Commons is making most of time in Aiken

AIKEN --- The numbers do not lie.

Thirty-eight, 29, 19, 21, 31, 8, 28, 30 and 21.

Those are Chris Commons' scoring totals for the first nine games of USC Aiken's season. It is believed to be the finest start of a USC Aiken player's career. Ever.

The other numbers don't lie either.

Two, eight, $194.55.

The first number: felony convictions. The second number: months served in jail.

The third: Restitution paid after pleading "no contest" to a pair of armed robberies.

Commons is a superstar on the court with a criminal record off of it. At USC Aiken, he is making the most of an unlikely second chance.

Commons recorded a 3.4 grade-point average in the fall. On the court, he leads the Peach Belt Conference, averaging 25 points per game. The junior forward is an early player of the year candidate.

He's also helped the Pacers to a 9-0 start and a No. 13 national ranking. The start is the best in school history. The ranking also is a first.

Commons scored 21 in USC Aiken's three-point upset win over then-No. 5 Augusta State in late November. The victory opened eyes around the league, if not the nation.

Rumors began wafting through the area.

Did you hear about the new guy at USC Aiken?

Did you hear about his background?

Did you hear he masterminded an armed robbery spree?

On Dec. 18, The Augusta Chronicle sports department received an anonymous envelope with an Augusta postmark. Inside, a cover letter read, "What USC-Aiken doesn't want known ... Don't the citizens of the CSRA deserve to know the truth?"

Stapled to the cover letter: two stories about Commons' arrest and jail sentence.

"I think it's people who fear what he can do," USC Aiken coach Vince Alexander said. "I think it's people who are jealous of the success he's having and we're having.

"What's wrong with giving a person an opportunity? What's wrong with giving a person a second chance?"

If anyone deserves a second chance, it's Commons. He lights up the school's convocation center with his infectious smile. He gets along with everyone -- teammates, coaches, teachers, school officials. He works hard in the classroom.

His mother, Rena (pronounced Re-nay), who raised her only child mostly by herself, said she's never had one problem with him. Not one.

"My son is not a thug," she said. "My son is not a hoodlum. He came from a good family."

Commons grew up next door to his grandparents in Toledo, Ohio. Church played a vital role in his upbringing, along with school. His mother called him a "nerd" when he was a child. Commons always has been very intelligent and friendly -- friendly to a fault.

It's what got him in trouble. Wrong friends. Wrong place. Wrong time.

"Chris does not have a troubled youth," Commons' uncle, Richard Calhoun said. "He had one summer where he ran with the wrong crowd.

"He became guilty by association."

Rena said going public with her son's story could create a backlash. It's something Commons and his family are prepared for.

"He's been through a lot of adversity," she said. "But I'm sure he'll be able to weather this storm, too.

"The worst of the storm is behind him."

A mistake

Everything was right in Chris Commons' world in the summer of 2005. He was coming off a breakout sophomore season at the University of Findlay, a private Division II institution in Findlay, Ohio, 45 minutes south of Toledo. He led the Oilers to a school-record 30-4 season, which included a No. 1 ranking and a trip to the Elite Eight.

In the classroom, he was on track to graduate early with two majors: criminal justice and forensic science.

This was the Commons everyone knew. The one who began playing basketball in fourth grade because the shy, book-smart child wanted to interact with others. The one who nailed a milk crate to a tree in his yard to develop his outside game. The one who would wait for his mother to go to bed -- his father was gone more than 40 weeks of the year with his charter bus company -- before turning his bedroom television on mute so he could watch the end of Chicago Bulls games.

He grew up attending Union Grove Missionary Baptist, a 300-member church, three days a week, with Sundays a main focus. After Sunday School and morning services, the entire family -- usually 10, maybe more -- convened at his grandparents' house. His grandmother always prepared his favorite dish, creamy macaroni and cheese.

Afterward, his family sat around, talked and watched sports. Later in the evening, more church.

"I came from a good family," Commons said. "Everything was family-oriented."

This also was the Commons who grew five inches before his junior season at Central Catholic High School to become a dominating 6-foot-7 power forward. After two years of on-court obscurity, he scored in double digits his junior season. He led the city of Toledo in scoring the first half of his senior season.

Commons parlayed his senior success into a full ride at Findlay, where tuition alone costs more than $22,000 per year.

Everything was right in his world -- it seemed.

On the morning of Friday, Aug. 12, Commons went to hang out with his friends, Ronell Scott and cousins Carlton and John Jackson. The previous evening, Commons let his friends borrow his sport-utility vehicle. It was not unusual of him; he'd even let his teammates drive his car.

"At that time in my life, I was very naive, very trusting," he said. "Your background or what kind of person you were didn't affect whether you were my friend or not."

Before Aug. 12, Commons had no criminal record. His life soon changed.

At 9 a.m., police pulled over the four riding in Commons' car and arrested them all for three armed robberies of a beauty supply store, convenience store and gas station between Thursday night and Friday morning.

With blue lights flashing, Commons exited the car. He said he thought his life was over.

According to an article in the Toledo Blade, Commons was arrested on charges of robbery and complicity to commit robbery. Rumors abounded.

One woman claimed she saw him driving from the store. Another said she saw him run into the store.

"I never went in any store," Commons said. "I didn't mastermind it. ... I didn't need for nothing. I was on full scholarship. I come from a well taken care of family. I didn't ask for nothing."

When police pulled the car over, Commons was not driving. According to him, his lone offense was drinking alcohol and smoking "a little bit of marijuana."

"So I was pretty much out of it," he said.

Consequences

Upon Commons' arrest, Findlay immediately suspended him. The Oilers felt his loss the following season. Without him, they went 25-5 and lost in the first round of the Division II Tournament.

"It was devastating for us to lose a player of that caliber," Findlay coach Ron Niekamp said. "I just know he was convicted. There was a weapon involved. There were people involved. ... It was very disappointing."

Commons originally pleaded "not guilty" to the charges. What exactly was he guilty of anyway? He said he was on his grandparents' porch talking with his grandfather when one of the robberies occurred.

Then, he watched videotaped interviews of his "friends" incriminating him.

Commons was an easy target to become the fall guy. He was the most high-profile of the group. And it was his car witnesses recognized.

The Jacksons told the judge they robbed the stores to get Commons scholarship money, despite the fact Commons' schooling was paid for.

He was caught in a devilish full-court press.

"The boys turned cold on Chris," Rena said.

"Everybody's trying to pin the crime on somebody," he said. "Nobody wants to go down for it."

Commons could have asked for a jury trial, but a guilty conviction would have meant he'd still be in jail today. So he pleaded "no contest" to two counts of armed robbery. He was sentenced to two three-year terms that ran concurrently.

In January 2006, he went from playing in the pinnacle of Division II basketball to sitting in classrooms with murderers and drug traffickers at the Correctional Reception Center located outside of Columbus, Ohio. He traded four teammates on the floor for three bunkmates behind bars.

"I was scared every day," said Commons, who has never been in a fight. "It was horrible."

"It was like putting a sheep among wolves," Rena said. "It didn't take long for everybody to realize he didn't belong there."

Making the best of a bad situation, he spent plenty of time on the basketball court and in the gym.

Commons posted 69 points in one game behind bars.

"That kind of helped me as far as staying out of trouble," he said, "because everybody wanted to be around me."

In jail, he made the natural transition to cook. Food has always been one of his passions. Rena gave him a Mickey Mouse cookbook in fourth grade.

Being a cook meant having to awake at 4 a.m. three days a week. Most of the breakfasts included grits, pancakes or waffles for 3,500 to 5,500 inmates.

"The food was horrible," he said.

The hours weren't fantastic, either. Lockdown came between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Lights out at midnight.

"I never could sleep," he said. "I never could get comfortable. It wasn't my bed. I honestly feel like I didn't belong there."

Because of his first-offender status, Commons was released after eight months. He remained under house arrest with electronic monitoring for a month. During that time, he was subjected to random urinalysis and breathalyzer tests.

He ended up paying $3,000 in court costs, along with restitution amounts of $61.22 and $133.33.

Ordered to four years of community control, he also served 100 hours of community service, either helping out as a tutor and security guard at a second-chance school for children or cleaning up a basketball gym.

"He's been through a lot," Rena said, "but he's weathered the storm."

On the rebound

Today, Chris Commons is trying to get his life in order. His immediate plans are to help his team win and to graduate.

"We all make mistakes in life," Calhoun said. "It's not what you've done. It's what you're doing now."

Commons said USC Aiken is the perfect situation for him, with its family-like atmosphere and emphasis on academics. During the fall, he took chemistry (he made a battery out of a potato), psychology, sociology and American politics. He is on track to become a member of the Peach Belt Conference Presidential Honor Roll, which honors student-athletes with a GPA of 3.0 or better during the fall and spring semesters.

"He's got a second chance, and he's making the most of it," Pacers athletic director Randy Warrick said. "He's been nothing but a model student-athlete at USC Aiken."

That he's in South Carolina is extraordinary. In the two weeks after returning home from prison, Commons fielded "fifty million calls," he said.

Some of those schools included Northwest Missouri State, Columbus State and Grand Valley State. Some schools said they wanted him; others -- including Findlay -- did not.

"I don't think I want to get into that," Niekamp said.

"If Coach Niekamp wanted me back, the way he's heralded there, the way people look up to him, he could've got me back," Commons said. "I think it was more personal with him. He had a good team coming back, and I kind of messed that up. Plus, a lot of people looked at me differently down there. I didn't think it would be the same, either."

Some colleges didn't want his criminal record. He thought he found a new home at Southern Indiana. He loved the campus and it was close to home. He was sold.

One week later, Commons was two-thirds of his way into the six-hour drive to Evansville, Ind. Then he received a call from an assistant coach. The school had pulled its offer.

He turned the car around, tears filling his eyes on the long trip back to Toledo.

Commons didn't want to hear from another coach. But Columbus State coach Doug Branson called and told him he thought he could get him in. Commons planned to go to the Peach Belt school sight unseen. But Branson called back and pulled the offer, telling Commons of his own public relations mess last season after dismissing three players -- two who admitted to smoking marijuana and another who got expelled from campus housing on a gun charge.

Then USC Aiken's Alexander, aware of Commons' background, called and started talking basketball. Commons stopped him midway through the conversation and told him of his situation.

"I realized here's a kid who got caught up in a mistake," Alexander said.

Growing up in what he called a "rough part" of Houston, Alexander could relate. As a youth, he had friends who broke into houses. He was never with them when the crimes occurred, but he still wonders what would have happened had he been.

"That could've easily been me," he said. "And I knew I wasn't that type of kid."

Alexander sold Commons on his program and then sold administrators on Commons.

"Of course, the administrators are going to be concerned," Alexander said. "But they trusted my integrity and what I'm trying to do here."

Back in the high life

On the court, the 6-foot-8, 215-pound Commons has been everything Alexander could've imagined. With his inside-out game, he is averaging 10 more points a game than during his sophomore season at Findlay. Before Saturday's game, he was fourth in conference rebounding (8.4), fourth in field-goal percentage (.585), fourth in steals (17), eighth in three-point field-goal percentage (.462).

With 17 conference games remaining, USC Aiken is the Peach Belt's lone undefeated team. The Pacers are seeking their first Division II Tournament berth in 10 years and first conference title in 15.

"I thought he'd have an impact," Augusta State coach Dip Metress said. "He's a player of the year-type caliber guy."

"I think he is an outstanding player," Armstrong Atlantic State coach Jeff Burkhamer said. "He is able to do a lot of things on the offensive end. He can score inside or outside, he rebounds and he runs the floor. His size makes him a difficult player to guard because he can play anywhere on the floor."

Commons has worked hard on his game. After practice one day in mid-December, he casually shot 3-pointers an extra 45 minutes.

His work ethic comes from his mother, who started out as a grocery store cashier before ascending to assistant manager. During Commons' high school career, she became a customer service manager at Fifth Third Bank. Now, she is a financial center manager, overseeing a $32 million operation.

Commons' also learned from his mother to be upfront about his situation.

"I just let people make their judgments of the situation and look at me as a person," he said. "You believe what you believe. If you think I did it, I can't change your mind. All I can tell you is I'm not that type of person."

The present

The first Wednesday each month, Commons visits his probation officer in Aiken. He is ordered to pay the probation system $40 a month.

He cannot have contact with his co-defendants or with the victims. And he cannot make another misstep.

Commons is a 23-year-old adult who enjoys nights playing cards with his teammates or watching college basketball. He said he used to like hanging out at clubs, but not anymore.

He said he has to be careful where he goes and what he does in public. Another arrest could lead to the end of his basketball career, and he'd possibly have to serve the remainder of his original jail sentence in Ohio.

"You have to turn your other cheek to everything," he said.

With good behavior, he can get his record expunged in the next 5-7 years, according to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction public information chief Andrea Carson.

When he speaks to youngsters, Commons tries to convey one message: Choose your friends wisely.

"It's too easy to get in trouble in the world today," he said. "You've got to be careful."

Commons is making the most of his second chance on and off the court. He is on track to graduate in 2009. After that, he may have an opportunity to play professional basketball. He may pursue a steady occupation.

"I'll take any positive situation I can get," he said. "It's going to take me another person to give me a chance when I get done with this. Right now, I'm just going to enjoy this."

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.

THE CHRIS COMMONS FILE

POSITION: Forward
CLASS: Junior
HT./WT.: 6-8, 215
HOMETOWN: Toledo, Ohio

2007-08 SEASON STATS

POINTS PER GAME: 25.5
REBOUNDS: 8.4
FG PERCENTAGE: 59.0
NOTES: He is fourth in the conference in steals (2.13) and 11th in blocks (0.88). ... Currently has a 3.4 GPA at USC Aiken. ... He is on track to make the Peach Belt Conference Presidental honor roll.

* Statistics are through Friday