A child — a light haired, dark-eyed sprightly boy — plays in the grass fields of a dairy farm five hours west of Toronto. Without a worry in the world, he sits when tired and runs when happy. The summers wax and wane as his interests flourish. He takes up music, 4-H, volleyball and soccer. He is an active child, matching the wits of his two elder sisters, and soon begins to grow.
And boy, does he grow.
Time and again he is called for high-kicking in soccer because his legs are too long. He sustains broken bones as his body adjusts to his massive frame. And as his 16th birthday rolls around, he begins to pick up basketball.
He is Chris Vandenberg. He is a freshman. He is now 6-10. And he is the next big thing for the Cornell men’s basketball team.
“He began playing basketball at the elementary level in Grade 6,” his mother, Yoka Vandenberg remembered. “But he didn’t grow into basketball until later in high school. It gave him so much enjoyment after his 16th birthday. That’s what kept him going year after year.”
“It was the last two years of high school when I really started to play basketball,” Vandenberg added. “I liked it and was fairly good it.”
Fairly good doesn’t begin to describe him. He was a five-year starter for the Ontario High School All-Stars, and the summer after 12th grade, he was invited to play for the Ontario provincial team.
The summer after his final year, the World University Games called, where 15 of the best high school players represented the Canadian Junior National Team in China. Vandenberg averaged 3.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while helping his team to a 5-2 record and a sixth-place finish at the international competition.
But what most interested him was not simply being there, but having the chance to learn from the best.
“We trained with the national team, which included Steve Nash and Todd MacCulloch,” Vandenberg related. “I developed my shooting and learned how things move around on the court. It was an excellent experience.”
Working long hours on the farm had certainly paid off.
“Working on a dairy farm teaches you how to handle responsibility,” Vandenberg explained. “I got good work habits and I don’t mind manual labor. I like the outdoors.”
His active childhood has turned into an athletic adulthood, and it is this athleticism that separates him from most other 6-10 centers.
“Chris Vandenberg is first and foremost an athlete,” men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue said. “He’s not just tall ‘one of those guys who just takes up a lot of space,’ but he would be a good basketball player if he was any size because he’s very active.
“He’s got a great quickness to the ball, and he does a lot of good things instinctively on the basketball court. The part that makes him special is that he is 6′ 10″ and he does all of this.”
With such a wealth of talent, one may wonder why he chose Cornell over Duke, or UNC, or even Kansas.
“Academic-wise Cornell is the best agricultural school out there” Vandenberg explained. “And coach Donahue has done a really good job here. I’d like to put in quality minutes right away.”
And joining a team decimated by last year’s graduation, he most likely will.
“He’s good in the low block, he runs the floor extremely well, and we hope to take advantage of that — let him beat his man down the floor,” Donahue said. “He’s got a tremendous work ethic. There’s a little country innocence to him but he never stops working.”
It is tough to be a freshman with so many expectations.
“It’s a hard transition — especially that first semester and coming from a rural area at a small school,” Donahue agreed. “We’re asking him to do a lot. We expect him to fairly productive for us fairly quickly.”
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Mrs. Vandenberg assured — shoulders large enough to carry the basketball team to new heights.
Archived article by Sumeet Sarin