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Newton's Corey Lowe coming out of the shadows and back to the hardwood

Posted by Your Town  November 29, 2011 10:58 AM

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It’s a mid-summer night in July, and Fenway Park is overflowing with excitement. The collapse of September still months away, energy permeates the thick, heavy air.

Outside the ballpark, Landsdowne Street is a ghost town -- empty soda bottles, stale popcorn and condiment wrappers litter the ground. Moving in the shadows, Corey Lowe is in his seventh month of purgatory.

Lowe walks alone, with a slow and gingerly gait. Stiff and upright, his steps are short. His knees bowed out, he sways from side to side, resembling a penguin – belying his young age of 23 and revealing the toll that the past five years have taken on his body.

The toll on his mind is harder to see, as he checks IDs, buses tables and tosses out drunks at a bar. He tries to avoid the thin cracks of light that escape the ballpark; he doesn’t want to be noticed, remembered.

Five years earlier, Lowe was one of the top high school basketball prospects in recent Massachusetts sports history. He went on to cement his legacy as one of the greatest players ever at Boston University, with the best post-season tournament record by a Terrier.

And just like that, it was over.

He hit bottom last summer, in the shadows of Fenway.

Now, as the sports season that made him famous gets underway, Lowe is trying to picking up the pieces and resume his basketball career. The player who led Newton North High School to back-to-back state championships in 2005 and 2006 has come back to basketball after a rise that made headlines in college sports -- and a fall that nearly broke him.

“I think things happen for a reason,” Lowe said in a recent interview. “It took time away from the game to realize I still care for it, and it can still offer me a better than average life.”

Quick Rise on the Court

Lowe was born to a working-class family in the hardscrabble city of Springfield and moved to Newton when he was five. The move was tough at first, but he credits it with opening his eyes to the world and changing his life.

“[Moving to Newton] had its challenges, not having a lot of money,” said Lowe, “but it was probably the best thing to happen to me . . . It’s a great place to grow up.”

Soon after, his parents separated. Lowe credits his unbreakable bond with his mother, older brother and younger sister for helping him through it.

In high school, he teamed with another phenom, Anthony Gurley, to lead Newton North to the two state championships, while garnering a long list of awards. He was heavily recruited by a host of Division I teams, while also excelling in football as a wide receiver for the Tigers. To this day, Lowe – who was offered as many Division I scholarships for football as basketball --insists that he was a better football player than a basketball player.

But his heart was on the hardwood, and he signed a scholarship to play for Providence College. Shortly afterwards, he received a harsh introduction to the world of college athletics, when the Friars rescinded his scholarship when a more coveted recruit became available.

Lowe landed at Boston University, where he displayed a combination of speed, brute strength, and shooting range from anywhere inside of half-court. But he also found himself saddled with a reputation as a player who put himself above the team -- a label his teammates now say was undeserved.

“Corey has been criticized a lot,” said Tyler Morris, his teammate for four years in college. “Corey is definitely a great person and an underrated teammate."

In games, Lowe’s demeanor – quiet and controlled – was often mistaken for a lack of passion. In post-game press conferences, he often avoided eye contact with reporters, staring blankly toward his shoe-tops while he spoke into his chest. He came across as painfully shy and introverted.

“It’s a defense mechanism,” Lowe explained. “I just build a wall when I first meet people. Too many people in this world are fake, so I guess it's a protection mechanism for me.”

In his career at BU, Lowe was an All-Rookie and three-time All-Conference selection. But he battled injuries and self-doubts throughout his career, he said, which sapped his confidence.

Following his junior season, head coach Dennis Wolff, with whom Lowe butted heads on the court but enjoyed a close relationship with off it, was fired. Lowe saw a host of psychologists – “sports' shrinks, regular shrinks, the whole nine,” he said.

“I dealt with a wide variety of things,” he explained. “The pressure of playing home, and figuring out who was there to help, and who was there for the ride. Dealing with the bitterness I had towards the whole way I ended up at BU, and being perhaps at a lower level than I should have been, which really mentally affected my work ethic in the beginning ...
“I was depressed [and] kind of lived two lives so people wouldn’t see that."

Lowe stuck it out at BU, largely because of the support of his family and teammates, he said. In his senior year, he played through the season with tears in his groin and Achilles, as well as plantar fasciitis in his foot.

“There’s no way he should have been playing – he did irreparable harm to his body,” said Bobby Martin, a 15-year professional player who trained Lowe during the following summer.

In a crucial conference match-up against first-place Vermont, with the Terriers trailing by one point, a hobbled Lowe dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds as time expired. A distraught Lowe – tears in his eyes – had to be escorted off of the court.

Lowe would redeem himself in the America East tournament. With his career on the line, he poured in 26 points against Hartford in a barrage of three pointers.

A day later, Lowe led the Terriers to an upset over top-seeded Stony Brook. He seemed to be everywhere, pouring in 24 points and fighting for rebounds. At the end of the game, an emotional Lowe pounded his chest, bellowed towards the rafters, and wept openly.

Fall from the Heights

A week later, the Terriers fell to Vermont on national television in the conference championship game. Lowe went down swinging, with 24 points. Over his three tournament games, he averaged 24.7 points per game, the highest tournament mark in Terriers' history.

The Terriers were selected to play in the CBI year-end tournament. In their first game, a romp over Oregon State, Lowe moved into 2nd place in all-time conference history in career three-pointers.

But days later -- suddenly -- Lowe was no longer on the team. Then-Terriers head coach Pat Chambers issued a statement, implying that Lowe had left the team to focus on his professional basketball ambitions. “He wanted to be prepared and he wanted to move on with the next stage of his life,” Chambers said.

According to Lowe, the abrupt dismissal came after he had met with an agent who was passing through town, and the two had watched a football game together. He blames a breakdown of communication and a misunderstanding of what had transpired with the agent for his dismissal.

“I didn’t want to leave the team," Lowe said. “There wasn’t a discussion. I went to his [Chambers'] office the next day and it was already decided: I was out. I didn’t violate any rules --we were in the same place and met socially. We met and just watched a football game on TV."

Chambers – now the head coach at Penn State – said he still wrestles with the decision to remove Lowe from the team.

“I wanted to be a father figure to Corey,” he explained. “And I saw a kid who was being misled, and I needed to give him some real tough love. It was an incredibly hard decision to make.”

Lowe said the damage from Chambers' statement stigmatized him as a quitter and hurt his chances to play professionally.

“I couldn’t get a job in professional ball. A lot of teams told me they liked me, but they couldn’t sign me because of the end of my career,” said Lowe.

He tried out for the NBA Development League, the minor league for the NBA. Several teams were impressed with his performance, he said, but wouldn’t sign him.

With few prospects, Lowe took a low-paying gig in Latvia, but his Achilles injury, which still had not healed, curtailed his season. He soon found himself at a crossroads.

“Being home and injured last year left me down and ready to hang ‘em up,” he said.

With bills to pay, Lowe took a job in January running cables for TV crews at Boston College games. Being a forgotten face in the crowd – so close to the action physically, but worlds away – was heart-breaking for Lowe, he said.

Despite public perceptions of him, Lowe tried to stay upbeat in his personal life. Friends say he has a down-to-earth, self-deprecating side -- a side that pokes fun at his facial resemblance to Mike Tyson; chatters at machine-gun pace; laughs loudly and frequently; and forgoes any machismo to profess his love for his girlfriend on Facebook for the world to see.

In April, he took a job working nights at Bleacher Bar behind Fenway Park. During the days, he waited on guests at a Boston hotel. The long hours took their toll.

“I was worn down working all those different jobs, but I think that's what motivated me to get back to basketball,” he reflected. “I'm not made for a 9 to 5 -- or 3 to 11 -- in the hotel world. I was given the gift of being able to hoop, so I'm going take that as far as I can."

In August, he signed a three-year contract with Maccabi Ashdod of the Israeli Premier League, one of the top professional leagues abroad. Ever the gunner, Lowe enjoyed the fast-moving, free-flowing style of play, as well as his experiences off the court.

But the stint in Israel ended early, when Lowe tore his groin again. He reached an injury buyout with Ashdod. He is now back in Boston, his future once again up in the air.

Despite injury and uncertainty, Lowe's voice quickens with excitement when he talks about returning to basketball, as soon as he is able.

“Me and ball have a love-hate relationship, but I think now and for the foreseeable future, it's all love,” he said. “My goal is to just make it to the highest level I can, no matter where that is. . .

"I just want to make a good living and be ahead in life. At some point, I want to say I worked hard -- and now I can buy the big house on Comm. Ave."

This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Sam Perkins, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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