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University of San Francisco Dons guard Charles Minlend has come out of his shell

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San Francisco Dons guard Charles Minlend Jr. warms up before a game against Harvard on Nov. 21, 2018. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

When his father became one of the more popular players for KCC Basketball in Jeonju, South Korea, Charles Minlend Jr. became well-known among fans, and a fixture in courtside seats.

As halftime was winding down during a 2004 game at Jeonju Arena, Charles Sr. exited the home locker room, only to see that the in-arena emcee had plucked his son out of the stands. He watched as Charles Jr. was asked if he knew the lyrics to a 50 Cent song. Of course he did. Lyrics were his thing. He took the mic and started rapping.

“There had to be 10,000 people there,” said the younger Minlend. “I was walking up and down like I owned the whole place.”

The younger Minlend is now a redshirt sophomore at San Francisco, and ranks 15th in the West Coast Conference in scoring with 14.4 points per game, leading a Dons team off to its best start in 37 years. He dances and laughs his way through warm-ups. He’ll shake hands with opposing fans as they leave the arena and thank them for coming. After spending the first nine years of his life abroad, then attending 10 different schools back in the United States, Minlend, exceedingly bright and yet, long painfully introverted, has finally found a home in San Francisco.

“People always called me weird,” Minlend said. “I think partially because I grew up out of the country when I was a kid, and traveling around a lot, I’ve never been in the same place for very long. I don’t give in to societal pressures of any kind. If I enjoy doing something, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. I’ll just do it.”

Minlend’s father was the 10th-leading career rebounder in St. John’s history before heading overseas to pursue a professional career. Charles Jr.’s early life was spent shuttling between the family home in Florida to France, Israel, South Korea and the Ukraine. For the younger Minlend, one of four children, it was a bit isolating.

“I really didn’t have that many friends growing up,” the younger Minlend said. “Basketball, really, it felt like my best friend.”

Minlend bonded closely with his father. They played one-on-one after games in empty arenas — games that evolved into one-on-one wars in the driveway once they got back to the States — and the elder Minlend would take his son with him on team bus trips.

“After one of his games, we’d go on his bus, and everybody was screaming, taking pictures while we’re walking up to the bus, and I felt like I was part of the team,” the younger Minlend said.

Minlend would watch film in hotel rooms with his father, who showed him the kind of preparation it took to be a professional basketball player.

“You can’t make a kid love a sport. You can’t. It has to come from within,” the elder Minlend said.

Minlend would dine with the team, and became, as the elder Minlend said, “the 11th man.”

“I was talking to the guys all the time,” the younger Minlend said. “It really made me want to play so much, because my dad, he was a hero to me.”

Being homeschooled with his siblings was beneficial for his education, and he began to read broadly, but he didn’t have any friends his own age.

“You definitely learn how to entertain yourself if you can’t communicate with anybody,” Minlend said.

He began writing poetry, and obsessed over music and song lyrics, often writing his own verses down in a notebook.

“Music has always been a huge thing for me, especially when I was moving around a lot and not talking to people,” he said.

*****

Minlend only started playing organized basketball at the age of 10, once his father’s career was over and the family moved back to the United States on a permanent basis. Minlend attended three different elementary schools and three different middle schools, before being recruited to play as a freshman at Davidson Day School in Davidson, North Carolina, when the family moved to Concord, North Carolina.

With multiple hourlong trips per day — to early morning practice, back from school and back and forth to evening practice — the commute became too much for the elder Minlend and his wife.

Then, Northside Christian Academy in Charlotte came calling. Before his first season with Northside, the family went on a vacation to Cameroon. When they got back, they found that two upperclassmen guards had been recruited over Minlend, who was relegated to mop-up duty, averaging just three points per game.

In the final three minutes of a 35-point blowout, Minlend dared to drive the lane and take his own shot. He was dressed down by his coach after the game on the floor, and in the locker room front of his teammates.

“Most of the teams I’ve been on, my teammates didn’t like me,” Charles Jr. said. “I think it was a combination of things. One, I didn’t really care what people thought about me for a lot of reasons … Plus, I was always the new guy, and I’ve always drawn a lot of attention to myself when I’m playing on the court.”

The elder Minlend heard Northside’s coach tell his son he didn’t need him, so decided that Charles Jr. would transfer. He landed at Concord First Assembly, another private school in the same league. His first game was against his former school. He had 10 points and five rebounds in a loss. His former coach wouldn’t even shake his hand afterwards.

“I think that was one of the most intense games I’ve ever played in my life, even now,” Minlend said. “Every time I touched the ball, the whole team would literally stand up on the bench and start yelling.”

The teams met again in the state title, and although his team lost, Minlend went from averaging three points per game to 10 his first half-season with Concord, and then 20 as a junior and 24 senior, when he finally got the better of his former program, winning the school’s first state title. He scored more than 30 points. He held the trophy for three hours after the game finished.

Soon, upwards of 20 schools had offered him a scholarship. Minnesota, Rutgers George Washington and Kansas State came in. Stanford came to visit, given Minlend’s sterling 4.5 grade point average, but no offer came. Yale made an in-home visit, which spooked Kyle Smith, then the head coach at Columbia.

Smith — now the head coach for the Dons — had seen Minlend play a dozen times for his independent AAU team — the type of team most major college coaches don’t see — and didn’t want to face him twice a year in the Ivy League. He didn’t have a scholarship to give, so, he called St. John’s and practically begged the Red Storm to recruit the son of one of their greatest rebounders. No such luck.

Charles Sr. didn’t think his son was ready to play college ball, emotionally or physically, being just 17 when he graduated high school.

Minlend initially agreed with his father, that he needed an extra year, and so he enrolled at Fork Union Military Academy.

*****

The one year at Fork Union felt like three. Barred from having his cell phone, Minlend spent much of his down time alone, reading, or just thinking. He started writing for the student newspaper. As the youngest on the team, he again felt like the outsider.

He devoured books by Malcolm Gladwell and Tim Grover, favoring Gladwell because he always looked at things from a different perspective.

Minlend admitted that he wore a mask, of sorts. He hid his loneliness as he led the team in scoring, averaging close to 20 points per game against players two years his senior.

“To be completely honest, I wasn’t that cool with my teammates until after the season was over,” Minlend said. “It was just a different experience. I wasn’t used to having teammates that I talk to. I was never really friends with my teammates. I was there, so I tried to make it the best situation I could, as best as possible. It was a hard year, but I definitely had fun when I was there, too. It wasn’t all terrible, but it was hard.”

“Maybe he has a harsher opinion of himself, then, which isn’t surprising given how high-achieving he is,” said Fork Union head coach Matthew Donohue. “Charles was pretty outgoing and always got along well with everyone. I don’t really remember him being much of a loner. He always had a big smile on his face. He was really competitive and really driven.”

Minlend’s recruiting buzz, though, had cooled, until there were only offers from Murray State, George Washington and Western Kentucky.

The younger Minlend hadn’t even heard about the Dons until Smith reached out in late April, soon after taking the he job at San Francisco. Less than two weeks later, in early May of 2016, Minlend was on campus, marveling at the history of the 1951 football team that went undefeated, but refused to play in the 1952 Orange Bowl because none of their African-American stars would be allowed to play.

As he walked around campus during his recruiting trip, the younger Minlend passed the Lone Mountain residence hall. On a lamp post outside, he saw a banner: “Change the world from here.” He took a photo of it, and it was his phone’s lock screen background for four months. He committed on the trip.

“I don’t know why that really stuck with me,” he said. “I’ve always been a kid who’s had extremely high aspirations and dreams. I think owning things like that is really cool, and I liked how the university did that. It really stood out to me.”

While taking a tour in France as part of the team’s summer swing through Europe in the summer of 2016 — Minlend’s first with the Dons — Smith was watching his first ever recruit on the Hilltop.

“He starts speaking French with someone on the street,” Smith said. “He grew up in France, but he was like, ‘I can understand it, but I’m going to work on it.’ … He engaged in conversation and the vice president of the school is like, ‘My goodness, who are you signing?’”

*****

In his first year, Minlend was named to the WCC’s All-Freshman team, averaging 10.0 points as the Dons’ third-leading scorer and the third-highest scoring freshman in the conference behind BYU’s T.J. Haws and Gonzaga’s Zack Collins. His scoring average ranked tied for ninth on San Francisco’s single-season freshmen list.

That June, the last week of training before he returned to North Carolina, Minlend was trying to max out by lifting 225 pounds in the bench press. Unable to get it the first two times, he went for a third, and felt a pop in his right shoulder. Two days later, an MRI showed a torn labrum.

“I’ve always had so much fun just playing, and not being able to play for an entire year was really, really hard for me, because there are people that like basketball a lot, but I didn’t really have that many friends growing up, and basketball was what I gravitated towards,” Minlend said.

For the first time, though, he had teammates around him who didn’t just accept his dancing on the court, his singing in the locker room and his eclectic tastes; they embraced them. They supported their weird teammate.

“[He’s weird] in a good way,” said point guard Frankie Ferrari. “He’s into certain things — art, music, he’s very spiritual — and he’s just a different personality. I think it helps him on the court, because I think he’s able to stay level-headed.”

As he spent a year on the sidelines, Minlend grew closer to his teammates, and to his fellow students.

“It’s so weird. It’s so weird for me,” Minlend said. “I’m not going to lie. I don’t even know how to react, because I see people, and I know so many people, and I’ve never been in a place where I’ve known so many people before.”

The Dons advanced to the College Basketball Invitational finals, only to lose in a three-game championship series to North Texas. In the locker room afterwards, everybody hugged. Many cried. Minlend, his arm sling off, embraced his teammates.

“I remember telling them that I’ve never been on a team where I’ve been accepted like that before,” Minlend said. “One of the reasons why I didn’t communicate that much with other people is that I’m kind of a different guy. I’m not like everybody else, and I’m not afraid to admit that.

“People always called me weird, and the thing is, the guys on the team here have called me weird too, but they still embrace me. I’ve never been on a team like that before. I told them that. I said I’m with them, no matter what happens.”

About a month ago, as Ferrari was driving around the city, he came across a curious site: An individual dressed in USF gear, headphones on, in his own world, was dancing his way up the sidewalk towards campus.

Ferrari pulled alongside the dancer, and realized it was Minlend.

“Spinning around like Michael Jackson, by himself,” Ferrari said. “He’s doing a full music video by himself, walking down the street. I’m like, ‘Charles, what are you doing?’ He says, ‘I’m having fun.’”

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