Kevin Christie is playing the best basketball of his Bluffton University career … just as it’s about to end.
But he is happy. He’s content. The 2014 Fenwick High School graduate knows that all things run their course. And at the age of 22, he’s got a lifetime of experiences ahead of him.
“I think there’s always going to be some emotions with the end of the basketball road because it’s something you’ve been doing your whole life,” Christie said. “But I think you’ve got to look back on it and see all the positives and the opportunities it’s given you in life and in basketball. It’s something to cherish and not necessarily look back at with sadness.”
The road hasn’t stopped yet for Christie, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior point guard who’s emerged as one of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference’s top players this year. The Beavers are 10-14 and trying to gnaw their way into the HCAC tournament.
Six teams will participate in the tourney. Five have clinched spots. The last qualifier will be Bluffton or Franklin (Ind.), who will meet in a regular-season finale with a win-or-be-done bottom line Saturday afternoon on Bluffton’s Copeland Court.
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It will also be Senior Day and Christie’s last home game.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I think I’ll have a good little crowd there. It’ll be a good day. I think we have the ability and the team to get that W, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
A move for the better
Christie has been very good this year in the dual role of scoring and running the show at point guard.
He’s tied for fourth in the HCAC in scoring with a 17.4 average. He’s second in assists with a 4.6 average. He’s third in free-throw percentage at 92.2.
His rise to this level has been a gradual process that started elsewhere, specifically Hanover (Ind.), where Christie played as a freshman.
“He’s gotten a little bit better every year because he’s worked a little bit harder every year. It hasn’t happened by fate,” said Guy Neal, Bluffton’s head coach for the last 29 seasons. “You like to see young people be willing to go through that process. When they see the end result, there’s something imprinted in them for life that if you hang with something and do it right and work hard at it, good things can happen.”
Christie isn’t necessarily surprised by his success this season.
“I think I’ve always been capable of providing this sort of effort,” he said. “I didn’t know it would be a 17-point-a-game effort. Just being able to have the confidence to apply it in a game and being physically mature and having a couple years of experience under my belt has helped me a lot.”
His collegiate career didn’t always look so impressive. Indeed, his first stop ended with a transfer.
Bluffton and Hanover were his top two choices coming out of Fenwick. Christie opted for Hanover.
“When I was a senior in high school, I was kind of looking for a college campus with a real college feel,” he said. “Hanover is one of the prettier campuses in our conference. You really get more of a Miami University feel with all the red brick.
“I think I was enchanted by that a little bit, and their basketball team had a history of being really successful in the league. I thought maybe I could make a mark as a freshman.”
Christie got a chance to make that mark quickly. He was an opening-day starter for the Panthers as a freshman. But the optimism didn’t last.
“They had a good senior point guard that year. Things kind of shaked out where he ended up not actually being on the team, and I was kind of thrust into a role that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for playing heavy minutes right away,” Christie said. “Not being able to uphold those standards that I thought I held myself to was a little frustrating, and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. Things just kind of digressed from there.”
His playing time rapidly decreased under head coach Jon Miller, who’s still at Hanover. As the campaign progressed, Christie wasn’t playing at all. And toward the end of the season, he left the program.
“It was a complicated situation,” Christie said. “The coach knew I was going to go to another school and didn’t really want me on the team at that point, so we kind of just had a mutual parting. Understanding the dynamic of Division III basketball, there’s other players in our league who have done the same exact thing. It kind of just happens in D-III.
“You have to bounce back and collect yourself and see what’s the best option for you because you’re paying to play anywhere you’re at in D-III. It’s a little different dynamic vs. D-I scholarships transferring. You’ve got to take into account where your family’s at and what’s the situation with the coach.”
When leaving Hanover became the obvious choice, Christie considered schools like Capital and Ohio Dominican and Sinclair Community College. But Bluffton stood out as the clear No. 1.
Neal, who’d made a concerted recruiting effort to get Christie out of high school, was more than happy to have him.
The veteran coach liked Christie’s skill set and basketball IQ. But he also had some connections to the Christie family that went way back.
“It’s interesting,” Christie said. “I don’t even know the whole web of stories that they have together.”
Neal, a graduate of Wellington High School in Lorain County, explains it like this:
“Kevin’s grandfather Dave Christie was the head basketball coach at my high school when I was in junior high. My wife babysat for Kevin’s dad, and she had Coach Christie as a typing teacher. As I got into high school, his grandfather left and went to another school in our conference, so I never got a chance to play for Coach Christie. His last coaching stop was up at Oak Harbor, where Kevin’s dad and his uncle played for him. His uncle Don lives up in the Toledo area, and he coached one of (Bluffton’s) all-time greats, Scott Bergman, in high school.
“So starting when I was in junior high, I’ve known the Christies and dealt with them in different ways, shapes and forms in this basketball world of ours. So I knew that Kevin had a good basketball pedigree and a good background. When he came on the radar as a junior and a senior down at Fenwick, obviously we became very interested in him. That’s kind of how it all started.”
Starting over again
Joining the program at Bluffton meant that Christie was essentially starting from scratch in terms of his basketball career. He had to learn and pay his dues.
His sophomore season resulted in 17 appearances and a 1.5 scoring average.
“Honestly, I didn’t do enough things off the court to really prepare myself correctly for when the season came,” Christie said. “Division II and Division I schools can have their guys come back in the summer and train them on campus. In Division III, you’re sent home. You’re on your own. So you’re trying to be balanced between working a job and working out. As a sophomore, I was just learning how to balance all that stuff.”
He took a step forward in the next offseason and made 13 starts last year, averaging 8.3 points per game. Christie did have to learn to be a 2-guard because Bluffton had a senior point guard, Trey Elchert from Jackson Center.
Christie’s play was solid. He certainly became a significant factor on the court. But there was no real indication that he was on the verge of a breakout senior year.
“I’ve always been kind of a pass-first guy, so going to the 2 was a little different for me because I had played point guard my whole life,” Christie said. “But being the 2 and being a little more aggressive and looking for my shot kind of helped me gear up for this season.”
Neal moved him back to point guard this year and said the Beavers were “a puzzle that had to be put together.” He wasn’t sure where the points were going to come from.
Christie has reached double figures 20 times this year. He recently poured in 61 points in two games, getting a career-high 32 against Hanover on Jan. 27 and adding 29 on Jan. 31 in a 66-64 win over HCAC leader Mount St. Joseph.
“My teammates put me in a lot of positions to be successful,” Christie said. “When you have teammates that are willing to sacrifice a little bit in order to have what they think is the team’s best shot, which might be my shot sometimes, it’s really helpful.
“The scoring is a little weird because I still consider myself pass first. I’m always looking to dish. But sometimes in Division III, they’ll give you the jumper before they’ll commit and let you dish off. They’ll make you hit tough shots because we have a lot of good defenders in our league.”
Neal described Christie’s progression as “what we would like to see for every player at every position. Granted, we all hope we’re going to get that freshman every year who will help you right away with some major minutes. But Kevin’s story is more typical of the adjustment from high school to college ball.”
More than basketball
Christie is a communications major at Bluffton and will graduate in May. He has an eye on a career in finance and/or coaching. His father Dan, who played at the University of Dayton in the 1980s, is a financial advisor.
The coaching piece is already a part of Kevin’s life. He’s coached Fenwick summer-league teams the last several years and connects with Falcons coach Pat Kreke whenever he can.
“I’ve been blessed to have two coaches, Coach Neal and Coach Kreke, that really care about you as people off the court,” Christie said.
Neal likes to talk about how Christie’s outgoing personality is a great thing for his role as a communicator on the floor. Christie started as a broadcasting and journalism major and uses some of those skills while working with the BU sports information department. He helps out in the press box at football games and is the voice of the Bluffton softball team.
Is he a silky-voiced announcer when the microphone is turned on?
“I don’t know about that. I definitely think I have a face for radio,” Christie said with a smile. “But it’s good to have fun out there, and the girls on the softball team are great. They give me some good feedback.”
As a native of Miamisburg, Christie said he’s used to being around public high schools that are similar in size to Bluffton, which has an enrollment around 1,000. But he’s hooked on the small-college atmosphere that Bluffton provides.
NCAA Division III basketball has been good to him, but it’s also been hard. Not only because the caliber of play is better than most people realize, but also because he gets knocked around quite a bit.
“I think my best friends here have been the athletic training staff. They make the running joke that they’re just trying to keep me alive until my senior year’s over,” Christie said. “I’ve made a staple out of being a hard-nosed, undersized guy.
“Basketball more than any other sport is just a game of inches and athleticism. Going from Division I to Division II might be two or three inches in a guy at each position. Going from Division II to Division III might be a couple more inches. The talent level does not decrease at any position. The guys still have the same footwork and the same shots because it’s more skills than size in basketball. It’s just that when you have bigger size and can develop those skills, it allows you to have more opportunities in the game.”
He’s been playing so well lately that nobody would blame him if he regretted his decision to attend Hanover because it essentially turned into a lost season.
Christie said he doesn’t think that way.
“If it didn’t work out the way it did at Hanover, I wouldn’t have had these three great years at Bluffton,” he said. “I’m just living in the moment and finding the best of what’s going on right now. My basketball career and my body are winding down, but a lot of guys don’t get four years after high school. The three years at Bluffton have provided me with endless opportunities on and off the court. I’m eternally grateful for that.”