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Montana State's Tom Duffy takes his religion, basketball seriously

Montana State's Tom Duffy takes his religion, basketball seriously

BOZEMAN - Tom Duffy doesn't give it a second thought.

While basketball consumes much of the 6-foot-11, 20-year-old's life, come sundown Friday, God and family take center court. They always have.

The leading shot blocker in the Big Sky Conference this season, Duffy, a Montana State University sophomore, has never considered giving up the Sabbath for hoops. The temporal for the everlasting? No way.

His convictions don't waver, even though he can run the court, shoot the trey and play smothering defense, all with a grace and agility uncommon in a big man.

Even though he dreams of playing professionally.

Even though he'll miss half the conference games next season.

It's not a question of team loyalty. It's a matter of being loyal to God.

Raised by his parents, Mark and Pam, as a Seventh-day Adventist, Tom observes the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. At home he spends the time with family and friends, visiting, resting, focusing on the spiritual, attending church services on Saturday.

On the road he spends the time quietly in his motel room. The team tries to get in a practice before sundown Friday. If there is an Adventist church nearby, Duffy goes to Saturday services.

"If I stand up for God," Duffy says, "He'll continue to bless me."

When MSU coach Mick Durham recruited Duffy, he knew what he was getting into. After all, Duffy had attended MSU summer hoops camps since junior high. Playing high school ball at tiny Mount Ellis Academy, an Adventist boarding school outside Bozeman, hadn't brought Duffy much recognition, even though he averaged nearly 34 points a game and led the team in 3-point shooting percentage.

After graduating from high school in 1998, he chose to attend Columbia Union College, a church-affiliated Division II school in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, Md. Working his way into the starting lineup midway through the season, Duffy averaged 10 points and seven rebounds a game, but he missed his mother's cooking and had always dreamed of playing for Montana State.

"Tom is a Division I player, no question about it," Durham says. "Our agreement with him was that there would be no pressure from the coaching staff (to play Fridays)."

Not expected to see a lot of playing time this season after redshirting his first year with the Bobcats, Duffy entered the starting lineup Jan. 4 against Eastern Washington following a leg injury to starting center Kyle Stirmlinger. He has started every game since, averaging 7 points, 3.5 rebounds and more than two blocks a game.

"He got a little bit of a break when Kyle got hurt," Durham says. "But we're 5-2 with Tom in the lineup."

Duffy appears poised to become an impact player in the Big Sky, but conference games, played on Thursday and Saturday nights this season, will be played on Friday and Saturday nights next season. In order to observe the Sabbath, Tom will miss half the league contests.

"We'll face that hurdle when it comes," Durham says.

Sabbath at the Duffys is no sack-cloth affair. The elegant home Mark and Pam built five years ago sits on a rise at the eastern edge of the Gallatin Valley near the base of Mount Ellis, only a couple miles up the road from the school that bears the same name.

The house, with its tall doorways and high ceilings, is on as grand a scale as the Duffys themselves. Mark, who with his father Murray, runs a helicopter flight service, is 6-4. Pam is a striking 6-footer. Little sister Ashley, an eighth-grader at Mount Ellis Elementary School, is nearly as tall as her mother. Tom's older brother Tyler is 6-8 and plays basketball for Walla Walla College, an Adventist-affiliated school in Washington state.

The Duffys are gracious hosts. A crackling fire in the river rock fireplace warms guests who have gathered to share a meal on the evening of the Sabbath. Like most Adventists, the Duffys eat no meat, but they eat well.

Hangin' with the Duffys means going back for seconds. Cheese enchiladas, homemade salsa, green salad with homemade dressing, Jell-O salad and a bundt cake with whipped cream complete the evening menu.

"It's real laid back," says teammate James Clark, the Bobcats' starting point guard, who has shared the Sabbath with Tom. "Duffy's cool. You don't disrespect his religion."

A healthy diet is important to Seventh-day Adventists and has served Tom well. He is a lean, yet muscular 6-11.

His girlfriend, Robyn Granberry, a recruiter for Mount Ellis Academy, usually joins the family for Sabbath. They often invite students from the boarding school, hungry for home-cooked meals, to share their table.

On Saturday morning the family attends church services together at Mount Ellis where Rod Bieber delivers a very down-to-earth sermon.

"For a guy not to want what God has to offer, a guy would have to be nuts," he tells the congregation.

Back at the Duffys after church, there's another full house and another big meal, a lot of talk and laughter.

"Obviously the Lord has always been first in my life," Tom says. "Then there's family and friends. But basketball is up there too. I'd like to play after college."

Durham expects him to get that opportunity and Duffy talks about playing in Europe, where, because of the large number of Jewish players, few games are scheduled on Fridays.

"Coach Durham told me 'If you ever go pro and play on the Sabbath, I'm going to be upset,' " Duffy says with a smile.

Little chance of that.

Observing the Sabbath "is my own personal decision," Duffy says. "It's my faith."

At sundown Saturday, Tom drives into town, where he's usually the first player to arrive at the fieldhouse, and watches film with the coaches.

Come game time, priorities in order, he's rested and focused, ready to jump center at tip-off, sprint down the floor and swat an opponent's shot into the seats.

That talent, he says, is a blessing from God. Observing the Sabbath is simply his acknowledgment of the debt.

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