On game days, UCI Men’s Basketball senior Tommy Rutherford eats breakfast at around eight or nine in the morning, begins his stretches in the weight room, shoots around and grabs a balanced pre-game meal that consists of carbs, protein and some veggies. He prepares for the game by going over the film of the opposing team and discussing the team’s game plan with his coaches and teammates. Sometimes he allows himself to take a nap and takes about an hour more for shooting around. When all his ritualistic pre-game preparations are over, his team has their warm-up time on the court. Finally, it’s time to play basketball.
Rutherford, a three-time conference and two-time tournament champion, stood center stage on the Bren Events Center court with his family and fellow seniors for a Senior Night celebration just before the start of UCI’s last regular season Big West Conference game against Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN) on Wednesday, March 4. That night, the Anteaters were able to maintain their title as Conference Champions, despite their loss, with a game total of 72-70. This game ended their regular season record, 13-3.
“I’m disappointed for these seniors, that we couldn’t finish here with a win … But we’re going to get to work off of this result … and try to make sure that we’re at our competitive best in the tournament … I would’ve expected us to be able to rise up and win this game and be 14-2. I hated that for our seniors that we weren’t able to do that,” UCI Men’s Basketball Coach Russell Turner said during a post-game interview.
What’s even more unfortunate and disappointing than losing to CSUN on their senior night was that the COVID-19 pandemic would cut their season short two weeks. Little did Rutherford and the other seniors know, CSUN would be their last game ever playing collegiate basketball. Soon the scheduled Big West Tournament on March 12 would be canceled along with the NCAA Tournament on March 17, also known as March Madness by collegiate basketball fans.
“It sucks because my collegiate career ended sooner than expected and I never got the chance to try and make the NCAA tournament again … We were all devastated because we all worked so hard to get to the point that we wanted to get to. For my fellow seniors we did not get another chance to play together again which sucks because we have become brothers over the four years we have spent together,” Rutherford said.
The entire team understood the situation but couldn’t help but feel disheartened at the sudden turn of events.
“We all understand that this shutdown was for the protection of people’s health. We just felt disappointed because there was nothing we could have done to make it go on,” Rutherford said.
To Rutherford, family and relationships mean everything because of their unconditional love and support. So even though he is in Irvine most of the time to train, he always makes time to call his family when he can’t go home and invites them to all of his home games.
Rutherford was raised in San Diego, where he first developed an interest in basketball after watching his father and brother play. He officially began learning and playing at the age of five in a youth recreational league. Soon, he was playing travel ball and then played at Grossmont High School before being recruited to play collegiate basketball. Rutherford was offered scholarships by several different programs, including UCI, where he ultimately chose to play for due to its close proximity to his hometown, great academics and its “winning” basketball program.
After coming to UCI, Rutherford developed a routine as a student athlete. He would wake up to eat breakfast at around 8 a.m., attend his classes from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., lift weights in the Santora Elite Training Center, practice for around four hours, go back home to shower, have dinner and then, finally, finish any projects or assignments he had due. He would work on as much school work as possible until he falls asleep.
Being so consumed by the rigor of collegiate sports, he developed time management skills. After ranking top 10 academically in his high school graduation class, he decided to study civil engineering. While Rutherford aspires to play professional basketball overseas, his love for math and science has motivated him to study engineering as a back-up plan. He thinks designing and applying structures that people need in their lives would be a great way to help society.
“Tommy is a task-oriented type of person. When he has his mind set on a goal or given task, that is all he will work for to make sure it is accomplished. Whether that be on the court, in the classroom or just through everyday activities … he is the person who will just keep going, there is no switch with him. You can see this through the way he plays where he will never stop running, or with homework by doing his work either on the play or on the bus after a game,” Brad Greene, a teammate and close friend, said.
Throughout his 18 years of basketball, Rutherford won multiple achievements. In high school, he was a two-time all-academic team member and earned numerous sportsmanship awards. At UCI, he has played in every game as a freshman, earned the Big West Honorable Mention honor for the 2018-2019 season, was selected for the 2017-2018 season All-Big West First Team selection, and led the team with a 68.5% field goal percentage. On top of that, Rutherford was the second player ever to earn UCI’s Co-Best Hustle Player award and ranked 10th in UCI history with 685 career rebounds.
Just a year ago, Rutherford and the 2018-2019 UCI Men’s Basketball team made history by winning the Big West Championship and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the second time ever in UCI history. This was the highlight of his basketball career. Right before commercial break on national television, Rutherford made a right-handed hook shot to tie the game against the Oregon Ducks.
“My friends sent me a video of the commercial break. It was super cool,” Rutherford recalled.
At that point, Rutherford had Big West conference tournament championships under his belt. Feeding off of those memories and experiences, he was ready to take on another championship game this year to represent UCI with pride for one last time.
Since the cancellation of the tournaments and limited access to gyms, Rutherford has been taking his classes online, lifting in his garage gym, running everyday, and waiting for news about an open gym to go shoot at. Thankfully, his family and his own health have not been affected, but COVID-19 has made it much more difficult to market himself to teams.
“I was heart-broken and just frustrated about how my career ended. It took me several weeks just to process the whole situation. But as time went on I just tried to look at the positives and look at my future opportunities when this is all over,” Rutherford said.
On the plus side, he still has the opportunity to finish his degree at UCI and potentially pursue a professional career in either basketball or engineering. More importantly, COVID-19 has given him a new perspective on life and he leaves UCI Men’s Basketball with a positive mindset.
“Any day could be your last day at doing something you love, so I look at the mindset of loving every minute of whatever you love doing. Life is too short to worry or stress about aspects of life that you cannot control. Control the controllable and deal with whatever comes to the best of your ability,” Rutherford said.
Mary Kim is a Contributing Writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.