Work ethic: never lost in translation
Danny Schmidt - March 14, 2012
In Chris Sprinker’s fourth grade class, the students were asked to go around and say what they wanted to be when they grew up. When it was Chris’s turn, he told the class he wanted to be a professional basketball player. His teacher replied that he might want to consider something else.
It’s a good thing he didn’t.
The 6’10” Tacoma native and former Central star center, with the Wildcats’ record for career blocks, currently plays on the Vaerlose Blue Knights, a professional team in Denmark. After a few brief stints in Iceland, Romania and Switzerland, Sprinker signed a contract good through April with the Blue Knights on Jan. 2.
The Blue Knights wrapped up their regular season as the seventh seed in the playoffs and face second-seeded Svendborg in a best-of-five series beginning March 8.
Not many Central or any Division II athletes make it professionally. Only a handful have made it from Ellensburg to the big stage.
When he graduated from Central in 2011 with a sociology degree, Sprinker had several offers to play overseas.
“After the first couple games of my last year there, I started getting messages,” Sprinker said. “[My agent] is based out of Germany so he has a lot of European connections.”
Sprinker first signed with Njardvik, a team in Iceland.
“I was excited when I signed the contract,” Sprinker said. “It didn’t really sink in until I went to the airport and got on the plane: a seven-and-a-half hour flight. When I landed, I said ‘OK this is serious now.’”
Iceland was merely a pit stop for Sprinker’s European career. In the span of six months, Sprinker played for three different teams. Njardvik released him after only a month because his style of play didn’t match what the team was looking for. He then went on to play for two more teams, one in Romania and one in Switzerland.
Every team in the league is allowed a maximum of two American players on the roster, so it’s a cutthroat business.
He now lives in an apartment in Vaerlose with the only other American on the Blue Knights, Reginald Delk from University of Louisville. They live like the Danes, in a small two-bedroom apartment. He has a bicycle for getting around, including getting to the team’s facilities.
Sprinker hasn’t faced too many hardships overseas, but he did find himself in a predicament during a layover in the Copenhagen airport on his way to Romania.
“I was exchanging money so I could get some food. I had an envelope of my American money and my Iceland money,” Sprinker said. “I took my American money and left the Iceland money for two minutes and when I came back it was gone. I was in Copenhagen with $400. I found out the bag fee was $700. I didn’t have anyone’s phone number or email, so I’m pretty much going to be stranded at the airport. I was freaking out. I thought I was just going to be stuck in Copenhagen. The guy ended up taking whatever money I had, so I go to Romania with not a dollar to my name.”
Living conditions aren’t the only things that take some time to get used to. When his teammates in Romania lit up cigarettes during halftime, Sprinker knew there was a major culture barrier.
The games overseas are 40 minutes, and broken into four quarters. Sprinker is averaging 18.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, while playing 32.3 minutes a game.
He said he is still getting used to European referees, a common issue Blue Knights head coach Jonas Sorensen has seen with many American players.
“Physicality in the key is not allowed that much over here,” Sorensen said. “All Americans are having trouble with foul trouble in their first couple games. They need to adapt and Chris has done a good job with that.”
Sorensen is in the final year of his contract but said that if he does come back to coach, he would love Sprinker to remain a Blue Knight. Sorensen noticed what just about everyone who knows Sprinker notices, his work ethic.
“He shows up for practice and works hard, and it’s so nice because the [American] that we sent home didn’t do that,” Sorensen said. “Him and our Icelandic guy, Axel, are working their butts off and really set the standard for the team.”
Sprinker has enjoyed his time living in Denmark, unlike Romania, where he hated the food and couldn’t communicate with the people.
“Denmark is more Americanized,” Sprinker said. “They play a lot of American shows, everyone speaks English. It hasn’t been that big of an adjustment.”
However, his sizeable stature and healthy appetite has certainly taken a toll on his wallet.
“The portion size on the food is so small,” Sprinker said. “For me, being a big guy, I need to buy a lot of food, so it takes a chunk out of my money.”
Sprinker had to leave plenty behind in the United States, but the two things he misses most aren’t available in Denmark.
“One thing I wish I brought out here was Frank’s RedHot sauce,” Sprinker said. “Some stuff over here is hard to swallow. It would go down easier with my hot sauce. And my favorite candy, Hot Tamales. The only candy they really have is the gummy bears.”
When he’s not longing for American condiments, Sprinker can be found improving his game by hitting the gym. It’s another sign of the unparalleled work ethic Sprinker is known for.
“He was early in the gym, and he was always the last guy to leave,” Central head coach Greg Sparling said. “I think it goes back to work ethic. I think he pushed guys in practice.
He brought it everyday and when people bring energy everyday it rubs off on everybody else.”
Sprinker still keeps in contact with Sparling and many others from his days as a Wildcat. As a captain in his senior year, Sprinker led Central to one of its best seasons of all time. The Wildcats finished the regular season with the best record in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. The team went on to win the inaugural GNAC tournament before Seattle Pacific University bumped them out of the NCAA tournament.
Sprinker doesn’t have an American cell phone in Denmark, so he relies on social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Skype to keep in contact with family and friends.
One person he talks to frequently is his former point guard and close friend, Chris Scott. Scott also played a huge role in Central’s magical 2011 run and credited Sprinker for much of his personal success.
“I was player of the week one week and it was because I had a lot of steals,” Scott said. “I was able to put pressure on the ball knowing that he was the last line of defense. If my guy got past me I knew he was there for a block. He was the heart and soul of our defense and our team. I could throw him a bad lob and he’d make something out of it. We would tell him to take a break sometimes and he’d get mad at us.”
Scott said he also received an offer to play overseas but turned it down because he would not have had medical insurance. Scott hopes that one day the two will reunite and play together again.
“He’s enjoying the fact that not everyone has his opportunity,” Scott said. “We all had dreams to go over there. I wish I was still playing with him. I’m happy for him. That’s the way our team was. We were unselfish. We were 26-5. Who else was that?”
As his trusted best friend, Scott also knows about Sprinker’s hidden so-called talents.
“He loves to sing. He thinks he can sing,” Scott said. “R. Kelly is one of his favorite artists. Can you imagine a 6-10 guy in the paint singing R. Kelly?”
Sprinker still sings R-Kelly in Vaerlose, and though he probably won’t moonlight as a singer, Sparling wouldn’t put it past him.
“Sky’s the limits for him. He puts 110 percent behind him,” Sparling said. “If he wants to be a singer, I know Chris Scott makes the beats, they could probably make that happen.”
Last summer Sprinker played in the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am in Seattle, against NBA players like Nate Robinson, Spencer Hawes, Terrence Williams and more. Sprinker loved playing against the top talent and can’t wait to do it again this summer.
Sprinker said he tries to watch NBA games on his laptop whenever he can, but typically only catches his former Curtis High School teammate Isaiah Thomas playing for the Sacramento Kings.
Recently the Blue Knights’ league, the Danish Top League, had its All-Star Weekend. Sprinker was voted in by the fans to compete in the dunk contest. For his first dunk, Sprinker performed a two-handed windmill. Later, a passer threw the ball off the backboard and Sprinker jumped over him. His highlight dunk was one he calls the “viewer choice.”
“I went to the crowd and picked up a camera and I film the crowd and filmed myself,” Sprinker said. “Threw it off the backboard and dunked while recording everything.”
Like the food portions, the gyms the Blue Knights play in are smaller than in the U.S. Sprinker compared them to high school gyms in America. But despite the size, they are packed for every game. Fans in Denmark have shown Sprinker tremendous love and he constantly gets messages on Facebook from local fans wishing him good luck before games.
When his pro career is over, Sprinker hopes to do something involving children. He currently coaches at a youth basketball camp. Both of his parents worked at juvenile detention centers, which is the reason Sprinker went into sociology and said he feels a passion for helping children.
“I’ve always wanted to do something to that effect. I would want to have an impact on kids’ lives,” Sprinker said. “Maybe community work or something like that. Either that or coaching.”
But that could be a long time off. For now, Sprinker is thrilled to be playing professionally and he still holds the same goal he’s always had: make the NBA. He is hoping to work his way into the NBA Development League, and eventually the NBA.
With Sprinker’s work ethic and athletic ability, Scott doesn’t see a reason why he couldn’t.
“It’s not just the height, he’s a skilled big man,” Scott said. “If he can stay over there for maybe a year or two, as hard as he works. Obviously he has more stuff to work on, everybody does, but why not? If he dunks on the right person, if he scores on the right person and the right person sees it, why not?”