By Andrew Katz
Though his style can be called impetuous, his mindset impregnable, and his will to win ferocious, there's no expression that better describes Chris Douglas-Roberts's game than Muhammad Ali's infamous self-assessment: he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
It should come as no surprise to learn that CDR crafted his slick game on the basketball court one story above Detroit's legendary Kronk boxing gym, where he mixed with Emanuel Steward, Tommy "The Hit Man" Hearns and "Iron" Mike Tyson. While Chris only ventured down to the Spartan gym to pop the heavy bag a couple of times, his hoop game is predicated on a read-and-react arsenal of leaners, floaters, scoops and hooks no different from a boxer's toolbox of jabs, uppercuts, and haymakers. Combine his knowledge of the sweet science with a 6-7 frame and an electric first step, and Chris Douglas-Roberts has a puncher's chance to be the steal this summer's NBA Draft.
When we got up with CDR, he was in the heart of an intense training period at the Attack Athletic Center in Chicago. Working with MJ's former trainer Tim Grover, Douglas-Roberts was pushing himself to the limit in preparation for upcoming workouts with NBA teams, and the opportunity to go head-to-head with other draftees. The kid was licking his chops thinking about the chance to prove that he's just as good, if not better, than many of his colleagues who will receive twice the hype heading into the Draft.
"He's going to be a big-time player in the NBA," says fellow Detroit native Jalen Rose. "A few people are sleeping on my guy. When I see people talking about who's about to become the top players coming into the League, I haven't heard his name mentioned as much as I would like. But he's going to be one of the top young players in the NBA."
While everyone witnessed Douglas-Roberts' consensus first team All-American junior season, in which he led Memphis to a 37-2 record on 18.1 points at a 54 percent clip, many are still quick to marginalize his game as "squirrelly," or as a collection of "old man tricks" as ESPN.com's Pat Forde wrote. But ask UConn's Stanley Robinson, a gifted defender, if CDR's 33 points of terror in front of a packed MSG crowd last November felt like any sort of trick. Run that same question of any of the seventeen teams he scored 20 or more points against. Even if he's not the quickest or the strongest guy around, CDR still routinely dominated guys trying to guard him.
"He was either the most gifted scorer in the nation, or was pretty darn close," says former Memphis top assistant and new UMass head coach Derek Kellogg.
Game in and game out, Douglas-Roberts took his opponents' best defender, and absorbed that guy's best shot. He's knocked down almost everyone who has stepped in his way at Memphis, and now he's ready to start swinging in the League.
Dime: You grew up playing hoops in the same building that housed the legendary Detroit boxing gym, Kronk. What did that gym do for your game?
Chris Douglas-Roberts: Upstairs in the gym it was a great run. Everybody was really tough, and some guys could really play. I always played with the older guys, so I was never playing with my peers. That just made me much better. My brother and his friends were playing, and he's 10 years older than me. That just really influenced me and it made me who I am today on and off the court. The boxers tried to come up and play, but I was always telling them, "Stay in the gym, man. Stay in the ring." Nah, but I used to go down there too and do little stuff. I never got in the ring, but I hit the bag or jumped rope with some of the boxers just for the fun of it.
Dime: What do you mean when you say that playing up there made you who you are as a person?
CDR: When you're competing with older guys, veterans, they know all of the tricks to the trade. And I didn't. By playing with them, I was forced to learn early. That's where the trickery in my game, or whatever people call it, comes from. I learned it early. I learned all the veteran stuff around 13, 14. All I had to do was polish up the older I got. That just made it much easier. And off the court when you're playing with the older guys, you develop that mental toughness - toughness is instilled in you. Kronk was a huge part of my upbringing, huge part. Like I said, it really made me who I am.
Dime: As a 13-year-old playing against 23-year-olds, were you actually able to put in work?
CDR: Oh yeah. It doesn't really matter how much older, or how fast - I mean some guys are considered great defensive players but I never looked at it like that. By playing with them I was always competitive, especially at a younger age. I was always playing against somebody who was supposed to be better - "He's older, so he's better," or "He's faster so he's better." But I never paid attention to it. Never.
Dime: This season at Memphis, you went up against some guys who were supposed to be some of the better defenders around...
CDR: I played a lot of these guys who are considered to be some of the best defensive players in the country. Throughout the whole year, I faced the best defensive player on the other team. Of all the guys I played this year, Russell (Westbrook, UCLA) was very good. I have a lot of respect for Russell. But I don't think there's such a thing as a defensive stopper. If a guy is good on offense, he's just good on offense. That's with anybody. There are guys who are really good defensive players, but I don't feel like there's such as a lock-down defender. If a guy has it going that night, he just has it going.
Dime: What do you think about the fact that some guys who you've outperformed are still slated to go above you in the draft?
CDR: That's before the draft. I feel if you put me in a room with somebody, I'm going to be the one to come out. That's all those workouts are. You're going to have to play me eventually. You can't run from those - so eventually you're going to have to see me in a workout, and whoever comes out is a better player, period. Whoever does the best in these workouts, that's the better player. Me being at the bottom of the draft boards, it doesn't matter to me. You can't deny what will eventually happen. That's me up against somebody - and the team has to pick. I just feel like they're not used to my game. I'm not the conventional two.
Dime: You talk about it like it's not a matter of if, but when.
CDR: Haha, I feel that I've always had it. I don't know why, but I've always been confident my whole life. You have to have it when you're the underdog because if you're not confident in yourself, you're just feeding into what everybody is saying. You have to have it. It's still going on now - even though I was consensus All-American, people still have their doubts. That's why I stay confident.
Dime: How has Coach (John) Calipari impacted that confidence? We've heard that your relationship goes beyond that of a coach and player, before the UCLA Final Four game he said, "I love you, Chris," and you said, "I love you too, Coach." That's a really strong bond.
CDR: It definitely is. I don't think we could be anywhere we are today without one another. We both understand that. Without him coaching, I actually don't feel that I would have been that successful on the college level. That's just being honest. And I don't feel that he would have been that successful at Memphis these past three years without me. That's where it all comes from. We really understand that, and we really understand each other. We've had our misunderstandings, and we've bumped heads a couple of times while I was there, but it was the right thing to do.
Dime: Can you give us any stories about you two bumping heads?
CDR: Out of everybody on the team, he's always been the hardest on me. No matter if I was a freshman or, he was always the hardest on me. I remember in the Tulane game I had 20 points in the first half, and I missed one layup. The whole halftime speech was about me missing that one layup. "You're going through the motions! You've gotta be kidding me!" I'm looking around, like, "Is he talking to me? It's halftime and I have 20 - come on coach, you can't be serious." But he was just doing that to make me better. If anything happens on the team, he'll point me out. Joey (Dorsey) could mess up, but he'll yell at me.
Dime: You're used to taking the punishment for your teammates?
CDR: Exactly. I've always taken adversity well. That's really all the world is - being able to take adversity. I've always been able to do a good job at that, and I feel that I've been mentally strong for a long time. It probably started when I was younger. That carried over to Memphis. If you're not mentally strong for Coach Calipari, you're going to quit. Coach is crazy, and he'll play mind games with you the whole week. Your numbers could be real good, but he'll still play mind games with you. If you're not mentally strong, you can't play for him at all.
Dime: After you had two rough games at Middle Tennessee State and Cincinnati, did Coach Cal put you through a crazy workout to get your 'motor' running?
CDR: That's what he did. It was tough, man. Those two games when I didn't get 20 it was because they were running a box-and-one. It was really tough - any player knows it's really tough to score on a box-and-one especially at the college level. They're so athletic, and their primary focus is you. That's another part of the mind-game thing. He knew that they were running the box-and-one. He knew that. But he still feels like I shouldn't use an excuse. That's no excuse. You should still be effective. For the next week we had these workouts and they were rough, man.
Dime: What did he have you do?
CDR: It was basically a lot of running and jumpshooting. But the running - you had to sprint - until he feels that you're sprinting. At the end of the sprint, you have a layup. As you hit the layup, you're getting hit with a pad in your face by (assistant coach) Tyrone Weeks, and he's like 6-5, 240 pounds. He's trying to take your head off. And with our strength and conditioning coach, it was two pads hitting you. It was tough, man. I was tired, no water. You could get water but it was when he felt you needed it.
Dime: That was the middle of an amazing run through 37 wins and two very tough losses. What did you do after you guys lost the national championship game to Kansas?
CDR: I just sat down and thought about it. "What could I have done more?" And the whole free throws thing... (Editor's Note: Douglas-Roberts missed three free throws at the end of regulation, leaving the door open for Mario Chalmers' miracle three.) I just sat down and thought about it. But at the same time I'm the leader of the team. So I looked around and mostly the whole team had their head down. So I got up and told them, "We had a hell of a year, man, we had a hell of a year. Of course we came up short. But don't let nobody see us weak. It's no reason for us to hold our heads down." I walked around and tapped everybody on their forehead that had their head down and told them to get their head up. You don't want to see people you care about and love like that. Family, or anybody you really care about. And I still really care about them even now. I didn't want to see them like that.
Dime: There's a rumor that you've never lost a game of one-on-one in your entire life - true?
CDR: That is true. DK [Derek Kellogg] knows I've never lost one. I've never lost one though. You could ask around from me being in Detroit, or any of my teammates, we played a lot of one-on-one. A lot of the guys were close. Derrick, Robert (Dozier), a lot of them were close. But I've never lost one. Ever.