Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Tragic Struggle Of Frédéric Weis

The former Knicks draft pick Frédéric Weis at the tobacco store he now runs in Limoges, France.
Credit Guia Besana for The New York Times

For Frédéric Weis, Knicks’ Infamous Pick, Boos Began a Greater Struggle

LIMOGES, France — On the morning that Frédéric Weis tried to kill himself, he dreamed about owning a beach house. A beach house had been Weis’s dream for a long time. In France, in Spain, in Greece — wherever his career took him as a 7-foot-2 professional basketball player. He liked the sand, he liked the surf. A beach house was a good dream.

But on that day, in January 2008, the dream did not make him smile. Weis got into his car in Bilbao, Spain, around 10 a.m. and began the drive here, to this small city in west-central France best known for its production of fine china. He was on his way to see his wife and son. About 90 minutes into the drive, Weis suddenly pulled over at a rest area near Biarritz, a French town not far from the border.

He stopped the car, leaned back in his seat and, at 30 years old, considered all that had happened to him during his career. There were the early years playing in the French league. There was the night in 1999 when the Knicks made him a first-round draft pick. There was the disappointment of feeling as if then-Coach Jeff Van Gundy did not actually want him. There was the vicious dunk from Vince Carter — just Google “le dunk de la mort” (Dunk of Death) if you have somehow missed it — that transformed him into an on-court victim.

Vince Carter's memorable dunk over Weis during a game at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Credit Darren McNamara/Getty Images

And there was, of course, the cold recognition of his personal reality: that the label affixed to him as an N.B.A. bust/cautionary tale — at least if the Weis-themed public reaction to the Knicks’ recent drafting of the Latvian Kristaps Porzingis is any indication — will, almost surely, last forever.

Weis thought about all this for a while. Then he thought about the beach house. Then he thought about his son, Enzo. Then he reached over, took out the box of sleeping pills he had brought with him and swallowed every single one.

Booed From the Start

Unlike Porzingis, who heard firsthand the boos and catcalls from angry Knicks fans in the Barclays Center just seconds after his name was called at last month’s draft, Weis had no idea that he was immediately hated in New York. He found out he was drafted when his agent, Didier Rose, called him in a Paris hotel room in the middle of the night on July 1, 1999. (Weis was with the French national team preparing for a game.)

Weis and his roommate had stayed up past curfew waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, Rose delivered the news by saying, “Fred, you got everything you wanted.” Weis called his father and howled into the phone. He just assumed everyone was as ecstatic as he was.

It was only weeks later, when Weis arrived in New York for a brief training camp with the Knicks’ summer league team, that he learned most fans were angry the Knicks had drafted a mostly anonymous European big man as opposed to a more well-known American college player. (Many had wanted Ron Artest, who is from Queens.)

Knicks officials alerted Weis to the backlash in a short, somewhat-awkward meeting. According to Weis’s wife, Celia, Weis was told, “You’re not really the guy we were supposed to draft,” and he was informed that “some fans might not be so happy.” Nonetheless, Ed Tapscott, the team’s interim general manager who had drafted Weis, told Weis the Knicks were excited to have him and looked forward to seeing him play in the summer league.

Weis was excited, too. But his exuberance was quickly tempered after a few choppy interactions with Van Gundy, who did not seem pleased with Weis having been the team’s draft choice. During phone calls with Celia, Weis described Van Gundy as having been “cold” to him and showing little interest in him. He told her a story about how Van Gundy had seen him wearing his watch just before practice — Weis was always a stickler for being on time — and berated him about whether he planned to wear it once workouts began.

Van Gundy, in an interview, said he had no particular recollections about his interactions with Weis — there were few, he said, and all took place more than 15 years ago — but added that he had “nothing bad to say about him.”

“To be honest, what stands out to me is that I remember him being an incredibly nice and sweet guy,” Van Gundy said.

With the Knicks’ summer league team, Weis’s play was limited and mostly unremarkable. The end of that summer league tournament, however, was the beginning of Weis’s spiral. Weis could have signed the standard first-round-draft-pick contract with the Knicks — which would have required he stay with them — but he declined, choosing instead to play another year in France. That decision, which he later admitted to regretting, was almost surely influenced by Rose, the agent, who also owned a piece of Weis’s French team; Rose subsequently went to prison on charges related to financial impropriety and conflicts of interest.

Weis never played for the Knicks again, either in the summer league or otherwise. Explanations for why vary, but Weis said top Knicks executives never directly contacted him about returning. That may be a matter of semantics — the Knicks, like most teams, had a European scout keeping an eye on Weis (and other players) — but, from Weis’s perspective, he believed he was not wanted. So he continued playing in Europe. At the 2000 Olympics — despite being dunked on by Carter — he generally played well as France won the silver medal. From 1997 to 2000, Weis played in four consecutive French league all-star games.

“I never heard from them,” Weis said. “So what was I supposed to do?”

From the Knicks’ side, the belief was always that Weis was not truly motivated to ever come and play in the United States. Scott Layden replaced Tapscott as general manager in August 1999, and while it was clear he was not especially enamored with Weis, he did express curiosity about Weis’s potential. The Knicks, according to team officials, would have liked to see Weis at least play summer league again, and a bevy of news reports from the summers of 2000 and 2001 include quotations from representatives for Weis claiming that Weis, for various reasons, would not return to the Knicks’ summer league team. Weis claims that he had only loose associations with those agents and that they never accurately conveyed to him the Knicks’ desires.

Celia said that Weis was sad he never got to play with the Knicks — “it was something he very much wanted” — but was nonetheless pragmatic about it.

“He knew it was business,” she said. She shrugged. “In a lot of ways, the truth is that all of that had nothing to do with what happened to him later.”

Troubles After a Son’s Birth

In 2002, three years after Weis was drafted, Enzo was born. Weis, always known as more of a gentle giant, was jubilant; being a father was something he had often said he felt he was born to do.

But something was not right with Enzo. Outwardly, the boy seemed O.K., making baby sounds and even saying some distinguishable words as he neared his first birthday. It soon became clear, however, that Enzo was only mimicking sounds he was hearing others say and not actually learning how to communicate. His ability to focus — on a person or a task — was nonexistent. If the family tried to eat at a restaurant, Enzo would shriek and shout and shake.

Weis was playing in Spain at the time, and a Spanish doctor ultimately declared that Enzo had a form of autism. Celia was devastated; Weis was despondent and, then, destructive.

He began staying out late. Never much of a drinker before, Weis routinely closed down bars in Bilbao, often drinking as late as 5 a.m. He went out on weekends. He went out on weeknights. He went out on nights before a game, and he went out on nights after them. When he and Celia separated in 2004 — she moved back to France with Enzo — Weis’s nocturnal habits worsened.

Off the court, he was erratic, moody and, as he admitted, “too interested in doing all the bad things.” On the court, he was sluggish and ineffective; during the 2004-5 season, he averaged fewer than 3 points and 16 minutes per game, both career lows for any season in which he played at least 30 games.

Weis struggled to balance his emotions about Enzo with his need to continue playing basketball. He tried to visit Celia and Enzo as often as possible but could not hide his disappointment at not being able to do what other fathers did with their children. He could not take Enzo to the movies (films were too long for Enzo). He could not play board games. He could not do puzzles.

Enzo liked basketball — he would come to Weis’s games sometimes and sit in the stands for short stretches — but he could not play. On the court, when it was just the two of them and Weis was hoping for anything, just a shot or a pass, Enzo only ran, around and around, while his father held the ball.

By January 2008, Weis hit bottom. Shortly after New Year’s, he decided he wanted to “stop it all,” as he said. And so he took the box of sleeping pills, drove to the rest stop in Biarritz and closed his eyes.

Recovery, Then Retirement

About 10 hours after he swallowed the pills, Weis woke up. For several minutes, he was confused and could not figure out where he was or what had happened. Then he saw the empty box and felt what he described as a “surprising” relief. He had failed and, for once, this made him happy. “It was the luckiest I’ve been in my life,” he said.

Frédéric Weis at minicamp with the Knicks after they picked him No. 15 overall in the 1999 N.B.A. draft.
Credit G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

He picked up his phone and dialed Celia, who had been expecting him five hours earlier and had called, over and over, while he was unresponsive. When she answered, he told her what he had done and then waited — first as she wept and then, much longer, as she had a friend drive to Biarritz to pick Weis up.

“When he told me what had happened, I cannot say I was surprised,” Celia said. “But I hoped that afterward would be different.”

It is never quite that simple. Yes, Weis’s failed suicide attempt was the catalyst for a change in his behavior (he quit drinking, he said), and yes, he and Celia did begin a reconciliation that ended up sticking (the couple have been together ever since). Weis went on to play a few more seasons in Spain before finishing his career in France and retiring in 2011.

But now, four years after retirement, 13 years after Enzo was born and 16 years after the Knicks drafted him, Weis still battles depression. Weis hides it well; he and Celia own a tobacco store and a bar in Limoges, and, outwardly, Weis seems content.

Certainly his basketball career — even the parts that never fully developed — is not a source of stress. During a recent interview at a brasserie in the center of town, he laughed often and frequently poked fun at himself, chuckling as he told the story of when he visited New York a few years back and was recognized by the passport officer at the airport.

“Aren’t you that guy the Knicks drafted?” the officer asked, and, startled, Weis quickly crouched a bit lower. “No, no — that’s my cousin,” he replied as the officer quizzically waved him through.

“I don’t know if he was a fan or not,” Weis said as he recalled the exchange. “But I didn’t want to get in any trouble.”

When it comes to Enzo, though, Weis still struggles. He speaks with obvious pride when he describes how Enzo, now 13, has improved his motor skills or his focus, but Celia said there are still so many mornings when she finds Weis lying in bed, grim-faced and morose. There are still so many times, too, when Weis has mood swings; one recent day at the store, Celia said, Weis lashed out at a customer who had come in and whistled since both Celia and Weis were in the back. “What, am I your dog?” Weis yelled before Celia calmed him down.

“I have asked him about seeing a therapist,” Celia said, “but he doesn’t want to. He won’t go. He says, ‘Why do I need to talk about things to someone? I can talk about them to you.’”

Weis, for his part, says he is fine. He has made peace with what his basketball career was and what it wasn’t — “life is not perfect, sometimes” — and he is doing his best to deal with being a parent to an autistic child.

“I still dream about the beach house,” he said in a wistful lilt, but it is different now. Now, he does not think about the beach house as a luxury item or a perk for a basketball superstar. Instead he thinks of it as a haven — the only place, perhaps, where he can feel like a father giving something to his son.

“The tides make Enzo happy,” Weis explained, “and so I want to take him there. I want to let him run out with the ocean because he loves it.”

Weis smiled. “He loves to feel like he is running on top of the water,” he said. — Sam Borden | New York Times

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