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

By Christa Case and Ranty Islam | The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Christa Case and Ranty Islam, The Christian Science Monitor


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 Roedl's professionalism and will to win. …

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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
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