As an avid UMass fan, I watched Tony Gaffney last season with awe. He played his balls off, every time out, and had become one of the best two-way threats in college basketball. He averaged a double-double in points and rebounds (11.5 and 10.2), and was third in the nation in blocked shots (3.8). Gaffney played against Memphis, which at that point had likely Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, and it was Gaffney’s 16-point, 19-rebound, 5-blocks performance that left John Calipari saying he’d been the best player on the floor.
But, for Gaffney, things hadn’t always been that easy.
A few years before, Gaffney was my cousin Pat’s teammate at Boston University. Back then, Gaffney played small forward (he played power forward and center at UMass, but will likely revert to small forward in the NBA.) He averaged less than three points per game and hardly made any impact, but my cousin swore he was very talented. “Sure,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “He’s great.”
“It’s just because of my coach,” my cousin would tell me, and he had a point. Dennis Wolff, the BU coach fired last year after seeing five players transfer from his program in a whirl of hatred, had a way of getting the least out of very talented players. Wolff, simply put, was a vacuum designed to suck all the fun out of the game of basketball. His teams won games, but they should have been better. The wins were ugly 58-56 affairs that made you want to regurgitate your lunch, when the athletic stable of players at Wolff’s disposal could have been running teams out of the gym. Wolff liked for his teams to slow play down and grind out wins, but had the best athletes — by far — in the America East. Look at Gaffney: He’s very athletic even by NBA standards and plays harder than 99.9999% of the human race, but could barely get off the BU bench. Nice decision, Mr. Wolff.
While Wolff was in the process of handing his son Matt the reigns to the small forward position, BU small forwards Gaffney and Etienne Brower (who also transferred to UMass) transferred away. As a senior, Wolff the son played 34 minutes per game. He scored 4.5 points per game. All while Gaffney and Brower blossomed in UMass’s far more up-tempo offense. Now, Wolff the son probably has a tough time getting off the bench in rec leagues, while Gaffney’s in the NBA. No wonder my cousin always maintained Gaffney was quite a talent.
Even after being released from the constrained and rigid system at BU, though, Gaffney didn’t become an instant hit. Playing behind Brower, Gary Forbes and Dante Milligan (all established players who ended up playing professional basketball), Gaffney played only 20 minutes per game. He provided terrific intangibles but those intangibles didn’t always equate to box score success, as Gaffney averaged only 3.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. That year, he reminded of a college version of Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute: athletic, tough, and versatile, but not complete enough to make a difference offensively.
But his senior year was a far different story. No longer stuck behind the talented trio of Brower, Forbes and Milligan, Gaffney shot out of a cannon and into NBA draft talk. He was still sushi offensively — super raw — but became the garbage men of all garbage men. There wasn’t a rebound Gaffney didn’t go after, nor a shot he didn’t contest. He used his athleticism to score points, snatch boards, and swat unsuspecting players who dared challenge him.
There was the 19 and 16 against Memphis, 20, 13 and 8 blocks against Jacksonville St., and 21, 11 and 6 dunks against St. Bonaventure, but it was far more than that. Gaffney was the player you couldn’t help but love. He never demanded the ball, never stopped motoring, and crashed the glass with the enthusiasm of an ADD-riddled kid at recess.
“It was kind of a breath of fresh air to have a kid that came with his demeanor and work ethic every day,” Derek Kellog, who coached Gaffney at UMass last year, told the Boston Herald. “He’s a very low-maintenance guy – actually a no-maintenance guy. You knew he was going to come do his job, both on and off the court. To have a kid that can play the way he can and be the type of the person and have the personality that he has, it’s one of those things you dream about.”
Gaffney was invited to the Los Angeles Lakers camp, where he was the last player cut. Before his heart-breaking dismissal from the Lakers, Gaffney made a positive impression on Phil Jackson. “He puts a twinkle in our eye, no doubt about it,” Jackson told the Boston Globe. He further described Gaffney, “We really like his basketball feel, his athleticism, his defensive capabilities. He’s learning how to shoot the ball, and that’s one of the keys for him. He’s doing really well out there. Guys like him. He fits in really well with us.”
But can he fit in with the Celtics, who just signed him for the remainder of this season with a non-guaranteed contract for next year? Is his will and desire enough to succeed at the NBA level?
Don’t bet on him failing, says ESPN.com analyst and basketball trainer David Thorpe. “I’d be very surprised if he’s not an energy player in Boston for a long time to come. He’s just a very unique talent and he’s definitely an incredibly special person.”
If Gaffney does fail, though, it will be because of his thin frame and undeveloped offensive skills. It will assuredly have nothing to do with the organ in the left side of his chest, the one that pumps Tony Gaffney’s blood and allows him to go after every rebound like a man possessed.