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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brower: Not Your Average American Basketball Fan

Like most American college basketball fans overseas, Chris Brower of Fort Walton, Florida, could not hide his excitement as he pored over the first round scores of the NCAA Tournament last weekend.


But Brower is not your ordinary fan. He was a two-year starter for Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He is conversant in five languages. And last August, he became the first American to play professional basketball in Russia.


A year after his final season at VCU, Brower has traded in the privileged American Division 1 college basketball experience for a wild and wooly existence in Russia.


In his reincarnation as a Russian basketball player, Brower leads the Svetlana basketball club in its games in Russia's top league, averaging 18.5 points a game along with eight assists. He is an outstanding 3-point shooter, who has a knack for making clutch baskets. During his college career, he hit eight 3-point shots to win games in the final minute against powerhouses like Louisville and Memphis State. In January, Russian fans got a taste of Brower's specialty when Svetlana beat Spartak Moscow in overtime. Brower scored 17 of his team's 23 points in the five-minute extra period, including two 3-pointers, and wound up with a season-high 37 points.


But it is off the court that the 1.86 meter, 85 kilogram point guard has made the most lasting impression in Russia. In just seven months, Brower, 22, speaks Russian freely. Like other players on his St. Petersburg team, he lives modestly -- in a dormitory room with no phone, running water or working TV. And because of his team's financial difficulties, he earns just 20,000 rubles a month, a far cry from the $1,500 he was promised.


A political science and German double major at VCU, Brower has become a Russian history buff and is currently reading -- in Russian -- a book on the last Tsar. On road trips around Russia, he browses bookstores and visits famous landmarks. These are his rewards for being in Russia. Not the big paycheck that may never come.


"How many Americans have been to Volgograd and seen the statue to the motherland, to Lake Baikal, or to Yekaterinburg and seen the place where the Tsar was shot?" he said.


"He has no hang-ups," said Svetlana's head coach Vyacheslav Borodin of his American point guard. "And because he develops his language skills, he understands our life."


Shortly after Brower's arrival in St. Petersburg last fall, Zhana Sazhena, the secretary for the president of the Svetlana Sports Club, took it upon herself to feed the team's newest recruit -- Russian style. He has become a third son for Sazhena, who after practices and games sets up placemats in her office and lays out a spread for Brower. During meals, Brower gets a cultural how-to lesson. Sazhena teaches Brower new words, advises him how to dress for winter and introduces him to new dishes, like borscht, blini and pelmeni. "I just tell him, 'Try it, try it,' and he's learned," said Sazhena.


Brower has outlasted the other two American men playing professionally in Russia for Spartak Moscow. Frustrated with the living conditions, the two players broke off their contracts and returned to the United States in midseason. One has since returned to finish out the season.


Because his basic needs are taken care of, Brower has an easier time accepting the fact that his team may never be able to pay him properly.


"The money is more important for the other players," he said. "They have to live on it."


Brower said he intends to come back next summer and play a second season for Svetlana. After his basketball career ends, he would like to enter the U.S. diplomatic service.


In March, though, thoughts of a future career take a back seat to the NCAA Tournament. "I am starting to get March Madness," Brower confessed last week to a Western reporter. But there are no NCAA games on Russian TV. "Other than that," said America's basketball ambassador to Russia, "I really don't miss that much."