Former NBA Veteran Chris Copeland Bounces Back from Tragedy to Pursue Future in Business
Chris Copeland would rather not talk about it. For all he accomplished by spending four seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks—not to mention his eight other seasons playing everywhere from the G League and Spain to the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Turkey—it’s the one thing with which most casual basketball fans might most closely associate him.
April 8, 2015. That night, Chris was stabbed in the abdomen outside of the 1 OAK nightclub in New York City—the same night that Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic, then both with the Atlanta Hawks, were harassed (and, in Thabo’s case, injured) by NYPD officers at the same scene.
“In the hospital, I was just trying to stop the room from spinning because I lost so much blood,” Chris tells CloseUp360 while opening up about the incident for the first time.
He recovered in time to play in the 2015-16 season opener with Milwaukee—against the Knicks, no less. But the experience of returning to the NBA after that trauma didn’t leave him with any particularly piquant impression. For Chris, getting back to working out in the gym, hanging with teammates in the locker room and suiting up for games was business as usual, “something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
The bigger epiphany arrived while Chris was recovering from the stabbing at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Coming so close to death as to stare his own mortality in the face opened his eyes to his true potential beyond basketball.
“I'm a God-fearing man and what I take away from that night is purpose,” he says. “I believe I'm here for a reason, that also had some loftiness with my goals. I don't think I'm here to be regular and be normal.”
Chris Copeland found "purpose" in his brush with death back in 2015. (Courtesy of Chris Copeland)
Nowadays, it’s not at all unusual to see Chris playing pickup basketball in a gym somewhere in Los Angeles. The sweet-shooting 6’8” forward is a regular at Rico Hines’ famed summer runs at UCLA, and supplements that work with more burn at Memorial Park in Santa Monica.
“Basketball is literally why I came here, why I stayed out here,” Chris says. “I have other reasons, but basketball is literally why I moved to LA.”
But summer has already come and gone. So has autumn, along with more than half the 2018-19 NBA season.
Yet, Chris is still playing pickup in LA alongside a slew of seasoned pros. More than just playing, actually. He’s the one who regularly texts his fellow NBA vets—from Metta World Peace and Craig Smith, to Perry Jones, Jeremy Tyler and Cuttino Mobley—to come down to the gym at Memorial Park. While Rico is up north, working as a player development coach for the Sacramento Kings’ G League affiliate in Stockton, Chris is holding it down for the pros who are still in town.
“If you're not overseas or in the NBA or whatever, we kind of stay sharp in case that call comes,” he says.
Chris has already heard from teams abroad, but has yet to commit to anything. And while the 34-year-old would likely listen if an NBA team were to reach out, with where he’s at in his life—both personally and business-wise—there’s no guarantee that he’d accept an offer.
Though he’s cagey when it comes to revealing his reasons for that reticence, one thing is clear: whatever he’s cooking up outside of basketball, it must be something special if it’s enough to call a return to the pros into question.
“I don't know how I feel about going and playing further with my career,” he says. “I wrestle with that. That's part of the reason I'm still here [in LA].”
Chris’ basketball odyssey didn’t begin with a pickup game, but that’s how it truly took off.
In August 1999, while visiting his aunt in Richmond, Virginia, he sauntered into the gym at Hermitage High School, where the team happened to be scrimmaging. At 15, with his 6’6” frame, Chris stood out—so much so that his mother, Terry, quit her job at Unity Hospice in Newark, New Jersey, to move herself and her son down south so he could seriously pursue hoops.
His success at Hermitage brought him to the University of Colorado, where he once again went from largely anonymous as a freshman and sophomore to a standout as a junior and senior.
While in Boulder, Chris started contemplating what he could do in business—not because his NBA future seemed murky, but rather because, well, he had plenty of thoughts and a notepad to keep them.
“I've been thinking about ideas and things to make money, and I had a business mind young,” he says.
Among those money-making endeavors: becoming a college club promoter. Though that side hustle taught him about business (and earned him some bread, at that), it also earned him a one-game suspension from the Buffaloes’ basketball team.
“I literally was checking on my business and they found out I was out the night before [a game],” he says.
While he learned some lessons in business the hard way, Chris also had plenty of mentors who showed him the kind of life he could build by playing basketball. In Virginia, he got to know Cory Alexander, a seven-year NBA veteran who subsequently got into real estate, and Ben Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year who built his own gym (Big Ben’s Home Court) in Richmond and is now part-owner of the Detroit Pistons’ G League team, the Grand Rapids Drive.
When he arrived at Colorado as an 18-year-old, Chris came in contact with Chauncey Billups, a former player for the Buffaloes who won a championship with Ben and the Pistons in 2004 while building his portfolio as a Wendy’s franchisee under the tutelage of NBA vet-turned-business mogul Junior Bridgeman.
“I've been watching successful players make smart moves since I was a baby,” Chris says.
In 2012, six years after going undrafted out of Colorado and playing overseas, Chris finally arrived in the NBA, as a 28-year-old rookie with the Knicks. That same year, ESPN released Broke, a documentary in its “30 for 30” series that detailed the financial foibles of professional athletes in retirement.
“It scared me pretty big time,” he says, “the idea of having years and years of income in basketball and then things go wrong.”
For all that Broke did to scare him straight, Chris found plenty of positive reinforcement from his peers in the league. In New York, he picked the brains of Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Quentin Richardson. With the Bucks, he fielded real estate advice from Kenyon Martin.
But as Chris recalls, the best advice came not from another player. Instead, it was three simple words uttered, over and over, by his head coach with the Knicks, Mike Woodson.
“Save your money,” Woody told him. “Save your money.”
“It's one of the hardest things to do, coming from nothing and being able to have a couple more dollars in your pocket,” Chris says. “You get the urge to live.”
Chris, though, never really had that itch to begin with, and still doesn’t. By and large, he’s eschewed expensive outfits worthy of a stylist’s touch in favor of sweats.
“I would rather be comfortable than fly,” he says, “all day long.”
Where other hoopers might rock an armful of Rolexes and enough chains to induce scoliosis, Chris has “a couple of watches” he keeps and a single necklace with the initials of his mother and brother, Vincent Alphaquan, the latter of whom taught him to hoop and passed away in 1997, six weeks after he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident.
“They are my motivation for everything that I do and it's a big thing what happened, and it's an influence on me and me trying to live up to what we promised each other,” Chris says. “But it's one of those things you got to keep pushing, and then my mom is still here and I'm trying to make her proud as well.”
Chris (front) with his brother, Vincent Alphaquan. (Courtesy of Chris Copeland)
It was his mom who encouraged him to “find a way or make a way” to the NBA while he was playing in leagues around the world out of college.
“It's all about not breaking,” he explains. “I've never been the most athletic. I've never been the best shooter, [had] the most handles or whatever you want to call it. Never been the best, but I just don't break and I don't quit, and I find a way to get whatever I have to to get done with enough time.”
Those experiences overseas also exposed Chris to other ways of life. He saw how Spaniards took siestas (mid-day breaks) as if by decree, and how Europeans generally work to live while Americans live to work. But rather than make value judgements about one lifestyle or another, he found that, ultimately, “there’s no right way to do things.”
“You can run a pick-and-roll and who should shoot the ball—the roller or the guy with the ball getting him open?” he asks. “No—whatever works out is the answer.”
Chris prefers to keep to himself. He isn’t one to say much publicly, even for motivational purposes, in large part because doing so isn’t his forte.
“I don't want to give a bad speech,” he says.
Nor is Chris inclined to talk about his philanthropic work, out of concern that he might sound self-serving.
“I don't like to speak on that. It feels corny,” he says. “I don't want to be a guy who, like, walks an old lady across the street just to put it in an article.”
When it comes to what he’s working on business-wise, Chris plays his cards just as close to his vest, if not moreso. That caution stems from his uneasiness about sharing his ideas before they’re fully formed, lest he let potential competitors steal them.
But pry a bit, and he might mention that he’s building his real estate portfolio. He bought his first house in Virginia, after his rookie year with the Knicks. He added his second in Indianapolis, while with the Pacers, and still rents it out. He also owns the house he currently inhabits in LA, and might purchase another property in the city while he remodels that home.
“If you're renting, you're paying somebody else's mortgage,” he says, “so why would I give somebody an opportunity to live their dream when I could just do it for myself?”
Chris also confirms that he’s building his own mobile apps, though he’ll only go so far as to say that one is related to travel and the other to “goods and services.” He’ll say that he’s in “at least five different lanes of business,” but declines to confide what the three outside of real estate and tech might be.
“I don't want to let them see me coming,” he says. “I believe it's better to stay low and stay on the grind, and just kind of make plans.”
He does mention that he’s expanding his business knowledge through online classes and YouTube videos (“I'm a rookie again, just watching game tape. Best way to put it.”)
Perhaps Chris’ most valuable lesson came in real life, at a company known for its dominance in the virtual world, with a helping hand from the NBA.
After appearing in training camp with the New Orleans Pelicans ahead of the 2016-17 season, and in between a solid stint in Turkey and an aborted one back in Spain, he called on his NBA connects to score an internship at Facebook. There, he got to see “what a well-oiled machine looks like,” from who gets hired to how those minds are deployed. He paid particular attention to the unfinished ceilings inside the buildings on the social media behemoth’s Menlo Park, California campus, and pondered their metaphorical meaning in a corporate context.
“They can never feel complete,” he says. “It keeps that hunger and work ethic.”
Though there’s more he could accomplish in basketball, Chris has already proven that he can play at the highest level. Now, he’s out to show that he can and will succeed in a different endeavor.
“A lot of people won't respect your mind until you're showing them why they should, and that's rightfully so, if I'm being totally honest,” he says. “It’s not like we should shut up and dribble, but I do want to earn my keep. I do want to earn respect in the business world.”
When Chris talks about his grand plans (broadly, of course), he speaks less about taking the NBA by storm in his mid-30s and more about becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, the next Jay-Z or 50 Cent, the next Jeff Bezos. In truth, it’s that journey through basketball that’s inspired him to become a force in business.
“I tell some of my closest friends, ‘Look: the worst thing they could've done is let me make it to the NBA because now I believe anything's possible,’” he says. “So now that I'm there, now that I've done these things, I have real goals, and these are not like impossible goals. I think these are things that are doable within the plan that I've put forward.
“It's just going to take a lot of work, a lot of sleepless nights. I'm already starting to sleep less and starting to wake up earlier with the excitement, with work to do. And I'm ready for it.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Additional reporting by Jared Zwerling.