Numbers On The Boards
The last year of Chris Copeland’s life has been a dream come true. What’s ahead could be even better.
“There’s still a chance,” Corey “Homicide” Williams was repeating, over and over and over. It was an otherwise regular night during the fall of 2012, and the streetball legend was driving from Long Island to the Bronx with his friend Chris Copeland. “There’s still a chance,” Williams kept telling his buddy. “There’s still a chance.”
Homicide and Copeland originally became close in Denver; Copeland played at the University of Colorado from ’02-06 while Williams lived nearby, and the two would meet up at the La Familia Recreation Center, a popular local gym frequented by everyone from up-and-coming high schoolers to NBA superstars. They remained tight as their respective basketball careers took them all over the world—Copeland’s from the D-League to Spain to the Netherlands to Germany to Belgium, Homicide’s from France to Australia to Croatia to Puerto Rico to Lebanon (and a few other countries, too).
The pair had just left an event in the Hamptons and were headed west to the Bronx, where Chris’ car was parked. There was plenty to discuss, so Williams lowered the music blaring through his Jaguar’s speakers so they could speak without distraction. The then-28-year-old Cope had recently returned from Summer League with the one thing he wanted most—an invite to the Knicks’ veterans camp and an opportunity to finally play in the NBA—but with the reported impending signing of Rasheed Wallace, there would likely only be a single spot on the roster available. A slew of hopefuls wanted it.
“I’ve been in that situation twice,” Homicide, 35, says now. “Once with Toronto, once with Denver. I just wanted him to know that regardless of what it may look like or how slim it looks, at the end of the day, you have one chance. Just do all you possibly can, so you know, whether it works out or not, you can walk away saying I did everything I could absolutely have done to show these people I belong here.”
“I was for sure the underdog in that situation,” Copeland told us during a recent visit to the SLAM office. “I wasn’t supposed to make it. I had a lot of good people in my corner and in my ear that helped me keep my mind right during through that process—[Williams], my family, my mother, a lot of people.”
And make it he did. He had earned a non-guaranteed deal to join the team during the ’12-13 preseason, and after some high-quality preseasonin’—he averaged 15.5 points per on 51.7 shooting during six exhibition games, highlighted by a 34-point outburst—the 6-8 power forward was asked into Head Coach Mike Woodson’s office, where he was greeted by Woodson, General Manager Glen Grunwald and Assistant GM Allan Houston. “[Woodson] told me to sit down,” Copeland says. “I’ve heard a lot of ‘No’ in my career and I knew this is how it starts.” Woodson looked at Copeland and told him they were making some cuts. Copeland nodded. Woodson told Copeland he wouldn’t be one of them. Copeland exhaled.
“I started hearing the Pursuit of Happyness music,” Copeland says, smiling. “It was very big-time for me.”
Despite his age, Copeland wasn’t spared from your standard rookie hazing: Marcus Camby gifted him with a small pink Disney Princess backpack, which was consistently glued to his back as he walked in and out of arenas. “I’m keeping that for life,” Cope laughs. “But seriously, it means a lot to me. I might bronze it or something. At first I was like, Are you serious? And when we’d go out people would laugh at me, yell jokes and stuff. But when I really look back at what it took to be able to put on that backpack, I’ll never get rid of it.”
With seemingly nonstop injury issues plaguing Knicks big men Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and Rasheed Wallace, Cope was forced to transition from 15th man to rotation player pretty quickly, and he took advantage, becoming a reliable marksman—scoring 8.7 ppg in 15.4 mpg, sinking 59 threes in total—over the course of the regular season. “Cope’s cool,” Sheed told us at a Nike event earlier this summer. “That’s instant offense, just add water. Cope can shoot that three, he can get to the bucket. For him to be 6-8, he’s got a pretty good handle. Only thing, Cope just gotta pick his D up. Once he does that, you know, he gon’ get paid. He gon’ get paid.”
At the behest of many a Knicks fan, Copeland didn’t receive much playing time during New York’s first round postseason matchup against the Celtics or the first few second round games against the Pacers. But he played double-digit minutes in Games 4, 5 and 6 against Indiana, and performed well, scoring 28 total points off 9-17 from the field (8-13 from deep) during those tilts. Now a free agent, the lanky sharpshooter should have a nice collection of options in the coming days/weeks. The Knicks are reportedly interested in retaining him, but after their trade for Andrea Bargnani and given their financial inability to match what most teams could potentially offer (the Pelicans, Bucks, Pacers and Lakers are all rumored to be interested), Copeland may very well have a new home this fall.
He’ll be expected to fulfill a specific, well-defined duty—a high-energy power forward who can stretch the floor—but he told us his plan for the summer is to expand on that skillset: “I plan to get stronger. I think I’m pretty strong now, but there’s definitely room for improvement.” He revealed that he’ll soon be headed down to Richmond, Va.—where he moved with his mother at age 15—to train with retired NBA player Ben Wallace, a guy with quite the strong-man reputation himself.
“I enjoy the post, honestly,” Copeland continues. “People didn’t get to see that because I was filling my role. People think I’m just a guy that can come in and shoot threes, but I’m both. I’m an inside-outside guy. I’m hoping next year the game will come easier down there if I’m stronger, and that will help my lateral quickness on the defensive end and help me get rebounds. I think just being faster and stronger can always improve your game.”
And it seems a safe bet that wherever Copeland lands, one ever-present voice will be pushing him through the next stop of his journey. “The shit he showed people [last season] was just a glimpse of what he can really do,” Williams says. “I just try to keep telling him, Look, don’t get comfortable. Don’t get caught up in hype, in the New York City bright lights and the glitz and glamour of this shit. OK, now you’re in the NBA. Whoop-de-fuckin’-do. How you gonna show you can stay here?”