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Tony Gaffney trying to make Lakers’ squad

hoopABack in June of 2008, when the Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers for their 18th NBA Title, former Massachusetts men’s basketball player Tony Gaffney celebrated. The team he had supported his entire life had won the NBA Finals for the first time since 1986, and they had done it over their biggest rival.

Fast forward a year, and Gaffney, after his breakout senior season, has the opportunity to experience the Celtics and Lakers rivalry on the court instead of from his living room. Just not wearing the gold and green.

“I immediately went from a die-hard Celtics fan to a die-hard Lakers fan,” Gaffney said.

Heading into the 2009 NBA Draft, many thought Gaffney may end up as a late second round draft pick. He could have possibly wound up on favorite team growing up who had the 58th pick of the draft.

The Celtics instead went with Lester Hudson out of Tennessee Martin, and Gaffney wasn’t selected with any of the two remaining picks in the draft including the second to last pick of the draft, which belonged to the Lakers.

Gaffney didn’t have to wait long before he had a chance to prove himself in the NBA. The day after the draft, the Lakers called the power forward informing Gaffney they had picked him up and he would be playing for their summer league team. Gaffney quickly forgot about his allegiance to the Celtics.

“That part was easy,” Gaffney said about becoming a Lakers fan. “They were the first team to give me the opportunity to play in the NBA, and it was easy falling in love with the Lakers organization.”

Gaffney, who averaged a double-double his senior year at UMass with 11.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game to go with 3.8 blocks per game (third best in the nation), knew that opportunities to play in the NBA come few and far between, so he made the best of his while playing for the Lakers in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. While there, the Lakers took notice of Gaffney – enough to invite him to their veterans’ camp in October.

“They told me that they loved my activeness, my energy, and they loved the way I flew around the floor,” Gaffney said. “I didn’t put up crazy numbers when I was in Vegas. I just did what I’ve always done when playing the game, and that was just making hustle plays, deflections, box outs and rebounds.”

The summer league didn’t go without any hiccups for Gaffney, who averaged 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds and 16 minutes per game in the four games he played.

“It was funny because in the first game I went in, and I was starting, and I played really well in the first half. But I ended up taking a charge, and I injured my tailbone pretty badly,” Gaffney said. “I know I can play at the next level, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to get a chance to prove that and prove that I deserved an invite to veterans’ camp.

“I ended up sitting out the second-to-last game, and it actually ended up paying off because I was able to play in the final game. I started again, and I played well. I did everything that I do, and they seemed to like it enough to extend the invite back and possibly, hopefully earn a roster spot for next season.”

Although Gaffney has impressed the Lakers organization, their veteran’s camp proposes a whole new set of challenges. Instead of competing against squads of players who are fighting to get to the NBA, Gaffney now has to compete and play with experienced veterans such as Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player, Kobe Bryant.

The prospect of playing against such high competition is nothing that scares the former Minuteman. Instead it’s a challenge he welcomes, and he feels confident that he can rise to it.

“I’m going into a camp with, all due respect, the best team in the world, and I’m expecting to see that and the best players in the world. I expect to have to live up to the standards of everybody else. I’ve said Kobe Bryant is one of the hardest workers in the world, and that comes to no surprise,” Gaffney said. “When it comes to work ethic, I’ll fit in just fine there.”

Gaffney has the confidence that he can play NBA-caliber basketball, and he understands all he has to do know is prove it to the Lakers. But in case his road to the NBA veers off course, he’s still in good shape.

“I had gotten a lot of good offers to play overseas, so I knew everything was going to work out fine,” Gaffney said.

One of the offers the Berkley native took up in case things don’t work out in Los Angeles. Gaffney has signed a contract with Hapoel Galil/Gilboa in Isreal, a team that plays in the same league with one of the best European basketball teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

“If things don’t work out with the Lakers, which I don’t anticipate, I anticipate hopefully come early November wearing a Lakers uniform,” Gaffney said. “But if not, I’ll make my way out to Israel and do some damage out there.”

No matter where Gaffney ends up, he understands there will always be people trying to bring him down. But just as he quieted any critics he may have had prior to his senior season at UMass, Gaffney expects to do much of the same in the future – using those critics to help him get there.

“My whole life I never though I would be in the position I’m in now, and I’ve had plenty people tell me that I don’t belong there that I can’t do this or can’t do that, there is no chance I make the Lakers,” Gaffney said “That stuff motivates me, and when I do make it, it’s just all the more sweet. I’ll just smile and wave and keep doing what I do.”

Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at jlarnard@student.umass.edu.

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