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Featured Gallery, Latest News / Mar 22, 2011 / 1:00 pm

Ghost: The Legend By The Lake

Chris Blankenbaker

Chris Blankenbaker (photo. Rochester College)

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.

*** *** ***

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.

Chris Bio

2000-01 Team Program Bio, Rochester College

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.

*** *** ***

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.

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  • Jason

    Wow! Kudos, Matt! The finest piece of writing I’ve read on Dime, and I’ve been a loyal reader since the hoopstv.com days!

  • Da Kidd

    This story is great. I got excited after the first paragraph. This type of writing gives DIME a whole new dimension informing people about the basketball experience. Unbelievable!!

  • JBaller

    I agree with #1. That was truly an inspired piece and I would enjoy reading more in that vein.

    Thanks Matt!

  • NTstateOFmind

    I don’t get why he wanted to jump back down to JV from Varsity?

    was it because he wanted to shine amongst the lesser players to get recruited?

  • Jon

    Jesus. I almost cried.

    Like Rudy.

  • haslem

    1 word: amazing.
    Do an interview with him I have more questions.
    get some game footage

  • blue and gold

    love the story….i know alot of guys like that

  • boomshakalaka

    wow, that is some real thick and stinky cheese.

  • just-butter

    good read! captures the essence of deeply rooted love for the game.

  • Tiago

    Great story man! I can feel the pain that Chris felt and apparently still feels, cause we aren’t mad at the other players, we’re mad at ourselves, we should have done better, more, we must get to that rebound, we must make that shot, we should lead our team, the pain of losing is very big! once again great writing, and great story!

  • Az

    Great piece! I had to stop and sit down and read at the mall.

  • cru_thik305

    wow,excellent piece. i’m definitely bookmarking this. great job

  • quest???

    extremely great read! keep up the good work

  • Antouan

    Unbelievable! Hands down the best article I’ve read in a while. That includes ESPN, Yahoo & Dime! Articles seem to be the same these days, (just reacting to what just happened or trying to predict the future, as if writers have some magic ball) this is a great article for any basketball/sports fan at any level. Congrats Matt!!

  • EN FUEGO

    Great story. For a while there, it felt like I was reading some Grisham hahaha!

  • Deebo

    Excellent article, well written, thank you for sharing

  • yoda

    i really enjoyed this article. good job matt. keep up with the good work

  • Susej

    I loved this piece. I agree, excellent writing!

  • Claw

    Nicely done, basketball was a solace in his life that was becoming overwhelmed with everything outside of ball.

  • DT

    Awesome article Matt! One of my best friends is this guy to the T. The similarities are uncanny. As you were telling the story I could picture it so vividly because of my friend. He’s 31 now and STILL chasing his NBA dream….Wow, I’m really at a lost for words…..Brilliant

  • BOB

    Great Story! I was amazed at his story and his passion! Great shooting is a lost art and this kid sounded like a great shooter and scorer. My bet is while he’s still chasing his dreams he is winning recreation basketball championships and inspiring players along the way!

  • kz

    dude…

  • Hilary

    @ boomshakalaka…not so! Matt, you have done such an amazing job, not only crafting the story, but capturing Chris’s mysterious and intense personality. Although I was merely another RC fan, I have often wondered how someone so talented and intense could just…be gone…

    I’m proud to have known you both

  • Deli

    ive got chills…..ive gotten to know kris on a personal level over the past 5 years, i knew that he played baskekball but we never got to really discuss into detail. the way you describe him is spot on, he is always trying to find that competitive advantage. like you mentioned one word to describe him is intense

    its just the nature of the beast

  • LorasBaller

    GREAT ARTICLE! One of the best articles I have read on dime. I played small college basketball for four years in Iowa and so much of what you wrote really hit home with me. Absolutely great article!

  • Sambuu

    great article!

  • CP3DaMan

    Incredible article

  • L.Winchester

    My son told me about this article. What an honor! This is the kindest and most memorable thing anyone could have done for him. It brings me to tears knowing how bittersweet this time was for him. If memory serves me right he wanted more playing time and varsity already had their first string players. Out of respect for those who worked hard for that position Chris stepped back.
    Chris lives life the way he plays ball, whatever he looks at to accomplish he gives 110%.
    Thank you for writing this….so very very much

  • cablett24

    this is insane. i played at near by howell high. when i became part of the varsity team there was a guy that would come with one of our coaches to play vs. us. he said that he played at Rochester College w/ our coach. He was one the most intense guy i’ve ever seen, even playing us. we called him hurricane chris, i knew this was him once i read about the bandanna. what a small world, well not really since brighton is the next town. SICK!

  • Tha Boddy ” Wall Days”

    I agree with everything good about this article

  • http://www.centercourtbasketball.com CCB

    Nice writing, very nice.

  • Talented

    Tough story. Nice imagery, metaphors, similies..i know i sound like ya damn English teacher lol but damn, this is real!

    “His tone betrays the wisdom of someone who knows it won’t happen, but he guards the dream fiercely” – Any ball player who played competitively after high school can relate.

    “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” – Everybody strive to practices with this kind of passion and intensity, few actually do.

    Good story.

  • Celts Fan

    great read man.

  • G

    Video or it didn’t happen.

    JK nice article. Seriously tho some clips would go well with it. Im sure he’s still got a stroke. Lets see it.

  • Kate

    Wow this article is about my brother. The way you write is amazing by the way.

  • http://www.darkwingpro.com Diallo

    niccccce…where did that come from?

  • pipdaddyy

    Agree with the guys above, great story and also very well-written.

  • http://www.cracked.com/funny-353-kobe-bryant/ Atom

    Dont mean to sound like a broken record, but seriously the best writing I’ve ever seen on this site. Keep it up, we want more articles like this

  • AirKaris

    yup – best story in a long time. more like this please.

  • BUFFALO BRAVE

    Great read!

    PROPS

  • knoc99

    nice. 2nd great article ive read off dime recently

  • http://wwww.mcleanfilms.com mclean films

    I felt like I was there the whole time when I was reading the story. Great job. Lets find him and get him on camera. I would not mind flying to where ever he is.

  • JAY

    Awesome article Mr. Pierce!
    I’m sure a lot of people here can relate to both sides of the story.

  • Damon

    Great article, hope there will be more… thanks

  • http://DIMEMAG ROB8

    Great Read! The rare player makes everyone on his team think they are playing for something bigger than they are. Great shooting is a lost art and this kid sounded like a great shooter and scorer. I bet he is still winning Championships for some small club inspiring other players along the way. Thanks

  • jaychau

    I’ll have to admit that the first page or so gave me the chills while reading it. Great piece man, keep it up.

  • FJ

    Great storytelling! Superb writing! Keep it up!

  • ummm

    “He was a prodigy, a wild-eyed bastard child of the basketball gods and mortal man.” This is DIME, not the New Yorker or a novel.

  • yourdribbleizcookiez

    One of the best pieces of basketball writing i’ve seen in a while, a great look for Dime

  • http://DIMEMAG ROB8

    ONCE AGAIN,…. GREAT ARTICLE! Sounds like he can still hoop with talent and desire. Reminds me of “The Rookie” if someone would give him a chance.

  • http://www.typhoonferri.com AJ

    The Ghost is a great man and the article is great like the man. Well written. It has a movie-feel to it. I do have some questions to ask the Ghost after reading. I am looking forward to our next conversation. Nice job, Dime!

  • top_gun

    I usually don’t read long articles on Dime, but this one had me from the very beginning. I hope you get some sort of raise or promotion. By far the best writer on Dime.

  • jonathan

    GREAT READ!!! I BEEN READING DIMEMAG FOR A WHILE NOW BUT THIS ARTICLE IS THE BEST I’VE READ!!!! GOOD JOB DIME!!!

  • kh

    where is page 2??????

  • http://DIMEMAG PEANUT12

    I saw Chris Blankenbaker play once out in Howell MI. about 8 years ago and he dropped 55 points. He was hitting every shot he took and screaming the whole time. It was crazy. I have told people for years that he was the best shooter I had ever seen!

  • http://DIMEMAG PEANUT12

    I saw Chris Blankenbaker play once out in Howell MI. about 8 years ago and he dropped 55 points. He was hitting every shot he took and screaming the whole time. It was crazy. I have told people for years that he was the best shooter I had ever seen!

  • kyballer312

    I have been trying to read this story all morning but my connectionhere at work is a piece-of-shyt…FINALLY got to read and all I can say is WOW. Great job and story. I am a Dime fan all the way back to “Hoops TV” days and this is one of the all-time best reads.

  • Brickshooting J

    This is an excellent piece of literature. Congrats, Mr. Pierce.

  • A.R.

    Great article. I’ve been coming here for some years now but I’ve never read an article of this magnitude here. If you keep this up I won’t have to conceed to lesser websites like espn or foxsports. Those guys are idiots majority of the time and just plain stupid the rest, but I digress. Truly amazing story I was hook from the first paragraph. Please continue to go this direction dime.

  • http://www.chrisblankenbaker.com Norman

    Epic article. This needs to be turned into a movie!

  • VanExellent4

    I also had the pleasure of playing with “The Ghost” in a small gym outside of Brighton nearly 10 years ago. I remember the fist time he walked in those door and started firing in jump shots from 2 steps inside half court. Watching him shoot was like watching Ted Williams swing a bat or Dan Marino throw a football. Some people you watch them and think thats what they were born to do and it was apparent to me and everyone else around that Chris was put on this earth to shoot a baketball. His range was unlimited, His step back was reminiscent of a young Tmac, He would raise up on his shots similar to Ray Allen and release them at his very peak (which seemed endless) He was the first person I ever saw shoot right or left handed and equally as well. His offensive repertoire was as dangerous as anyone I had ever played against. I had to change the rules of our 1 on 1 games from make it take it to losers outs because i could of sat there for 5 straight games before Chris would finally miss a shot, mind you this whole time im crowding him, face guarding him, pushing him, fouling him, hitting his elbow anything to try and get him to miss. After these nights at the gym i would drive home and think in my head what players in the NBA that Chris could clearly take their jobs. After a few months I eventually moved away to college and tried to keep in contact but eventually his number was disconnected and i lost complete touch with him. I would occasionally google his name and try a variety of spellings for his last name trying to find any news i could. Eventually Myspace came in to play as well as Facebook but still no luck finding anything (fitting your story title). I would share stories of Chris with my new circle of basketball friends all of them in awe of what they were hearing. We would joke how only if we could find him and get him to play in a gus macker with us that we would never lose. Chris was and still is an inspiration to my friends and I when we hit the court, we want to have one of those nights where we don’t miss a shot……a “Blanks” night as we nicknamed them.

  • VanExellent4

    Great Article Matt!!!! I wish there was more writing of this quality on the internet. i agree with top_gun I hope you get a promotion brother.

  • M.V.

    I love the article, I happen to know Chris. Great guy. I’ve had him on my rec league team. I admit his shot is amazing, silky, like Ray Allen. BUT man he can be frustrating, he once took a 35 foot 3 with 8 seconds left on the clock down by 1. Then just like in the article, he disappeared. Missed the next 4 games. Then showed up without warning for the first playoff game and took a game losing contested fadeaway jumper while a teammate was wide open…amazingly talented and a fascinating story

  • Sauce

    Well written. Relatable to the everyday bball player.

  • Carlos PR

    That was great, sad the guy didnt achieve his potential, but he killed when he wanted to. REally great piece of writing.