There is a photo that Linda Cowell-Pritchard treasures.
It was taken inside the apartment she rented during her final year at the University of Buffalo. In it, her 1-year-old son, Courtney Pritchard, sits on the floor, smiling after making his first basketball shot, with a small foam ball his mother had bought him, into a lampshade re-purposed as a hoop.
Looking back, it was a sign of things to come.
“From that day on, he just always had a basketball in his hands,” Cowell-Pritchard said.
Making that orange sphere his constant companion has always paid off for Pritchard. The latest evidence of that fact came two weeks ago, when he was inducted into the Wagner College Hall of Fame, recognized for a standout four-year career in which he led the Seahawks to the NCAA tournament as the starting point guard in his junior year.
Pritchard finished his career at Wagner ranked 28th in scoring with 1,147 career points; second in career assists with 563, an average of 4.98 per game; and among the top 10 in career steals (183), single-season steals (63), and single-season assists (159). He was named the Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2001-02, was an All-NEC Rookie Team selection in 2000-01, and was named to the All-NEC Tournament Team in 2002-03.
His days at Southampton High School were equally impressive.
In 1999, as a junior point guard, he led the Mariners to the New York State Class B Championship, the only state title in program history. By the time his high school varsity career was over, Pritchard had enjoyed a 78-12 run and earned First-Team All-Long Island honors twice, leading to the offer of a full scholarship from Wagner College. In choosing the Staten Island school, he followed in the footsteps of another East End great: his cousin, Bridgehampton High School star Bobby Hopson — who died in April at the age of 48 — starred at Wagner in the early 1990s, and was inducted into the Wagner Hall of Fame in 2009.
After graduating from Wagner, Pritchard played overseas in Portugal for a year, and then played in the ABA (American Basketball Association), a sort of minor league to the NBA, for a few years back home before drawing the curtain on his professional career. He now lives in Frederick, Maryland, with his wife, Shalyn, an East Hampton native, and their children — Jaiden, 16, Cameron, 9, and Samara, 6 — and works for a data storage company.
Pritchard received word of his induction a few weeks before the announcement, and had to keep it under wraps until the official proclamation.
Despite his impressive stats, Pritchard said he didn’t consider himself a shoo-in for the hall of fame.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I was ecstatic. It’s a great honor and great to know that all the hard work, and all the sacrifices I made and that my mom made paid off. I told my mom it was our award, because she was the one who pushed me and created the foundation that kept me going.”
Pritchard credited both his parents with pushing him to succeed. His father, Joseph Pritchard (who died of cancer in 2007) was Pritchard’s “number one fan,” according to Cowell-Pritchard, who said he “would have walked to Wagner College if he had to” to watch his son play.
But it was Cowell-Pritchard’s constant influence and guidance that helped pave her son’s path to Wagner, whether it was reminding him that if he wasn’t working hard, somebody else was, or breaking down his performances after games and showcases. Cowell-Pritchard was also a standout basketball player during her days at Southampton High School, growing up with six brothers who would often make her the substitute player for their pickup games at home. As a mother, she understood the value of taking her basketball-obsessed son to tournaments and showcases as far as New York City and even once to Philadelphia, waking up early and committing to long drives on weekends to expose Pritchard to the best talent around.
“She helped me see that just because I was successful out east, doesn’t mean I was good anywhere else,” Pritchard said.
Her savvy guidance and Pritchard’s pure love for the game proved to be a potent combination. Longtime Southampton head coach Herm Lamison witnessed that over the course of Pritchard’s high school career.
“His mom was like a super-agent, but in a positive way,” he said. “She did whatever she needed to do to help him fulfill his dreams.”
Sometimes, Pritchard said, that included encouraging him to practice his ball-handling skills outside of the laundromat in Southampton Village when they were there. Cowell-Pritchard would also routinely take her son to the basketball courts at the middle school, where he’d dribble, shoot and simulate game situations in his mind, hands out, running a play with imaginary teammates.
“Wherever he was walking, even if he was going to church, he was always dribbling a basketball,” Lamison said. “To this day, I’ve never seen a kid have a ball in his hands all the time like that. He was just obsessed with the game of basketball.”
Cowell-Pritchard put a lot into her son’s career because she could see the natural talent he had at a young age, she said. But it didn’t require much pushing on her part. In Pritchard, she had a willing participant, someone who loved the game and had a competitive streak to boot. That he settled into a leadership role as the varsity’s starting point guard seemed preordained as well.
Pritchard’s talent and desire were evident at a young age, and he came up with other standouts that eventually made up the state championship team: Trevor Pettaway, Terry Smith, Darrin Miller, Jamal Proctor, Anthony Cobb, Scott Madison, Sam Kelly, Jay Ward, and Calvin Mackey. The seeds for the future were planted when they were all in elementary school, sitting as a group to watch the varsity team play on “Mini Mariner” nights. They idolized players who led Southampton to winning records in the early 1990s, watching them battle nearby rivals like Bridgehampton, in games sometimes played at Southampton College to accommodate big crowds.
“You always wanted to put a Mariner jersey on and play in those games,” Pritchard said. “A lot of the guys on those teams were living in my neighborhood, and those were the guys at that moment who were repping for the town. Those were the OGs you wanted to follow.”
They did that, and then some. Pritchard and his peers earned perpetual bragging rights when they won the program’s only state championship in 1999. Pritchard was named Suffolk County Small Schools Player of the Year and was the state tournament MVP. It was a thrilling ride, with perhaps the biggest upset along the way a comeback victory over powerhouse Amityville in the county semifinals. The Mariners were down nearly 10 points with time running out. The end result seemed so clear that Mariner fans had already started filing toward the exit and into the parking lot. But Pritchard caught fire, hitting several big shots to send Southampton into overtime and on to a win over a favored Amityville team that featured several future Division I players in its lineup. Lamison said he remembers watching fans that had left seconds earlier come pouring back into the gym after hearing the roar of the crowd noise from the parking lot.
“It sounded like the roof was coming off the place,” he said.
What that Mariners team may have lacked in terms of size or the ability to boast of Division I prospects, it more than made up for in tenacity and team chemistry, according to Lamison and Pritchard. The team wasn’t just like a family, it was a family.
“Six of the 10 guys I played with on that team are my cousins,” Pritchard said, adding that Miller and Cobb were his best men when he was married in 2013. “These are guys I grew up with in the sandbox. We played PAL ball together. We did everything together.”
They behaved in all the ways a family can and does, too, according to Lamison.
“The practices with this team were fierce,” he said. “They would get into it in practice. They were so competitive. The practices were sometimes more competitive than the games. But that was a team that genuinely enjoyed each other, loved each other, and it showed on the court.”
For all his praise of Pritchard, Lamison did point out that the star point guard wasn’t always a big fan of practice sessions. In the mold of NBA star point guard Allen Iverson — who famously disparaged practicing in a press conference while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers in 2002 — Lamison said he often had to be tough on Pritchard in that regard, but added that it never seemed to negatively affect his performance.
“When it came to game time, and the lights were on, he showed up,” Lamison said. “He was everything you wanted him to be.”
An innate competitiveness probably had a lot to do with that. According to teammate Miller, Pritchard’s burning desire to win even extended to card games like Uno. He also remembers Pritchard passionately arguing a call with a referee during a 3-on-3 fundraiser game for charity years ago.
“He’s probably the most competitive person I know,” Miller said. “He just doesn’t like to lose.”
Pritchard’s desire to win and be part of a winning program made Wagner — and, in particular, its head coach Dereck Whittenburg — an alluring option for his college career. Whittenburg was a senior captain on N.C. State’s NCAA national championship team in 1983, coached by the legendary Jim Valvano. Wagner was Whittenburg’s first head coaching job, and he has since gone on to coach at Fordham and is now back at his alma mater N.C. State as a director of player development.
Whittenburg was sold on Pritchard after coming to Southampton and watching him play, seeing in the point guard many of the same qualities he’d possessed as a player and leader on the floor at N.C. State.
“He was passionate and had this strong attitude,” Whittenburg said. “He was hard to handle, and [Lamison] told me that, but I said, ‘I like him. He’s a little crazy but that’s OK.’”
There was a mutual admiration for Whittenburg from the Pritchard family. Whittenburg said he remembers Cowell-Pritchard coming to Wagner to watch him coach before Pritchard officially committed there, and expressed to him that she thought he’d be a good match for her son.
Pritchard’s fiery nature was something Whittenburg said he always liked, even when they had their disputes, and he was always impressed by how Pritchard rose to the occasion and matured over time at Wagner. He also added that he was surprised Pritchard wasn’t more heavily recruited by other schools, saying he believed he was among the top 10 point guards in all of New York at the time he graduated high school.
“I treated him like my own, like he was my son,” Whittenburg said. “I loved his spirit. He was a great competitor and he hated to lose.”
Pritchard said that in choosing Wagner, he was attracted not only to his coach’s pedigree but also what Whittenburg told him — that any starting spots were up for grabs, if a player worked hard enough and proved they had the skills to take it. The relatively short distance from home meant his family could regularly come to games, another selling point.
Pritchard didn’t waste time proving he belonged, nabbing a starting spot in his freshman year and ending up on the NEC’s All-Rookie team. Still, it was an adjustment for Pritchard, who said he quickly realized how hard he had to fight at that level for playing time, on a squad with talented players from one through 12.
The team advanced to the NIT tournament in his first two years there, and he was named his conference’s defensive player of the year as a sophomore. His junior season was the standout in terms of success, with the victory in the conference tournament stamping Wagner’s ticket to the NCAA tournament. As the deep underdog 15th-seed, they lost to second-seeded Pittsburgh.
A loss in the NEC Tournament championship game the following year meant there would be no repeat trip to the big dance, but Pritchard parlayed his success at Wagner into a few more years of competition, with the season overseas in Portugal, and a short stint in the ABA.
While his competitive playing days ended after that, the sport never left his side.
Nearly 40 years removed from plopping that foam ball into the lampshade, basketball remains a constant in Pritchard’s life. He helps out coaching his own children now, and plays in recreational leagues as often as he can. The baby photo is still prominently displayed in Cowell-Pritchard’s home, alongside another showing Pritchard soaring above his day care friends, dunking on a tiny hoop. Pritchard keeps a team photo from the high school state championship at his work desk, and still talks to certain teammates, like Miller, almost every day. The images are reminders of how much the sport has meant to him and his family from day one, and the outsized presence it will always have in his life.
“Basketball has taught me so much,” Pritchard said. “I’ll play until the good Lord says I can’t play anymore.”