Vintage Detroit (cont.)
While young guns like Rose are wont to give Douglas-Roberts' game broad labels like "old-man," the old men back home have a more specific comparison for CDR. "Every rec-ball gym you go to in Detroit, there's an old guy talking about Gervin when they see me play," says Douglas-Roberts. "Every time. It never fails." Indeed, the finger-roll that CDR often employs on slashing drives comes straight from the book of George Gervin, Detroit's most famous basketball product and a three-time NBA scoring leader with the San Antonio Spurs from 1978-80. Douglas-Roberts is too young to have seen Gervin's trademark move or cool collectedness in the flesh, but based on highlights from ESPN Classic, CDR says the parallels are legit. "We both really don't sweat," he said, "and we make things look effortless, [even though] it's really not."
When Memphis coaches were recruiting Douglas-Roberts in Detroit, what they saw was a rail-thin scorer who weighed less than the 180 pounds he was listed at in recruiting profiles, but still managed to get to the rim in hard-nosed, low-scoring public-school games. "For him to play at that level in physical battles, you knew that he was a real competitor," says Tigers assistant Derek Kellogg. In September '04, Memphis took a commitment from Douglas-Roberts instead of leaving a scholarship open for hometown phenom J.P. Prince, a similar wing player who was then regarded as the No. 21 overall prospect in the country by Rivals.com. Douglas-Roberts was ranked 54 spots below Prince, who has yet to achieve stardom at Tennessee, and 65 spots below fellow Naismith and Wooden Award finalist Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, but Kellogg says, "We could see that [Douglas-Roberts] would be better than that, once he put some weight on his frame and expanded his game."
Douglas-Roberts' mother, Judy Roberts, says her son's "singular focus" on a basketball career has helped him thrive despite his slender frame and unorthodox skill set. His obsession with the sport was almost innate: When a 3-year-old Douglas-Roberts was presented a football helmet as a gift from his father, Chris turned it upside down to use as a makeshift hoop for wadded-up socks. Judy still remembers how "aggravating" the sound of Chris incessantly bouncing a ball out in front of their house was, and how, in the seventh grade, he received an "A" on a composition that stated exactly how he'd progress from high school, to a college that played NBA-style basketball, to the pros. ("That was a seventh-grade composition. And I can tell you, the details have been pretty much realized at this point," Judy says.) If Douglas-Roberts chooses to turn pro after this season, the composition should be complete: He's projected to be a late first-round pick.
It was appropriately ironic, though -- given that Douglas-Roberts is regarded as a master of misdirection on the perimeter -- that he had to weather a few diversions from his best-laid plans, most prominently the brief derailment of his high-school career in Detroit. CDR starred for his first three seasons at Cass Tech, a academically minded magnet school Judy Roberts says she wanted her son to attend, even though she later got the feeling that he "hated" being there. An A/B student early on, Douglas-Roberts let his grades slip to the point that he was put on academic probation as a junior -- a situation that ended with him transferring, despite Cass Tech's objections, to Northwestern High, a more traditional inner-city public school, and then being ruled ineligible for the first half of his senior year. As a result, he missed the bulk of his final season.
The ineligibility, says Judy, "cost Chris everything he had worked for for three years." Walker felt the same way, saying, "It did major damage. He didn't make first team All-City, All-State or anything, when he probably should have been Mr. Basketball [in Michigan]." Douglas-Roberts' reputation had already been hurt by clashing with coaches -- and eventually leaving early -- from the USA Basketball's Youth Development Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo., the summer before his senior year, and some colleges began to pull out of the pursuit for his services. Neither Michigan nor Michigan State offered CDR a scholarship, and his three finalists were Arizona, Miami and Memphis.
Judy Roberts, who is retiring this month after 28 years of service in the City of Detroit's Business License Center, remembers Tigers coach John Calipari sitting at her dining room table in 2004 and making his pitch. "What struck a chord with me," she said, "wasn't just that he had coached in the NBA. It was how he talked about having the same kind of modest beginnings as us, and how his interest was in changing the lives of the players he recruited." Calipari vowed to both Judy and Walker that he would not only develop Douglas-Roberts as a player, but also give the kind of tough love that ensured no one would associate CDR with attitude or academic issues again. As Judy says, "[Calipari] has done what he said he would do. I didn't need to counsel him at all, and he has protected Chris and helped him grow into young adulthood."
Douglas-Roberts never turned out to be the misfit that, in the eyes of recruiters from some of college hoops' bluebloods, his high-school and summer-camp troubles predicted. CDR has become the centerpiece of the Tigers' first Final Four run since 1985, written off by schools in his home state but embraced by Memphians as the veteran leader of the team. After the buzzer sounded at Houston's Reliant Stadium on the Tigers' 18-point win over Texas in the Elite Eight, Douglas-Roberts had a salute for his second city: He stood on the court, facing a section full of blue-clad Tigers fans, and pulled the front part of his jersey up over his head so that his entire face was obscured behind the word "Memphis." The crowd erupted.