Claudette Sutherland sits in her son’s vacant bedroom in her Lehigh Acres, Florida, home.
Her eyes, filled with tears, scan the awards and newspaper clippings posted on his walls as she reflects on the recent events in her youngest child’s life.
A basketball clipping from a 2015 News-Press article reads “Dunbar Senior Chris Sutherland is All-State Second Team” and another that is a simple headshot of Sutherland as a high school senior, sporting a white Nike headband and dawning a medal around his neck, this clipping highlighting his District 2A-12 third-place finish in high jump.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Claudette said.
Claudette’s youngest son is Christopher Sutherland and at the time of this conversation, he was about 30 minutes away from taking the court in Knoxville, Tennessee, as a member of the University of Florida men’s basketball team.
The 6-foot-3 graduate student gained notoriety in Gainesville after a video of him went viral on Jan. 17.
It featured Sutherland — a team manager at the time — standing in a circle at center court of the team’s practice facility with UF managers, players and coaches.
Coach Mike White had just finished speaking to the team and asked if there was anything else somebody wanted to talk about.
That’s when guard Noah Locke stepped forward with a UF basketball home jersey featuring the No. 34.
“I’m grateful for all the managers, (I’m) also grateful for a manager to be on the team now, Wavy,” Locke said, referencing Sutherland by his nickname.
The two embraced in a hug when Locke presented Sutherland with his new uniform — before being rushed by the rest of the team in celebration.
Sutherland knew he had gotten the roster spot since the fall, however, and restrained himself from telling any of his future teammates because he was afraid that, like so many times before, his dream would crumble beneath his feet. But this time, it was happening.
“I thought he was joking (with) me at first,” Sutherland said when recalling White asking him if he wanted to join the team. “It was a dream I kind of gave up on.”
The dream that manifested in that moment was only reached after sacrifice and almost five years of conviction — and not just from Sutherland.
Sutherland, originally from Queens, New York, relocated to Florida with his mother and two older siblings in 2008. Sutherland’s father, Devon C., stayed home.
Devon, a control operator at Consolidated Edison for 34 years, kept working to provide for his family.
Sutherland wanted his father around more, but he knew that Devon struggled living away from his family.
“My father’s work ethic is really what stuck with me — a man that was willing to sacrifice, probably his own happiness really, to make sure his family is good,” Sutherland said.
While Devon was in New York, Claudette manned the home front in Florida and took care of their three children. She also holds jobs as both a real estate agent and caterer.
Sutherland recalled his parents’ work ethic as an integral part of his upbringing that ultimately drove his aspirations to play Division I basketball.
“I didn’t want their sacrifice to go to waste,” he said.
A four-year varsity basketball player at Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Florida, he averaged 15.7 points per game his senior year in 2015. Despite his key role in the Tigers’ run to the state semifinals, Sutherland had no Division I scholarship offers.
Undeterred, he declined a D2 scholarship to Belmont Abbey College and opted to attend the University of Florida as a student, planning to walk on the men’s basketball team.
“When he started the summer of ‘15, he wanted to fly,” Claudette said when recalling her son’s high hopes at UF.
Sutherland’s summer expectations only left him with a heartbreaking fall. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to walk on to the basketball and track-and-field teams his freshman year.
The 22-year-old says that he struggled being without both family and basketball for the first time in his life. With his mother and siblings in Lehigh Acres and his father in New York, Sutherland was left with nothing but self-reflection in Gainesville.
Universally known as outgoing and charismatic, Sutherland admitted that he was a “shell of himself” at this stage in his life.
“I lost myself,” he said. “I didn’t know who I was. I kind of went to a dark space of trying to find out who I was without the game.”
Claudette remembered that she knew something was wrong when he didn’t make either team. But she recalled who her son was.
He’s someone who graduated in the top-10 percent of his class, someone who was taking multiple Advanced Placement classes, and someone who, after coming home from both high jump and basketball practice, would go over his basketball plays in his free time.
Claudette never had a doubt.
“He knows what he wants, and he knows where he's going, he’s driven,” she said. “He has that internal determination, and he knows where he wants to go. And if it doesn't work out, then he’ll work towards it.”
So, Sutherland got to work.
If he couldn’t play for the Gators, then he would do everything humanly possible to change that.
Unable to stay away from the game, Sutherland joined the Rowdy Reptiles, a club at UF that revolves around the men’s basketball team, in 2015. He was also a referee for intramural basketball at the UF Southwest Recreation Center.
He went on to work at the O’Connell Center in 2016 where he was eventually promoted to supervisor for the event staff. While with the Rowdy Reptiles, Sutherland took his first big step toward that walk-on dream of his.
He heard about a 3-on-3 tournament at UF where the winners got to play the men’s basketball coaches. The ambitious undergrad didn’t hesitate and assembled a team that won the tourney.
Finally. A chance to prove to White and the rest of the staff that he deserved a roster spot. White immediately recalled Sutherland’s defense when the two were matched up against one another.
“I quickly learned I didn’t want him guarding me, so we tried to get him to a ball-screen mismatch, so I could get a shot off,” White said.
That’s not how Sutherland remembers it.
The UF coaching staff dominated the game and won by 30 points, according to Sutherland, and he specifically remembers his pride taking a major hit when the father of five pulled up and connected from three-point range while defending him. He specifically recalls it because the play made it on Florida's basketball highlight reel on social media.
“He was nice, I’m not going to lie,” Sutherland said, referring to White’s game.
Despite the blowout loss, White and company took note of Sutherland and invited him to the summer coaching clinic that the team hosted in the summer of 2018. At this point, Sutherland was also a practice player with the women’s team.
His relentlessness to get involved paid off, and he was named a team manager before the start of the 2018 season. Other coaches noticed Sutherland’s skill on the court during the clinic.
“We host the coaching clinics every summer and we’ve had a couple of coaches come up to us and say, ‘what if we got him to transfer?’ you know, ‘does he have any eligibility left?’” White said.
Finally, in the fall of 2019, White asked Sutherland if he wanted to walk on the team as a graduate student. That’s when the four-year journey he had been on came to a screeching halt.
Overwhelmed, Sutherland needed to speak to his parents. More than just a roster spot was hanging in the balance.
“There were conversations for a couple of weeks there,” White said. “We had to jump through some hoops from an NCAA standpoint to make sure that he was going to be eligible to be a roster guy. It just took a little time.”
At the time, Sutherland had already received a $5,000 scholarship as a team manager and had even started his own business, Wavy Tings. Sutherland started the style brand to have some more money in his pocket while pursuing his master’s degree in sports management.
The graduate student would have to give back his scholarship and give up his business in order to be eligible. He called his parents the night of the offer and asked them for advice.
Sutherland was concerned about the financials of it all. He was going to have to pay roughly $11,000 for his degree over the fall and spring, and without any income of his own, he wasn’t sure if it was feasible.
Sutherland’s parents, on the other hand, showed no hesitation.
He spoke to his mother first, and she told him to take the offer — citing it was a dream she had seen him chase for far too long to say no. His father was no different and assured him that money wouldn't be an issue.
“I told him don’t worry about it,” Devon said. “Whatever he needs, I’ll be in a position to provide for him financially.”
That night, Sutherland texted White to tell him he was ready to take on the new role for the team.
And during the spring semester, that fateful day came.
Like any other Thursday practice, the players and coaches were in the film room preparing for Saturday’s matchup while the team managers were waiting on the court to go through stretches.
Sutherland and the other managers had set up the court and he recalled simply lying on the floor staring at the ceiling waiting for the players to come out.
He noticed that they were taking longer than usual and expected that this could be when the team finally made the announcement. However, he didn’t expect the jersey. When he saw it, he recalled the tears he had cried, the work he had put in and the constant doubting of his decision to chase this dream. Now, that dream hung in front of him in the form of a white polyester UF home jersey with the No. 34 emblazoned on it.
He had done it.
“It was surreal, it was unbelievable,” Sutherland said.
Locke, one of the few players who knew Sutherland had gotten the roster spot, is also one of the sophomores from the 2018 recruiting class that Sutherland is especially close to. Locke, along with guard Andrew Nembhard and forward Keyontae Johnson, joined the team the same year Sutherland did as a manager, and the group grew close as they navigated life as part of their new team.
Johnson has since said that his favorite moment of this basketball season was when Sutherland appeared in the game against Auburn and the walk-on remembers that moment all too well.
It was a Saturday afternoon game at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville. The Gators were hosting then-No. 4 Auburn in a Jan. 18 matchup that many expected Florida to lose.
But the underdog Gators upset the Tigers in blowout fashion, and with the game all but over, Sutherland got the call.
While on the bench sitting next to Jason Jitoboh, the center asked Sutherland if he had his jersey under his warm-up jumpsuit, to which Sutherland replied yes. Jitoboh said he was just “making sure.”
Sutherland didn’t think he would check in until he heard, “Wavy get in,” from White.
“I was not prepared at all.”
Sutherland was able to take his jumpsuit off after it got stuck on his arm and revealed an untucked No. 34 jersey with no name on the back when he made his way to the scorer’s table. The fans didn’t seem to mind the lack of name. They welcomed the Queens native with thunderous applause.
He replaced Johnson on the floor and was told by the referee he was not allowed to wear the wrist bands he had on. Sutherland had to quickly throw them away so play could resume.
Once the jitters stopped, the guard had nothing to be bashful about on the hardwood.
“I wasn’t nervous on the floor, it’s just basketball,” he said. “I’ve played basketball my whole life.”
After the 69-47 drubbing, Sutherland had over 100 notifications on his phone coming in the form of phone calls, texts and direct messages via social media.
“That’s when it sunk in,” he said. “I really did this.”
Sutherland also appeared in the Vanderbilt game on Feb. 15 and even appeared in the scoring column after splitting a pair of free throws. He never had to score a point, grab a board or make a stop on this team to make an impact, though.
If you watched carefully throughout the season, you’d see Sutherland is one of the most active players even without registering a single minute.
He has been christened the “next play guy” by White because of his constant activity on the bench.
No matter if the play is disastrous or electric, you will see Sutherland rise to his feet on the sidelines and cheer on his teammates.
“If they’re looking at the bench, I want them to be able to see somebody that’s cheering them on and trying to motivate them,” Sutherland said. “I don’t want them to look at the bench and be seeing heads down or somebody upset that they did something. I want them to see somebody encouraging, clapping them on and yelling, ‘Hey, next play!’”
After years of working for that roster spot, White has nothing but praise for his “next play guy.”
“What a great story. Infectious energy,” White said when describing Sutherland. “If you were to walk in the gym, you’d hear him. Immediately you’d hear him.
“You want guys like that in your program.”
Sutherland’s story came full circle on March 7.
Just four years prior, as a supervisor at the O’Connell Center, Sutherland would have been responsible for making sure Senior Day ran smoothly by setting up the court and cleaning up afterwards. He would have watched as a staff member while senior basketball players were given their final farewell to the O’Dome and its fans.
But on this Senior Day, it was his turn.
In UF’s regular season finale against then-No. 6 Kentucky, Sutherland was honored on Senior Day with a video tribute before walking to center court along with his parents and older brother to meet White, who presented him with a framed No. 34 jersey.
The former Rowdy Reptile and women’s basketball practice player held the uniform over his head as 9,767 fans rose to their feet and applauded Sutherland as he had done so many times for his teammates in the past. Luckily in this jersey presentation, he wasn’t mobbed.
Sutherland didn’t play that night, and UF lost the game by just one point after leading by 18 with less than 12 minutes to go. But the Gators’ season and Sutherland’s college career weren’t over yet.
With the SEC Tournament just days away and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, the job wasn’t done.
Until it was taken away.
The growing concerns over COVID-19 in recent weeks has brought the world to a screeching halt and the sports world has been no exception. Just hours before UF was set to take on Georgia on March 12 to start the postseason, the SEC canceled its tournament in an effort to limit possible infection.
Sutherland and the rest of the team had just finished their pre-game meal and returned to their rooms to prepare for the Bulldogs when White called a team meeting to break the news.
“We were devastated,” Sutherland said.
Just hours later, the NCAA announced that all of its spring and winter championships were canceled — effectively ending the season. Sutherland asked himself, “Is this it?”
Did he suit up for the Gators for the last time?
White said that he was sorry to the team that its season had to end this way, but some things are just bigger than basketball, Sutherland recalls.
The NCAA later announced that all spring athletes would be granted eligibility relief in light of recent events. This is especially impactful for seniors, who, like Sutherland, only have one year left of eligibility.
However, basketball is a winter sport and no such relief has been granted as of yet for them. Some feel like it’s appropriate, including UF athletic director Scott Stricklin.
“I may be in the minority here, I think any senior who had a championship opportunity taken away because of this should get another year,” Stricklin said in a press conference on March 13. “Whether that happens or not, I don’t know.”
Stricklin said it’s something he will fight for, but if given another year of eligibility, Sutherland isn’t too convinced he’d suit up again for the Gators.
“I'm not really sure,” he said. “It’s hard to envision at this point because I knew this year was it for me.”
Sutherland played his last game of the season without ever getting to play an elimination game. Although the postseason was taken away from him, his achievement will always remain.
His mother said it best sitting in that empty bedroom with tears in her eyes.
“He’s achieved his dream, there’s nothing anybody can do to take away the fact that he is No. 34 on the Gators.”
Follow Joseph Salvador on Twitter @JosephSalvador_. Contact him at [email protected].