For Christian Vital, Basketball Is A Game Of Chess

By Kelsea O'Brien | April 12, 2022
(Photo by Christian Inoferio/NBAE via Getty Images)

It is the job of a point guard to always be one step ahead of the game. To anticipate your opponent’s next move before even they know what they’re about to do. To be fearless and relentless in his quest to get to the other end of the court, and to protect his team while crushing the other. 

In the same way the king in chess is responsible for his queen, his bishops, and his pawns, the point guard is responsible for his center, his wings, his shooters, and his bench. He can never fly too close to the sun, always being mindful that his rival could knock his pieces off the board if he loses focus for even a split second. The king and the point guard are both the head of the snake on their respective courts, with their position dictating the flow of basketball and of chess.

At just five years old, Christian Vital knew what he wanted for his future. A kindergarten student in New York City, Vital vividly recalls his first basketball memory.

“I was probably about five years old and I got to play for the Junior Knicks,” Vital remembers. 

When he wasn’t mimicking the moves of his favorite Knick and fellow New York City native Stephon Marbury, the 6-foot-2 Vital could be found perfecting his craft on a different wooden floor. 

“I went to this after-school program for when your parents are working and you have to go somewhere, and I started it there,” Vital says of his introduction to chess, a game he plays competitively to this day. “They took a few of the kids to a chess tournament and I was one of them and it just started from there.”

“It’s competitive and it makes you think, but it’s competitive in a way that you don’t have to box someone out and fight for a rebound and run up and down the court. You can still compete without having to use your body.”

It is the chess-master mindset that doesn’t allow Vital – who cites Jamal Crawford and Kyrie Irving as two of his influences alongside Marbury – to reveal his next moves on the court.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but there are definitely similarities for sure,” Vital reveals of the connection between chess and basketball.

Christian Vital averaged 13.2 points and 3.5 assists in 22 minutes for the West’s No. 1 seed Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the regular season. (Photo by Mercedes Oliver/NBAE via Getty Images)

The oldest of his siblings, Christian was used to the noise and energy that create the fabric of a large family. When he left home to attend high school at Rectory School in Pomfret, Connecticut, the quiet of being on his own was a new and unusual feeling for Vital. The ability to focus on the game in front of him that chess taught him translated onto the court, where he finished with New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class AAA honors and an invitation to the Jordan Brand Classic. He had grown accustomed to his life and routine in Connecticut, finding a new familiarity in the calm away from the loving bustle of home in New York City, and committed to UConn where he continued to exercise his body through basketball and his mind through chess. 

Moving to Connecticut was only the first instance of Vital navigating life’s ups and downs by himself. 

In March of 2021, when the NBA G League announced that its season would be shortened and played in the “bubble” of Orlando, Florida, Vital had signed with the Memphis Hustle, the G League affiliate of the Memphis Grizzlies. 

Vital recalls the night before the season was scheduled to start. The buzz of anticipation and the familiar feeling reminiscent of the Junior Knicks tournaments from his youth. He remembers the walk-throughs, the plays the Hustle planned to run, and he remembers exactly what he was doing when he got the news. 

Prior to tip-off of the season, Vital had produced an inconclusive COVID test and was awaiting the results of a full scan. 

“It’s one of those things you’ll never forget,” Vital recalls. “We had practice earlier that day, and I still wasn’t technically cleared yet, so I just put up shots, I didn’t do anything. But I’m thinking that I’m going to be cleared by game time. I’ve never failed a physical, not once. I was in the treatment room in the Normatecs just watching TV, and then the head coach, the GM, and the trainer all came in and were just standing in front of me.”

The energy in the room, once calm with a hint of excitement, changed immediately. 

“I was wondering to myself ‘what is going on?’ because the room just went weird. I thought they were going to tell me I was good to go,” Christian admits, despite the shift of energy. 

“They told me that they had discovered I had a heart condition, and though everything was going to be fine, I had to sit out.”

A dream that once seemed so closely within reach was suddenly pulled away, and once again, Christian Vital found himself alone. 

“Because of the timing of it, I was going to miss out on my rookie season. It was nasty. I was waiting for this moment my whole life.”

Never one to dwell on things out of his control, or to read a setback as a final conclusion, Vital found the positive in the most negative situation that life had ever dealt him. He stayed the course and could be seen on the bench during each of the Hustle’s games in the bubble, cheering for his team and talking to his teammates during timeouts or on the bench.

Christian Vital embraces former Memphis Hustle teammate Ahmad Caver following a G League game between the Hustle and Vipers in December. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

“It was a tough situation, but I’m glad I went through it,” he said. “I took it as time that I got to spend with my family, honestly. After four years at prep school and four years at university, I hadn’t been with my family for so long. It was really a blessing in disguise.”

Vital credits the Memphis organization for their care and attention during the bubble and after, and for introducing him to the business side of professional sports. “They took care of me, they were really supportive and I appreciate everything they did for me. And in professional sports, you don’t always go back to the team you signed to the year before, especially in the G League. So I’m glad I learned that in my first year instead of thinking I’m going to be on the same team forever.”

One of Vital’s first phone calls after the diagnosis was to veteran point guard and recently traded NBA superstar, John Wall, whom Vital had trained with leading up to his rookie season and who had taught him the ins and outs of playing with the pros. In a kismet coincidence, the door that once seemed bolted shut was again opened with Wall standing on the other side. 

The Houston Rockets had expressed long-term interest in Vital, and with his stint with Memphis now a lesson in patience, they jumped at the opportunity to sign him to their G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Wall, who was traded to Houston in December of 2020 but who had been a mentor to Vital since his days in Washington, was now just a short drive away. 

Slowly, the liveliness of growing up in a big family in New York City and the solitude that had become routine began to intertwine for Vital, and his virtuous patience and critical thinking were integral in the melding of the two. He never got too high or abandoned his responsibilities as a leader, even when the pieces didn’t fall in his favor. He was methodical with his moves to the very end, knowing that what he did in the past would set him up for success in the future. 

Just like a game of chess.

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