Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Off court bonds help Furman basketball thrive

Andrew Brown (5) and Matt Rafferty hug after their final
Furman game last season. Photo courtesy of Furman
Note: This is a basketball story that I wanted to write all last postseason, but when you're your own editor, deadlines don't tend to exist and life gets in the way sometimes. Also getting in the way was the fact that I know my words can't do the subject justice. But it's one that needs to be told and what better time than with a new basketball season upon us.

Actually, this isn't so much a "basketball" story as it's more of a story on friendship. It's one of how the family culture of Furman basketball has helped the program reach new heights. This particular chapter is about the bonds built off the court by the winningest players in school history - Andrew Brown and Matt Rafferty. It's written from interviews I did during last basketball season. That means they were recorded before it was revealed that Rafferty added to the legacy of his incredible senior year by playing the final month-and-a-half with a torn labrum.

First impressions
Andrew Brown didn't think much of Matt Rafferty's skills when he first saw him in practice. Kind of like how Red first saw Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Comparing a cinematic classic of a prison movie to a basketball team might be a stretch, but you've got to remember the state of Furman's program at the time. Better yet, let Brown remind you.

"In my senior year of high school, I had already signed with Furman and they were playing up at UNCG. I didn't watch a whole lot of games, but I just happened to turn that one on in the second half and they were getting smacked by like 30 or 40," Brown said. "I was like, 'oh gosh, what am I getting myself into?' ... But then they had that run in the tournament and I felt a little better about it."

That Sunday afternoon at UNCG, an 84-49 loss, was the final nail in the coffin of the bad old days of Furman basketball. A notorious practice followed and two weeks later, the Paladins finished just a few points shy of stunning the basketball world by becoming a last-place seed to win it's conference tournament. It's been cake and ice cream for the program ever since.

Back to that first impression in practice that following season though.

"I thought Matt was terrible the first couple of weeks of practice," Brown said. "Then he goes on to be an all-conference freshman and now is in the running for player of the year in the SoCon."

Brown would get to know Rafferty much better on and off the court as the two were paired up as roommates. Coach Bob Richey said roommate decisions for incoming freshman players are based on personality types and how players might get along with each other. Brown and Rafferty were paired up as both were a little more reserved than other players.

Brown came to Furman from just up the road at Travelers Rest High. His standout basketball career there was endangered halfway through when he suffered a shocking stroke. That may have scared off some programs, but Furman still offered him a scholarship. Unfortunately, that would not be the last serious health scare Brown had to endure.

Rafferty came from Hinsdale, Illinois near Chicago. He left Hinsdale Central High as the school's all-time leader in rebounds, blocks and steals and was also a standout quarterback on the football team. Little did we know then just how well those quarterback passing skills translated to the basketball court.

Given the state of the program at the time, how did then-Furman coach Niko Medved lure a standout from Chicago?

"In my senior year of high school (then Furman assistant) Coach (Jay) McAuley came to one of my games and I really connected with him afterwards. He told me how Furman was rebuilding and what a great group of guys they had on the team," Rafferty said. "I decided to take a visit and loved the team and the community.
"I knew they were good players, but they had something else in them that hadn't been done yet. I saw that and was ready to try to help them turn the program around."

Despite initial impressions made at practice, Rafferty made his presence felt when the game lights flipped on that freshman season. He made 30 starts, averaged 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and helped the Paladins go 19-16 for its first winning season in five years and second in 10 years.

In addition to help building a winning product on the court, Rafferty and Brown's friendship began to develop as freshmen. When you're as far away from home as Rafferty, having a great friend whose family is nearby is a blessing. While Brown is one of seven children of Rex and Suzanne Brown, their "family" has grown during Andrew's time at Furman.

"They're like a second family to us. Any time we need a home-cooked meal we can go over there. Any time we need a mom or dad to talk too, they're there," Rafferty said. "That's huge. Not many parents can be this close, keep their distance, but still be so supportive like they are."

Overcoming adversity
It was exciting to see how Rafferty would build off that strong freshman year, but his sophomore season took a hit before it even began. Offseason back surgery caused him to miss the first few games of the 2016-17 season. He came back and played in 15 games off the bench, but complications from the injury brought an abrupt end to his season.

While the team obviously wanted him back, a back surgery goes beyond the scope of basketball.

"Whenever you have a back surgery in basketball at this age, you don't always know where that's going to go," Richey said. "Obviously, his health is always going to be most important. We're never going to put that at risk."

Rafferty said it was pretty disappointing to work his way back from the surgery only to have his season end the way it did. However, the road back from there gave him perspective.

"It gave me hindsight that we're fortunate to be able to play first of all. Second of all, how much the game and the team means to me," Rafferty said. "They showed support through all that and I think everyone was confident I'd be back and ready to work.
"I came back in the spring and really worked towards getting better. Our new strength coach this year really helped me develop and become stronger. Luckily I haven't had an issue with the back since."

While Rafferty was sidelined, his roommate began to make his mark as an excellent outside shooter. Brown was one of six Paladins who hit at least 42 3-pointers that season and that helped him become a starter midway through. Brown made 43.4 percent of his 3s, while Devin Sibley shot the third highest percentage in school history at 44.9 percent, to help Furman tie the school's single-season wins record as it went 23-12.

Rafferty and Brown were both healthy and joined the starting five for the 2017-18 season, but that was one that saw a major change as Richey replaced the departed Medved as head coach.

"Coach Medved left and then Coach McAuley shortly after, and those were the two guys who recruited me. I gained a great friendship with them that I still have," Rafferty said. "But I think everyone shifted toward Coach Richey. Everyone knew how hard he worked and how he was ready to take over that role. As soon as it happened, everyone in the program wanted him to be the head coach.
"It seems like he's been a head coach longer than just two years. ... He pushes us, but friendships and relationships go before that. ... Whether you play two minutes a game or 40, everyone on this team is important to our success."

There was a new coach at the top, but the winning didn't stop. Brown again shot 43 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Rafferty gave a prelude to what a monster senior season he'd have. Rafferty shot 59.1 percent from the floor, led the team in rebounding (7.2 per game), steals (54), blocks (21) and was second in assists (91).

While that season didn't bring the storybook ending of a Southern Conference championship that everyone wanted for the four seniors - Geoff Beans, John Davis III, Daniel Fowler and Sibley, it was another successful one as the Paladins went 23-10.

Overcoming life-threatening adversity
On Feb. 1 of that junior year, Brown suffered a hernia injury during a game against Mercer. While surgery would've ended his season then, doctors assured him it could not get worse so Brown played on. He actually played his best basketball of the season over that final stretch as he averaged 10.7 points per game. That helped Furman win seven of its final eight games, including a 76-52 victory over Wofford and a three-point win at ETSU on the final day of the regular season.

With the season now over, Brown went in for what was supposed to be a routine hernia surgery on March 22, 2018. Two days later, he was be back in the hospital in excruciating pain and had emergency surgery that might have saved his life. As it turns out, Brown's small intestine was punctured during the hernia surgery leading to this horrific ordeal two days later.

Next came 10 of the longest days of Brown's life in that hospital room. He had plenty of supportive visitors in family, friends and teammates. Once Brown was able to get back on his feet, his blood brothers and basketball brothers helped him walk the halls to get him moving a little.

Out of all of his visitors, it seemed no one was there more than Rafferty.

"Matt was there every single day for who knows how long. I think some days he'd be there for eight hours," Brown said. "One day when I was moving to a different room at like 8 a.m., he was the only one there.
"That just shows what kind of guy he is and how much he cares for people around him. ... We have a friendship that's going to last forever."

Richey will never forget one of those nights in Brown's room. The whole team had visited following Furman's athletic banquet downtown. After most of the team cleared out, Rafferty was still there and Richey decided to stay.

"I was about to leave and for some reason, I decided to stay. I didn't know exactly why, but I just felt like I needed to stay a little bit longer," Richey said. "The tubes that Andrew was having to use everything for had risen up and come out. The only way they could get it corrected was to pull this tube out of his nostril and shove it back in and he was going to be awake for all of it.
"His toughness was so strong and so real, but that was the moment where you were just worried if this was too much. I looked over there to Matt, who might be the toughest guy I've ever been around, and he has tears in his eyes. Andrew's sitting up and blood is coming out of his nose while they're jamming this tube in. It was intense."

Basketball was never a thought for anyone when Brown was in the hospital. But the moments like that experience that Richey recalled helped put basketball in perspective.

"When you're in that hospital room at 11 o'clock at night during one of those low moments ... then you get out here and people talk about, 'is there pressure to win on Saturday night?' It's like 'come on, man. We're playing ball and getting to be around each other.' I think it carries over," Richey said. "With all the adversity these guys have had to deal with, we've just kept winning. I think a lot of that is because of how strong these connections and bonds are off the court."

Rafferty said he and his teammates simply wanted to do all they could to help Brown feel more comfortable in an extremely uncomfortable situation.

Brown said he didn't sleep for about five days because of all the stuff going on during his hospital stay. During that darkest time, basketball was the last thing on his mind. Part of him may have already decided those days were over anyway. But recovering from that gave him a new perspective on life.

"It just makes you realize you can't take anything for granted," Brown said. "You also just have to go out and enjoy it. ... Once I was back on the court, I was like 'well, i could go 0-for-20 tonight, but it still wouldn't be as bad as that (hospital stay).' "

Richey said once it became evident that Brown was going to survive this ordeal, there was no doubt he was coming back to basketball. He said Brown would likely come back quicker than expected and he did as he was full go during team workouts by mid-June.

"We were all happy to see that new face we hadn't seen in awhile," Rafferty said. "That meant the world to all of us and fueled us a little bit more. If he could get through what he got through, we could get through anything."

Brown was back in basketball shape by August when he broke his foot. This "simple procedure" to surgically insert a screw in his foot actually went smoothly and Brown was back in time for Furman's 2018-19 season opener in November.

Just a little over two minutes into that season-opening win over Bob Jones, Brown soared to the basket on a fast break. He made the layup, got fouled and completed the three-point play. Less than eight months after nearly dying, it was business as usual for Brown.

Brown got yet another injury in game two at Loyola-Chicago when he reinjured the foot. As he has each time before, he worked his way back and hit 41 percent of his 3-pointers in 26 games.

"All that adversity has helped us grow as men on and off the court," Brown said. "We're prepared to face any challenges that come our way. Whatever happens happens, but we know how to win and that's something that's carried us for four years here."

Leaving their legacy
While no team ever wants to go through what the Paladins went through with one of their players, that whole experience was another bonding moment for the Furman basketball family. There's no doubt those experiences have helped the program thrive during Brown and Rafferty's tenure, which was capped off by a historic senior season.

Early season wins at 2017-18 Final Four participants Loyola and Villanova landed Furman into the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. The overtime victory over the eighth-ranked and reigning national champion Wildcats marked the highest-ranked team the Paladins have defeated since a win over No. 4 North Carolina on Feb. 2, 1979.

Those victories were part of a 12-0 start to the season. It was the best start for a SoCon team since Lefty Driesell's Davidson team started the 1963-64 season 15-0 and the longest winning streak for Furman basketball since 1952-53. Dating back to that blowout win over Wofford the previous season, the Paladins won a school record 18 consecutive regular season games.

That streak also saw Jordan Lyons etch his name in the Furman record books with a 54-point performance against North Greenville, in which Lyons tied the Division I record with 15 3-pointers. His 54-point showing is the eighth-highest in school history and the most by a Paladin since Darrell Floyd scored 62 against Citadel in 1956.

Along the way last season, Rafferty put together one of the most outstanding years ever. He became one of just a few Division I players to average 17 points (17.5), nine rebounds (9.0), four assists (4.3) and two steals (2.5) per game. Rafferty finished his career ranked 23rd in school history in scoring (1,340 points), eighth in rebounding (857), sixth in blocked shots (98), fourth in field goal percentage (57.6 percent), 12th in assists (311) and fourth in steals (186).

Rafferty shattered the single-season steals record with 84 last season. The previous record was 66. His 61.5 percent shooting percentage as a senior is the second-best in school history. He did all that with a torn labrum over the last 15 games and a broken thumb over the last three.

When asked if he could put in perspective what Rafferty has meant to the program, Richey had a simple reply.

"Umm, no," Richey said with a laugh. "I love all my players dearly, but I don't know if I've been around one that understands all the intricacies that go into winning and is that committed to doing them for an entire ballgame like Matt. That's what makes him special."

When Richey took over as head coach after Rafferty's shortened sophomore season, he got the idea for how the offense could run.

"When I realized that he was going to be healthy, I thought we had a very unique player. One that could score down on the block, but also make decisions, really see the game and be an elite passer," Richey said. "We really tried to build the system around ... maximizing his skill set. Not just one piece of it, all of it.
"The part of it you love is we're able to utilize him in so many different capacities and the only thing he cares about is winning. ... A younger player might think, 'if I go score 20, I'll help us win this game.' What Matt understands is it's the little things that end up really equating to winning. If he could do all those without scoring a point and we win, he'd do that every single night." 

Furman finished last season with a school record 25 wins and hosted an NIT game for the first time ever. While the Paladins fell in the opening round to a Wichita State team that went on to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, the two teams battled like it was the last game ever to be played. It was played in possibly the greatest atmosphere Timmons Arena has ever had before a packed house on a Wednesday night.

It was an atmosphere that Brown and Rafferty could've never dreamed of when they first committed to the program.

"When I was growing up here, I went to maybe two Furman games. It was not the thing to do," Brown said. "It's just been completely changed now. The fans have been incredible this year.
"I know it's going to continue. We have some special guys coming in and some special guys in the program right now that are going to continue the winning tradition."

In the four years prior to Brown and Rafferty's arrival, Furman went 43-84. In their four years, it went 90-34 to make them the winningest class in school history.

For now, at least. Lyons enters his senior season 19 wins away from joining Brown and Rafferty in the 90-win club. Lyons will begin his final chapter of the Furman basketball story tonight when the Paladins open the 2019-20 season at Gardner-Webb.

No matter what happens tonight or this season, the Furman basketball family is sure to sustain.

"One of the unique things about this program - and probably a lot of other successful programs, is that our players really do get along with each other outside of here," Richey said. "It comes from trying to attract the type of person that works here at Furman. We've worked really hard at that for the past 5-7 years. People that have common goals of winning, working hard on and off the court, and growing as people.
"You could see Matt and Andrew connecting as early as their freshman year. ... It's been fun to watch those two have the success they've had on the court, but also to see a true friendship develop. I do think that helps on the court. The more you truly know each other, the more you play for each other."


  1. This is excellent! Thank you for telling a beautiful story so beautifully!