Catching Up with Brandon Worthy

By Andy Hui

Brandon Worthy was only a junior at Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, California, when he first caught the attention of assistant coach Brian Priebe on Steve Aggers’ staff.  Priebe believed that Worthy was capable of becoming an all-conference player in the WCC.  As a high school senior, Worthy averaged 28 points per game and not only possessed the requisite skills to be a great player, but also had the build and physique to make an immediate impact.  Worthy was a fierce competitor.  “One of Brandon’s greatest traits that help drive him,” said Priebe, “was his complete disdain for losing.”

Worthy’s LMU career started with a bang after much anticipation against Loyola University-Chicago.  Coming off the bench, Worthy set a freshman record for points in a debut with 24, including 10 of 11 free throws.  In and around the basket, Worthy was a tough player – he was either going to score close to the rim or draw a foul and score from the charity stripe.   Worthy ended the year averaging 11 points per game, which ranks 4th all-time as a freshman in LMU history.

Like many freshmen, Worthy contemplated transferring after his first season, but ended up returning to LMU. However, his sophomore season ended before it had a chance to begin.  In the last exhibition game prior to the season opener, Worthy suffered a broken foot and sat out the entire season.  While he could have made it back in time for conference play, Aggers decided it was best for Worthy and the program that he redshirt, thereby preserving three full years of eligibility.  After a disappointing finish in conference and first round exit in the 2005 WCC tournament, Aggers was replaced by Rodney Tention, who spent 8 seasons as an assistant under Arizona coaching legend Lute Olson.

Tention’s coaching style and relaxed approach invigorated the team.  While the Lions struggled in Tention’s new system at the beginning of the season, they quickly came together during conference and secured the second seed heading into the WCC tournament.  That year, Worthy and teammates Wes Wardrop and Matt Knight earned first team honors, representing only the third time in program history since 1989-90 that the Lions had three first team all-WCC selections.  The team had come full circle and was playing its best basketball of the season.  With an automatic bye to the semifinals, the Lions quickly dispatched St. Mary’s and faced #3 Gonzaga on its home floor for the WCC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. 

Against the Zags, the Lions raced out to a 34-26 lead at the half, and extended the lead to 15 points with just under 14 minutes to play.  However, less than a minute later with the Lions in firm control, Worthy picked up his fourth foul – a careless backcourt reach directly in front of the LMU team, sending him to the bench.  Gonzaga, led by standouts Adam Morrison and Jeremy Pargo, stormed back with the support of the home crowd, taking a one point lead with 10 seconds remaining.  On the final play of the game coming out of a timeout, the Lions missed an opportunity to score and win the game.  Had the Lions won, it would have put them back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since LMU’s 1990 Elite Eight run.  After the game, Worthy said to the Los Angeles Times, “I can’t describe it. This is probably the most devastating feeling I’ve ever felt. It’s like an emptiness inside you, a void that can’t be filled and only time will heal, I guess.  To be so close, and have the opportunity at the end to make it to the NCAA tournament and to have that feeling taken away from you, it’s a feeling I’ve never felt.”

While the Lions returned home disappointed, the LMU campus, students, fans and alumni were energized with renewed hope for the future.  The Lions, who were picked to finish at the bottom of the WCC, ended the season playing for the WCC title and a shot at the NCAA tournament.  The Lions returned two all-conference first team players in Worthy and Knight and point guard Damian Martin, who suffered an Achilles tear the summer before while playing for the Australian junior national team.  The future of LMU basketball looked bright.  Worthy graduated in 2006 with a BA degree in Philosophy and would return as a fifth year senior, taking classes towards a second degree in Education.

The end of the year success led to LMU Athletics pulling out all the stops the following year.  In addition to more televised games by national sports outlets, advertising and media spending soared with television commercials and ads that found its way to new venues such as movie theatres. Banners hung across Lincoln Boulevard (the center of Westchester’s commercial business establishment) along with customized tickets and game postcards.  New promotions including collectible player dog tags were handed out to fans. The Lions were picked to finish second in conference and even snatched several first place votes away from perennial champion Gonzaga.  The excitement was back.

The Lions did not disappoint opening the season at home with wins against Oral Roberts and New Mexico State, two teams that played in the NCAA tournament the previous year.  In front of a near sell-out crowd and a national television audience, the Lions stormed back from a 19-point second half deficit against New Mexico State to win the game on an off-balanced, three-point shot by a falling Worthy, 71-69.  Worthy’s shot with just 0.9 seconds remaining earned the top spot that night on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day. 

“Brandon is flat-out a warrior who wants nothing else but wins. He wants the ball at the end of the game and his teammates know to get it to him,” Head Coach Rodney Tention.

The Lions carried that momentum to the 2006 Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout, racking up wins against host Alaska-Anchorage and Pacific before losing the championship game to California, 78-70.  In games that followed, the ROAR — LMU’s student fan base — was often heard cheering in unison, “We’re not Worthy,” in appreciation for having witnessed numerous clutch plays by the 6’-2”, 205-pound guard. 

Then Worthy’s basketball career at LMU abruptly ended, and his future of playing professionally looked less certain.  Worthy, who was the team’s undisputed leader and captain, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a double-overtime win at home against Boise State in December 2006, just prior to the start of West Coast Conference slate.  Fans who were in attendance knew immediately that things were not right when Worthy made a hard cut to his left and collapsed to the floor untouched.  “I’ll never forget the first words Brandon asked me,” said head athletic trainer Keith Ellison.  “He said, ‘Keith, you are my brother, tell it to me straight’.”  Ellison did not answer but knew right away after administering a clinical test on the court in front of the team bench that Worthy had just suffered a severe injury that would end his season and collegiate career. 

The Lions’ record after the double overtime win against Boise State was 8-5.  Without Worthy, the team lost 8 of its next 9 games and finished the year 13-18.  The Lions not only lost their leader but also its heart and soul, bowing out in the first round of the WCC tournament against host University of Portland.

After the injury, Worthy worked hard to rehabilitate his knee but found it difficult at best to test his skills without opportunities to play.  He began working out in earnest hoping to play professionally.  During his final two seasons at LMU, Worthy had piqued the interest of pro scouts prior to his injury in December 2006.  Those scouts remained intrigued but first wanted to see how well his knee responded post-surgery.  Worthy was invited to the Cleveland Cavaliers mini-camp, but did not make its Summer Pro League roster.  In November 2008, Worthy was selected in the 8th round of the NBA Development League draft by the Los Angeles Defenders (now South Bay Lakers), but was released less than two weeks later after suffering an ankle injury.  Around this time, Worthy also welcomed the birth of daughter Brooklynne. 

While at LMU, Worthy attracted the attention of a scout for the Denver Nuggets, who was subsequently hired to coach the Giessen 46ers, a top German pro team.  In late November 2008, the scout turned coach contacted Worthy, asking him to compete as a back-up point guard to replace an injured player.  Worthy flew 14 hours to Frankfurt, got off the plane and signed a two week contract to “audition,” and practiced that evening.  The next night in his first game in more than two years, Worthy played well in a win, finishing the game as the team’s second leading scorer, tops in steals and assists, and third in rebounds.  Worthy was offered a two week extension but at the same time, he was emotionally torn and sorely missed his newborn baby.  Partly because of the team’s indecision and lack of commitment to sign him for the rest of the season, Worthy made the decision to return home.  Just two months later, another Giessen player was injured and the team called Worthy again.  German basketball rules prohibited teams from signing new players after the All Star break. Since Worthy was already registered with Giessen earlier that season, he was not a new player and could come back.  Worthy returned in February and finished the season with the 46ers.   

After the German season ended, Worthy’s agent set him up to play for a mid-level Finnish team for the 2009/10 season. The team wanted Worthy as its starting point guard. More importantly, the opportunity would allow Worthy to showcase his skills for a full season and attract the attention of higher level teams and more lucrative contracts.  Worthy was set to get on a plane headed to Finland to continue his professional basketball career.  However, the thoughts of missing valuable time with his daughter that he could never get back returned.  In gut-wrenching decisions, Worthy missed the flight not once, but twice.  His decision was final.  His life’s commitment was not going to be basketball.  “Looking back and hindsight being 20/20,” he said, “I wished I would have stayed and played a few more seasons. The money and benefits were great, but at the time, I couldn’t put a price tag on missing out on my daughter’s growth and development.  The life of a professional basketball player would have been extremely difficult for me if I could only see her two months of the year in the offseason (summer).”  His world clearly revolved around his daughter.  “I was raised by my parents to be a man and a good father.  I wasn’t raised to play basketball.”

Worthy with daughter Brooklynne

The decisive end to his promising professional basketball career meant Worthy now had to figure out what he wanted to do going forward.  Worthy returned home to San Jose and fell back on his LMU education, working as a special education and substitute teacher in the Bay Area.  While working during the day, Worthy took classes at night to become a credentialed physical education teacher.

Worthy returned to Southern California in 2009 to pursue a career in education. Worthy was a substitute teacher at Worthington Elementary in Inglewood, California.  After school, Worthy served as an assistant basketball coach for one season at Campbell Hall in Studio City, California, under former LMU assistant Steve Wachs. After the season, Worthy returned to San Jose and worked full-time in special education at Homestead High School and Mountain View High School in Northern California.  Worthy also taught physical education at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose.

Since leaving LMU in 2007, Worthy kept in close contact with former LMU head coach Rodney Tention, who became an assistant coach at various stops including Stanford, San Diego and San Jose State.  In May 2018, Tention became head coach at Palo Alto High School, and one of the first calls he made was to Worthy asking him to join his staff.  Together, the former LMU coach and player led Palo Alto to the 2019 Central Coast Section Division 1 title and advanced to the Northern California regional semifinals.  At the end of the season, Tention returned to the college ranks joining new head coach John Smith at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.  Since 2018, Worthy has taught physical education at Kennedy High School in Fremont, California, and serves as a volunteer basketball coach.

P.S. by Andy Hui:  I first met Brandon Worthy on the campus of St. Mary’s College in Moraga when he was a high school senior.  Worthy and his parents attended the game to watch LMU play and coincidentally, our families got on the same SMC courtesy bus that took fans from the parking lot to McKeon Pavilion.  By then, I had already heard great things about Worthy and was told that his commitment to LMU was a program changer. When I reflect back on that first meeting, one simple word comes to mind – WARRIOR, which is defined as a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. In modern sports vernacular, a warrior is often used to describe a person who is very strong and doesn’t give up easily. Worthy played many games hurt or in pain.  After the loss to Gonzaga in the WCC final, Worthy was broadsided in a car accident after the end of the school year leaving him with three broken ribs and severe back pain. Unable to work out in the summer, Worthy played in pain and continued to have lingering issues as a result of the car accident through the Great Alaska Shootout and up to his ACL injury, always battling but never complaining.

Photo from police report of the car Worthy was driving.

Brandon Worthy By the Numbers

Category                       LMU Rank       Career Stats

Games Started                          29        62

Minutes Played                         19        2,679

Minutes Avg.                            25        28.8

Points                                       19        1,255

Scoring Avg.                            27        13.5

FT Made                                  5          437