PORTLAND — To hear Brian Cusworth talk about his commitment to play basketball, you wonder if he can do anything else.
It’s not like the guy could be a doctor or something …
Well, actually, he could.
Cusworth was a pre-med major at Harvard and graduated with a degree in biology. But five years after graduation, he is still planting his 7-foot, 255-pound body underneath the basket, ready for a rebound.
Cusworth, 28, is one of three centers on the Maine Red Claws, the NBA D-League affiliate of the Boston Celtics. He still has hopes to reaching the NBA.
So what happened to medical school?
“Basketball is too much fun to quit now,” Cusworth said.
This may be the most fun Cusworth has had in two years. One game into the 2010-2011 season in Spain’s professional league, Cusworth ruptured a tendon in his ankle. Surgeries and two years of rehab followed.
Despite the layoff, the Celtics were interested in Cusworth. He was to be invited to pre-season camp in September. But a slight stress fracture in his left foot kept Cusworth from attending. Instead, Cusworth was assigned to the Red Claws.
When Cusworth walked into the Portland Expo two weeks ago, he was beaming. Never has a player been so happy for practice.
“I am so excited to be here,” Cusworth said. “This is my first official practice in 772 days.”
That is how much Cusworth loves to play basketball. He could have begun to put that Harvard degree to use. Instead, with patience and perseverance, he worked and rehabbed and got back into shape — to play minor league basketball.
Like most of his teammates, Cusworth could make more money playing pro basketball in Europe, instead of the D-League. But this league and its affiliations with NBA teams is quite a lure.
“I always thought of myself as a potential player in the NBA,” Cusworth said, “so I thought this was the best road to give it a shot.”
Cusworth graduated from Harvard midway through the 2006-07 basketball season (we’ll get to that story a little later). From there, Cusworth played in the NBA Summer League and then took off for Europe to play in the pro leagues over there.
He played in Europe — until the ankle injury in 2010 — and in the NBA Summer League during most summers.
“It’s great to have that experience,” Cusworth said. “That, coupled with the success I’ve had overseas, made me think I’m on the cusp of breaking in (to the NBA). That remains to be seen. I wanted to give it a shot.”
And if the shot misses, there is that biology degree.
Cusworth’s time at Harvard was eventful, and frustrating.
“It’s a long story,” he said.
The abbreviated version: Cusworth suffered a stress fracture in his right foot his sophomore year (2003-04). He wanted to red-shirt — a common practice among injured college athletes, to sit out the season and be able to play a fifth year. But Harvard has a policy of not allowing students more than eight semesters to obtain their degrees. Cusworth could not have a fifth year.
Cusworth withdrew from school before the second semester of his sophomore year. When he returned in the fall of 2004, he had five semesters left. He played two full seasons and half of the 2006-07 season (that 2006-07 team featured a freshman guard named Jeremy Lin, by the way).
Cusworth graduated in January of 2007 and had to leave the basketball team. He went back home to St. Louis and worked out, preparing to become a pro. And he is still at it.
Eventually, Cusworth will stop playing, whether it be because of ability or age.
“It’s very easy for me to say ‘I’m going to be a doctor.’ It’s another thing to commit a year or two to refresher courses, four years of medical school, three years of residency, at the least.”
Cusworth knows the routine. His parents, Robert Cusworth and Michaele Penkoske, are both physicians, and his girlfriend Sarah Jarrett is in medical school in St. Louis.
“You would think that would give me encouragement,” Brian Cusworth said. “But they tell me the horror stories (about the commitment involved). If you’re not gung-ho, you need to re-think it.”
For the moment, Cusworth does not have to think about it. Two subjects currently fill his mind and make him smile — basketball and Sarah, who became Cusworth’s fiance last month.
“It’s still fresh. Still very, very excited,” Cusworth said.
The wedding is scheduled for 2014. Brian Cusworth has already proven he is a patient man.
Kevin Thomas — 791-6411