Khem Birch Had Unique Journey to the NBA

By John Denton
Feb. 13, 2018

ORLANDO – A native of hockey hotbed, Montreal, and someone who made it to the NBA only after toiling in Turkey, Greece and the minor leagues, Orlando Magic center Khem Birch is often looked at as some sort of long shot just lucky to land on basketball’s grandest stage.

In all actuality, though, Birch was once the prized, blue-chip recruit who, as a teen, was considered to be one of the world’s best young players and someone eventually destined for NBA stardom.

But as Birch ultimately found out, life doesn’t always go according to plan. There were plenty of times – like when he depressingly went undrafted in 2014; when he was startled awake by the early-morning prayer chants in Turkey; when he had firecrackers thrown at him during a championship game in Greece; and all those times when he was on I-4 driving to the Magic’s G League affiliate in Lakeland – that Birch wondered where his career arc had gone so terribly astray. But, as Birch knows now, sometimes the path to what you want most in life takes you on a circuitous journey that is ultimately for the best.

``I thank God that I wasn’t here (in the NBA) earlier in my career because I probably would have made a lot of mistakes,’’ said Birch, who will help the Magic battle Dwight Howard and the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday at the Amway Center. ``I made a lot of mistakes without even being in the NBA, so if I would have had that (NBA) pressure on me, it might not have gone so well. Now, this is the right time to be here because I’m more mature and my head is humble.
``I’m happy that it’s happened the way that it has.’’

Birch, 25, has been quite the revelation for the Magic – even if his big reveal came about almost accidentally. Orlando lost standout center Nikola Vucevic to a fractured left hand on Dec. 23 and then Marreese Speights – the primary backup to newly minted starter Bismack Biyombo – was forced to miss the Jan. 16 game because of a personal matter. Considering the winding journey that Birch has had to follow to get to this point, maybe it was only fitting that his big chance in the NBA came about in such a fluky manner.

Those first meaningful minutes were downright jaw-dropping and almost worth the wait. Facing Minnesota’s star-studded front line of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson, Birch put up 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in just 19 minutes. Five days later, he played a pivotal role in Orlando’s best win of the season – a 103-95 decision in Boston – with two fourth-quarter put-backs, a swat of a Kyrie Irving layup and six rebounds in the final period.

In 20 games and 12.4 minutes a night, he’s averaged seemingly pedestrian numbers of 3.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.5 blocks. However, when factored out over a 48-minute-per-game basis, Birch’s impact (14 ppg., 15.8 rpg., 1.9 bpg.) becomes much more noticeable. Birch’s infectious energy has helped the Magic reel off big wins against Cleveland, Miami, the Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta, Minnesota and Boston of late, and head coach Frank Vogel knows his franchise is lucky to have him on the roster.

``Look, that was a great find by Jeff (Weltman) and John (Hammond),’’ Vogel said of the Magic’s President of Basketball Operations and GM. ``There’s just no other way to put it. Getting a guy like as your third center to come into games and give you the quality play that Khem has, that’s just a great find.’’

ON THE WAY TO THE NBA

There was a time when Birch wasn’t hard to find at all what with the way that he stood out on the basketball court. Even though he hailed from Montreal, he never cared for hockey and initially thought he’d someday become a star wide receiver in football.

As he continued to grow taller, Birch gravitated toward basketball where he was immediately a defensive menace what with the way he would swat balls out of the air and gobble up rebounds. For years, he would always request No. 3 as jersey number because of his admiration of former Magic center Ben Wallace, and in some ways, he’s patterned his career after the big man.

A rising prospect, Birch and his mother, Wendy Sparks, sought out a place where the high-flying center could get the maximum exposure and be seen by college – and eventually NBA – scouts. Because Canadian basketball players had such difficulty getting scholarship opportunities, they chose The Winchendon School in Massachusetts and later Notre Dame Prep just outside of Boston – something that suited Birch just fine.

``It wasn’t hard to leave because I never wanted to stay in Montreal. Where I’m from, it’s like people are in a box and they never want to leave,’’ Birch said. ``I don’t know anybody where I’m from who has left Montreal. When I was 16 and about to leave (for Massachusetts), my mom was really sad, but at the same time I knew it was right for me. I was never homesick.’’

In Massachusetts, Birch would watch Celtics games on TV and dream about when he would be playing in the NBA. And considering how he fared against a virtual ``Who’s Who’’ of top basketball talent, he was right to be thinking big picture.

He more than held his own against fellow prep school stars Andre Drummond, Nerlens Noel and Will Barton and became a McDonald’s All-American in 2011. In that all-star game played at Chicago’s United Center, Birch had 16 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots while playing alongside of Anthony Davis and against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. Coincidentally, all six of those players that he faced in high school are in the NBA today.

At 6-foot-9 and a rugged 220 pounds, Birch was heavily recruited by the University of Kentucky, who hoped to pair his defensive tenacity alongside of Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist. However, he shockingly chose Pittsburgh because of a relationship with an assistant coach.

The plan, Birch thought at the time, was to play a season at Pitt and then head to the NBA. Ultimately, he was unhappy at Pitt and midway through his freshman season he transferred to UNLV. Looking back, he wishes he would have done things differently.

``I had a lot of (college) offers, but I got it down to Kentucky and Pitt and I chose Pitt,’’ Birch recalled. ``I kind of made a rush decision (in choosing Pitt) without taking any visits. I was set on Pitt because of my relationship with the assistant coach, but he had left before I even got there. I was kind of immature at the time and should have stayed and I probably would have been in the (NBA) Draft right after that. But I chose UNLV.’’

At UNLV, Birch was twice the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year (while blocking 2.6 and 3.8 shots a game), prompting him to declare for the 2014 NBA Draft following his junior season. Some coaches and scouts told him he wasn’t ready to turn pro because of his lack of a true offensive game, but he declared for the draft anyway and went undrafted that spring. That left him wondering if his dreams of playing in the NBA were over.

``That was rough and everybody was sad just because I really thought that I was ready,’’ Birch said of being passed over by NBA teams. ``People had told me I was not ready, and not getting drafted proved them right. But I’m a patient guy and someone who doesn’t want to rush things. I just know that now they can’t tell me I’m not ready.’’

After a year of playing with the Sioux Falls (N.D.) Skyforce and failing to make a NBA roster after four stints with various Summer League teams, Birch headed to Turkey to play for Usak Sportif. He played well enough to there to land a lucrative contract with Greek powerhouse, Olympiacos – lucrative, that is, when he actually received his paychecks on time and he said that he’s still owed money by his former European teams. It was there in Greece where he learned about the passion and sometimes perverse nature of some fans in Europe.

``When I first got to Turkey, at 5 o’clock in the morning they would play this prayer song with everybody singing and I was so scared,’’ Birch recalled. ``In Greece, we lost the championship game and our fans were throwing bombs and firecrackers and they had to stop the game and they made them all leave. It was so bad, and I just wanted to go home.’’

NBA DREAMS COME TRUE

The day before he was to renew his contract with Olympiacos, Birch got a call from the Magic about an opportunity where he could come to camp and try to make the roster out of training camp.

When he did just that back in October, Birch was walking to his downtown Orlando apartment when he got the call from Vogel and he had to wipe the tears out of his eyes. More tears came when he made his first call to his mom as the two of them relived his winding journey to the NBA.

This season, the Magic attempted to keep his skills sharp and allow him to grow his game by repeatedly sending him to Lakeland. He embraced those opportunities wholeheartedly, saying he was able to experiment more and improve his offensive skills while continuing to be a demon defensively.

Vogel said Birch is a dramatically different player now than the one who came to camp with the Magic in September and October. What he loves most about the big man is the consistency in his effort and enthusiasm.

``Active – that’s the word with Khem Birch. He’s just so active defensively, being all over the place, showing, recovering and using his speed, hitting people on the glass and making good plays,’’ Vogel raved about the center, who had four points, eight rebounds and a steal on Monday in Chicago and the Magic were a plus-11 on the scoreboard in his nearly 26 minutes on the floor. ``And he’s very active on the offensive glass, giving us a big lift and we’re very high on him.’’

Birch has played well enough, Vogel said, that he has nothing to be worried about as far as sticking in the NBA for the foreseeable future. The Magic control the option on his contract for next season, so he almost certainly will be back in Orlando. Because he will have an actual offseason for the first time in years, Birch said he will be able to put in loads of time working on his game so that he will be immensely better going into next season.

Hearing that he has likely secured a place in the NBA for years to come – after chasing those hoop dreams halfway around the world – has made the delayed gratification even sweeter, Birch said.

``It feels amazing to hear that,’’ Birch said of the praise he’s received from coaches and front-office staff. ``Sometimes you have to remind yourself to stay humble and work hard, but I’m so happy hearing that they think that about me. Before, all I was thinking about was to be on a NBA roster. Long-term and short-term, all I wanted was to be on a NBA roster. But it feels great contributing now the way that I am.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.