By George Ferguson
For Havre High School senior Cory Brothers, this week is the culmination of one of the most celebrated individual basketball careers in Blue Pony history. But to Brothers, and those close to him, a trip to the Class A state tournament this week in Belgrade is the culmination of so much more.
Brothers and his Blue Pony teammates come into the state tournament for the first time in any of their careers. It is Havre's first appearance in five seasons. And for Brothers, it has been a particularly long wait since he has been a varsity player for Havre High for all four years of his high school career. But given what Brothers has done and accomplished since he first dribbled a basketball, the wait to play on the biggest stage in high school basketball seems much longer than four years.
Cory is what is commonly known in the basketball world as a "gym rat." It basically means he has been hanging around basketball courts, shooting jump shots and playing in pickup games for most of his life. He simply spends more of his free time on basketball than anything else in his life. It is pretty rare, considering all of things out there to divide a normal teenager's day-to-day life.
But from an early age, Cory has loved the game of basketball, and more importantly, he has worked diligently on his game in order to get him to where he is today.
"I was living in Chester in the third grade and I got a basketball hoop for my birthday, or Christmas, I don't remember," he said. "But right there, I just fell in love with the game and I have been working on basketball ever since."
Working on his game might be a mild understatement. Brothers has spent countless hours, days and years trying to become the basketball player that he is today.
At a young age, he understood that basketball doesn't come easy to anyone, and that becoming a good player requires hard work and dedication. Those were two qualities he knew could take him places in the game of basketball.
"I have never coached or seen a player that works harder on his game than Cory does," said Havre High head basketball coach Mark West. "He has always been focused on getting better, and he has never let up on working harder than anyone to be the best player he can be."
Brother's desire and determination to become a great basketball player was aided by moving to Havre where he was able to watch great players that have come before him at Havre High and Montana State University-Northern.
"I always loved Michael Jordan like most kids do," he said. "But a big influence on me was going to the Lights' games when I was in junior high. Watching a great player like Kevin Owens really influenced me and made me want to get better."
So with the basketball bug firmly implanted in his mind and a wiry frame at a relatively young age, Brothers went to work seriously on the game of basketball.
First came the jump shots. Thousands of them at any of the local gyms in town. Next he needed to get stronger, so he started lifting weights. Finally, he figured out that he had the rare natural ability to jump so he went to work on that.
Getting stronger is where he says his game really took off and the fire began to burn even brighter.
"I really worked hard on my jumping ability and getting stronger after my freshman year," Brothers said. "Soon after that I started to dunk the basketball and then things really took off after that. Being able to do that told me that I had the potential to be a good player."
And Brothers hasn't stopped dunking ever since. He is without a doubt the most prolific dunker on a very short list of players that could dunk the ball in the history of Havre High.
Once he figured out that he had the makings both in body and game to be a great player, Brothers did what any gym rat would do. He kept going to the gym. He focused all of his attention on basketball and on any given night, or morning for that matter, it wasn't hard to find Cory if you knew where to look. Havre has always been a good place to engage in pickup basketball - from open gym at Havre Central and Northern, to the outdoor courts at Carpenter Park are places where he truly honed his skills. If there was an open basket, Cory was there playing.
"I think that playing pickup games was huge for me," Brothers said. "I usually went to the college and played against all the college players or whoever else was there. Playing against older guys and better players, there is no question it immediately made me a better player."
But the work doesn't end there for Brothers. He has spent just as many hours alone working on his game as he has playing in actual games. He will shoot baskets before school, during lunch, at night, or just about anytime that he isn't obligated to be somewhere else.
During this season, Brothers endured a semi-shooting slump. On more than one occasion, West said that he found Cory in the gym, trying to shoot his way out of it.
"Cory has worked really hard on his outside shot," West said. "Anytime he has felt like he wasn't shooting well, he will go to the gym and just try to get out of it by shooting the ball."
And as a good a player as Brothers has become, he fully understands that he is not a complete player yet and that his work will never be done.
"I know that people think that my outside jumper isn't consistent enough," he said. "That just pushes me to work harder and spend more time in the gym trying to get it to the level that I want it to be at."
But if Brothers' shot is inconsistent by some standards, it hasn't served him too badly over the years. Among his long list of accomplishments he received all-conference and all-state accolades as a junior. He was named the Central A player of the year in 2003 while leading the conference in scoring. Last year also saw him shatter the Havre High single-game scoring record by scoring 51 points in an upset win over the Great Falls High Bison. A week later he drilled a game-winning shot against Browning at the buzzer to clinch the Central A regular season championship for Havre.
This past summer he played in the Adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas and was named most valuable player. Prior to the 2004 campaign, he was nominated for Gatorade High School Player of the Year as well as McDonalds All-American.
All of those awards come from the hard work and dedication that Brothers has put in in. And it all may lead to a bright future. There is no doubt that at this time next season he will be playing college basketball somewhere. It is just a question of where and at what level.
"I believe in my mind that I am a good enough player to play at the Division I level, but I also know that there are things holding me back," he said. "My shot is one thing and my size is not ideal for the position that they would want me to play at that level.
"But I have played against a lot of guys that have went to Division I programs the last couple of years and I feel like I am right there. "
While Cory's collegiate future is still uncertain, whether it be MSU-Northern or MSU-Bozeman, that decision will come soon enough. He knows that his high school career isn't quite over.
And while he has piled up a long list of individual accomplishments over the years, and has made quite a name for himself as a high school player, don't think for one second that he doesn't understand that basketball is a team sport. In terms of team success, he has tasted very little on the basketball court up until this season, which makes this last week of his career that much more special.
"That has been the only down side to my career, that we haven't won more," Brothers said. "Everyone plays basketball to be part of a team and the ultimate goal is to win a championship together.
"That is why winning the divisional tournament was so special to Trent (Normandy), Bret (Magelssen) and myself," he added. "We have been together for a long time and we really hadn't won anything before."
And now that Brothers and his teammates have gotten a little taste of success, they are definitely hungry for more. Which is why Cory has taken it upon himself to be a leader in his senior season, and he will do whatever he needs to to finish this magical season off right, even if it means he takes fewer shots - just as he did at the divisional tournament.
"Cory had such a great divisional tournament," West said. "He really was a leader. He passed the ball well, he worked really hard on the boards and he was our defensive stopper all weekend long."
Said Brothers: "I think we have a great chance this weekend at state. I want to go in there and do whatever I have to do to help our team win a state championship. It would be the greatest thing to happen to me if we can accomplish that. Right now, the way we're playing, it looks pretty good."
Win or lose this weekend in Belgrade, Brothers' mentality about basketball and about life won't change. He will still live in a gym and he will still strive to get better at any cost.
"After the season is over, I will probably work even harder on my game than ever before because college will be right around the corner," he said. "The thing that has always driven me is that I don't want to ever look back and say that I didn't give basketball everything I had, that I didn't give my team everything I had. I want to be the best basketball player that I can be without any regrets. So I am going to keep working hard to keep getting better."