BOZEMAN — England native Chris Haslam has been an assistant coach with the Montana State men’s basketball team for eight years, but he’s actually had a connection to MSU his entire life -- back to when his father had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“He played rugby growing up and kicked the conversions in rugby and Hank Stram came over to the UK to look for two kickers to bring into training camp to put pressure on (former MSU kicker and NFL Hall of Famer) Jan Stenerud," Haslam said.
Haslam didn’t pick up a basketball until the age of 16, but it wasn’t long before the 6-foot-11 big man was noticed.
“I ended up going down to my local YMCA in my hometown of Southport, back in England," said Haslam. "They had like a local, regional basketball youth team kind of thing, it was every Sunday morning for a couple hours -- go practice and play some games and got hooked that way and that was it. It’s funny, basically nine months later I was in high school in Savannah, (Georgia).”
After coming over to the United States and playing high school basketball in Georgia, he soon found himself playing NCAA Division I basketball for the University of Wyoming.
“I never played in front of anyone, then obviously making the transition from high school to NCAA Division I, that was a big jump," he said. "It took me a while to get used to it.”
Speaking of big jump, in college he had to go against freak athlete and teammate Theo Ratliff, who had quite the NBA career.
“Literally the first four months, I don’t think I got a shot off," said Haslam. "He’d just block my shot every time."
It wasn’t all blocked shot attempts. Being a teammate of Ratliff’s had its upside.
“He was great with me, kind of taking me under his wing and just, 'Let's get in the gym, let’s get in the weight room, let's get some shots up, this is what you have to do every day to just survive and be successful,'” said Haslam of his time with Ratliff.
Survive and be successful, Haslam was. After his days in Wyoming, he played professionally overseas.
“I was very fortunate, I managed to play 13 years professionally around Europe and great experiences, very lucky to play that long, not many people do," he said.
However, being a big man playing the States is much different than playing as a big man overseas where the game is much more spread out and they’re expected to do much more.
“In Europe, bigs have to shoot the ball, have to be skilled, had to play away from the basket and be comfortable for spacing purposes," Haslam said. "I still remember my rookie year, I basically got yelled at by my coach, if I can’t shoot the ball I can’t play because of spacing. I could always shoot a little bit but it wasn’t part of my game, because it wasn’t what my role was at Wyoming. Having to make that transition of getting in the gym and really being able to shoot the ball to give myself a shot at having an extended career.”
Learning to be a true big man in America, and one that can also play outside of the paint in Europe, has helped Haslam develop big men like fellow England native Jubrile Belo and Borja Fernandez, who is from Spain.
“Playing as a pro in Europe, seeing their skill development for bigs, what I was taught, I think has helped, because now obviously the college game, unfortunately, in terms of true low post play is becoming a lost art," said Haslam. "Bigs all want to be on the perimeter and shoot 3s and be skilled and that’s fine and obviously that’s the way the game is played. That skill development piece here for us as a staff, that is big for us of making all our players, but obviously our bigs, basketball players.”
Thanks to Haslam’s international connection, MSU has had success recruiting players like Belo, Fernandez, Amin Adamu and Harald Frey, who is now playing professionally in Spain.
“The fact that we’ve had a lot of success with other European players, I think does give comfort to kids, coaches, players and parents, that we know how to deal with them, whether it’s homesickness or the ups and downs of that transition period," Haslam said. "We have a great support system for our guys here.”
Montana State's overseas connection has paid obvious dividends, and it all started with Haslam’s parents, who provided the necessary support to allow their son to follow his basketball dreams from England.
“I think because of my dad’s experience (coming to the United States and trying out for the Chiefs) it was, 'You have to go do it. Go try, go do it. We support you. If it doesn’t work out, that’s fine, you can always come home, you don’t want to live in what if, what if,'" Haslam said. "So, my parents were great, fully supported and luckily I got to a great spot in Savannah and haven’t looked back.”