Loyola Marymount guard Terrell Lowery returns to his hometown this week--older and becoming wiser.
Ther sophomore came out of Oakland Tech two years ago with a 25-point average, a bushel of all-area and all-state awards and a self-confidence that fit right in the Loyola system.
The last time he appeared in the Oakland Coliseum he was leading Oakland Tech in the CIF Northern California championship. He returns to that arena on Friday with the Lions to face Alabama in a third-round NCAA tournament game. But on this trip home, Lowery carries a burden.
Lowery was one of the closest players to Hank Gathers on the Loyola squad. Gathers, three years older, saw something he liked in Lowery as a happy-go-lucky freshman--possibly something of himself at the same stage--and took him under his wing.
They developed a relationship that was as akin to siblings as teammates. Gathers would get on him to work harder, make good-natured but pointed observations within Lowery's earshot: "He's gonna be a great player--once his game catches up with his mouth," Gathers announced at the team banquet last spring.
"He was more like Hank's son," Loyola Coach Paul Westhead said. "He was his guy, like a father-son relationship. Of course, sometimes the son revolted."
Lowery was among the hardest hit by Gathers' death March 4. In the opening minutes of the West Coast Conference tournament game against Portland, Lowery had thrown a long alley-oop pass to Gathers for a dunk and the two had just slapped hands and were taking defensive position when Gathers collapsed.
Since returning to the court, Lowery has become one of the most driven of the Lions, who impressively swept through New Mexico State and defending champion Michigan in the NCAA opening rounds at Long Beach Arena. On Lowery's shoes were handwritten remembrances: "Bank Man" on one, "44-ever" on the other.
When the team returned to practice several days after Gathers' death, Westhead saw a different Lowery.
"We ran a drill and Terrell said, 'Let's do it right.' Up to now he never said anything like that," Westhead said. "It's like the mantle was passed on. Almost always, when something hard happens, somebody begins to evolve, begins to change."
Said Lowery: "I've been up and down, but overall I've been strong throughout. Sometimes it's hard for me to stay focused. On the court I'm pretty much focused on what I've gotta do. Away from the court I have a hard time. It hits me--I can be in a classroom, alone in the apartment, watching TV. It happens a lot in the locker room; I'm so used to seeing Hank cracking jokes on everybody."
Lowery was one of the pallbearers at Gathers' funeral last week, and he has remained one of the most emotional players. In a brief scuffle in practice, he gave teammate John O'Connell a black eye that required several stitches. Against New Mexico State he had trouble harnessing his feelings, fouling out in only 17 minutes of play, making only three of 10 shots for eight points, with a turnover-to-assist ratio of six to one.
As the first guard off the bench, Lowery is the Lions' fourth-best scorer, averaging 14.3 points, with the speed and slashing moves to go to the hoop, the range to rank third on the team in three-pointers and the point guard skills to average 6.5 assists.
To buoy his spirits after the New Mexico State game, Westhead brought Lowery to the press conference before facing Michigan, introducing him as the team's "sixth starter." Westhead said, "We wouldn't be where we are today without Terrell. I know he'll bounce back tomorrow."
Against Michigan, Lowery was back with a vengeance: 23 points, six assists, three three-pointers and three steals in 23 minutes, including several acrobatic drives. And he still had enough energy to keep up a constant stream of chatter in Michigan All-American Rumeral Robinson's face.
Said Lowery: "Everybody thought I was cursing him out. I was just saying, 'C'mon, c'mon, c'mon.' "
Lowery said he's ready to assume some of the leadership void created by Gathers' death. "It's my role," he said. "It comes naturally, being around Hank a lot. I'm just saying it more, keeping everything positive, keeping everybody motivated."