STORRS, Conn. — If it's appeared at times over the past few games that everyone else is playing checkers while Christian Vital is playing chess, there's good reason. Besides his basketball skills, Vital is also a terrific chess player.In fact, his experience on the chessboard helps him on the hardwood, where the UConn freshman has scored 31 points over the past two games, earning him American Athletic Conference rookie of the week honors.
"It kind of slows [the game] down, because in chess you do need to take your time," Vital said. "I am a fast-paced player, getting up and down, so it kind of takes me away and just slows me down, settles me down."
Vital has been playing chess since he was about 5 years old and has competed in numerous tournaments around New York City, including one in Central Park when he was about 10.
"The daycare that I was in, it was around and it kind of just clicked with me," Vital said of his introduction to chess. "Anytime I got a new phone, I'd buy the [chess] app. And I had a chessboard at home and I'd play with my family, force them to play with me. I just kept getting better, and it was fun."
While a student at The Rectory School in Pomfret four years ago, Vital won the chess tournament for the entire school. Jere Quinn, Vital's coach for his final two years of prep school at St. Thomas More, recalled Vital was in the school's chess club, as well.
"I heard he was good, but Christian says he's good at everything," Quinn quipped. "And I've seen him dance, and I know he can't dance a lick, so you can't believe everything he says."
Vital with his first-career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. #UConn leads 77-62, 47.8 seconds.— UConn Men's Hoops (@UConnMBB) January 29, 2017
And Vital says a lot. He's already a media darling a little more than halfway through his freshman season, even if he's the only healthy scholarship player not currently in the Huskies' starting lineup.
"He's in the people business," said Quinn.
That doesn't mean Vital hasn't contributed, however — particularly lately. In a win at South Florida last week, Vital notched a career-best 17 points and five steals, then backed that up with an even better all-around game against Tulane. The 6-foot-2 guard posted a double-double, with 14 points and 10 rebounds, to go with five assists and no turnovers in UConn's win over the Green Wave on Saturday night.
"I like the other things — the 10 rebounds, the five assists and no turnovers, the five steals at USF," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. "Everybody else can keep the points, but those are the things that are gonna sustain us as a group. I'm very proud of him. He's just getting better and better. He's getting some valuable minutes, and he's taking advantage of them. And that's what you have to do as a freshman."
Vital and fellow frosh Vance Jackson (the last two currently still standing from UConn's vaunted "Top Five" freshman class) are getting far more run this season than originally planned, the result of a slew of season-ending injuries, including frosh point guard Alterique Gilbert. They're making the most of it, having nabbed the last three AAC rookie of the week honors (two for Jackson, one for Vital). Vital is averaging 7.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game on the season, and those numbers are even more impressive considering an up-and-down start that saw some rough shooting nights and defensive mishaps.
"I like the toughness, I like the perseverance," Ollie said. "He's been battling for us. He was making the same mistakes over and over again earlier. As a freshman, you can't do that. Now, he's understanding our philosophies on the defensive end. He's taking open shots, he's not taking contested shots."
Added Quinn: "C.V. is a kid I always knew would figure out how to play. He brings so much energy to practice, to the game, I knew he would figure out how with K.O."Vital had originally committed to UNLV while at St. Thomas More. But after head coach Dave Rice was fired midway through last year, he rescinded his commitment and was back on the market. It came down to UConn and Louisville, and Vital wound up choosing the Huskies last April, largely based on the connection he made with Ollie.
Asked if Vital was a player after his own heart, Ollie just smiled.
"He's his own player," said the coach. "I didn't shoot the 3s and celebrate like he does. Coach would be killing me. And I wasn't shooting a lot of 3s, anyway."
Still, it's hard not to see some similarities between Vital and the type of player Ollie was more than 20 years ago at UConn.
"K.O. and C.V. are the same kind of kid," said Quinn, "somewhat of an underdog, constantly validating themselves, proving themselves, never intimidated by a challenge."
No word on how good a chess player Ollie is, though it doesn't appear Vital is playing a lot of chess these days.
"I still play, I don't keep up with it as much," he reported. "But if anyone's like, 'Do you want to play a chess game?,' I'd definitely jump to it."
Has that happened with any of his UConn teammates.
"Nah," Vital said, with a smile. "They don't want anything to do with chess."
This article is written by David Borges from New Haven Register, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.