e first heard the news that changed his life while walking through the Providence Place mall with his girlfriend.
It was less than two weeks ago and his agent called and said that the Celtics wanted to sign him.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tony Gaffney says. “It was like a dream.”
Somerset High School is less than a hour from the TD Garden in Boston, but in basketball terms it’s about as far away as the moon. But that’s only part of the story. Let’s start with the fact that only a handful of local kids have ever played for the Celtics since the franchise began way back there in 1946. Nor was Gaffney ever any wunderkind, someone recruited by everyone, his potential there for everyone to see. Nor was his basketball journey ever by the numbers. He always was a boat against the current, fighting a lot of odds.
“I was always too skinny, too weak, too something,” he says. “I’ve heard it all. I was a skinny white kid from Berkley.”
Berkley is a little town in that no-man’s land between Taunton and Freetown, so small it doesn’t even have its own high school, so when it came time to go to high school Gaffney went to Somerset. He was 5-foot-9 as a freshman, 6-foot-2 as a sophomore, not the kind of size that’s ever going to catch anyone’s attention. He was just another high school kid in a world full of them, his head full of big dreams that in all actuality were never going to come true, because that’s what usually happens to adolescent dreams.
He also played for the R.I. Hawks, an AAU team coached by Jason Elliott, playing with many Rhode Island kids, including Mark McAndrew, who went on to be a great player at Brown.
“I probably first met him when he was in the eighth grade,” says Elliott. “He probably weighed 100 pounds. All through high school the knock on him was that he was weak. But he always was a terrific kid and he always could run and block shots.”
Gaffney was 6-foot-7 as a senior in high school in 2003, good enough to lead Somerset to the Division Two South Sectional final that year, but it wasn’t like the college basketball world was holding pilgrimages on his doorstep. The next year he went to Northfield Mount Hermon for a year of prep school.
Even then, it wasn’t like the basketball world had discovered him. There was interest from Holy Cross, and there was interest from some schools in the Northeast Conference, and when the dust settled he went to Boston University. He would be there for two undistinguished years, before he decided he wanted out, wanted another chance somewhere else.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen after BU,” says. “It was like starting over.”
So his prep school coach had an audition and invited every A-10 school, and after a couple of days Gaffney had offers from George Washington, La Salle and UMass. He picked UMass and had to sit out a year because he was a transfer, a year in basketball limbo.
The first year at UMass was another where Gaffney was below the radar.
He didn’t start, and his role was to come off the bench and be an energy guy. Run. Rebound. Block shots. That is Gaffney’s game and it all came together in his last year at UMass. He averaged nearly 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks, and when the awards for the A-10 were given out he was the league’s defensive player of the year and a second team all-conference selection.
“I wasn’t surprised,” says Elliott, “because giving up was never in this thought process. And when I told him that he’d had a great career, he said he wanted to be in the NBA, that that was the next goal.”
He wasn’t drafted in June, but landed a spot on the Lakers’ summer league team that played in Vegas, a 6-foot-8 kid who brought energy. He played well enough to get invited to the Lakers’ veteran camp in October, the place where it starts to get real serious.
And his life began to change, the place where he went from being undrafted to a legitimate NBA prospect.
He was the surprise of the Lakers’ camp, and a long way from Berkley.
He ended up being the last person cut.
So he went to play in Israel, quickly broke a bone in his foot, then came home to rehabilitate it.
A lost year, right?
Until he was walking in Providence Place with his girlfriend and his agent told him the Celtics were going to sign him.
Until April 13th when he was signed by the Celtics.
Until he now sits on the bench in these playoffs, on the inactive list, but on the Celtics nonetheless.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity.”
No doubt about that, either.
For this is someone who used to have posters of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish hanging on his walls when he was a kid, someone who always was the skinny kid from Berkley, someone who always had to prove it every step of the way, someone who chased the basketball dream for a long time and finally caught it.