SALT LAKE CITY — If things had gone according to plan, Chris Burgess would be kicking back and reflecting on a long and successful NBA career about now. Or maybe he’d still be finishing up his playing days, filling the veteran’s role for an NBA team like his former college teammate, Shane Battier, is in Miami.
Burgess once had dreams of playing in the NBA and making a nice living. One of the most highly recruited players in the nation out of high school, he famously spurned BYU coach Roger Reid and the Cougars to attend Duke University and play for coach Mike Krzyzewski.
At the time, Burgess figured he'd go to Duke for a couple of years and then move on to the NBA. It turned out he did go to Duke for just two years, but instead of heading to the NBA, he left the school after unfulfilled expectations and transferred to Utah, where he played two injury-plagued seasons under coach Rick Majerus. With his NBA hopes dashed, Burgess embarked on a professional career that took him to five continents and created a decade of memories that he’ll always cherish.
The 34-year-old Burgess is now back in Utah, hoping to begin a coaching career. He’s starting at the very bottom — not as a graduate assistant, but an undergraduate assistant to Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak — as he finishes up his degree at the U.
“I’m trying to learn a little about everything and show my value there,’’ Burgess says as he watches fellow undergraduates 15 years his junior practice on the Huntsman Center floor. “I’m trying to learn from every coach on the staff. Any way I can take pressure off the coaches working with the big guys, any way I can help is what I’m trying to do.’’
Kyrstkowiak didn’t even know he could have an undergraduate assistant, but he couldn’t be happier with how it’s working out with Burgess.
“It’s a great situation with the NCAA rules that he is able to come back and finish his undergraduate degree and get into coaching,’’ said Krystkowiak, who got a similar start in coaching as a graduate assistant at Montana.
“So it’s a win for him that he is able to be around our team and spend a lot of time with our guys on the court. What he can share with them is invaluable. There’s always a great value in getting someone back that wore the uniform and understands the place and has an affinity for it.’’
After taking a full load of classes in the fall, Burgess just has a single class this semester to finish up his degree in speech communications. He came up short of a degree when he finished his playing career at Utah in 2002 after many of his credits from Duke didn’t transfer and he immediately started playing basketball for a living overseas, where he made a living for 11 years.
“I’ve been everywhere,’’ Burgess says with a smile. And he’s not exaggerating.
He started out in Turkey, went to Australia for three years, then jumped around to the Philippines, South Korea, Egypt, Ukraine, Puerto Rico and Poland before finishing his career last year in United Arab Emirates.
“As a big guy, you have more options,’’ he says of his long professional career. He talks fondly about running into former Utes like Ben Melmeth in Australia and Hanno Mottola in Europe and making contacts all over the world.
Burgess could go on all day with stories.
“I could write a book,’’ he says. A few stories immediately come to mind, like the culture shock in the Middle East where games and practices would routinely be interrupted by daily prayer times, or “bribing Ukrainian cops” after getting in an accident on an icy road. Or his most recent experience in Dubai, where his team often wouldn’t have enough players show for practice to be able to scrimmage or would be bumped from the gym by the local volleyball team.
His favorite place?
Australia, he says, because of the “American style of basketball, really good people, no language barrier and good camaraderie on and off the floor.’’
His wife Lesa, who was a soccer player at Utah, dutifully travelled around the world with her husband for a decade but last year after having their fifth child, told him, "Hey, I’m done travelling."
So last year Burgess finished up in South Korea and Dubai on his own and decided “it was a good time to end it.’’
When Burgess came out of Woodbridge High School in Southern California in 1997, he was rated as the No. 1 prospect by USA Today. He had been born in Provo and, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many expected he’d play for BYU, where his father attended. When he chose Duke, Reid famously said he’d "let down 9 million Mormons.”
Burgess joined a celebrated freshman class at Duke that included future NBA players Battier, Elton Brand and William Avery. However, Burgess struggled from the beginning and started less than half of his team’s games in two seasons.
In the spring of 1999, while Brand and Avery were leaving for the NBA, Burgess left for Utah to play for Majerus and the Utes. But just a month into his redshirt season, he hurt his back and didn't even practice for nearly three months. The following year he broke his ankle and missed several games. As a senior he was leading the team at 13.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game when he tore the plantar fascia in his right foot in the 11th game and was lost for the season.
All these years later, Burgess has no regrets about his decision to go to Duke out of high school and transfer to Utah.
“It was a great experience with the games I played at Duke, whether it was 20 minutes or five minutes,’’ he said. “What a great experience to go to the Final Four, the national championship game and play for probably one of the best coaches of all time, who I still have a relationship with now. It’s a special place.’’
Burgess said going to Utah was his only consideration after Duke because of the opportunity to play for Majerus.
“It was positive. Everyone got their butt kicked and beat up verbally, but at the end of the day, I played for a coach who made me better,’’ he said. “I couldn’t forsee that I was going to struggle with injuries. But I give a lot of credit to Majerus for teaching me how to be a good system player who could jump into any situation — because every year I was on a different team and I was able to adapt.’’
Aside from basketball, there are other reasons Burgess is happy with the decisions he’s made in his life.
“I wouldn’t have met my wife and be where I am today as a person,’’ he said. “I think about all the friends and the niche I’ve made here in Salt Lake with teammates, coaches, fans, boosters, people in my ward.’
“If I’d stayed at Duke, would I have been a national champion? Probably. Would the NBA still be in my sights? I don’t know, possibly. But it’s one of those things where I think back and say, ‘I’ve got my wife and five kids now.’ It’s turned out great.’’
Undergraduate assistant coach at the University of Utah
Family: Wife, Lesa, and 5 children (ages 1 to 9)
Basketball playing career
11 years of professional basketball on five continents