WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — When William & Mary wins a basketball game at Kaplan Arena, the players go through the handshake line with their opponents and then, instead of heading to the locker room, they cross the court for handshakes and high-fives with fans who crowd into the front row to congratulate the team.
Last Sunday evening, after a 71-61 victory over Towson, the player leading the way was Paul Rowley, who sprinted across the court, arms in the air, a wide grin on his face to greet the fans.
Rowley had missed all four of his shots from the field and hadn’t scored in 17 minutes. He did have four assists — including what was arguably the most critical one of the game — to go with three rebounds and a block. At 6-foot-8 and 201 pounds he had spent a large chunk of the first half trying to guard Towson’s 6-9, 270-pound center Alex Thomas because Nathan Knight, the Tribe’s starting center was in foul trouble.
He had zero complaints with the way the game had gone.
“Hey, I enjoyed trying to hang in there with a guy who outweighed me by 70-80 pounds,” Rowley said, flashing the grin that Tony Shaver, his coach, says hardly ever leaves his face. “I like playing against these guys. I’m about the least physical player you’ll ever see, but it’s fun to go out there and wrestle with a bunch of football players.”
Rowley isn’t a glass-half-full type of person, he’s a glass-99-percent full person. He doesn’t like basketball, he loves it. He hasn’t enjoyed his five years at William & Mary, he has reveled in them.
But that isn’t what makes him unique. After graduating magna cum laude in three years with a double major in computer science and finance, he decided to go to law school and is now listed as an academic “L-2” on the team’s roster — the only NCAA men’s basketball player with that distinction, according to William & Mary.
“I had to do some real pitching to convince people to let me do it,” Rowley said, his words coming in a rush as he sat in an empty break room, still in his uniform, after the victory over Towson. “There were a lot of people skeptical about the idea who I had to sell on it.”
The first skeptic he had to sell was Shaver. Rowley was — is — an important player. It wasn’t as if he was a walk-on whose presence at practice or games wasn’t vitally important.
“We really had to talk about it pretty hard,” said Shaver, who is in his 16th season at William & Mary. “Being a law student is pretty much a full-time job. All you have to do is talk to a first-year law student to know that. Paul was important to our team. I was concerned about him being able to handle both responsibilities.”
He smiled. “I told him I thought it would be really tough to pull off but if anyone could do it, he would be the guy.”
Rowley had to meet with the dean of the law school too, even though his grades and LSAT scores made him a slam-dunk candidate.
“My sister [Tess] was in her second year as a law student here,” he said. “She enjoyed it and I liked her friends. I thought it would be fun. I guess that’s the geek in me. I understood Coach Shaver’s concerns and the concerns of the law school people. But I thought I could pull it off.”
Rowley had a 3.7 GPA last year (14th in a class of 186), was selected as the Colonial Athletic Association’s scholar-athlete of the year and already has a highly sought-after internship at a D.C. law firm in hand for this summer.
At the moment, though, his mind is still on basketball. He missed the first five games of the season with a sports hernia, then came back to score 12 points in back-to-back games against Marshall and George Mason before coming down with the flu two weeks ago.
“I don’t worry about him balancing law school and basketball anymore,” Shaver said. “I worry about keeping him healthy. That’s the real challenge.”
Rowley was scoreless in the first half of the conference opener against James Madison, then got sick in the locker room at halftime and hit two key three-point shots in the second half. “Just flushed everything out of my body and found my shot again,” he said, laughing. “Maybe I should have gotten sick today.”
Rowley laughed off his scoreless day against Towson easily because his team won.
“If you had told me when I was a junior in high school that I’d be a high-energy, high-five, off-the-bench guy as a senior in college I’d have laughed at you,” he said. “I was a hooper; I could play — I knew that. From the time I was little, I loved everything about basketball. I talked like a basketball player, walked like a basketball player, loved basketball music [hip-hop]. I was basketball.”
Now, being the high-energy, high-five, off-the-bench guy, he couldn’t be happier.
Shaver said he’d like to see Rowley snap out of this season’s shooting slump — his three-point shooting has dipped from a career rate of 45 percent to below 30 percent this season. “But his value to us goes way beyond that,” Shaver said. “He will get on guys when he has to get on them and he’s the kind of leader everyone listens to and looks up to because they respect him so much.”
Shaver has had just one complaint with Rowley through the years: the whistling.
“He loves to play so much he’ll come down the court whistling,” he said. “I told him it’s great that he’s so happy playing the game, but there are times when I can live without the whistling.”
More seriously, Shaver, who has been a college head coach for 33 years and is closing on 600 wins, says he’s learned from Rowley.
“I’ve told him that I think we’ve been good for each other,” he said. “I’ve told him that he can learn from me — maybe have a little more fire and intensity. He’s taught me to enjoy basketball — and life — a little more. He’s really a remarkable guy.”
Rowley isn’t certain what kind of law he wants to practice, though he plans to be involved this summer in sports transactional law at Covington & Burling. “I might love it, I might not,” he said. “I still have another year to figure it out.”
He’d like to spend that year as a graduate assistant coach. Shaver would love to have him — if he can get the budget for it. William & Mary has never had a graduate assistant coach. Either way, Rowley doesn’t see basketball being over for him at the end of the season.
“I have a game that’s made for men’s leagues,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think I’ll ever really give up basketball. I read a story about the Longwood coach [Griff Aldrich] who practiced law for 20 years, then decided he wanted to get back into basketball. I could see myself doing something like that.”
He smiled again. “Two years ago, we played at Duke and I hit three straight threes in the first half. After the game my dad said to me, ‘If this is the highlight of your basketball career, wow, what a memory.’
“Think about it. At some point in that game Mike Krzyzewski might have said to his guys during a timeout, ‘Will someone please guard that f------ Rowley kid?’ How amazing is that?”
Pretty amazing. A memory worth smiling about while pulling an all-nighter before a law school final. A memory worth smiling about — maybe even whistling about — for years to come.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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