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Know Your KU History: Eric Chenowith

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The McDonald’s All-American is one of the most misunderstood players in KU basketball history.

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Sometimes, you just want to be a regular college student. I’m not sure there was ever a more prominent case of this feeling at the University of Kansas than that of seven foot center Eric Chenowith. Deep down, I think the guy just wanted to be a college kid, but this attitude sparked more resentment toward a KU player than is warranted. Let me explain.

I’ll admit it. I hated Eric Chenowith. I didn’t understand Eric Chenowith. He confused me. How could a guy with all that talent, a seven footer who is pretty much guaranteed a shot at millions of dollars in the NBA, care about something- anything- as much as playing basketball? For those of us regular dudes walking around campus who would never have a shot at dunking a basketball or playing in front of 16,300 fans at Allen Fieldhouse, the idea of coming to KU to play basketball and then having the audacity to have other passions was the equivalent of treason. He was easily my least favorite KU player while I was attending school there, and it had nothing to do with his game. It had everything to do with the fact that I would kill for the opportunity to play basketball at Kansas, and Eric Chenowith would rather watch the Dave Matthews Band. Dedicate every second of your time making KU a powerhouse, tour with Phish after you graduate. That was my feeling toward Eric. Make us better first, be yourself later. I now see things a little differently.

After evaluating my four years as a student at the University of Kansas, I can see several aspects that a guy with the mindset of Eric Chenowith might see as “charming” or even, dare I say, “enviable.” After all, I got to go to the Replay or Bottleneck or The Granada or Liberty Hall and watch my favorite bands anytime I wanted, without the constant glad-handing that comes with being a famous KU basketball player. I got to drink beers with my friends anytime I wanted and the eyes of the University were not on me when I did. I think Chenowith would’ve liked the anonymity.

But, he came to the University of Kansas to play basketball, and for that, he will ultimately be judged by the team’s sometimes unfair supporters and fans. In the eyes of many, Eric Chenowith never fulfilled his massive potential as a Jayhawk. We expect the basketball players at Kansas to do one thing: play basketball and play it well. That’s it. Sometimes, a guy has other passions. Sometimes, a guy just happens to be seven feet tall. Eric Chenowith cared about other things as much as he cared about KU basketball, and for that, he was vilified by the KU faithful.

Chenowith’s freshman season of 1997-98 was an example of patience. KU was led by All-Americans Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce and those two averaged almost half of KU’s 84 point average that season. Chenowith played in all 39 games that season and averaged a respectable 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, but he really exploded onto the scene in his sophomore season.

With LaFrentz and Pierce gone to the NBA, KU relied heavily on Chenowith as the team’s new post presence. He did not disappoint. That 1998-99 season was statistically the best season of Eric’s KU career. His 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds were both team highs. He also averaged 2.4 blocks per game that season. KU fans were seeing what Eric Chenowith was all about and were hungry for more. So far, so good…that is until the summer of 1999.

That offseason was much publicized around KU both for what Eric Chenowith was doing and for what he was apparently (in the eyes of the fans, me included) not doing. What he wasn’t doing was focusing 100% of his time on getting better at basketball. His stock was at an all-time high and he was poised to lead the Jayhawks to greatness from the inside out.

Instead, word got around that Eric was spending his time following the Dave Matthews Band around the country. Eric has since disputed the claim that he followed the band everywhere and insisted that he sporadically went to concerts between work out sessions and pick up games, but the narrative was already set.

When his statistics plummeted during his junior year (8.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.6 BPG), the critics came out en masse. His work ethic was examined; his dedication was questioned. Eric Chenowith went from potential KU all-time great to pariah and immediate also-ran.

With the addition of big men Nick Collison and Drew Gooden, KU fans had already seen enough from the Villa Park, California native. There was a slight uptick in his statistics in his senior season (9.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG), but his legacy had already been set according to Kansas fans. He was a bust.

But despite his “bust status” by the Allen Fieldhouse set, Chenowith was drafted 43rd in the 2001 NBA draft by the New York Knicks. He never featured in the NBA, but played for three seasons in the NBA-D League for the Greenville Groove, Huntsville Flight, and Idaho Stampede. He averaged 8.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in that time. Chenowith now lives with his new wife in southern California and works in the insurance field.