Stony Brook had endured seven consecutive losing seasons when Tommy Brenton arrived on campus. It feels like it was eight or nine years ago, he says, but it was only four. His parents would come up from Maryland to watch him play at Pritchard Gymnasium. They wouldn’t miss it, and he couldn’t miss them.
“We had like 10 fans at games my freshman year. I could point out my parents in the stands within three seconds,” said Brenton. “Now we get sellouts, fans all over campus. It’s amazing. Just to know where the program has been, to be a part of changing the face of the program is huge.”
The Seawolves have won two America East regular-season championships since Brenton arrived, going 67-36 with him on the floor, including a 7-2 record this season — their best start since joining Division I in 1999.
Though Brenton has started since his freshman season, he doesn’t immediately demand your attention. He doesn’t flash before your eyes. He slides in from the periphery and pokes you in the ribs. He grinds, where others glide. He dives, where others reach.
Like an amateur Andrei Kirilenko, the 6-foot-5 forward fills in the blanks. This season, the fifth-year senior is averaging 7.7 points, while leading the team with 8.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists and two steals. Last season, he was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, and on Tuesday, Brenton became the school’s all-time leading rebounder. With 11 more steals, he will also claim that category.
“If there was a stat for taking charges, he’d lead that, too,” said Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell. “He embodies everything that’s great about basketball. You go to AAU games and everyone’s trying to score 20 and then they’re tweeting about it. He’s a coach’s dream. Winning is the biggest part of him and he does it all with unselfishness.”
Not bad for a kid who didn’t get a D-I offer out of high school. Instead, Brenton spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, where as part of a 29-0 team, he developed his relentless style out of necessity, as a way to increase his minutes.
Excited by Brenton’s versatility and his ability to play power forward or point forward, Pikiell took notice. But shortly after Brenton helped the school to its first conference championship as a sophomore, he suffered a dislocated kneecap and tore ligaments in his right knee, causing him to miss the entire 2010-11 season. He did three hours of rehab a day, every day, for seven months.
“I was worried about being the same player down the road,” Brenton said. “My biggest injury before that was like a sprained ankle, so I didn’t really know how to handle injuries. Not being able to sit normal in chair, easy things in life, I didn’t really know how to mentally get over that barrier. It was tough.”
After a season filling water cups and passing out towels, Brenton returned last year, playing as if nothing had ever happened. But the team fell short of getting to its first NCAA Tournament, losing at home in the conference championship game.
It is the only thing he feels is missing from his career. So he does the little things, the things that put his teammates in better positions, the things that most wouldn’t recognize even while they occur.
But his team does, and that’s all that matters.
“He’s really an old-school player and there’s really not many of them around,” Pikiell said. “I think he’s the most underrated player in the area. He’s got a following in this community. People embrace him. That’s how you grow your program. You get fortunate to get a player like him.”