The kid, a towering 7-foot, 250-pound collection of hinges and bony limbs, seemed tailor-made for basketball, but his coach wasn’t impressed.
“My first reaction was, ‘Thanks but no thanks; send him back,’ ” Nordhoff High boys’ basketball Coach Jim Hall said with a laugh.
“But then, one day, he dove out of bounds for a ball and I saw he was not a clumsy, plodding kid. He needed a lot of work but he had a lot of potential.”
Chris Christoffersen, an exchange student from Denmark playing only his second season of basketball, has begun to blossom on the court.
“He’s a good basketball player,” longtime Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich said. “We saw him in the summer and he’s made a tremendous amount of improvement in every facet of the game.”
Christoffersen, a junior, averages 17.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and an area-leading 5.8 blocks for Nordhoff (6-14, 1-6 in the Frontier League). He recently had 33 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks in a double-overtime loss to Calabasas.
Christoffersen has undergone an impressive transformation since joining the team last August with little knowledge of basketball skills or strategy.
“He just had no idea,” Hall said. “He didn’t have any moves, he’d throw the ball up over the back of his head sometimes. He could block a shot but he had no idea of the concept of team defense.”
Christoffersen is a quick study. He speaks fluent and idiomatic English after only four years of study. And his basketball skills have flourished with daily practice.
“He’s improved so much here,” said Kristian Christensen, a Ranger teammate whose Danish-speaking family is host to Christoffersen for the school year. “His moves around the basket and his balance are better. He’s developed a hook shot and he’s getting more aggressive, which was a problem early on.”
Christoffersen said it has been difficult adjusting to physical play and learning to challenge post players.
“Learning to be tough on the court has been difficult for me because I’m a big person with a big heart,” he said.
Christoffersen’s warm personality has made him a hit at Nordhoff. He’s involved in student government, has a circle of friends and played shallow-end goalkeeper, standing on the bottom of the pool, for the water polo team last fall. Not a strong enough swimmer to tread water for long periods, he was not utilized when Nordhoff defended the deep end of its pool.
Christoffersen grew up playing soccer on the Danish island of Bornholm, population 47,000.. However, he soon realized that his height would be an advantage in basketball and enrolled in a camp, where he met Christensen, who was on a family vacation in Denmark during the summer of 1995.
Instant friends, the two hit on the idea of Christoffersen coming to the United States as an exchange student. A year of phone calls and preparations followed, while Christoffersen played club basketball in Denmark. In August, he arrived in Ojai.
The transition has been smooth, although acquiring an adequate bed was a challenge.
“We had to get the biggest mattress we could and throw it on the floor,” Christensen said. “He’s happy with that.”
Christoffersen became upset earlier in the season when an opponent taunted him, saying the Dane was not welcome in this country. Angry words were exchanged, but Christoffersen managed to control himself.
“I was frustrated because I was having a bad game and he said something about, ‘Why don’t you just go home,’ ” Christoffersen said. “That hit me hard.”
Aside from that incident, Christoffersen has been treated well. And people are asking questions about his plans.
Christensen, who averages 10 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists, said he has sent letters to more than 50 college basketball coaches, alerting them to Christoffersen. There have been nearly 20 responses and several college assistants have visited Ranger practices.
Christoffersen hasn’t decided whether he will stay in Ojai for his senior year and pursue a college scholarship or return home. In the meantime, he continues to learn--often from his mistakes.
In a recent league game against 12-time defending champion Santa Clara, Nordhoff trailed by three points with 20 seconds to play. Christoffersen grabbed the ball underneath the basket and Hall, anticipating a layup, screamed for a time out to plan defensive strategy.
Eager to please, Christoffersen called time without taking the shot. The Rangers lost by three.
“I just started laughing,” Hall said. “Anyone else and I would have wrung their neck. But I knew he was doing what he thought I wanted him to do. He’s a super kid, and now he’s starting to take over games.”