With each team, Gurley carries the fight

UMass guard has lessons from unforgettable journey

By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2010

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The heart is on the sleeve. For University of Massachusetts senior guard Anthony Gurley, that is a given. He’s impressionable, not afraid to feel all things deeply — the pain, the joy.

As his former English teacher and assistant coach at Newton North, Peter Goddard, said, “Unlike most young people, he’s not above feeling awe.’’

But if the heart is on the sleeve, it is beneath the sleeve, on his right wrist, directly over the pulse, where the soul, perhaps, resides. There, almost constantly, sits a black band. It’s not a black armband (though symbolically that would work well), but a gel band, the kind made popular by Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation.

On Wednesday night, after Gurley had saved UMass’s spotless 7-0 record with a dazzling crunch-time performance against Quinnipiac, he went into the locker room and put the band back on his wrist. (The officials make him take it off during games.) Immediately afterward, though, Gurley reclaimed the band and started tapping it unconsciously with his left index finger as he met with the media.

He was asked about the 66-64 victory. He talked about squandering all of a 17-point halftime lead when Quinnipiac pulled even in the closing minutes. He described the way he had broken the half’s only three ties in the final 1:39: a tough floater over two defenders in the lane, a contested 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, and a buzzer-beating layup off an inbounds pass.

Sure, he said, he likes the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Yes, he believed, it was his responsibility as a senior to lead in the roughest moments. But those were all team plays. On the winner, he insisted, seldom-used freshman Raphiael Putney was the unsung hero, serving as a decoy for a lob, then setting a jarring pick to free Gurley. “He was the main reason why the play was effective,’’ said Gurley. “I give him all the credit.’’

As he left to get on the team bus, Gurley again fiddled with one of his prize possessions. The little black band, maybe worth a quarter, was given to him years ago by another coach from another team — “someone I’ll never forget.’’

It contains a simple message that Gurley has long understood and always agreed with — at least in theory. But only now as a senior has he truly started to live those words: “One team, one fight.’’

Tonight, Gurley and his teammates will bring that fight to Boston when the Minutemen take on Boston College at TD Garden. For the Roxbury native, it is a homecoming on many levels. He will be playing in front of his biological family and many of the surrogate families who hosted him in Newton, where over the years he became a collective son. He will be taking on an Atlantic Coast Conference team — something he did routinely as a freshman. He will be playing on the precious parquet of the Celtics, a team Gurley has unabashedly loved since he started to dribble.

And, not least for a player whose college journey has been filled with losses of all kinds, (including losing records in all three of his previous seasons), tonight will be a return to a place connected with the simple joy of winning. He will be playing beneath all those championship banners. He will be returning to the city where he won back-to-back state championships at Newton North.

He arrives with a team that is off to its best start since the Final Four year of 1995-96. Gurley knows many still doubt the Minutemen are for rea. and think that being one of only 24 undefeated teams left among 348 Division 1 squads is a mirage based on a soft schedule, played almost exclusively at home. He is aware that a lopsided loss to BC would reinforce that notion, but he is equally aware that a victory could constitute genuine arrival.

It’s only one game, of course. Gurley doesn’t want to overhype it, but he doesn’t want to tamp it down either — he’s not afraid of awe.

“I want to make it unforgettable,’’ he said.

The journey began in first grade at a bus stop in Roxbury, early in the morning. Those Metco buses zigzag through the city, and the Gurleys’ home was one of the first stops.

When Gurley’s parents, Anthony Sr. and Aundrea, signed him up for Metco, they realized it meant a lot of sacrifice and a leap of faith. The chance to go to school in Newton was too good to pass up. Sure, it meant 90-minute bus rides. Yes, it imposed some challenge on their son to navigate racial and cultural differences. But it was well worth it, the Gurleys felt, to give Anthony and his two sisters a chance at a better life. No one in the family had ever gotten a college degree, and this seemed to be the best path to that goal.

At least at first, the toughest part of it, Anthony says, was being away from his parents. He’s very tight with both of them. About his mom, who drives an MBTA trolley, Anthony says, “She’s been an inspiration. She’s a strong woman, and I get a lot of my strength from her.’’

His dad is the man who got him into the game. Anthony Sr. has been officiating basketball games for 15 years, mostly in the IBL and USBL. One of his longtime gigs, though, has been officiating at Celtics training camp in Waltham, and he would always bring his son along. “I used to take him to the games,’’ recalls Anthony Sr., who has recently started up a car detailing business. “He fell in love with the Celtics.’’

In 1996-97, when Anthony was turning 9, the Celtics won just 15 games, their worst season ever, but it didn’t matter. Anthony knew what he wanted to do. “The League’’ was the goal.

He learned his game at the Roxbury YMCA. From the start he was an aggressive player who loved to go to the basket. He was, above all, a scorer.

By the time he arrived at Newton North to play for Paul Connolly, he had plenty of hoops cachet, as well as a disarming personality. Goddard remembers that on the first day of homeroom, Gurley went up to every student and introduced himself. There was a charisma about him, but no chips on his burly shoulders. “He just had a natural generosity that endeared him to all,’’ said Goddard.

It was not an easy time at home. His parents began a separation that would result in divorce, and Anthony didn’t want to take sides. Instead, he plunged into all facets of life at Newton. He began staying most nights with a range of families in Newton, bringing a bag of clothes, a toothbrush, his legendary appetite (“Boy, something smells good’’), and a sincere appreciation that won everyone over.

On the court, he teamed with Corey Lowe to form perhaps the best backcourt in Massachusetts high school history. In their junior and senior years, they lost exactly one game and won two state titles. “It was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had,’’ said Gurley. “Just winning and playing in high school. I’ll never forget those days.’’

While Lowe headed off to a splendid career at Boston University, Gurley chose Wake Forest. He was lured in part by playing in the ACC, but primarily by playing for Skip Prosser. After some fabulous success at Xavier, Prosser had landed the job at Wake and had emerged as one of the most well-regarded coaches in the country. He was an erudite man, given to quoting Thoreau and Churchill, but didn’t seem stodgy to his players because he loved the game and conveyed a loyalty that came through as sincere. “He never lied to me,’’ said Gurley. “When I came in, he only promised me one thing — that I would graduate. That meant a lot to me.’’

Prosser had a young team in 2006-07, and he spent a lot of time talking with his players. He urged them to not buy into the NBA “star system.’’ It’s still a team game, Prosser insisted. If you want to get to the top, you need to focus on defense, on rebounding, on sharing the ball. He talked about the team in terms of “family’’ and “home’’ — concepts that could seem trite from other men, but came through with poetic force from Prosser. It was about unity, he said. You’ll be better as individuals if you all work together.

One team, one fight.

On a team that went 15-16, Gurley emerged as a promising player off the bench. He averaged 6.4 points per game. He played in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He played at the Dean Dome. At Georgia Tech, he scored 24 points.

But he wasn’t happy. He missed his family and friends. At the end of the year he discussed transferring with Prosser, who talked him through all options. Ultimately, Gurley decided to stay. One day in late July, Prosser showed Gurley a “Defensive Breakdown CD’’ he made that had Gurley on the cover — and kidded him about how ironic it was because the kid from Boston still didn’t play enough defense.

“I know, Coach,’’ Gurley said with a smile. “I’m working on it.’’

In late July 2007, the phone rang and Gurley was called to an emergency meeting at the basketball office. Word was out that Prosser had gone running, come back to the office, and collapsed. To their astonishment, the players learned that their 56-year-old coach had died of a massive heart attack.

Gurley returned to school in the fall, but soon realized he couldn’t stay, enrolling at UMass to play for third-year coach Travis Ford. He had to sit out the transfer year, merely practicing with a team that won 25 games and reached the NIT final. Then, to Gurley’s surprise, Ford bolted for Oklahoma State.

“I didn’t know what to think at that point,’’ said Gurley. “There was nothing I could do.’’

With the cupboard largely bare and no time to grab a legitimate recruiting class, Derek Kellogg was hired at his alma mater in 2008. For two years, Gurley played for Kellogg. The results were somewhat disappointing. Gurley had some good moments and emerged as a solid scorer (11.2 and 13.6 points per game, respectively). But he never looked comfortable in the system. Often he seemed to be forcing the ball to the hoop. There were lots of bad shots, plenty of charges, too many times he didn’t give up the ball on the break. And UMass struggled, going 12-18 in 2008-09, and 12-20 last year, the first 20-loss season in almost 30 years.

Afterward, to the surprise of many, Gurley declared for the NBA draft. He worked out with just one team, the Celtics, and said it was a great experience playing against first-rounders Eric Bledsoe, (now with the Clippers), Dominique Jones, (Mavericks), and Avery Bradley. (Celtics). He sat down with Celtics president Danny Ainge, who told Gurley he liked his scoring, but emphasized that if he wanted a shot at the league, he needed to improve all aspects of his game.

Gurley pulled out of the draft and returned to UMass for his senior year. One half of one game into the season, things didn’t look a lot different. Despite preseason optimism, UMass found itself down at home to a relatively unheralded Rider team, 45-24.

But then Freddie Riley and Gurley caught fire. Riley scored a career-high 28 points. Gurley scored a career-high 31, going over the 1,000 mark as UMass posted a 77-67 win.

Then came Game 2, and 3, and 4, and 5, and 6 — all UMass wins, all games in which Gurley led the team in scoring. And though he didn’t lead in Game 7, the thriller at Quinnipiac, he did deliver those last three hoops and 19 points.

His scoring is different now. Though he is averaging a career-high 21.3 points, he is doing it within the system. Instead of the prerecorded script of previous years, he seems to be embracing the jazz of basketball, finding his spots, forcing almost nothing. A player who had never hit 40 percent from the field in a season is now connecting on a staggering 58.8 percent of both his two and three-point attempts. According to Kellogg, Gurley is also playing the best defense of his career. He is also on track to complete his graduation requirements (“I’m most proud of that’’) in a few weeks.

“He’s been a great kid since I’ve been here — that part of it goes unquestioned,’’ said Kellogg. “Right now he’s playing confidently. He’s playing under control. He’s doing everything I’ve asked him to do on and off the court. Honestly, I couldn’t be more pleased with him.’’

Tonight, he comes home — not the end of the journey, but full circle nevertheless. His mom will be there. So will his dad. And his sisters. And a slew of people from Newton.

“I really cherish the people who are close to me in my life, who have been with me through the ups and downs,’’ said Gurley.

They are all part of one team, one fight.