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Remembering Terry Furlow and the tragedy of a once-rising talent for the Utah Jazz

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FLINT, Mich. — Countless alumni and athletes returned to Michigan State University for the first weekend in October to celebrate homecoming.

Spartans basketball players Benny White and Bill Kilgore were among the old-timers on campus, along with ex-assistant coach Vernon Payne, who celebrated the festivities but also decided to make a pit stop to former head coach Gus Ganakas’ house as he’s up in age at 92 years old.

With the gang intact, the legendary tales began to flow. They even FaceTimed Lindsay Hairston, another MSU basketball great, who is all the way in France.

“We laughed, we cried and again talked about Terry (Furlow) and some of the stories,” White explained. “Terry made everybody laugh, he checked everybody and probably fought everybody except me because he told me I was too little so he didn’t ever mess with me.”

Terry Furlow played in 55 games for the Utah Jazz during the 1979-80 season, averaging 16.0 points and 4.0 assists.

Terry Furlow played in 55 games for the Utah Jazz during the 1979-80 season, averaging 16.0 points and 4.0 assists.

Courtesy of Utah Jazz

Unfortunately, Terry Furlow wasn’t in attendance to reminisce.

The former Utah Jazz player’s body is resting more than 50 miles away from East Lansing, Michigan, in his hometown of Flint.

He’s buried next to his mother, Wynell, at Gracelawn Cemetery. Had he lived to see this year, Furlow would’ve celebrated birthday No. 64 on Oct. 18.

However, nearly four decades ago in the spring of 1980, that same cemetery he rests in now was filled with NBA stars of the time such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Dave Bing, Greg Kelser — and his close friend White — as pallbearers for his funeral.

Furlow’s life ended tragically at 25 years old in the wee hours of May 23, 1980, after a long night of partying in Cleveland with his former Cavaliers teammate Clarence “Foots” Walker. He died instantly after hitting a utility pole in his 1979 Mercedes Benz in Ohio before it was later discovered that traces of cocaine and the tranquilizer Valium were in his bloodstream.

Furlow had just wrapped up his fourth NBA season as a member of the Jazz, where he averaged a career-best 16 points and four assists in 55 games during the 1979-80 campaign.

He was acquired via trade during the first season that the Jazz relocated to Utah after spending their first five seasons in New Orleans. The Jazz are commemorating its 40th season of NBA basketball in Salt Lake City with Nike Classic Edition purple uniforms this year, a nod to the ones Furlow and others sported during the 1980s and early 1990s.

“He could really play. He was a character. He could really imitate people and used to do a great imitation of me,” said Frank Layden, former Jazz executive and coach. “A lot of times in those days, we would travel by bus. We would fly East and we would fly into say New York City and we’d play the Knicks and we’d go by bus then we’d go over and play the Nets in New Jersey by bus.

“We’d go up to Boston by bus so we’re on a long time and there were no private flights like there are now and he would get up on the bus and always imitate me,” he added. “He had all my expressions but he also could do famous actors and stuff. He was very clever.”

Before arriving in Utah, Furlow was selected 12th overall during the 1976 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound shooting guard also played in Cleveland and Atlanta where he developed a reputation as a lethal shooter. Former Jazzman Ron Boone was his backcourt mate during his brief tenure in Utah.

“What I remember about his game is that he was a very good player,” Boone said. “I think the 3-point line would be his friend if he was playing today because he did have the range where he could shoot the basketball that well.

“I thought there was an upside to his game and if he didn’t have the type of activities off the court then he probably could’ve had some longevity in the league and been a pretty good player.”

Furlow’s outside activities away from basketball included impersonations of famous characters like Yogi Bear, Hubie Brown and Johnny Cash. He also loved singing, joking, card playing and later on drug use — which he hid from those closest to him, including Johnson, whom he mentored as a youngster growing up in Lansing. Johnson cited Furlow in his 1992 autobiography as one of his three closest friends.

“If Terry Furlow was not at Michigan State and Benny White, all those guys who really embraced me, when I was just in junior high coming into high school, I probably wouldn't have gone to Michigan State,” said Johnson, who led MSU to a national title in 1979 before enjoying a Hall of Fame NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers. "So Terry had a big impact on my life and my decision.”

His actions weren’t uncommon throughout the league in that era, though, as the NBA’s Anti-Drug Program wasn’t adopted until 1983.

Using prohibited substances such as cocaine nowadays will cost a player a one- or two-year suspension as athletes are subject to six random urine tests during each season and offseason.

Even as squeaky clean as the Jazz organization appears to be nowadays, that wasn’t the case back then as former Utah player Bernard King was arrested on five felony sex charges in 1979-80 and John Drew suffered a drug addiction, in addition to Furlow’s tragic demise.

“I found out later that he would spend a lot of time in Las Vegas and would come back the next morning at like 5 o’clock or whatever and then come and practice, but he was at an age at 25 where he could do that,” said former Jazz coach Tom Nissalke. “Players knew he did some drugs but he was popular. I would consider him, not with fans necessarily, but with teammates for sure he was well liked.”

Furlow’s legacy may have been tainted to some based upon the way his life ended.

Former Jazzman Terry Furlow is buried next to his mother, Wynell, at Gracelawn Cemetery in Flint, Mich. He died in a car crash on May 23, 1980.

Former Jazzman Terry Furlow is buried next to his mother, Wynell, at Gracelawn Cemetery in Flint, Mich. He died in a car crash on May 23, 1980.

Eric Woodyard, Deseret News

But to the younger generation, such as Charlotte Hornets rookie Miles Bridges, whose father, Raymond, won a Class A state title with Furlow at Flint Northern High in 1972, his hardwood impact is still adored.

“I showed him those old black and white pictures of when we came out,” Raymond Bridges said. “He was about 3 or 4 years old. I also told him to play against older boys and to watch their footwork.”

White also says it’s like he’s never left because that’s how present he is with him in his thoughts and spirit, but he often uses that situation as a teachable moment for the next crop of young men.

“For me, he got with the wrong people but that’s always a choice but because Terry is competitive and whatever’s going to be done he’s going to do it better than anybody else,” said White, whose son B. Artis White is headed to Western Michigan on a hoops scholarship. “So, I think it just took him a little further than he was probably aware of because nobody knew what that would do to you back then.

“It was a heavy moment for me,” he continued. “I can’t say I was closer to him than anybody but I was right there. That was my man. It was a long couple weeks for me.

“One thing that I used throughout the process that has helped me with losing people is I remember the pastor there said that ‘funerals are for the living.’ And that has helped me for the last 50 years in dealing with death is knowing that you can’t do anything about it so it’s better to keep your head up and support the families and love on and live on.”