By Pete Barrett
The Baltimore Sun
5:15 PM EST, March 6, 2014
With so many things working against Rafriel Guthrie, it was never a sure thing that he'd play Division I basketball.
He has pushed through a tough upbringing without a father. He has persevered through seeing two of his brothers, Anthony and Jemal, behind bars.
Along with his fiancée Cozetta Jackson, he has raised Rafriel Jr., their 5-year-old son, born when Guthrie was a senior in high school.
And he has moved twice across the country to play for junior colleges, before landing back close to home at Towson.
Now, in his second year as a Tiger, Guthrie is the second-leading scorer on the Colonial Athletic Association's second-best team, and he will be integral to how far Towson goes in this weekend's CAA tournament. On Saturday, Towson will face seventh-seed James Madison in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m.
"I am very proud of him," said Antwan Guthrie, Rafriel's oldest brother. "Lots of guys he grew up with were incarcerated and killed. Our brothers got locked up. He could have easily gone down the wrong road, but he had a focus, and that was to play basketball. When other guys were doing other things, he was playing ball."
The senior forward grew up in the Benning Heights section of Washington, D.C., an enclave of middle class homes and housing projects, in a home with four brothers and seven cousins all relying on his mother, Taneta — who was in and out of work as a cleaning lady — and often government aid for sustenance.
"We didn't have much growing up," Guthrie said. "We grew up in one of the roughest parts of D.C. It was tough. But my brothers kept me on the right path, by keeping me off the streets."
Antwan, 26, remembers taking Rafriel to play basketball for the first time at the outdoor courts of Kelly Miller Recreation Center.
"He was 6 years old when we went to the park, and once he got a basketball in his hands, that's all he wanted to do," Antwan said. "I called him 'Spalding brain' because his brain is a basketball. That's all he's ever known."
But his basketball life has been threatened many times.
Coming out of Cardozo High School, Guthrie didn't have many options. He played football and basketball, but even after a senior season in which he averaged 28.2 points and 8 rebounds per game, he wasn't getting many looks because of his academic shortcomings.
"My grades weren't really too good," Guthrie said. "So, when I graduated, I didn't have any clue what I was going to do."
Guthrie wanted a way out of his squalid upbringing; he wanted to make a better life for his son than his absent father ever did for him.
"The hardest part was knowing that I could play at a [Division I] level," Guthrie said. "It was depressing because I had nowhere to go because of my grades."
The following year, with no team to play for, Guthrie didn't stop practicing. He would work out with his friends at Cesar Chavez High School and their coach, Malcom Battle who also runs the Boys and Girls club in Washington and is from Guthrie's neighborhood.
One day Jay Cyriac, then an assistant coach at Seward County Community College in Kansas, was invited to watch Cesar Chavez's Markee Mazyck practice, and he left the gym telling Battle that he wanted to sign Guthrie, too.
Guthrie quickly latched on at Seward for the 2010-11 season, in which he averaged 13 points per game. The following year, he moved 1,089 miles to the College of Southern Idaho, where he attracted national attention as the linchpin for a top junior college team, contributing 15.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
Back on the East Coast, Guthrie came up on Towson's radar. In his first recruiting class at Towson, Tigers coach Pat Skerry and his staff were looking for the toughest junior college player they could find.
"When we recruited him, we were told he was a 6-foot 5-inch power forward," Skerry said. "I went out there and he is not 6-5, he is 6-1."
Yet Guthrie was still rebounding, scoring and terrorizing opponents around the basket. Skerry snapped him up. The next challenge for Guthrie would be adjusting to the academic rigor at Towson.
"It was kind of a whirlwind, coming from where he was, to the workload he had to take care of when he first got into classes at Towson," said Patrick O'Connell, Towson's director of student-athlete development. "It seems like it took a little bit of time for him to catch up, but now it is crazy how much he has developed in the classroom."
Guthrie's game has also developed. In his first year, the Tigers staff spent a lot of time with Guthrie improving his ball handling and shooting. He became Towson's leading scorer off the bench.
This season, he took the next step by transforming his body, and getting into the best shape of his life.
"We used to kid him all the time, he would drink a lot of soda, but he doesn't drink soda anymore," Skerry said. "He eats a lot healthier now."
This year, Guthrie has averaged 12 points a game and become Towson's best shooter off screens. Skerry takes advantage of that often, running plays specifically to get Guthrie a look. After coming off the bench for much of the year, Guthrie has moved into the starting lineup late in the season.
"Guys like him are why you get into coaching," Skerry said. "They come about as close as possible to reaching their potential as a player and a student and a person. It's been a privilege to coach him."
On Senior Day on March 1, Guthrie's brother, Anthony, who was incarcerated for five years for robbery and missed Rafriel's entire high school career, accompanied Antwan and their mother on the court for a pre-game ceremony.
It was a preview of an even more special moment to come in May, when Guthrie — "Spalding brain" — will become the first member of his family to graduate from college.
"Without basketball, I don't know where I'd be, to be honest — either dead or in jail," Guthrie said. "The opportunity I've got, I'm trying to take advantage of it."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun