, but was raised in Irvine after his family moved to Southern California. As a senior in 1997, Burgess, of Irvine, Calif., was one of the best high school players in the nation. All the top basketball programs in the country rolled out the red carpet for the can’t-miss recruit. He narrowed his top five schools to UCLA (coach Jim Harrick), Kansas (Roy Williams), Kentucky (Rick Pitino), Duke (Mike Krzyzewski) and Brigham Young University (Roger Reid). Burgess grew up watching players like Christian Laettner and Cherokee Parks, and in his heart, he knew he would play for Coach K.
But Burgess was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was most comfortable around the BYU staff.
“Roger was the best recruiter of them all. He made me feel at ease and I enjoyed being around him. He was the only one I allowed to come over twice on home visits,” Burgess said. “With Roy and Pitino, I was a star-struck kid. But I was such a Duke fan that no matter who recruited me it was all about playing for Coach K and living this childhood dream.”
What happened next will always live on in Utah basketball lore. Burgess told a reporter that when he informed Reid of his decision, the coach told the senior he was letting down his parents, the prophet and the entire membership of the LDS Church. Burgess said he shared the comment in an interview with a reporter and a media firestorm erupted in Utah. Seven games into the 1996 season, Reid lost his job and it took BYU’s program several years to recover.
“If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have said anything. I felt really bad. I liked BYU, I worshipped guys like Danny Ainge and Steve Young,” he said. “I don’t think it was fair for coach or myself. But what was said was said. He sort of put this pressure on me as a Mormon that I don’t think is fair for any kid. But I should’ve just kept quiet.”
Burgess was playing in a game with some ex-teammates and other former college players two years ago in Taylorsville when he saw Reid enter the gym. He wanted to make things right with the coach, but the situation felt awkward.
“It was the first time I had seen him since he recruited me. A lot of emotions flooded over me. I literally wanted to go up and hug him, tell him I was sorry, but it didn’t feel right,” Burgess said. “I will always remember him as a great recruiter.”
His second do-over?
Burgess wishes he had served an LDS mission. Chris said his little brother grew up in his tall shadow, but looking back, that changed when little brother completed his mission.
“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.
Mission presidents and other local church leaders have always looked out for the Burgess family. When invited, Burgess has spoken at firesides.
“It’s nice to be a member and go to any country in the world and know there will be a branch or ward there,” Burgess said. “Not only do they have the same standards and beliefs, but you can feel a sense of home.”
When teams learned Burgess was a practicing Mormon, his stock increased, thanks to the stellar examples set by other international LDS basketball players.
“Coaches realize, ‘Oh, he’s Mormon,’ and they know they don’t have to worry about us. A lot of players have carried that reputation so they have a lot of respect for LDS players and how they handle themselves,” Burgess said.
During his time in Poland, Burgess was called as the ward mission leader. He delighted in working with the missionaries and strives to be a good example wherever he goes.
“No matter where I am in the world, as a 6-foot-10, 245-pound Mormon, I am always being watched,” he said. “We may not baptize anyone, but we can answer questions and leave a good impression about the church, so we need to be living our lives in accordance with the gospel."
For now Burgess will continue to play basketball. He currently suits up for a team in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. When his playing days are over, he hopes to get into coaching, where he plans to continue learning from his experiences and new perspectives.
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