Chris Monroe, a man for all seasons

In the shoeboxes full of recruiting letters in Chris Monroe’s bedroom in Hyattsville, Md., there is an envelope addressed to Chris `A Man Among Boys’ Monroe.

Although nothing quite compares to the flattery one finds in college basketball recruiting letters, this particular characterization seems to say it all about Chris Monroe. Whether in basketball or in real life, he has always been something more than a boy.

This season, as a freshman power guard (what Coach Tom Penders calls him), the bulky 6-3 Monroe averaged 16.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, averaging 28.7 minutes of action. Of his 205 rebounds, 117 were offensive. He shot 44.6 percent overall, 30.9 percent on three-pointers, and 74.7 percent from the free-throw line. He also added 48 assists and 24 steals en route to making the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team.

But that’s resum? talk. To understand what makes Chris Monroe a man, meet Ronnie Roman.

Ronnie Roman is not a familiar name to basketball fans. But it could have been. Monroe and Roman are not only cousins, but they were quite a pair in their day, playing for years together and against each other.

I used to bust him on the court, Roman said. Our one-on-one battles – I used to beat him 16-zip.

Some three years ago, Roman was paralyzed in a car accident. Now, he lives in a nursing home just a couple minutes from Monroe’s home in Hyattsville – just over the border from Northeast D.C. When Monroe is not walking the streets of Foggy Bottom (always dribbling a basketball), he is here with Roman – trash-talking, joking, swapping tales and generally having a great time. It seems simple, but to Roman, it means the world.

As Monroe dribbles his Michigan basketball (because it’s yellow and blue and God knows he couldn’t buy a GW ball) Sunday afternoon and walks through the hallways of the nursing home, he is greeted by the residents as if he was an old friend. In a way, he is – in all senses of the phrase.

Ronnie, he kind of lives his hoop dreams through me, Monroe said.

Roman went to almost all of Monroe’s games this year. He is bound to his wheelchair, but on his feet are a pair of Air Jordans. They symbolize the love he still has for basketball and the life he may have led – the life Monroe now lives for two.

Ronnie and Chris and Roger Mason, who went to Good Counsel with Chris, had planned to go to college together. It didn’t turn out that way. After Ronnie’s accident, Mason went to the University of Virginia, and Monroe, of course, came to GW. But it would have taken far more than a 20-minute car ride to destroy what Chris and Ronnie have.

When it was time for Monroe to choose a university to ply his basketball talents, he knew one thing – it had to be in D.C. That was the only way he could still see his mother and Ronnie.

Chris, an only child, has been learning how to be a man for some time now. His parents, Barbara and Charles, divorced when he was very young. Chris, born Christopher Edward Monroe Jan. 19, 1981 in Silver Spring, Md., has lived in his current home with his mother for 11 years.

Chris started playing ball when he was five or six. His dad, a former semi-pro football player, wanted Chris to go for the gridiron. His mom just wanted to him to do something with his boundless energy. But once Chris picked up a basketball, the courting of his athletic interest was over.

Once I started playing basketball, I fell in love with it.

Quickly, Monroe began to excel, and almost from day one, he was playing with older boys. Although he was taller than kids his age, he lost that advantage because he was always playing with kids older than him. He learned what it took to play with the big boys. Take it strong. Release it quick.

Eventually, he hooked up with AAU coach Rob Jackson, his coach for the rest of his AAU days. The Silver Spring Blue Devils, Chris’ 11-and-under team, won the national championship, and Chris was on his way.

Constantly competing against high levels of talent in tournaments all over the country (just in D.C., he was playing with the likes of Steve Francis, DerMarr Johnson, Joe Forte and Keith Bogans), Chris raised the level of his own game. After he got into some trouble his freshman year in high school, his mother put him in a private school. From Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, he made his drive for a college scholarship.

His career at Good Counsel mirrored the career he would like to have at GW. His first year, the team was 15-15. Then, within two years, they were 29-5 and ranked in the top 10 of USA Today’s Super 25.

But, like at GW, the first name out of everyone’s mouth wasn’t Monroe’s. At Good Counsel, it was Roger Mason that the recruiters came to see. And although Georgetown’s John Thompson knew Chris personally (he called him Mr. Monroe), and GW’s Mike Jarvis went to school with Chris’ mom, none of the top D.C. schools actively recruited him. Then Tom Penders came to GW the summer after Chris’ junior year, and the pieces began to come together.

Chris had a great summer, playing well at tournament after tournament, culminating in being named most valuable player at the Charlie Webber Invitational. His stock rose, and although his dream was always to play at Maryland, the Terrapins showed up on Chris’ doorstep too long after Chris met GW Assistant Coach Bonzie Colson that summer at the Nike Showcase in Florida.

GW was early in the game, Monroe said. A school comes late, and it means that they didn’t get who they wanted. I thought I was better than that. A lot of recruits get recognized because of their potential, not because of what they’re doing now. I was dogging all those other guys.

In addition to GW’s early interest in him, Penders’ style of play also appealed to Chris. In Penders’ up-tempo style, he could push the ball up in a way that favored his talents and the manner in which he preferred to play.

With Penders, you can stop acting like a machine. You can just go out and play.

GW’s academic reputation was also attractive. Although the NBA was and is his dream, he always knew better than to count on it. He knew that a good degree may be the more likely route to success later in life.

A lot of prestigious people went there, and I wanted to be one of those people. I want people to say, `Oh yeah, Chris Monroe went there,’ whether it was for basketball or something else.

Chris and SirValiant Brown (just Val at the time) both signed with GW early, in the fall of 1998. Though they knew each other from playing ball in D.C., they didn’t speak about being teammates at GW until they each found out that the other had signed with the Colonials.

As their senior years wound down, Monroe and Brown played together in the Capital Classic. But they didn’t start.

Me and Val took that personally. I wanted to make a statement, and I’m still doing that now.

In that game, against some of the nation’s best (like Duke’s Jason Williams) Monroe was most valuable player, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. His attitude in that game said everything about the way he approaches basketball. It’s about respect.

Although it may be Brown who gets the nice trophies and the gaudy stats, it was Monroe who earned the accolades from coaches and players around the A-10, which is exactly what he wants to hear. Coaches such as Fordham’s Bob Hill and Temple’s John Chaney were complimentary of Brown, but they sang the praises of Monroe.

Oh my God, I wish I had him, said Chaney after his Owls beat GW 98-67. I’d trade three or four of my big guys for him. He’s some kind of player! Does he play football?

Monroe says that media attention is nice (My mom loves all that stuff), but that can disappear in a second. Ronnie taught him that. What never disappears is respect. The respect Chris will always have for Ronnie’s game. The respect Chris plays for every day. The respect you earn on the playgrounds, when there’s no reporter for 100 miles.

Even after the Capitol Classic, Monroe didn’t move up in the recruiting rankings. People just thought a mediocre pl
ayer had had a good day, that’s all. And even now, with Brown getting most of the attention, the battle rages on.

The game’s supposed to be fun, but I want to have my respect when I’m playing it too. I want the players I play against to respect me. I don’t want to be on TV all the time, I just want the guy I play against to respect me.

I kind of take it personally when Terence Morris or somebody tries to post me up. You’re not going to post me up . It’s a mental part of the game. If you know how to beat a guy, size isn’t important.

And so one gets to the center of Monroe’s game. He has a reputation as a blue-collar player. A guy who just works harder than everyone else. A guy makes up for his lack of size with pure muscle and emotion. And that’s partly true. He is solid physically (he gained 25 pounds last summer), and he is emotional about basketball.

If you don’t love the game, he said, you don’t have the desire to do what you have to do to win.

But perhaps one has to see him in his customary glasses to really appreciate the professor in Chris Monroe.

Everything he does on the court is calculated with the experience that comes after doing the same thing every day for 15 years. Even when he gets in his fairly regular tussles on the court, it’s all calculated to throw the other player off his game, to get him mad, get him to do something stupid because he wants to beat you so bad. It’s almost Jordanesque in its deviousness.

I can get in an altercation and just walk away and forget about it. It falls into the mental part of the game. You gotta be able to read them . What you do on the court is 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical.

When he gets to the foul line, as he did 217 times this year, it’s not his points he’s thinking about. It’s the fact that he just put the opponent’s big man in foul trouble that satisfies him. Because that is what will help his team’s big men. In fact, in all things, he is unselfish to a fault. Whether it’s giving credit to his mom, or setting a pick for Val, he wants to do whatever he can for those who have done so much for him. At one time, he emulated Charles Barkley. Now, he says it’s Gary Payton.

Most of all, for now, Chris wants to help GW. He wants GW to be the king of D.C. He wants GW to win a national championship. He wants to be able to buy a GW basketball at the mall.

This year was a bit disappointing for him (A lot of the times, we played to the level of our competition), but it had its moments. Such as his first college game against Indiana State University, when he scored 16 points (I thought, `That’s not that bad’) or the game at Clemson University when he couldn’t miss, gaining confidence in his shot for the first time at the college level.

On the other hand, there was the game at St. Joseph’s on his birthday where he was ejected five minutes into the game (the A-10 later said it was a mistake). Or the fact that Monroe got off to a slow start because of a back problem and a broken nose. But once junior guard Mike King went down, opening up a starting spot for him, Chris hit his stride. Chris feels he plays a lot better as a starter.

It’s like Coach says in the locker room: In a fight, the person that’s more upset wins. Coming off the bench is like seeing a fight and just running in not knowing what’s going on.

Chris has excelled under Penders’ tutelage. He says Penders is a coach who treats you like a man. How appropriate.

Penders expects you to do what you have to do to be the best. If you don’t, that’s your problem . He’s everything he told me he was. He wants to see me do my best.

He says Penders is the kind of coach you can ask about personal issues, because he actually cares. And as for the mess back at the University of Texas, Chris said, I personally couldn’t see him doing what they say he did.

Just like Penders has done his whole career, Chris has stepped into several situations, with his AAU team and at Good Counsel, where he has brought his team to levels of excellence it had never seen before.

I hope me and Val can make history, do things that have never been done before.

He thinks next year will be a big step in realizing that goal.

I’ve got big plans for this team next year. We’re gonna shock a lot of people. We’re starting to get a chemistry. Once you get a team that plays together and knows each other’s style, that’s hard to stop.

And the GW home crowd can’t hurt. Chris credits them with winning some games this year.

That’s the best. I’ve been watching a lot of TV, and I haven’t seen any crowd that’s better than that.

Outside of basketball, Chris’ GW social experience has been different than the typical student. There have been no visits to Mister Days for Chris. Weekends for Chris mean getting a ride with his mom back home to see Ronnie. His circle of friends has changed little since high school.

At GW, Chris rooms with junior point guard Bernard Barrow. His best friend on the team is Brown. The two are inseparable on road trips and at team functions.

As for the classroom, he didn’t make the grades he would have liked to this year, but he goes to class when he’s not on the road. He doesn’t understand why a basketball player would never go to class (as some have been known to do). He says the biggest adjustment for him at GW has been keeping up with his schoolwork during the basketball season. He says he learns best by listening, and so learning through other people’s notes is hard for him. He’s in the Columbian School but is in the process of transferring to the business school. It is business he wants to pursue if basketball doesn’t work out. He always prefaces any discussion of the NBA with the assurance that he knows that might not happen, and he’s prepared for that. He will get his degree.

As for the burdens of his notoriety now, he’s quick to assert the loyalty that defines him. Although, despite rumors, it was not his boys that were involved in a shooting at Guthridge after the University of South Florida game, he didn’t consider the incident cause to change anything about the way he lives his life.

My friends, I tell them, respect me, because that comes back on me . Just because somebody grew up in a street culture doesn’t mean they’re not good people. Me being the person I am, I’m gonna stick by the people that stuck by me. Just `cause I made it doesn’t mean I have to make new friends.

And so we return to his undying loyalty to cousin Ronnie. But don’t get it wrong. Ronnie’s no charity case. Chris is obviously happiest when he’s with Ronnie. They’re lucky to have each other.

He’s a good person, says Ronnie. He’s a fun person to be around.

Chris has plans for Ronnie and his mother. They are his most loyal supporters. He will find a way to take care of them financially, whether it’s through basketball or not.

I play for my cousin. I play for my mother, so I can take care of her the way she did me. I play for my father . I just want to put myself in a position to help those who helped me.

Sometimes you forget that Chris is ever playing for himself. But he is that, too. He seems to have enough game to go around. Although his height would make the NBA a longshot, it would be folly to sell him short.

Ronnie sums Chris up in one word – dedicated. And even now, Chris talks about working hard all summer. He carries his Michigan basketball everywhere to work on his ballhandling. He dribbles it between the legs of his chair at Wendy’s. He talks about becoming a better all-around player. Ronnie says if he works on his dribbling and shooting, Chris can do whatever he wants.

Sometimes, it seems like whatever Chris wants is whatever Ronnie wants. Or maybe whatever his mom wants. Or whatever GW wants. Or whatever Penders wants.

From the time Chris first picked up a basketball, he was too good to play with the other boys his age. Even now, despite his boyish smile and still-boundless energy, something about him seems older than 19. Maybe it’s just the facial hair. Or maybe it’s the things that come out of his mouth. Or maybe it’s just the little things he does.

When he drives to the hole, the players he faces are
so much taller – but when you know Chris, you realize how much smaller they really are.

As he sits on the bed in Ronnie’s room, he said, My thing is, I don’t like letting people down.

I can’t figure out when he ever has. Not his mother, certainly not Ronnie. Not GW. Not Coach Penders.

What a man.

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