There are many places where we can start this story.
We can start it when an 11-year-old Andrew Toole sank two free throws with no time left on the clock to lift his Biddy Basketball team to the New Jersey State Championship.
Or when the high school senior led Christian Brothers Academy to a tournament victory in Altoona, Pa., against some of the very best teams and players in the Northeast, earning himself MVP honors. "That was odd," Toole says, "because no one knew who I really was."
Or when the Elon freshman drained a game-winning 18-footer from the left baseline in his first collegiate game.
We can start it far in the past, when he first stepped onto a basketball court, playing in a YMCA league when he was five years old. Or we can start it closer to home and discuss what everyone knows -- how Toole was an integral part of last year's Ivy League champion Quakers.
But if we truly wish to understand Andrew Toole's dedication to the sport of basketball, his fierce desire to win at all costs, we must start here, in a coach's office in rural North Carolina.
We must start at the place where his basketball career nearly ended, before it mounted a glorious comeback.
Because there's something to be said about putting everything on the line for a childhood dream.
Smack in the middle of some of the most prestigious college basketball programs on the East Coast, Andrew Toole felt trapped.
He was 37 miles from North Carolina, 40 miles from Duke, 45 miles from Wake Forest and 67 miles from North Carolina State. Between them, those four Atlantic Coast Conference schools had been to nearly 100 NCAA Tournaments.
All Toole wanted was one -- and he was a lot further than a country road away from it.
That's why the starting guard on the Elon University men's basketball went to his coach one day after his sophomore year and told him he was thinking about transferring to a place where he felt a trip to the Tournament was realistic -- not a small, Big South school, mired in mediocrity.
Mark Simons, the head coach, should have seen it coming. After all, the Elon basketball media guide blurts out this on its first page: "In order to go where you have never been, you must do what you have never done."
But Simons took the news like he was being stabbed in the back by his best friend.
"I said, 'You know, I'm thinking about transferring. I'm not sure that I want to do it. I just want to go and look at another school,'" Toole recalls. "And he basically told me, 'If you're thinking about transferring, then you should transfer because I'm real big on loyalty.' That took me aback because I was a valuable part of the team... and he was just like, 'You should leave.'"
So bitter and resentful, Simons would not even give Toole a release to visit another school while he was on scholarship, putting the New Jersey native in a serious bind.
"If I came [to Penn] and looked and it didn't work out, what am I going to do? I'm on my own," Toole says. "I pretty much said, 'Screw this.' I've come this far already, if I decide I'm not going to transfer, how's my relationship with the coach going to be? It was pretty much severed as it was."
So Toole asked for his release. It could have been the end of his basketball career.
Turns out, it was only the beginning.
More swiftly than one of his baseline drives, Toole was almost completely wiped out from the Elon basketball tradition.
Simons cleared out his locker immediately, packing away personal affects which Toole has not since seen. He edited the 1999-2000 highlight video so that Toole wouldn't even be a part of the film.
"I led the team in minutes, so it must have been pretty hard to find enough times when I wasn't in the picture to make a whole highlight tape," Toole quips.
Simons wouldn't sit at the same table as Toole at the end-of-the-year basketball banquet.
Even now, Simons doesn't wish to talk of his star player who abandoned him for greener pastures.
When reached for comment, the coach said, "We don't talk about players that are no longer part of our program" before abruptly hanging up.
"If he can't handle that, he better stay in the lower echelon of basketball," Toole's father, Jerry, says, more amused than bitter. "People move on. If Simons got the opportunity to leave Elon to coach at North Carolina, I think he'd go."
While Simons was trying to forget, Toole was trying, almost frantically, to get his life in order.
He went up to visit Penn just in time to see the Quakers cap off their perfect 1999-2000 Ivy campaign with a 73-52 pasting of Princeton.
Seeing Michael Jordan sit atop the rim, above 8,722 screaming fans at college basketball's most historic gym was enough to sell Toole -- hell, who wouldn't be sold?
Now he had to talk with Penn coach Fran Dunphy and make sure he was wanted -- and needed. He was.
According to Toole, Dunphy claims that Penn was about to start recruiting the high school guard right after he signed with Elon.
The next step was actually getting into Penn and taking care of all the financial aid forms, which, Toole says, "seemed like it took forever."
Finally, in May of 2000, just as his sophomore year at Elon -- where he was now pigeonholed by some as the "bad guy" on campus -- was coming to a close, the University of Pennsylvania accepted Andrew Toole.
"I could sleep a little easier," he says, "because I had some place to go to college the next year."
At Elon, Toole had a stable life. He was the leading scorer on the basketball team. He roomed with his best friend from home, Sean Gill. He had a girlfriend. He had a routine. A life.
And suddenly, it all vanished.
"All the things Penn would offer me were in the future," Toole says. "I wasn't going to be able to play a game until next year. The benefit of graduating from an Ivy League school, I wouldn't have any idea about it for a few years. All the things Penn offered me I couldn't see at the time. And that made it hard.
"If you take a big risk, you want to see immediate rewards."
So Toole waited for a year on the sidelines, doing the only thing he could do -- practice with his teammates.
But as the adage goes, good things come to those who wait. And if anyone should know that, it's Toole.
Here's a kid who most coaches thought was too short and too skinny and too damn weak to play at a high level. Toole was five-foot-nothing and only 95 pounds as a freshman in high school, for crying out loud.
But he grew like a weed, shooting up to 5-foot-4 his sophomore year, 5-foot-7 his junior year, six-foot his senior year, then finally 6-foot-3 his freshman year in college.
At CBA, a perennially strong high school basketball program, Toole competed against a ton of high-caliber players -- some of which included the NBA's Jay Williams, Al Harrington and Ron Artest. He played well, too, working his way into the starting lineup his senior season as a shooting guard and helping his team to a 21-5 record.
Through high school, Toole worked hard with his father and coaches on his shooting, hoping that would make up for his lack of speed and size. And he learned to shoot the lights out.
"If there was any gym door in the country open," CBA coach Ed Wicelinski says, "he'd be in there shooting."
Some Division II schools showed interest early, as did Navy and Lafayette of the Patriot League. Elon joined the Andrew Toole sweepstakes the summer before his senior year, and Toole jumped on the opportunity.
` "They offered me a scholarship early," Toole says, "and a lot of people said that no one would offer me a scholarship early, especially a Division I school."
What are those people saying now?
"One of the local coaches told me the other day that [Toole] could probably play on any team in the country," Jerry says. "It's almost like a fairy tale -- the small kid, who everyone said would never make it, is just chugging along."
The new guy ran back on defense, set his feet, waited for impact and was pummeled, crashing hard onto the floor.
The ref looked at the guy on the ground, a skinny white guy with gel in his hair and bruises on his legs, and then looked at the guy standing over him, the best player on one of the best teams in the nation. The call was simple, of course -- it was a block.
Andrew Toole, Penn's brand-new point guard and prized transfer, just got hosed in the opening minutes of his second game in a Quakers' uniform.
"I told the ref, 'Just because he's an All-American doesn't mean he can't charge into people,'" Toole said. "He just kind of gave me a wink and hit hit two free throws and ran down to the other end, basically saying, 'I'm All-American, you're a nobody.'"
That foul may have set the tone for the game. Toole ended up fouling out after scoring just eight points, as the Quakers fell just short of pulling off the monster upset over Frank Williams and then-No. 2 Illinois.
But Toole proved quickly that he was more than a nobody.
He became one of the team's most prolific scorers, forming a virtually unstoppable triple threat with fellow All-Ivy first teamers Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong.
Toole was able to beat almost all of his opponents off the dribble while rarely missing an open three.
He averaged 13.9 points per game last season, canned 58 three-pointers and led the team with a remarkable .873 free throw percentage.
But the most important numbers of all was 13 -- that was Penn's win differential between the dreadful 2000-2001 season and the heralded 2001-2002 one.
"Everyone likes to point out the difference between our sophomore and junior years," senior Andrew Coates says. "He's kind of the glue that made everything fit."
And perhaps even more important than his sweet touch from behind the arc or his slashing ability is his vocal leadership on the court.
"When you got one of your best players telling you what to do, you're going to respect it a lot more than a guy like myself saying something," sophomore Tim Begley says. "Everyone listens when he talks."
"He's a very, very good leader," Dunphy says. "That's one of the attributes he brings to the game. And we need that."
Dunphy does say, however, that Toole has a few things to improve on this season, mostly his assist-to-turnover ratio, which was 1.12 last season, and his perimeter defense.
Still, Begley, who was a freshman at CBA when Toole was a senior, thinks his old high school buddy is one of the best in the business.
Says Begley, "I'd take him over any other point guard in the country."
It always comes back to the dream, and that's where we must end this story.
We must go back to the Penn-Villanova game on Dec. 5 last year, a game where Toole, always composed, hit two free throws to send the contest into overtime and then two more with 12 seconds left in OT to give the Quakers a 75-74 victory.
Toole finished that game with 21 points. It was the last game before he had surgery to fix a stress fracture on the fifth metatarsal on his right foot.
"The worst thing that could have happened was for me to play on it, play all the way until March and then all of a sudden, a week before we go to the Tournament, it breaks," Toole says. "That just would have been heartbreaking."
Remember, it's the dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament that has fueled Toole ever since he was a little kid, shooting kickballs at eight-foot rims and watching college hoops with Gill and the rest of his buddies.
That's why he opted for surgery, just so he could be perfectly healthy for the Ivy League portion of the schedule, the portion of the schedule, of course, that determines which team goes to the Big Dance.
And guess what happened next? Toole returned to the Quakers' starting lineup, pinky toe healed and all, and led them to the NCAA tournament, even after they were 2-3 in league play and a trip to the Tournament seemed like an absolute longshot.
"We grew up watching college basketball together," Gill says. "When I watched the Selection Show on TV and Penn was selected, I was just so happy for him. It was like a dream come true for him."
Funny, that's exactly what it was.Comments powered by Disqus
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