WILLIAMSBURG — The hole in Brandon Britt's heart grows smaller each day. He has more good days than bad, which is encouraging for family and teammates, for William and Mary basketball, and especially for Britt himself.
Britt pulled out of a spiral following the death of his father in the summer of 2011 to become one of the ringleaders of William and Mary's surge to begin the 2012-13 season.
As the Tribe (6-3) resumes play 7 p.m. Friday at Kaplan Arena versus Salisbury, Britt looks around and sees a team markedly improved from last season. He looks in the mirror and sees a young man more focused and better equipped to move forward.
"Winning is a big positive, and that's the main thing," said Britt, whose team already has as many wins as all of last season. "I'm just having more fun out there. Last year was a challenge, on and off the court."
Britt, a 6-foot-2 junior from Chesapeake, is the Tribe's No. 2 scorer, at 15.7 points per game. He shoots 53.6 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range. He and sophomore Marcus Thornton are the Colonial Athletic Association's highest scoring backcourt, combining for 34 points per game.
"He gives us a love for the game," Tribe coach Tony Shaver said. "He works really, really hard at getting better. He gives us an explosiveness that I haven't often coached here, offensively and defensively.
"I think the one thing we've convinced Brandon of, and Marcus too, for that matter, is if you really want to be a great guard, you've got to make your teammates better and you've got to make your team better. I think he understands that."
Greatness often was the furthest thing from Britt's mind last season. On Aug. 16, 2011, days before he was to return to Williamsburg for his sophomore year, his father, Gerald Britt, passed away at age 58 due to complications from cirrhosis of the liver.
Gerald Britt was a standout player at Hampton University in the 1970s, and his name still dots the school record book. He was Brandon's biggest fan, and Brandon considered his father his best friend.
"Everybody was getting ready for school, but I felt like my world just ended," Britt said. "And it didn't help that I didn't play well. I wanted to do well so bad, I wanted to play for him, I wanted to do well for the coaches, and I never really got in a groove. It was just tough."
Indeed, by nearly all measures, Britt played better as a freshman than as a sophomore. His scoring, shooting, assists, rebounds and happiness were down. His turnovers and sadness, were up.
"In a way, he might have gone through a little bit of a depressed mode," said Britt's mother, LaVerne Harvey. "The first few weeks after Gerald passed, he wasn't feeling school, he didn't feel like playing basketball. He'd call me and say he wasn't sure he wanted to keep playing."
Balancing when to push and when to pull back was a challenge for Shaver.
"I probably talked to Brandon more, individually, last year than any player I've had in the last 10 years," Shaver said. "Not just about basketball, but about other things — trying to help him through a tough time. There were times when I thought those discussions allowed him to take some positive steps, and other times when they probably didn't really sink in. We spent a lot of time together last year."
Britt's funk coincided with the Tribe's 6-26 record, its worst since 1993-94. Injuries played a big part in the team's season, and Britt often could not shake the emotional weight of his father's death.
"I think it played a big part," Britt said. "Him not being there, me not seeing him at the games, and me not being able to talk to him — call him up after a tough loss. I definitely think that impacted my season a lot. I try not to make excuses, but it is what it is. I was struggling with it all year. I still struggle with it now a little bit, but it's definitely gotten better."
Britt still worked hard last season — he even carried a cumulative 3.0 grade-point average and made all-CAA all-academic second team — and tried not to burden his teammates with his problems.
"When we'd see that he was down, the team would try to pick him up as best as we could," Kyle Gaillard said. "But it's extremely difficult losing someone that close to you. I've never been through anything like that. Honestly, I think he did a really good job of handling it, and he put all his energy into the team. He did everything he could to help this team succeed."
Time, faith and family allowed Britt to begin to heal. He was determined to set an example for his younger brother, Brehon, a high school sophomore and two-sport athlete who attends Atlantic Shores Christian School. He re-dedicated himself to basketball, particularly after a pointed postseason meeting with Shaver and the team's returning guards: Britt, Thornton, Matt Rum and Julian Boatner.
"He said that our guard play needed to get better, and in order for this team to be successful, we need to play better," Britt said. "Everybody has to play well, but it starts with the guards. He was just on us. Marcus had a good year, but collectively, we didn't play well."
Said Shaver: "I'll simply say that I was very honest with our guards and very firm with our guards at the end of the season. Their play had to get a lot better for us to be good, and it has. I'll give them credit. Those four guys that I brought into that room are playing at a whole different level, so I'll give them the credit. Not me. … I'll give them credit for not shriveling, not running away from the challenge."
Britt is not a true point guard, but he is asked to run the team. Most often the ball is in his hands and though he isn't a captain, his teammates look to him for guidance.
"I've got to do a better job of getting my teammates involved, and I think I'm capable of doing that, so it's just a matter of me doing it," he said. "I like to score, but I have to do a better job of getting my teammates involved."
Assuming added responsibility is one measure of Britt's growth. Before school began, he made a list of 11 goals, to which he refers daily. They're related to school, basketball and life in general.
Among his goals are: having faith and trust in God; maintain a cumulative grade-point average at 3.0 or above; be a better leader for his team; make the NCAA tournament; be mindful and respectful of others.
"He's matured so much, it's almost amazing," Harvey said. "I always thought he had it in him, but it's still remarkable to see. I'm very proud of him because I know he's still hurting at times."
Shaver sees a better version of the young man he grew fond of as a freshman.
"Love being around him," Shaver said, "love poking fun at him, and he'll poke fun right back at me. Just an awesome kid. If you can't love Brandon Britt, something's wrong with you."
Britt thinks about his father often and need look no farther than his upper left arm to be reminded of him. Last spring he got a tattoo of hands locked in prayer behind a basketball — a replica of Gerald's headstone.
"My mom constantly tells me that he's in a better place now," Britt said. "I'm a big believer that he's still with me, so when I pray, I still try to talk to him — knowing that he would want me to keep going."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun