Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Scoring a school record 2,249 points for the George Washington Colonials didn’t earn Chris Monroe so much as a phone call on NBA Draft night. Teams were much more interested in centers from Serbia (Darko Milicic) and swingmen from France (Mickael Pietrus) than in 6-foot-3, 222-pound shooting guards who were going to have to learn a new position.

So Monroe went to minicamp with the Wizards, didn’t make their summer league roster, and now he’s weighing his options in Europe. Italy? France? Belgium? Germany? Teams in all those countries have expressed an interest in him.

This is the Marco Polo route to the NBA, the one often taken by low-profile players from less successful programs. Perhaps, like Monroe, they need to develop a different set of skills — in his case, so he can make the switch to point guard. Or perhaps they just have to be seen more to be appreciated. It’s not like pro scouts never miss a player. Exhibit A: Ben Wallace, the two-time NBA defensive player of the year, who began his career as a free agent with the Wizards.

“Some people say I can be a combo guard, some say I’m going to have to be a point guard,” says Monroe. “It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a basketball player. In high school [at Good Counsel in Wheaton] I was a power forward. At GW, I moved to small forward and then made the transition to 2 guard. Scouts know me as a scorer, a shooter. They’ve never seen me bring the ball up, set people up. I can do that.”

Most of us kept our eyes on Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd during the NBA Finals, but Chris Monroe was transfixed by Spurs role players Bruce Bowen and Stephen Jackson. They’re his heroes in a way, guys who took the back roads to the big time. Bowen spent two seasons in France and another two in the CBA before latching on (for a grand total of one game) with the Miami Heat in 1997. From there he went to Boston, then to Philadelphia, then back to Miami, then to San Antonio — and now he’s got a ring on his finger. Not to mention a reputation as one of the league’s top defensive stoppers.

As for Jackson, he didn’t even play college ball (though he did spend some time at a JC after attending Oak Hill Academy). Instead, he had to slug it out in the CBA and the Venezuelan league for a few years before the New Jersey Nets gave him his big break in 2000. The next season, he joined the Spurs, and in the recent playoffs he averaged 12.8 points. Not bad for somebody who just three years ago was coming off the bench for the Fort Wayne Fury.

“Ask a kid what college [Bowen and Jackson] went to,” Monroe says, “and he’d probably say, ‘I don’t know.’ And they had a major impact on the playoffs.”

Chris Monroe has dreams like that, dreams of reinventing himself as a point guard and slipping in the back entrance of the NBA. The prospect of toiling in obscurity over in Europe doesn’t faze him in the least. Heck, he’s used to it. His GW teams never posted a winning record, never played in the postseason, never appeared on national TV. You couldn’t score 2,249 points much more quietly than he did.

And yes, he says, “It does drive me crazy” thinking about What Might Have Been. GW hoops was coming off two straight NCAA tournament appearances when he arrived on campus, but the program started to slip under Tom Penders, and successor Karl Hobbs is still trying to get it back on track. “If I had done what I did this year in the NCAAs or the NIT, everything would have been different,” he says.

But he knows he can play. And he offers his track record against the Colonials’ toughest opponents as evidence. In nine games against NCAA tournament teams last season — Texas, Maryland, UConn, Xavier and the like — he averaged 19.7 points, comparable to his overall average of 20.3.

“I played against the J.R. Bremers [when he was at St. Bonaventure], the Rasul Butlers [LaSalle],” Monroe says. “It’s not as if I can’t do it against better competition. I’ve done it. But at GW, I had to play off the ball a lot, had to do a little bit of everything, and so I need to prove to people I can play the point. I’m going to try to do that in Europe.”

Rest assured the scouts will be watching. Europe is one of their preferred hunting grounds these days — as the NBA Draft showed. Jason Kapono, the Cavaliers’ No.2 pick, cracked that if he’d left UCLA after his freshman year, moved to Europe, grown a beard and “changed my name to Vladimir Kaponovich, I would have been a first-rounder.”

Chris Monroe is ready to move to Europe. And he comes across as the kind of guy who’d do anything to play in the NBA — change his position, change his name, even grow a beard.

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