Gary Flowers delivers in a big way
BERKELEY, Calif. -- At center court, Gary Flowers threw back his head and unleashed a full-throated scream.
In the final 74 seconds of Southern Miss' game against Cal on Sunday, he had produced several ecstasy-inducing moments. After hitting two free throws, the 6-foot-8 forward trapped the Golden Bears' point guard in the backcourt, deflected the pass and snatched it out of the air before spinning around and going to the basket to score on a contested shot to tie the score.
Flowers later backed down a defender for the game-winning shot with three seconds to go, prompting him to let out his emotions on his way back down the court.
Four years after brushes with the law led to his dismissal at Oklahoma State, Flowers is averaging 21.7 points per game for Southern Miss, and he's ensuring that his OSU ouster wasn't going to be the last time the college basketball world would hear from him. "It was a minor setback for a major comeback," Flowers said after Sunday's 80-78 win.
The Golden Eagles are off to a 7-1 start and are expected to be a factor in Conference USA. Flowers has blossomed into a 24-year-old senior leader and an NBA prospect who is playing for a coach who also needed a second chance.
Larry Eustachy, who was forced to resign from Iowa State in 2003 after photos surfaced of him drinking with co-eds, has helped Flowers mature after the junior college star arrived on campus last season. "I understand Gary," Eustachy said. "We've both had our issues in life, and I just get him. I get him. He's come so far in just a short period of time. He's a different person than he was a year ago at this time.
"He's come a long, long way."
Flowers had some growing up to do after being arrested in September 2006 on a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession shortly after arriving at Oklahoma State as a freshman. A run-in with authorities five days later led to another charge of driving without a license.
He said of the possession charge that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, ultimately pleading no contest and performing community service to get the offense expunged from his record.
But because of his poor decision-making -- and it didn't help things that his eligibility was in question, having attended an unaccredited prep school -- Flowers was dismissed from the team by then-Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton. "Being told directly something like, 'We don't need you. You're not good for this team. You need to move on,' I didn't want to hear that," Flowers said. "It was told to me in that direct sense, and it was a shock to my ego, to my heart. I was hurt. My morale was low."
Flowers resurfaced in January 2007 at junior college powerhouse Chipola in Florida. His initial impression? He showed up five minutes late for his first practice. For that, he got chewed out in front of his new team by coach Greg Heiar, who held him accountable and emerged as a mentor. "Whatever he did in the past, I didn't want to know about it," said Heiar, now an assistant coach at Southern Miss, who joined the staff six weeks after Flowers signed. "I didn't want to worry about it. I wanted to start him with a clean slate.
"He came to work every day. I had no problems with him. He's a great leader. He's a winner is what he was."
During a time when Flowers said he began accepting responsibility for his actions and making lifestyle changes, he helped a Chipola program filled with Division I-quality talent win 69 games in two seasons. He emerged as a top junior college recruit during his first season and received plenty of recruiting interest but decided to stay for a second year in part because he felt comfortable developing a more well-rounded game.
Flowers wanted to be able to run off screens rather than just setting them, and with the ability to play multiple positions, he learned to feel confident handling the ball and making jump shots outside of 10 feet as well.
After adding the versatility in two junior college seasons, Flowers declared for the NBA draft. The teams he worked out for told him to stay in school. So he went to Hattiesburg, Miss.
In Eustachy's demanding program, Flowers has thrived. He led last season's 20-win team by averaging 15 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, making the All-Conference USA second team. Flowers credited Eustachy with teaching him how to use the wingspan of his 214-pound frame to his advantage and improve the consistency of his jump shot.
Flowers also takes life advice from a man who led Iowa State to the Elite Eight in 2000 but had his own unceremonious departure while confronting alcoholism. "We've both been at the heights of our careers and made bad decisions and had it all taken away from us," Flowers said. "No one can tell you how that feels unless it's happened to him.
"You correct the wrong, and you try to live right every day. What better coach, mentor and friend can you have in your life than somebody who's been through what you're going through?"
Eustachy said Flowers has begun to take on a leadership role in the past few weeks, serving as another coach in the locker room for his younger teammates.
On the court, his shooting has improved to the point that he's made half his 3-point attempts (14-of-28). He showed against Cal that with the game on the line, the final shot should be his.
He poured in 28 points in 27 minutes, scoring the team's final 12 points with a flourish and with the knowledge that Sunday's road win could help give the Golden Eagles the confidence to rise as he has. "We can go to the stars," Flowers said.
"I feel like I owe a lot to this program. This is a part of my second chance."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.