MCGILL: Browning Completes Journey to D-I Success Story|
March 3, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Stevie Browning was curious. He reached out his hand, clenched his fist and tapped his knuckles on the glass that separates Division I and Division II men’s basketball. He wondered what it’d be like on the other side.
It was after his sophomore season at D-II Fairmont State, currently the No. 1 program in the country at that level, and certainly no slouch during the 2013-14 season. Browning averaged 16.8 points per game – a team high – and had earned second-team all-conference honors in the Mountain East, one of the best D-II hoops leagues in the country. He’d even impressed with a 23-point, eight-rebound performance at WVU in an exhibition game, where he had nary a turnover in 37 minutes against elite competition.
With two years of eligibility left to exhaust, Browning headed to his Logan home and told his parents about the dream that existed on the other side of that pane. It was clear to him – he wanted to leave Fairmont State and the promise of being a league Player of the Year candidate as a junior for the uncertainty of his Division I ambitions.
“I wasn’t for the idea at the time,” said Steve Browning, Stevie’s father. “I really wasn’t.”
The list of Division I players dropping to a lower level to complete their eligibility is a long one. Rarely does a D-II player, oftentimes rejected by D-I schools out of high school, make the move up.
“We’re not risk-takers,” said Stevie’s mother, Mimi. “We play it safe.”
Stevie felt differently. He told his father how, someday, he’d be a 40-year-old man and the opportunities provided by basketball would long be in the rear view. He didn’t want to be a former player who adjusted the mirror and squinted, peering deep into his past and wondering with regret.
What if he had defied logic and made the jump? So Stevie unclenched his fist, grabbed a sledgehammer and shattered the glass leading to his D-I dreams. Entering Saturday’s Senior Night festivities at the Henderson Center, where Marshall will host North Texas in the regular season finale for both teams, Stevie will play his 63rd game for the Thundering Herd. He has scored 876 points – an average of 14.1 points – and has cracked the top 50 on a handful of career lists in just two seasons: No. 24 in assists, No. 22 in 3-pointers, No. 19 in 3-point percentage and No. 41 in steals.
“It’s been a blessing,” Stevie said. “This whole ride for me has been wonderful and nothing short of amazing.”
Steven Edward Browning was born at a Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. Stevie’s father was an air traffic controller, so they bounced from Florida to West Virginia to Ohio and back to Logan, West Virginia.
Stevie grew up with a ball in his hands, splitting time between gyms near Logan and the hoop in his grandmother’s driveway. Stevie claims his home as Mud Fork in Verdunville, which is a couple miles away from Logan.
Stevie developed into a scorer and shooter before anything else, but by the time he starred at Logan High School, his basketball options were limited on the Division I level. He had the opportunity to walk-on at Marshall, but he chose the safety of scholarship money and playing time at Fairmont State.
“At Fairmont I came in not a very good ball-handler,” Stevie said. “I was more of a shooter, really. Not really a 3-point shooter, either. I was a good mid-range player. I didn’t have the point guard skills.”
The numbers back up that claim. Stevie averaged 6.9 points per game as a freshman and had 22 assists against 31 turnovers – a ratio of 0.71. That number got worse during his sophomore season – 50 assists, 87 turnovers and a 0.57 ratio.
“I wasn’t a bad ball-handler, but I wasn’t anywhere near what I am,” Stevie said. “When I was making that transition from Fairmont to Marshall, I took that upon myself. Every day I was in the gym by myself, two to three hours, working on it.”
After Stevie told his parents he wanted to transfer to a Division I program, Steve made sure his son knew the first skill he’d need to improve upon was his ball-handling. Stevie made that commitment, doing two-ball drills and four-dribble combinations in empty gyms until he was soaked in sweat.
Finally, after Dan D’Antoni was hired at Marshall on April 24, 2014, Stevie made a trip to Huntington to visit with the new coach, assistant Mark Cline and play in an open gym with the players. He felt he belonged at that level, just as he had five months earlier at the WVU Coliseum.
“That gave him the confidence,” Steve said.
Prior to the 2016-17 season, Stevie’s last year of eligibility, D’Antoni sat behind a table in the Hartley Room inside the Henderson. It was the preseason press conference, and D’Antoni was flanked by three seniors: Stevie, Austin Loop and Ryan Taylor.
D’Antoni first addressed the media about Stevie, who had been with the program a shorter time than the other two.
“Here you have a kid … definitely overlooked as a Division I player,” D’Antoni said. “Probably looks a little like me – skinny and a crew cut and people just look at you and bypass you as an athlete and a player.
“He has certainly proved all of the doubters wrong. An unbelievable journey and story for him that he had the courage to seek higher when he knew he could. It was a bold move.”
Stevie turned those assist-to-turnover ratios at Fairmont State – 0.71 and 0.57 – to 1.44 as a junior and 1.81 this season. He made 31.1 percent of his 3s at Fairmont State, 33.8 percent of 3s at Marshall in 2015-16 and 39.9 percent this season.
As an indication of Stevie’s all-around game, he is the only player in Conference USA who ranks in the top 10 in scoring, assist-to-turnover ratio and 3-point percentage this season.
“In Stevie’s mind, he knew he could do it,” Mimi said. “The path was laid for him and getting to Marshall was just what he needed.”
Stevie has his final home game and next week’s Conference USA tournament, plus any postseason tournament that might await, left of his collegiate career. There will be naysayers, but he wants to pursue basketball professionally. When that road ends, he is certain he will become a coach at some level.
Stevie’s father reckons there will not be anything that could stop his son from achieving his dreams, no matter how lofty Stevie makes them out to be.
“He has always been able to climb over whatever is in front of him,” Steve said, smile beaming. “It’s not in my hands. If I ever doubt him, I’d be foolish.”