Original Old School: Gone Too Soon
SLAM 140: Decades have passed since Terry Furlow died in a car accident. Those who knew him still wonder what might have been.
“He had this dream that he wanted to get to the NBA, but he had to get better at what he did, and his freshman year at Michigan State he just vowed that he was going to be a great shooter,” remembers former Flint Journal sports reporter Dean Howe. As a freshman, Furlow served as a sixth man for MSU. This was the first season in two decades that first-year students were allowed to play varsity college basketball, and Furlow made his presence felt immediately, on and off the court.
“I remember when he was a freshman and we traveled by bus a lot, and we went to play Kentucky before the Big Ten season,” Ganakas recalls. “We beat Kentucky at Kentucky, which was unheard of in those days, and then we went from there to Tennessee and participated in a tournament in Tennessee, so we had a long trip. We got to know Terry pretty well and the guy could imitate people, he had a nice deep voice and could sing, and I remember that he was entertaining the players and he was only a freshman.”
By the time Furlow was a senior, he had blossomed into one of the most lethal scorers the Big Ten would ever see. He finished the ’75-76 season as the third-leading scorer in the nation (29.4 average) and led the Big Ten in scoring for a second consecutive season. He was named to the All-Big Ten first team and received third team All-American honors. Furlow finished his career with 1,777 points, at the time the most in MSU history. Furlow even went on a streak during his senior season in which he scored 140 points in six days (a school-record 50 points against Iowa on January 5, 48 against Northwestern three days later, and then 42 points against Ohio State two days later). “The night he scored 50 points, I just marveled at that,” says Ganakas.
After an amateur career in which he’d morphed from a virtual unknown to a college All-American, Furlow became the 12th pick in the 1976 Draft. The 76ers chose Furlow, but he didn’t see many minutes in Philly as he was forced to play behind all-pro teammates Doug Collins and Julius “Dr. J” Erving. After his rookie season, the 76ers traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In Cleveland, Furlow averaged 8.9 ppg in the regular season and upped that to 16.0 ppg in the first round of the ’78 Playoffs against the Hawks. Then, 49 games into the following season, the Hawks acquired Furlow and he once again showed out in the postseason, averaging 15.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg and 3.2 apg over nine games in the ’79 Playoffs.
While never an All-Star, Furlow gained respect as one of the game’s deadliest shooters. “I just remember him popping in that jump shot,” Howe says. “He would go straight up and he just had this great form on his jump shot. He could really get up high and you couldn’t block his shot; and at the top of his jump, he’d just let it go. His follow through was just real beautiful to watch. He was just a great jump shooter.”
Furlow started the ’79-80 season in a Hawks uniform, but after 21 games he was traded to the Jazz. Although the Jazz didn’t make the Playoffs, he was surely a big part of their plans going forward. Then the unthinkable happened.
Furlow’s funeral was flooded with basketball heroes such as Erving, Magic Johnson, John Drew, George McGinnis and Campy Russell, who all made the trip to Flint to pay their respects. Since his death, players like Greg Kelser and Magic Johnson have both come forward and dedicated sections of books they’ve written to pay homage to the deceased hoopster. Each reflected on him as a person with a great personality who played a brotherly role in their young lives.
“During my high school years, Terry took me under his wing and more or less adopted me as his little brother,” Johnson wrote in his ’92 autobiography, My Life. “‘Young Fella,’ he said, ‘you’re gonna hang out with me.’ After pickup games, the two of us would play one-on-one. I thought I was pretty good but Terry was a terrific shooter. For weeks on end, he destroyed me every single time we played. It was always 15-0.”
“There were nights when we would (work out) late into the evening and I would get a little worried because I was staying in the dormitory, so they stopped serving dinner at a certain time, and I also had to get to study hall four nights a week,” Kelser says. “I was worried that I wasn’t gonna eat dinner and Terry would say, ‘Don’t worry about dinner, you can come and eat with me.’ He had an apartment and he obviously had plenty of food in that apartment and he would say, ‘Hey! You’ll just come and eat with me!’ That to me was just the epitome of leadership, because here’s a senior taking massive interest in a freshman and showing him the ropes, and I wanted very much to be just as good as Terry Furlow. He was tremendous”
Furlow will be remembered by some as a player who worked tirelessly to perfect his basketball skills in order to become an NBA star. “I envision that he might never have been an All-Star, but I think Terry could have been a very solid NBA player for at least 10 years,” Kelser says. But for others, he will be remembered as a brash kid who was taught a very important lesson about driving under the influence. Terry Furlow may not have become a household name, but to so many who knew him, Terry Furlow was a man they will never forget.