A revival of sorts for the Jesse Owens sports legacy
Seventy years after Berlin's Olympic Games, Chris Owens plays professional basketball in a city whose streets bear his family name.
BERLIN AND BOSTON — Sweeping four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, African-American Jesse Owens captivated Berliners with his stunning performance and defied Adolf Hitler's resolve to showcase alleged Aryan supremacy.
Now, nearly three-quarters of a century of upheaval and transformation later, Berlin is welcoming Part II of the Owens sporting legend: Jesse's great-nephew.
Seventy years to the day after his famous forbear won his first Olympic medal in the 100-meter sprint finals, NCAA basketball standout Chris Owens signed his contract with Berlin's Alba team – one of Germany's best – on Aug. 3. As Alba enters its second season following the lifting of tight restrictions on the number of American players allowed on a team, Germany is quickly becoming a magnet for NBA hopefuls looking to improve their game.
But the younger Owens is no NBA rookie. As a senior at the University of Texas-Austin in 2002, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, who then traded him on to the Memphis Grizzlies. But a knee injury kept him off the court much of the season, and he ended up playing only one game.
"Any time of adversity is a real test of faith," says Owens, sitting in a tiny physical therapy room at Max-Schmeling Arena – the Alba home court in Berlin's northeastern Prenzlauerberg district. Coming back from that injury and subsequent back surgery have been the most challenging part of his career, he says. But overcoming obstacles to achieve athletic success is a family tradition.
"Despite [Jesse Owens's] sporting successes he had to go through many difficult times," says Owens. He explains that his great-uncle came from a poor family and had to train before school because of after-school jobs.
Naturally, the younger Owens says, Jesse's athletic legacy has been an inspiration for his own sporting endeavors – particularly as he got older and began to develop his own talents on the basketball court.
Being here in Berlin has already deepened his appreciation of what his great-uncle achieved. A school in eastern Berlin's Lichtenberg district carries the name of the track-and-field star, as does "Jesse-Owens Allee" – a street in the western suburb of Charlottenburg.
And in the city's Olympic stadium, a lounge bears Jesse Owens's name. But it was the sight of an engraved plaque listing all of the Olympic champions crowned in the stadium that put everything in historical context for Berlin's newest Owens.
"Seeing the name of my grand-uncle – my family name – engraved here, makes me really proud," says Owens.
But despite the fact that his family name is an integral part of the city's sports history, Chris Owens is too much of a professional to let this affect his decision to go to Berlin.
Why Berlin, then?
"The coach," he answers, without hesitation. "What you see is what you get ... he's a straight-up guy," says Owens, noting Henrik Rödl's professionalism and will to win.
Owens' contract with Alba runs for a year, with the option of extending for another. During this time, he hopes to add to the family's sporting record in Berlin. His presence has started a buzz among the media and some local editors expect his story to generate even more interest as the basketball season gets under way and the public realizes who he is.
Beyond bearing a famous name, Owens's talent alone gets himself noticed by the media and basketball fans alike. The team's first public practice session since he joined Alba drew a large crowd. Intensely focused while on the court, Owens stood out with his crisp, strong movements. He effortlessly handled the ball and played tricks as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Yet his abundant skill doesn't overshadow his down-to-earth attitude and he warmly talks with bystanders as he walks off the court.
Alba won seven German championships in a row starting in 1997 and is looking to reclaim the crown this season. Owens promises to work hard to achieve that goal and "to do whatever the coach expects me to."
He certainly has a busy daily practice schedule. Living in a nearby apartment building with the rest of the team, he spends about five hours every day on the courts or in exercise rooms.
Coach Rödl has expressed his appreciation of Owens's team spirit. It helps, too, that one of Owens's former teammates from Greece is also playing for Alba – something Rödl says will help the team's chemistry.
Team chemistry is hard to come by in Germany these days since last year's amendment to German basketball league rules, says former Alba player Sascha Leutloff. Now, a team only needs to have two Germans with no limits on the number of foreigners who can join and they only have to commit to a year with the team.
That, says Mr. Leutloff, makes it easy for young American players fresh off the NCAA circuit but just shy of NBA talent – who can be hired for much less than a good German player – to come to Germany for a year and then leave.
Owens has yet to decide how long he'll be playing in Berlin.
But at every point in his career – from his stint on an Italian team in 2004 to his time with a Spanish premier league team in 2005 to joining an NBA development team in February only to sign on with a top Greek team in April – he unabashedly acknowledges God as being the guiding force in his life.
"If you truly have faith, you understand that things happen on God's account," he says, noting that sometimes the things one really wants aren't best for that individual.
"So I just focus on the task at hand, and on having really strong faith," says Owens, his steady, calm gaze suggesting a humility and sincerity not always associated with NBA players. "That's what keeps me going."