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Former Central Catholic star turned life around after being in jail

07/05/2017, 10:19am EDT
By By NICHOLAS PIOTROWICZ BLADE SPORTS WRITER

At this time 11 years ago, Chris Commons yearned for the simplest things in the world


Chris Commons, a former Central Catholic player who plays pro basketball, Monday, July 3, 2017, at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio. THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

At this time 11 years ago, Chris Commons yearned for the simplest things in the world.

Trivial things most people never would think about, like going to the refrigerator and opening the door, and having the light shine in your face. Like sitting on the porch, or making a plate at a family gathering.

So, to answer the question: No, Commons never thought his life in 2017 would be like this.

The former Central Catholic basketball star now is 32 years old. He’s been to almost 50 countries, played basketball everywhere from the South Pacific to the Middle East to Europe to Canada, won championships, stepped foot outside in foreign countries and been mobbed by fans, and walked past his picture on a billboard at one of the busiest airports in the world.

He’s married with three children and has a picturesque support structure around him.

This life was supposed to be unattainable for Chris Commons.

For the majority of 2006, the Commons that Toledo had known — the tall, polite kid who barely said a word — was not CC. He was No. 515702, and No. 515702 was a convicted felon with a three-year sentence.

Commons thought his life was done.

The world is an exponentially more difficult place with a felony attached, and Commons — a lifelong honors student who was double-majoring in criminal justice and forensic science — knew that well.

As an adult, Commons thinks his mistake and the harsh sentence that came with it saved his life.

Because right now, life is pretty great for Commons. He still can score in the post and shoot the 3. He still has a market internationally.

Love seems to follow him to whatever corner of the world he travels.

“When I think about where he’s at now,” said his mother, Mercedes, “it just brings tears to my eyes.”

A fast rise

While he was at Central Catholic, colleges were not quite sure what to make of Commons. Early in his career, Commons jokes he was just on the basketball team because he had a good grade-point average.

Then Commons hit a growth spurt, and he stood 6-foot-9 by graduation. In high school, he didn’t move particularly well, but he was a big man ahead of his time, the kind who could score around the basket but also shoot and play comfortably outside the 3-point line.

Most of his solid offers came from Division II schools. The University of Findlay was most interested, and the program was among the best in D-II. The fit seemed natural.

After Commons’ senior season at Central Catholic, he dropped almost 50 pounds and could move like he never had before. By the end of his sophomore season at Findlay, Commons was on his his way to being one of D-II’s top players. He led the Oilers in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game, shot the 3-pointer at a 42 percent clip, and helped Findlay go 35-1 at home in his two years there.

Commons helped send Findlay to the Elite Eight of the 2005 NCAA tournament by dropping 29 points against Ferris State. The secret was out.

A self-described “nerd” growing up in Toledo, Commons now was the best player on a national title contender, and he had two years to go. On campus, Commons felt like the man.

“Now I’m this good basketball player, and people want to be around you and be your friend,” Commons said. “You get this level of respect that you don’t get from being a regular student, and I loved it.

“I just wanted to be out in the streets, going to the club and people are buying you drinks, everybody’s in your face. It’s an adrenaline high. You feel invincible.”

His family noticed the change. This didn’t seem like the same Chris who was in the gifted program, who had a stable home life and was at church four days a week during the summers as a child.

Commons said he didn’t want to feel like he was better than anyone, so everyone was invited to be his company.

Back home in Toledo for the summer, that was a problem.

‘I knew I lost the most’

In August, 2005, shortly before Commons’ junior year was supposed to begin, police stopped his sport utility vehicle, which held him, two cousins, and an acquaintance — a group that Commons let borrow his vehicle the night before.

Commons said he didn’t know the full scope, but he knew his company had been involved in an armed robbery at a store. As it turns out, there had been three of them. Police searched the vehicle and found everything they needed: Two guns, money, evidence in a backpack.

“When they pulled that stuff out of the car — no offense to anyone else involved — it was gut-wrenching,” Commons said, “because I knew I lost the most.”

Police charged Commons with armed robbery and complicity to commit robbery; his company implicated him. Although he was a minor part — he said that he never went inside any of the stores — the courts were unforgiving.

Despite a flood of letters to the judge on Commons’ behalf and his crime-free past, on Jan. 13, 2006, he was sentenced to three years, with the possibility of an early release. As excruciating as it was, Commons, with the benefit of hindsight, said it makes sense now.

“I understand my sentencing. I understand why the judge went hard on me,” Commons said. “I had no business being in that situation. You don’t go from a church background, a military family that’s [all] about grades and being respectful, right to the streets.”

For almost nine months, Commons heard variations of the same thing from everyone. His friends, the judge, the corrections officers, and even the other inmates all said same thing.

You don’t belong here.

Commons knew it better than anyone. This wasn’t the life he was meant to live.

“There was nothing for a person like me in there,” he said.

Rebuilding a life

Commons was granted judicial release on Sept. 29, 2006. Back home, Commons said he began to feel human again.

Yet the stigma remained. It hurt when some friends suddenly wanted nothing to do with him. It hurt when Findlay said he was not welcome back, and it hurt more when the school actively tried to prevent him from continuing his career elsewhere in the region.

It hurt when schools showed interest and then backed off, and when one college rescinded its offer as Commons and his mother were in the car, on the way there. Commons’ head just dropped.

His mother wouldn’t let it happen. Even if it killed her, she was going to make sure he got into college.

“I said, ‘Chris, you are not going to be a statistic. I don’t care if I have to work three jobs, you are going back to school,’ ” Mercedes Commons said. “He needed to know for himself that he could do it.”

Eventually, the Commons family found Chris’ new home at the University of South Carolina Aiken. Commons wasn’t sure he would like it, but after meeting coach Vince Alexander and praying about the decision, he thought a completely unfamiliar location could be the best thing for him.

Almost immediately, he knew he belonged.

“The first couple days were fun,” Commons said. “It wasn’t awkward at all, and I was so thankful.”

Commons revived his career at USCA. In one of his first games there, he scored 38 points. The school began the season with its best start in school history, and Commons won the conference player of the year in both years. In 2009, he was named a Division II All-American.

After the season, when it came time for the next step, Commons felt something he never had before. He was playing in pro-ams and tournaments and camps alongside Division I players, plus future and current pros.

And he belonged.

“I didn’t feel outmatched. I’m comfortable,” Commons said. “I could see, for the first time in my life, guys fearing me on the basketball court, afraid of what I could do.”

Maybe, he thought — after the biggest upheaval one can experience on this side of death — pro basketball could be a reality.

International man

Commons learned a lot about himself from playing away from home. Mainly, he never knew he was so adaptable. At this stage of his life, Commons is comfortable saying he could go anywhere and thrive.

His first contract took him to Bahrain, a small island country between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The next year, it was Germany, followed by Brunei, a tiny country that borders Malaysia.

He was the 11th pick in the stateside Premier Basketball League draft in 2011, and played in Finland the year after. But with children, Commons recently has opted to stay closer to home.

Commons has played in Canada since 2012, which included championships for the Windsor Express in 2014 and ’15. In Canada, Commons became a fan favorite and a respected veteran.

“Chris has earned the right to be respected because he’s been such a good pro in our league for a long time,” said David Magdley, the league’s commissioner. “We’ve treated him that way because of it.”

One of Mercedes Commons’ co-workers was on a flight home from Florida and struck up a conversation with her Canadian seatmate, who mentioned in passing her favorite Canadian league player was a guy from Ohio. The co-worker laughed and asked if she was talking about Chris Commons.

The woman perked up and said, “That’s him!”

Those small moments — being stopped for pictures, or having strangers ask for autographs — once didn’t seem possible.

“I didn’t even see this. When I look back, seeing the future was bleak,” Commons said. “Seeing me on flights, seeing me on billboards in Canada, and having people recognize me at airports ... I didn’t see this.”

Now, Mercedes Commons sees her son with everything a parent could want. She sees a lot of her father in her son’s relationship with his three kids. He has a great marriage, and as hard as Commons is on himself, he has professional success.

Commons has become the exception to the rule.

“I told him, ‘Think of how many boys got in trouble, and none of them got what you got,’ ” Mercedes Commons said. “To be honest, I can’t tell you how proud I am of my son.”

As Commons says often, it only takes one bad decision to ruin everything.

Trouble will change a life.

But 11 years later, Commons is living proof that trouble does not have to define it, either. 

Contact Nicholas Piotrowicz at: npiotrowicz@theblade.com, 724-6110, or on Twitter @NickPiotrowicz

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