For journeyman forward Tony Gaffney, who bounced around four different Euro countries, the NBA surely isn’t his claim to fame.
With passport stamps from Israel, Turkey, Germany and Spain, the undrafted 6’9 defensive specialist enters his sixth season as pro. In between his stints abroad, Gaffney also registered 38 games with the Utah Flash of the D-League.
For those who have forgotten, Gaffney stood out for the Lakers during the 2009 NBA Summer League en route to earning a spot at vet-camp. He was the last player cut from Phil Jackson’s roster.
In what revealed to be a comical twist, the 29-year-old native of Massachusetts has been part of two of the most storied franchises in NBA history. Gaffney is probably the only player to attend training camp with the Lakers, sign on for a playoff gig with the Boston Celtics (his favorite team as a kid) and then ultimately face off against Los Angeles in the NBA Finals.
During the recent offseason, Gaffney signed a one-plus-one contract sheet with Hapoel Jerusalem of the top division in Israel. His transition has been smooth as he averages 10.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per over a pair of league showcases. The former Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year with UMass also provided a spark off the bench for Jerusalem during a pre-season cup finals victory over reigning Euro-Champions Maccabi Tel Aviv.
In this unorthodox one-on-one with Basketball Insiders, Gaffney looked back on his stint with the Lakers to share some of the best untold stories about his bond with his former teammate Kobe Bryant.
“There are loads of stories about what makes Kobe who he is,” Gaffney said. “Some will argue one of the greatest of all time, while others would say the most arrogant of all time. Personally, I don’t think there was a player I interacted with better than with Kobe.”
With the Lakers, Gaffney played his tail off during the NBA Summer League and participated in every preseason game. He said he performed “fairly well” against the Charlotte Bobcats, which led then head coach Phil Jackson to tell reporters that “the kid puts a twinkle in our eye, no doubt about it” when describing Gaffney.
In attempt to jump-start his drive for the game, when needed, Gaffney saved the printed “Zen Master” scripture and has it framed in his childhood bedroom.
Prior to that, Gaffney had met Bryant for the first time.
“The Lakers had just come off winning an NBA title and the first guy Kobe sees in the gym is myself,” Gaffney said. “He said, ‘Who the hell is this?'” Former Lakers teammate Lamar Odom followed up by telling Gaffney, “Kobe doesn’t like mother****ers like you.”
From that point on, Gaffney had to carry Bryant’s bags, “but we had a unique relationship,” he recalled.
The odds of finding a rookie able to say that Bryant took them under his wing are slim to none. Though for Bryant, a nine-time NBA All-Defensive First Team nominee, Gaffney’s rep as a defensive stopper was seen as a challenger who must be faced.
Roughly one week into training camp Bryant called Gaffney down to the Lakers’ training facilities in El Segundo.
“We’re gonna start playing one-on-one,” Bryant told Gaffney, according to the forward. “I heard you’re a defensive lockdown player. So, lock me down.”
“Obviously easier said than done,” Gaffney said with a laugh. “But for about three weeks in a row, I was forced to show up hours before practice to play one-on-one against Kobe.”
Bryant would invent various sets of rules where he could only dribble and score with his weak hand; some days he could only score inside the paint, others only from outside.
“Oh, and I never got to play offense,” Gaffney said.
Bryant’s work ethic is off the charts. It’s what separates him from other athletes who strive to become great.
In Europe, Gaffney is known for his hard work and commitment to playing defense. He collects floor burns and is the first guy in the gym and the last one to leave.
“There was no difference with the Lakers except no matter how early I showed up for practice, it wasn’t early enough: Kobe was on the court with three trainers doused in sweat,” Gaffney said.
If the Lakers had a 10:30 a.m. practice, Bryant would be in the gym at 6:00, take his daughters Natalia and Gianna to school at 8:00, then come back around 9:00 to shoot some more.
“No one would have any idea that he’s been in the gym working for three-to-four hours,” Gaffney said.
The Lakers had checked in at The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Gaffney had his rookie initiation party.
“L.A. made it clear that I made the team. I was the last player cut at morning shootaround on opening night against the Clippers,” Gaffney explained. “I walked into the high-stakes room, but I didn’t have any money. I then saw Kobe, he was watching some guys throw some money around before he turns to me and says, ‘What are you doing here, rook?’
“Next thing I know, Kobe throws his black card on the table and hands me 10 stacks ($10,000). What I really wanted to do at the time was just put it in my pocket and run. Sure enough, an hour later it was all gone.”
Released from the Lakers, Gaffney signed a free agent deal overseas with Hapoel Gilboa/Galil of the Israeli League. He would return to the U.S. one game later after breaking his foot.
Gaffney sat out for five months before doctors cleared him for practice. That same morning, the Boston Celtics (his childhood favorite team) were on the line offering a playoff deal and non-guaranteed pact for the following season.
“The next morning, I met Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge to sign the paperwork,” Gaffney said. “Looking back, I was four points away from winning an NBA ring.”
The ring, though, would ultimately go to Gaffney’s former one-on-one practice rival.
“Walking through the tunnel before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which of course happened to be at Staples Center against the Lakers, I hear from behind some choice words; I turn around and it was Kobe,” Gaffney said. “To put it nicely, he called me a traitor. The next thing I know he comes over, gives me a big hug and said Boston is where I belong.”
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