By John Denton
Oct. 14, 2017
ORLANDO – So often in those two years while playing in Turkey and Greece and the countless instances when he was painfully homesick, Khem Birch worried that his NBA dream was dead and he’d never play basketball in North America again.
For many of those reasons, Birch was both stunned and staggered by the phone call that he received late Friday night while walking back to his apartment in downtown Orlando.
When Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, GM John Hammond and head coach Frank Vogel called to tell the power forward that he had made the squad’s opening-night roster, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Birch was reduced to a sobbing, emotional mess. Finally, he thought after managing to collect himself a bit, the dreams of playing in the NBA were a reality.
“I teared up a little bit and I called my mom immediately, I called my agent and called my best friend. I had no (outward) emotion because I was just so happy,’’ said Birch, who will be in a Magic uniform on Wednesday night when Orlando hosts the Miami Heat in the regular-season opener. “When you’re (overseas) you never think you are going to come back home, so the fact that I’m here this year is an amazing feeling. But it’s not like I’ve done anything yet and I’m not relaxed.’’
Birch, a native of Montreal, Quebec, and someone who attended high school in Massachusetts and college at the University of Pittsburg, made the Magic with the defensive toughness he displayed in limited minutes this preseason. Despite playing just 41 minutes in five games, Birch averaged 2.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 rebounds. That defensive mindset and his impressive feel around the rim led the Magic to waiving veteran forward Damjan Rudez and guard Kalin Lucas so that Birch could stay on the roster.
As difficult as it was for Vogel to tell Rudez and Lucas that they had been cut, the coach reveled in breaking the news to Birch that he was on the roster.
“He was humbled and emotional. He teared up a little bit, it gave me chills and that’s one of the rewarding parts of this job,’’ said Vogel, whose Magic practiced on Saturday after struggling a night earlier in a 113-106 preseason-ending loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “When you’ve got to tell a guy that he’s not coming back, that’s the hardest part. But the most exciting thing is when you have a guy who hasn’t made a roster yet and he gets tears in his eyes and that he can’t wait to tell his parents – that’s pretty exciting.’’
Undrafted in 2014, Birch spent a season in the NBA’s minor leagues, playing for the Sioux Falls (S.D.) SkyForce. When no NBA teams showed interest after two stints in Summer League, he headed to Turkey where he averaged 10.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game. That didn’t draw NBA interest, but it did earn him a contract with Greek powerhouse, Olympiacos, where he averaged 5.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocked shots a game.
While he dearly missed home and longed to the play in the NBA instead of in Europe, Birch – now 25 years old – picked up some valuable experience and maturity that helped him greatly in training camp with the Magic. In his first preseason game in an Orlando uniform, he blocked three Memphis Grizzlies’ shots. He followed with four more blocks in games against Dallas and Miami, showing the Magic coaching staff how he could help the team.
“It was clear to us that Khem separated himself using his ability to do what he does,’’ Vogel said. “He has a great feel for the game as big man, understanding the plan of a rolling big who will crash on everything. He also has a feel for pocket passing and making the extra (pass). He really showed a surprising level of understanding of what’s expected of our centers defensively. He had a great discipline in blocking shots and impacting games with his energy every time that he came in. He had a really strong camp.’’
Birch said that while he didn’t realize it at the time, his time playing professionally in the G League and in Europe helped him immensely in adapting to the speed and physicality of the NBA game. Officially, eh’s listed as a rookie, but he’s far from that designation because of his overseas experience.
“It’s so different for me now because I see guys like Jonathan (Isaac) and Wes (Iwundu) in the weight room struggling and that’s how it was for me four years ago,’’ Birch said, referring to the Magic’s other two rookies. “When I first came out of college, the (NBA) game was so fast. The (European) game was obviously different, but the speed was the same. My game has matured now because of that.’’
The Magic have 16 players on their roster, including injured big man Adreian Payne, who signed a two-way contract with the Magic and the Lakeland Magic of the G League. With fellow centers Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo and Marreese Speights already on the Orlando roster, Birch will also likely spend time in Lakeland this season to keep his skills sharp. With Lakeland in close proximity to Orlando – a first for the franchise after it moved the G League franchise from Erie, Pa. – the Magic will be able to get Birch game minutes on certin nights without him missing practice time with the parent NBA club.
Regardless of whether he’s playing in the NBA or the G League, Birch said his difficult journey to get here will keep him hungry this season.
“I’m always going to be ready and I’m always going to work out hard,’’ Birch said, referring to the sweat sessions he expects to put in before and after practices and even on days when the team is off. “I’m never going to be satisfied or anything. Right now, I still feel like I haven’t made it. I still feel like I have a lot to do, a lot to gain and a lot to improve on. I’m really not satisfied at all.’’
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