The basketball court means more to Chris Lutz than just a place to play hoops. Yes, it is a place of business where respect is earned. Yes, it is a place for creativity, where he gets the freedom to razzle and dazzle his way to the rim like a basketball Picasso with 94 feet of hardwood as his canvas. For the 6’3” swingman, he of Smart Gilas Pilipinas fame, the basketball court is a sanctuary, where he gets to discover himself, push his boundaries, and ultimately, feel absolutely alive as he shows love for the sport that has given him so much in the only way he knows how; by playing hard.
“Una ko siyang napanood kasama ng coaching staff ko, nakita ko ang effort niya on both ends of the floor, sabi ko this is our guy” says Petron Blaze head Coach Ato Agustin after seeing Lutz strut his wares for the Philippine National basketball team.
Chris would go on to carve a niche in Gilas as the designated stopper for opposing guards. But more than the hard-nosed defense and sharpshooting, the Atomic Bomb loves Lutz for his courage and an infectious love for the game.
As Coach Agustin looks at his prized rookie during shootaround, he points out the smile on Chris’ face as he zips up and down the floor for layups and rim-rattling dunks, and that smug look whenever he leaves some of the Petron ballboys in the dust after a crisply-executed crossover.
“Ang tapang at confidence hindi mo naituturo yan. Chris is a great combination of skills and courage, and I can see the love he has for the game. Kaya talagang siya ang draft pick naming,” said coach Ato.
Lutz looks around the Smart-Araneta Center as he pauses just for a bit to absorb the surroundings. Just a few months ago, he shared this very floor with Kobe Bryant, defending one of the best players to ever play the game.
“That is probably the best moment of my basketball career,” he recalls with a smile.
He claims that never in his wildest dreams did he imagine going toe-to-toe with one of his hardcourt heroes. “Kobe became my idol when Michael Jordan retired. And I was right here with him playing basketball. Getting drafted in the PBA is awesome, but man, I played ball against Kobe. I’ll never ever forget that,” Lutz beamed.
He takes one last look and smiles at the sight of the Coliseum floor before trooping back to the locker room, the look of a man happy to be in his element, in his sanctuary.
Basketball was the favorite pastime of Chris and his elder brother, Tim, back in Bedford, New Hampshire where Chris learned a fundamental skill early on: rebounding for his trigger-happy brother.
“(Laughs) my brother made me his rebounder while he shot around when I was 5 years old, but it’s okay. I admire him a lot,” Lutz said.
For a huge part of his childhood, the younger Lutz took in the game as a fan. He usually watched his brother Tim when he played in pick-up games, and he has fond memories about how his Filipina mother, Luzviminda, allowed him to stay up late only when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were on TV.
“I love MJ, and my mom knew this so she would allow me to stay up late and she’d watch TV with me,” Chris recalled.
Jordan created an impression on the young Lutz, who would fall in love with the game later in his life, as he saw beyond Jordan’s dynamic dunks and game-winners – he saw Michael Jordan’s competitive fire.
“Jordan did more than just score. He did everything in the game to make sure his team won. I learned to love basketball because it brought out my competitiveness. I then became competitive with anything in life, I always want to prove myself.”
This overflowing love for basketball allowed Lutz’s game to blossom in college. At Purdue University he made the Big 10 All-Freshman team, and years after transferring he would go on to lead Marshall University’s Thundering Herd as captain during his senior year.
Chris played a career game during his junior year, where he scored a whopping 37 points against Tulane, 34 of which he banged in during the second half. “I remember in the first half I only had two or three points, then I caught fire in the 2nd half,” Lutz recounted.
His all-out play made noise around the league, and Lutz would later learn that the sound reached a country thousands of miles away.
THE GILAS EXPERIENCE
While his mother never taught him Tagalog words or really cooked Pinoy food in the Lutz household in New Hampshire, Chris always had a certain curiosity about his heritage.
“I always thought about what the Philippines was like” he says.
While a vacation to some of the country’s historic landmarks would’ve helped, Chris was about to get a crash course on Pinoy culture, thanks to the Gilas basketball program.
“It’s crazy how much the country loves basketball.”
He trained with the rest of the Gilas cagers at the Joe Abunassar Impact camp in Las Vegas in 2009, and immediately hopped on a plane to Manila when the chance came to join the team in the Philippines to train. He was a college junior then, armed only with a love for hoops and a growing curiosity about his roots.
“It was a chance to play for the country which I wanted to learn more about,” he recalls.
Gilas would go on to play in the PBA as a guest team, and in various overseas tournaments in the Middle East and Asia to toughen up and qualify for an Olympic berth. In its impressive run at the 2011 William Jones Cup in Taipei where Gilas defeated the Hamed Haddadi-led Iran in the eliminations and eventually finished 3rd, Lutz would further cement his place in the team by going up against the opposition’s best wingmen.
“In Asia, the toughest guy I’ve had to guard was Iran’s Sammad Nikkah Bahrami”, admitting that the 6’6” athletic wingman of Iran is no Kobe Bryant, he still gave Lutz fits.
Lutz’ defense and bullstrong drives helped Gilas to a 4th place finish in the recently concluded FIBA Asia Olympic qualifying tournament, the highest finish by the Philippines in years. While it hurt that they had a chance to have gone all the way only to come up short, Lutz is still thankful for the experience which he says made him better as a player and as a person.
“Until now I miss the days I spent with my teammates, who went to war with me on the court and were my friends off of it. I became close friends with Greg (Slaughter, of the 4-peat UAAP champions Ateneo), Marcio (Lassiter, now with Powerade), and Marcus (Douthit),” said Lutz.
Aside from making friends for life, the Gilas experience opened another door for Chris, an opportunity to fulfill a dream.
REMEMBER THE NAME
All of a sudden, Christopher Lutz was a household name in every hoops loving house in the Philippines. He still can’t fathom the thousands of followers on Twitter. He’s still surprised whenever Pinoy fans come over and ask for his autograph and a picture. Chris wound up as the 3rd pick in the 2011 PBA Draft, right behind fellow Gilas hotshot JV Casio and collegiate scoring machine Paul Lee. Lutz joins the recently crowned Governors’ Cup champions, the Petron Blaze Boosters, who already boast of a solid lineup of veterans in Arwind Santos, Dondon Hontiveros, Alex Cabagnot, Danny Ildefonso, Jay Washington, and reigning rookie of the year Rabeh Al-Hussaini.
While the team finds itself missing some key players, Coach Ato Agustin remains confident in his team especially with the prolific Lutz in tow. Chris is slowly learning the ropes from vets like Ildefonso and Santos, who take turns tutoring Lutz in Tagalog.
“(laughs hysterically) All I know is yell ‘Pwede!’ when the guys make jokes. Sometimes I think they’re laughing at me more than the jokes!” And when they’re not fooling around in the Pinoy vernacular, the veterans are only too willing to oblige Lutz in sampling the local cuisine; “Adobo is awesome, and this dish on a sizzling plate? Sisig, wow, Sisig is incredible”.
Chris took one more good look at the sizeable crowd that came to watch the game that Sunday afternoon in the Coliseum as he came out as the starting shooting guard. He is still in disbelief as to how many opportunities have been opened up to him, thanks to basketball. He played against Kobe Bryant and other NBA stars on this floor. He is thankful to be playing pro ball in his mother’s homeland, in front of people who love the game as much as he does, and who love him for what he does.
He smiles as he prepares for the opening tip, the look of a man happy in his element, in his sanctuary.