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The Life Of An NBA 15th Man

With just 450 rosters spots in any single seasons, the chances of making the NBA are mathematically miniscule.

To put this into perspective, the chances of claiming a roster spot in the NBA are as slim as winning the lottery.

With that in mind, Chris Copeland hit the jackpot this summer by securing the final roster spot with the New York Knicks after an impressive showcase during the Las Vegas Summer League.

While speaking with Copeland at his locker inside Madison Square Garden, the most unlikely member of the Knicks could not contain his smile and enthusiasm while discussing the realization of his NBA dream in a one-on-one interview with RealGM.

Copeland was a longshot to make New York’s roster out of training camp, but the 28-year-old rookie never stopped believing in his chances.

“I was hungry,” Copeland told RealGM. “I wanted to do anything it took to make the team. A lot of people doubted that I had the ability to make it, but I just kept listening and I had a lot of help from the veterans and people behind the scenes like Allan Houston. A lot of guys gave me advice on how to make it and how make myself look better on that stage and at the end of the day I thank God for the opportunity.”

Copeland has benefited mightily from the tutelage of Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace. The three veterans offer 53 years of combined NBA experience for Copeland to learn from.

“Those three guys have really been in my ear as far as being behind me when I was down,” said Copeland.

The constant instruction from the veterans paid dividends as Copeland secured the Knicks' final roster spot.

“Truth be told, when they told me in the office, I kept hearing ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ music,” said Copeland with a bashful laugh. “It was crazy man, it was a beautiful experience that was like a lifetime in the making for me. You know what I mean? I’m speechless even thinking about it.”

The “lifetime” Copeland mentioned is the six-year window it took him to reach the NBA.

After helping Colorado advance to the NIT twice and the NCAA Tournament once over his four-year career in Boulder, Copeland was not selected in the 2006 NBA Draft.

Despite the disappointment, Copeland found a home with the Fort Worth Flyers of the D-League where he averaged 10.1 points per game and shot the ball well from three (.462).

That was the last time Copeland would play professionally in the United States over the subsequent five years before resurfacing with New York. During his five years overseas, Copeland played in Spain, Germany and Belgium.

Copeland developed into a go-to scorer during his final two seasons overseas. Copeland averaged 18.5 points per game with Okapi Aalstar (Belguim) and played well in the 2012 EuroChallenge averaging 20.1 points per game in 11 games.

Despite adjusting to a severely reduced role as the 15th man off New York’s bench, Copeland relishes every moment he is with the team and living his NBA dream.

“It’s such an opportunity,” said Copeland. “People say it, and it’s kind of cliché, ‘you learn everyday,’ but look at this roster. Everyday I’m playing with legends, somebody that was amazing.”

Copeland has also built a relationship with Mike Woodson, a former 11-year NBA player.

Woodson holds his entire roster from Carmelo Anthony to Copeland accountable on every possession during practice and games.

“(Woodson) doesn’t allow me to slack off a minute,” said Copeland. “Everyday I have to push and I have to go hard. That’s just going to make me a better player in the long run because I’ll be more consistent and that’s a different mentality than I’m used to having from playing overseas.”

Woodson told Copeland he made New York’s final roster as the 15th man, but not before making him nervous.

“(Woodson) actually played a prank on me, a trick on me, when he called me into the office,” said Copeland. “(Woodson) made me think they were going to let me go, but they kept me and it was one of the best days of my life.”

When asked specifically what the prank entailed, Copeland preferred to keep it private, but added, “(Woodson) got me good.”

The rookie hopes the next time Woodson summons him into his office, it is to discuss a larger role and not a possible D-League assignment.

It is common practice in the NBA for players at the end of the depth chart to be assigned to a D-League affiliate to stay sharp and get game experience.

However, Copeland hopes to avoid this fate.

“They haven’t said anything to me, but I don’t even want to think about that,” said Copeland. “I want to be here. I’ve been in the D-League. I tried that back when, but for now I just want to be here as long as possible.”

The D-League is a reminder for players that although the realization of the NBA dream is exhilarating, it can become very short-lived.

Copeland remains steadfast that the principles he used to get to New York will keep him in the NBA.

“Work, just work,” said Copeland. “That’s the biggest thing, just keep going and don’t become complacent with anything.” 

 

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