I was at a red light when I found out, waiting to turn left and head into Avalon Park. I was on the clock for my other job as the Business Development Representative for the law firm I also work for. Like I typically do, I glanced down at my phone while waiting. As busy as I am, every second matters. I utilize every moment to progress the plans, vision and work that God has called me to do.
I received a Facebook message from Juan Bernal, a coaching colleague here in Orlando.
“Chris Uhle just passed away.”
“I know he was one of your former players.”
I shook my head. My eyes squinted as I read it again to confirm. I read it correctly.
The light changed, and I had trouble moving. my mind drifted into a fog. I stared blankly ahead of me, trying to process what I just learned.
I pulled my phone out and called my wife. She was in just as much disbelief. Although most of my players rarely get to know my wife, she knows a lot about them. I talk to her about them all. She knew how I felt about Chris, and that I’d take this hard. She encouraged me to pull over as soon as possible. I was close to my friend Brandon’s house, so I told her I’d stop there and get myself together. Brandon had to take one of his boys to a doctor appointment, but he invited me to stay at his house alone while he was gone, so I did. The quiet was so peaceful. I just sat on his couch trying to process what I had just learned.
If you know me well, you know that I absolutely hate losing. I hate it. It makes me so very angry, while also depressing me. I typically do not sleep the night of a loss. Consider the fact that the Flight has had 4 straight seasons filled with under-performance and losses, and you’ll gather that I haven’t sleep very well in 4 years. This year was supposed to be different.
As we approached our 6th Florida Flight season, I was determined to put together a winning team this year. The Flight had been dismal the last few years, as we relied heavily on our Flight School Scout League (our tryout league) to discover players. That hadn’t been working as well, so this season, I set my sights on doing some actual player recriuting. I had two guys in my sight: Kasey Wilson (University of Central Florida) and Chris Uhle (Rollins College).
We had been keeping tabs on Kasey for 2 years. I bumped into him by chance at a Walmart 2 years prior. Seeing how tall he was, I introduced myself to him, got his name, and then started following his career.Chris was a bit different. I hadn’t spent much time scouting the Rollins College basketball team.However, Greg Kite, our Florida Basketball Association (FBA) Commissioner, brought Chris to my attention. A former NBA post player (and 2X NBA Champion), I believe Kite had been working with Chris, a 6’11”, 245 lb. center about to graduate. Greg put me in touch with Craig Uhle, Chris’ father.I gave him a call, and the recruiting began.
The more I learned about Chris, the more excited I became. In Chris we found a legitimate Center that could step behind the arc and shoot the three pointer better than most guards could. This would afford us the ability to also get a rebounding advantage over teams, as Chris could step outside and pull the opponents biggest guy along with him. It would free up the lane for guard penetration and allow us to rebound better. More than anything, where most other team’s big men were scoring 2 point baskets, Chris was going for 3’s. With Kasey Wilson, another forward able to shoot the ball well, we were going to stretch the defenses out and have a serious advantage as a team this coming season.
By all accounts, Chris and his father were just as excited to get started with the Flight. Unlike most minor league basketball programs outside of the NBA D-League, we had things in place to take player growth and development seriously. We had coaches Gerrod Trytten and Nick Trapp with TNT Elite on board, able to provide strategic, individual sessions for players to enhance their games. We had our own Mental Strength & Conditioning Coach in Peter Folch. We also had free 24 Hour Fitness Memberships for our players, thanks to a sponsorship deal we orchestrated earlier in the year. We were also taking things to a notch that no current minor league was able to do: we were playing a couple of games on an actual NBA floor at the illustrious Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic.
Chris got right to work with TNT Elite, and boy did he impress. I knew we had a solid player, but I started to see just how special Chris was. At the end of his workout with Coach G and Nick, he finished off the session by shooting 400 mid-range shots with the shooters gun. Chris hit 362 out of 400 shots. That’s an astronomical 91% completion percentage. We also discovered that although he had been used primarily as a shooter, he actually did have solid footwork and a post game to work with. In Chris, I realized that if he stuck to the program and worked hard, we might have found the first player with a legitimate shot at playing in the NBA in the next couple of years.
In his professional debut, Chris put up a solid effort. We played the Heartland Prowl on the road in Lake Wales, Florida (home of Amare Stoudemire). He gave the Prowl 12 points and 13 rebounds, with all of his points coming from behind the arc (3-9 from three). He also added an amazing 5 blocked shots, 2 steals and an assist – a very complete game for his rookie pro debut. We lost a tight game by 7 points (110 – 117). Our second game was against the Marion County Showtime Stallions. Chris unfortunately got food poisoning and had to miss this game. He would, however, play against the defending FBA Champions and Macabbi Haifa-owned (the Israeli super league team) Miami Midnites the following week. He added another 7 points and 8 rebounds to go with 2 blocks and a steal. Although his numbers dropped, the impact of both him and the other rookie from UCF, Kasey Wilson, was felt. We had control for most of the game. We let it slip at the end, losing 102-94.
Despite feeling like I put together the best roster in years,we started off the season 0-3. I still knew that we were better than our record suggested, and that we would pick it up, finish strong, and compete for the FBA Championship at the end of the season…so long as we kept this roster in tact. That’s where things started to go sour.
On May 5th, I received an email from Chris requesting a leave of absence for a few weeks. He had been invited to an international combine that several international teams were supposed to attend. He felt it was in his best interest to focus only on working out, getting into better shape, and preparing to put forth his best effort for that opportunity. I disagreed. Vehemently. It’s a decision I’ll live with for the rest of my life now.
You see, in the United States, there are so many people running fake camps, combines and showcases selling aspiring players false promises of a lucrative overseas contract. I see it every day. It’s one of the reasons we do an actual mini-league to scout and recruit players. I don’t believe in these 1-2 day tryouts, and I have seen people blatantly lie and sell players these fake promises just to pad their own pockets. Oftentimes, the camps will have players already signed to deals participate, making it look like they are getting their job specifically because of their attendance at their event. It’s despicable, it angers me, and I get so disgusted when one of these events is pushed on my players.
So when Chris made it clear that he was making this decision with or without my approval, I was furious. First, we were 0-3, and Chris, in my eyes, was going to be a major contributor to us turning the season around and competing. I didn’t want to lose him, even if for just 2-3 weeks. Further, I felt like the event was going to be a waste of time and money. I didn’t want to see the young rookie get taken advantage of. With his skill set, and the fact that he was a legitimately skilled 6’11” player, Chris didn’t need to get some exposure. We film all of the Florida Flight games. We issue press releases. Him getting an overseas job was a no-brainer. He’d get signed without question. My focus was to get him closer to actual NBA form. He needed to work on his post game. He needed to get stronger. He needed to better balance his game instead of sticking around outside of the three point line so much. I guess I saw the 3-5 year plan. He was looking at the immediate next step.
Things between Chris and I ended poorly. Looking back at the messages and how he handled it, it didn’t actually end as poorly as I initially thought. You see, although Chris was leaving the Flight with or without my blessing, he still handled himself with class. He even praised my efforts and the platform I had created, as well as the tireless work-ethic that I not only preached but exemplified to him as a player. From his departing text message:
“You have also been a great example of the kind of commitment it takes to become a success in this business and that has shown me that it would not be fair to the team to not concentrate all my energy on training for the workout. I’m not trying to burn bridges here at all, but understand that I am trying to do what I feel is best for me.”
As I read that again, I realized…he wasn’t trying to be vindictive. He wasn’t trying to disrespect me, the team, or his teammates. He was really trying to make the best decision for himself. As I read those messages again (something I should’ve done a lot sooner), I can see the class, the professionalism, and the intellectual capacity that he had despite his young age.
The reality is that I was selfish. I was more concerned with winning and keeping this team together that I couldn’t properly assess this situation with the grace and understanding that I should have. To compound matters, I was going through a lot of other things away from basketball (which caused me to eventually step down as the head coach midway through the season). My wife and I had our third child, who was born 2 months premature. During the month of April, I spent most of my nights staying overnight and/or traveling back and forth to Winnie Palmer hospital. Add to that the fact that we started off the season poorly than I anticipated, I was under a lot of pressure. I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I usually do.
May 6th was the last time I communicated with Chris. Who knew it would be a decision that I’d regret so badly. I stayed up to date on what was happening in his life. Just as I figured, he landed an overseas opportunity easily, signing with the Saitama Broncos in Japan. I saw how proud his mother was to share the article of him actually signing his contract. I watched an interview he did while training in Atlanta. Chris was going to do great, and in spite of how he left the team, I was proud, too.
Fast forward to last week. Our season was ended. I could now focus on next season, and my prematurely born baby girl was healthy and strong. I knew Chris was in Atlanta training, and that he’d be leaving for Japan in a couple of weeks. I knew I needed to give Chris a call. I wanted to tell him how proud I was of him. I wanted him to know that as much as I wanted to deny it, he probably made the better decision to leave. If for nothing else, struggling through a 2-11 season with us would have done nothing for his confidence as a player. I also didn’t want any bad blood. Heck, I’ll be blatantly honest: there was also a part of me that wanted to restore things in a way that perhaps Chris might come home from Japan next season and play with us until his next playing opportunity abroad came along.
Here’s my sad reality: I’ll never get that chance. I left things unsaid, and I didn’t get to reconcile things with him…and It hurts. Chris deserved better from me. No matter how I try to justify that, the position remains the same – he deserved that. So the lesson is simple, and it’s likely one that you’ve heard before. Maybe you’ll hear it a little clearer reading this story from me because you know me. I don’t know. Listen – be sure to reconcile with people. Don’t be so ignorant as to think you control the time table.
All I Know is Chris was easily one of the most talented, loving, intelligent, mild-mannered, friendly players that has ever worn a Flight jersey. He was easy to like. You could see how much he was loved…by his family especially. The biggest root of my pain stems from me not reconciling with Chris, but it’s not just that. As a father of 3, I can’t imagine the anguish and pain that Chris’ parents are going through. The outpouring of love and sadness from his friends has had an impact. Seeing all of his schools/teams issue releases regarding his untimely, tragic death proves that he was a class act, loved by everyone that was graced with his presence. The Japan Times even covered the story, and Chris hadn’t even arrived yet.
I’m a Christian. I believe in God, and trust that His ways are beyond ours, and He has motives for causing things to happen that might not make sense to us in the immediate, but make complete sense in the grand scheme of His will and purpose. In spite of all that, I am still struggling with this. I just wish it wasn’t so. I selfishly wanted to see his career blossom over the next 10-15 years. I was curious to see if my own predictions were right: that he’d find his way into the NBA when it was all said and done.
If you’ve read this entire tribute/blog…thank you. While I wrote this to honor Chris, I really wrote it because writing helps me process things better. This has been therapeutic for me, and I pray, perhaps, that it was helpful for you, too. I’ll be attending both the viewing and the funeral over the next couple of days. I hope to bring along several of his Flight teammates as well. I suspect I’ll break down and cry when I see him. It’ll likely be worse when I see his mother and father. I wouldn’t miss it for the world, though. Chris represents the best of humanity. He’s the type of player you hope your kid grows up to be.
I don’t know what we’ll do as a team to pay our respects and honor Chris Uhle. I have some ideas. I know we’ll do something. I walk away from this realizing how important it is to cherish the time you have with people. You just don’t know when that time will be gone. Chris was 22 years old with the world ahead of him. As a coach, you never really prepare or think of burying one of your players. I’ll cherish the time I have with my players a whole lot more going forward. That I can say for certain.
Chris…Flight Nation was lucky to share our short time with you. I hope you’re in heaven shooting hoops with Pistol Pete or something crazy like that. Perhaps Michael Jordan’s father is in the crowd watching. I know one thing. If you are, you’re shooting the lights out up there. We love you, Chris. Rest in peace, big fella.