Contrary to what his last name might indicate, Chris Sterling was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Far from it.
Silver spoons are in short supply where the former Delano High basketball star grew up as one of 10 children in a neighborhood he refers to as the “Westside of Bakersfield.” Located in the southwest corner of Union and California avenues, it is in the heart of one of the most impoverished, high-crime areas in the city.
But privileged or not, Sterling has proven to be as resourceful as he is talented, navigating through a series of hardships, all the while, keeping his dream of playing professional basketball alive.
His latest opportunity landed a few weeks ago, when the 6-foot-5 guard was drafted in the third round by Satya Wacana, a professional team in the Indonesian Basketball League.
It’s a long way from the NBA by any measure — but Sterling sees it as a possible stepping stone.
“I know I’m going to have a good year,” said Sterling, who tried out for the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers G League affiliates last year. “But the way I’m looking at it is, I’m going to kill this league. And with my stats and my film, I’m hoping that it gives me another opportunity to get into the G League. And of course you have to prove yourself (once you get there). So that’s kind of what I want to do.”
Playing overseas was the furthest thing from Sterling’s mind more than a decade ago, when personal tragedy shook him to his core.
First his grandmother died. She had been a steadying influence in his life, helping fill the void of a non-existent father, and a mother struggling with alcohol and drug dependency, Chris said.
A few weeks later, his older brother, Victor, was shot and killed. Victor, a 17-year-old student at Vista High and member of the Bloods street gang, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Chris explained, when members of the rival Crips gunned him down near Norm’s Market on 8th and L streets.
Needless to say, it was a life-changing event for Sterling, who was a 15-year-old freshman at Bakersfield High at the time.
“At the time, I had a million thoughts going through my head because there was so much going on,” Sterling said. “And me being in the ‘hood, I was thinking, I could end up just like my brother. From there I was kind of house to house, living with different friends, trying to stay out of the situation. It all kind of happened pretty fast. So pretty much the rest of high school I was all over Bakersfield.”
Sterling’s situation was compounded when he was suspended from school for fighting a classmate.
“Someone was saying some very disrespectful stuff about my brother because my brother was involved in gangs,” said Sterling of his altercation with a student affiliated with the Crips. “I didn’t care that they were speaking on the gang stuff, it just hurt me when they were speaking (about) my brother. He had just passed and it was new to me.
“From there, I didn’t go back (to BHS) because (the Crips put) a hit out on me. People were saying they were going to try and kill me.”
Through a strange turn of events, Sterling wound up in Delano. He temporarily moved in with the parents of one of his AAU teammates, where he was eventually introduced to Delano High basketball coach Aaron Estrada.
Estrada, who has been coaching in one capacity or another at Delano since 1996, immediately took a liking to Sterling, and the feeling was mutual.
“I consider him a son; part of my family,” said Estrada, Delano’s all-time leading scorer who went on to play at Cal State Bakersfield. “He did everything I asked him to do. Study wise, he did his best in school, he was never a discipline problem. All his teachers love him and they still ask about him; 'how he’s doing?' He was just a great person to have on campus.
“Forget basketball, the fact that he was very personable; very likable. Everyone just gravitated toward him on campus. He was just a really tremendous person to have at our school. A great guy and I miss him. I see him when I can. I use to watch him play all the time in college and we still keep in touch.”
Sterling added, “Instantly, he played a big, big role as far as coaching and guiding me at a young age. Being like a father-figure to me. Just, he was there for me. He was like the only one that really believed in me and that I could make it somewhere. So when I saw that he had so much faith, then my faith grew and I thought I might be able to do something with this. I just stuck with it.”
But things weren’t easy for the two at first.
“I felt that he needed tough love,” Estrada said. “He needed discipline. Not that he was running wild, but he needed discipline on the court. He was a fantastic talent, but he had to learn the fundamentals. It’s a routine. He needed structure with a basketball routine. So I felt like I could help him with that.
“And it was tough. His junior year was really tough. He was being coached (from the stands) by other people in his life, and I told him you have to make a decision here. Either you stick with me or you keep listening to all those other people in the stands, and it’s not going to work. I’m willing to help you, but we’re not going to fight; we’re not going to argue on the court. So we settled that toward the end of his junior year.”
Despite some conflicts, the 6-foot-2 Sterling had an amazing debut in his first varsity season, averaging 22.8 points and 8.2 rebounds.
“We would sell out our games just because the kids wanted to see him dunk,” Estrada said. “Every home game was packed. And he delivered. We did a highlight video (of all his dunks) that season.”
Sterling’s senior year was even better. He averaged 24.3 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, earning him interest from more than a few Division I scouts.
“Once he bought into me, things just took off,” Estrada said. “It exploded when he started to only focus on what I was telling him. It made it simple for him. Before he was being pulled in the wrong direction. Once he started to trust me, he only had one direction now.
“I told him ‘you can be a great college player and a great pro, but you’re going to listen, and you’re not going to make faces and you’re not going to pout. You’re going to listen and you’re going to go forward.' And he’s done a great job of doing that.”
After a year at Fresno City College, Sterling transferred to San Jose City College where he was named conference MVP. He earned a scholarship to Arizona Christian, where he led the Golden State Athletic Conference in scoring and was named to the NAIA All-American honorable mention team.
He followed up his successful collegiate career with a year playing professionally in Spain and another with the semi-pro Kansas City Tornadoes of The Basketball League (TBL).
Despite his success, Sterling has struggled at times to find the right opportunity to further his career. This summer he worked as a retail clerk and for a construction company in Arizona.
“They’re pretty much tearing up the street and laying down new asphalt and oil,” Sterling said. “I was kind of like a driver, sometimes have to put the oil down by hand. It wasn’t like really hard, tough labor work, but … in 100 degrees, in long sleeves, jeans and a vest …”
To Sterling it’s all apart of the process. Like his life so far, a journey to the next stop.
“I did everything I could to stay out of certain situations,” Sterling said. “Because I didn’t want to end up like my brother or get caught up in the gangs, just being out on the streets. That’s why I just made sure I was on top of everything. Everything I went through from the couches to the floors, house to house with different friends, I just felt like that’s what I had to go through to get to where I want to go because you know no one’s going to do it for me.”