By Andy Hui
Can an athlete be too good? It’s a question to ponder with Terrell Lowery. One of LMU’s greatest athletes, Lowery was a bright star on the basketball court and on the baseball diamond. His superb talents attracted the eyes of the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, both intrigued by the promise of heights yet to be reached.
The push and pull of front office assumptions and expectations played on Lowery’s mind. In frustration, he chose one sport over the other. But was it the right choice? The decision was years away though when a teenaged Lowery left the concrete and asphalt environs of Oakland Technical High School in 1988 for the verdant grounds of LMU and a place on a superb basketball team coming off consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with veterans Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble.
Lowery’s development was moved along by a strong, core group of upperclassmen and one teammate in particular. Hank Gathers took Lowery under his wing while protecting him from team hi-jinx normally played on freshmen. Wherever Hank went on campus, Lowery always seemed to be in tow. Though only five years apart, many on the team joked that the pair were like father and son – doing everything and going everywhere together.
“I was fortunate as a freshman to have teammates like Hank, Bo, Jeff Fryer and Per Stumer,” says Lowery. “Those guys helped ease the transition from high school to college on and off the court. It’s always easier when you have people around who can show you the ropes, how to handle yourself in different situations, and give direction. After all these years, I’ve come to understand that Hank and Bo were also smart. They knew that making friends with the point guard was in their best interest.”
Lowery was a prototypical combo guard. Fast and quick enough to push the ball and play the point in Coach Paul Westhead’s System, Lowery also could shoot from outside. At 6-foot 3, he was tall enough to score inside against smaller opponents and powerful enough to get to the rim against taller defenders. Simply put, he was tough to guard.
As a freshman, he averaged 5.9 points per game. The next season, he more than doubled that scoring with 14.5 points a game. But the best was yet to come. Lowery had a breakout season his third year when he became one of the nation’s leading scorers by averaging 28.5 points per game.
It was after that memorable junior season that Lowery’s two-sport conundrum first surfaced. Jay Hillock, who took over after Westhead’s departure to the Denver Nuggets, agreed to let Lowery play baseball, and baseball scouts immediately took notice of the speedy outfielder. Shortly afterward, Lowery was drafted by the Texas Rangers with the 62nd overall pick (second round) of the 1991 Major League Baseball amateur draft. He signed a contract and played rookie ball in Montana over the summer before returning to LMU for his final season, where he closed out his basketball career scoring 26 points per game. His strong play on the court led many to believe that he would be drafted to play in the NBA, and eventually play two major professional sports.
Lowery attended the NBA’s pre- draft camp in Chicago, where pundits projected him as a second round pick. Wrote David Kaplan in his Windy City Roundball Review, “Great scorer who can take the ball to the basket as well as shoot it with range. Lowery is also a fine passer who can hit the open man both in transition and in a half court offense. He has solid guard skills from both backcourt positions.” But Lowery wasn’t drafted, a surprise to the pundits and to Lowery himself. “I think some NBA teams shied away because they thought I had chosen baseball as a career after signing with the Rangers,” Lowery says.
He did, however, agree to play for the Denver Nuggets as a free agent on their summer league team. He played well and was invited to the team’s training camp. He then made his fateful and gut-wrenching decision; he quit basketball to focus on baseball.
“I know that many teams questioned my commitment to basketball,” recalls Lowery. “At the same time, I was tired of going back and forth. Frustration on my part definitely played a part, but I also wanted to move on. Having a baseball contract in hand was a major factor in making my decision.”
Lowery graduated with a degree in communications in 1992 and then spent five years in the minors before making his major league debut on Sept. 13, 1997 with the Chicago Cubs. For the next three seasons, he played for the Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and San Francisco Giants. Over his four-year Major League career, Lowery appeared in 123 games with 248 at bats and 23 RBIs. He scored 42 runs on 70 hits, with 20 doubles, one triple and 3 home runs. His Major League batting average was a very respectable .282.
Despite the trials he experienced, Lowery has no regrets about choosing baseball over basketball. “I don’t think I would do anything differently,” said a reflective Lowery. “I may have been able to truly keep both options open had I not signed to play baseball after my junior year. I know I would have been able to re-enter the baseball draft after graduating. But going through that entire process taught me a lot about patience as a virtue that I otherwise would not have learned,” says Lowery.
When asked how he would describe his experiences with both sports, Lowery says, “Both are extremely competitive in their own right. You still have to make good decisions, but the decisions made in basketball are faster,” Lowery says. “Certainly the pace of the two sports is different – one is fast-moving while the other is somewhat stationary. Basketball has a lot to do with athleticism, height and size, while baseball, in my opinion, is much more difficult to master and play with consistency, particularly as the level of competition increases. There’s something to be said about making contact with a relatively small ball being thrown at you between 90 to 100 miles per hour with a thin piece of wood.”
Today, the 42-year old Lowery lives in Sacramento with his wife of 15 years, Denise, and their children – daughters Trenise, 17, and Tiana, 13, and 11-year old son TJ. Lowery works part-time as a real estate agent for a small brokerage firm. The majority of Lowery’s time is spent on a non-profit organization called New Horizons Foster Care he started with his wife in 2003 that supports placing children in foster homes, and provides counseling, mentoring, and tutoring among other services. “Denise studied social work in college and had worked in the field in a variety of roles for several organizations related to foster care,” Lowery explains. “After serving as a coach for local area teams and being directly involved in several youth programs and organizations, we felt there was a need in our community. Plus we were experienced and felt we could do a better job ourselves in making a difference.”
Says Lowery, “I grew up in the inner-city.” I know what’s it like and what kids go through. It’s not easy but I was able to move ahead through basketball and an athletic scholarship from LMU. In a way, this has become our way of giving back to the community.” The Lowerys’ non-profit receives funding from local, state, and federal agencies to help run a large support network. New Horizons Foster Care has been involved in thousands of foster care cases and placements.
Lowery will forever be inexorably linked to Gathers, who suffered an untimely death while playing in an opening round game of the West Coast Conference Tournament game in March 1990. It was Lowery who made the near half-court alley-oop pass to Gathers for a slam dunk, just moments before Gathers collapsed in Gersten Pavilion while taking his defensive position in the full court press.
In a 1996 interview with the New York Times, Lowry said, “That was a difficult period. I try not to think about it in too much detail. The memories are too vivid.” Together with his teammates and coaches, Lowery, then only 19 years old, attended the funeral of not only a teammate, but a mentor that always had his back. Despite the passing of nearly a quarter of a century, Lowery still feels sadness but has found it easier to talk about the tragedy today compared to just 10 years ago. “I’ve come to understand that at that point in time, our team captured the hearts of America and that people wanted to hear our thoughts about what we went through as a team and as individuals,” Lowery says. “It’s always sad and extremely difficult when someone close to you passes away, especially a close friend. We all deal with tragedy in different ways. The important thing for me was to find a way to cope, get past what transpired, and most importantly, move forward. However, I will never forget Hank and what we were able to accomplish as a team under the most trying circumstances.”
While Lowery’s on-court experiences could fill volumes, he is mindful of the genuine relationships built with his teammates and others at LMU. Lowery is thankful not only for the athletic scholarship that allowed him to play college basketball, but also for the invaluable assistance and support of the academic support staff. “I can’t say that I was totally prepared for college from an academic standpoint. With the support and guidance of people at LMU who truly cared about my academic progress, I was able to graduate in four years with a degree and come to appreciate the college experience. I remember and am thankful for people like Olivia La Bouff, Jay and Barbara Busse, and all the tutors in the Learning Resource Center. They were integral to helping me get through school. I am thankful LMU not only took a chance on me, but for their commitment to help me graduate.”
Lowery was an Honorable Mention All-American and the first person in NCAA history to finish in the top five in both scoring and assist average in the same season. He was a First Team All WCC selection and was named All District 8. While close on and off the court, it should come as no surprise that Lowery and Hank are also linked in LMU’s record book, where Lowery sits second all-time in scoring with 2,201 points, only behind Gathers with 2,490 points. Lowery is listed in virtually every statistical category including first in games played (119), first in assists (689), first in steals (231), second in 3-point field goals (261), second in 3-point field goals attempted (669), second in free throws made (494), third in free throws attempted (626), fourth in assists average (5.8 per game), fourth in steals average (1.9 per game), fifth in field goals attempted (1,564), and fifth in field goals (723). Lowery was inducted into LMU’s Hall of Fame in 2005 along with other members of the 1989-90 Men’s Basketball Team.