20130429-135523.jpgThis time last year, Chris Copeland was just another guy on the fringes of basketball hoping to impress somebody, anybody in the NBA enough to get a decent look.

Now, he’s a featured free-agent signee with a two-year, $6.135 million contract, the centerpiece of a rebuilt bench, for an Indiana Pacers team expecting to contend for an NBA championship.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” Copeland said. “It’s a how-did-I-get-here type of situation.”

How indeed?

Last July, Copeland averaged 13.8 points for a team that, even by summer league standards, was inept. The Knicks went 0-5 in Las Vegas, losing by an average margin of 16.2 points. But he played well enough to merit an invitation to training camp, which turned out to be the crack in the door he needed.

Top-heavy with big salaries, the Knicks needed some low-budget items to fill out the roster. And so, after bouncing around Europe for the better part of five years, Copeland finally landed in the NBA.

And he did with both feet.

He was in and out of the rotation before the All-Star break but a fixture thereafter. When the Knicks’ lineup was thinned by injuries, Copeland stepped in and played the final 23 games, starting seven. The Knicks finished 17-6, including a 13-game winning streak that pushed them past the Pacers in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, while Copeland averaged 11.9 points and shot .474 from the 3-point line.

In the final seven games of the regular season, he averaged 20.1 points, but when the playoffs came, he went back to an inconsistent role. Copeland started Game 1 of the first round against Boston but went scoreless and returned to the bench, where he languished until midway through the second-round matchup with the Pacers.

He scored 28 points in 50 minutes in the final three games of the series, hitting 8-of-13 threes.

And now, lo and behold, he is sleeping with the enemy, so to speak.

>> PUTTING MORE POWER IN THE FORWARD

When Pacers officials first met with Copeland on a free agent recruiting trip, reports circulated he told Coach Frank Vogel he hated Indiana for beating the Knicks.

“I never said I hated the Pacers,” Copeland said with a smile. “But I’m a competitor, I’ll be honest. It was definitely a tough decision but I saw a lot of promise with this team and I think it’s going to be a great situation going forward. I never said I hated (them), though.”

The Pacers certainly like his 3-point shooting – his .421 accuracy last season was 13th in the NBA and far better than anyone on their roster. His ability to play both forward spots gives them the flexibility to use a spread offensive lineup with the second unit, a grouping that gave them matchup problems last season, particularly in the playoffs against the Knicks and Heat.

Copeland believes there is much more to his game than just shooting. He is working with Ben Wallace with the intent on putting more power in this 6-8, 225-pound forward. Defense and rebounding, two Indiana bedrocks, have not been his strengths and Copeland is looking to change that.

“We all know what type of guy Ben was and I think I can learn a lot from him on the defensive end,” Copeland said. “Also, just getting stronger, following a lot of his routines in the weight room, that’s something I’m trying to mimic throughout the summer and hopefully it will pay off next year.”

He will make another change, as well. After wearing jersey No. 14 with the Knicks, he will switch to 22 with the Pacers as a tribute to his older brother Vincent, who was killed at that age by a hit-and-run driver.

>> ‘IT TOOK A VILLAGE’ TO KEEP DREAM ALIVE

Chris Copeland meets the media Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Chris Copeland meets the media Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

This is the first time Copeland will enter a season with a guaranteed contract, certainty about a roster spot and the promise of a significant role. At age 29, after a modest college career at Colorado, after learning the importance of discipline, detail and focus in Europe, after proving he belonged in the NBA with New York, Copeland has a chance to climb yet another rung on the ladder.

Heady stuff for a basketball career that nearly came to an end in 2007, when he was cut twice in two months by teams in Spain and strongly considered giving up the dream.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it,” Copeland said. “But I had a great circle of people behind me. I’ve always believed in my abilities, even in times when it didn’t look like it was going to work out. …

“It took a village. No one’s more important than my mom (Terry). That’s my heart right there. At the end of the day, she’s the one that kept my head. She always says when things get rough ‘you’re working on your story.’ She’s said that since I was a kid. She always said big things would come in the future and it was one of things things where, ‘yeah, right, mom’ but it kind of worked out a little bit.”

This is not a guy that wants to run, or hide, from his past. He keeps in contact with his former coaches and many of his teammates. In two seasons in Germany, coach Yves Defraigne was the man that sharpened Copeland’s soft edges. In Belgium, coach Brad Dean was the man that turned loose his offensive game.

Without all of them, Copeland knows he would not have been on the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse Monday, talking about his new team, his new future.

“It’s hard not to reflect every day and see where you’re at. You’re going to hear it all year: I’m blessed. I look up every day and thank God for being here,” he said.

“It makes me more appreciative and I also just think I learned a lot from being over there in those situations, about the game. The coaching and the teammates that I’ve had over there have helped school me in a lot of areas and help make me the player I am today. And hopefully I have a lot more climbing to do.”

If he is as good a player as he is a story, Copeland’s dream won’t be the only one realized in Indiana.

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