Katelynn Flaherty’s back was acting up again.
During the summer, she spent six weeks off the court recovering from a back injury, her only basketball activities consisting of dribbling a ball as she walked around the block and taking between 800 and 1,000 foul shots every day. She pushed herself — that’s a habit of hers — and got clearance to start pushing a little harder with three weeks left in the summer.
“We knew that we were gonna do it,” said Tom Flaherty, her dad and Amateur Athletic Union coach. “It was just me and her — and then all the sudden, with three weeks to go, the other girls came down, couple of the high school girls came around that were real good players, couple of the college girls came down, couple guys came down. We used to have some 2-on-2, 3-on-3 games. … She looked real good.”
But now — at halftime of a Jan. 10 contest against Indiana — she had just four points and to go along with four turnovers in the first 20 minutes, an uncharacteristic performance for a player who was on the verge of becoming Michigan’s all-time leading scorer, woman or man.
Her dad knew something was wrong. She knew that she would get through it.
19 second-half points and an 84-79 win later, Flaherty had done just that. Three days later, she passed Glen Rice to become the Wolverines’ all-time leading scorer. The scare had passed.
On that day, actions spoke louder than words. Flaherty got through it. She always does.
Flaherty’s story starts before she could even walk, with one of the best women’s basketball players of all-time: Asjha Jones, a two-time national champion at the University of Connecticut, who was then a high school freshman looking for a team.
She found HoopsAmerica, a clinic operated by Rich Leary and Tom Flaherty. At the time, it was without a girls’ team, but Jones seemed a pretty good reason to start one.
“I was coaching just boys and one of the fathers kept inquiring, inquiring, inquiring at the location where we played, and then a girl, Asjha Jones, was his daughter, and he wanted me to train her,” Leary said. “Now, I had no idea the level of girls’ basketball player (she was), this was just some random, rising ninth-grade girl.”
Jones started training at HoopsAmerica regularly and it didn’t take long to see what she could do.
“I let her come down to work out with us, she fit in pretty well,” Leary said. “It was a gym full of very, very talented boys … and Asjha and a friend of hers started working out with us and then they brought their whole team over and we started a New Jersey Demons team.”
Tom coached the newly formed squad, and soon enough, Flaherty, age four by Leary’s recollection, was in the huddle with him. And in practices.
“We’d be in my backyard with the Demons team that I was coaching and we were playing in games,” Tom said. “And say I would have her in a game — she was maybe five, six years old — and she was fast-breaking, she got the ball and we’d throw to her the ball, if she would go down and she’d make the layup, it was good. If not, they would rebound and play the game back. She would do that and then, while we were going over work, practice and stuff like that, she would do her coloring book and stuff like that.
“But then after that, we would do baby hooks on a little basket, little moves, we started doing moves right away, like, basic moves. Jab step moves, in-and-out moves, little (dribble) moves, stuff like that.”
Even at a young age, Flaherty’s competitiveness and athleticism were evident. She was a standout in neighborhood softball, kickball and wiffleball games. When her cousin, two years her elder and a next-door neighbor, learned to ride a bike, so did she — while young enough to be in kindergarten.
“She took her training wheels off and then I was like, ‘Well, I want mine off,’ ” Flaherty said. “Cause we hung out all the time, so whatever she wanted — it’s like a sister — that I wanted just as good. So I remember telling (Tom), he’s like, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ … I like begged him and begged him. And I remember by the end of that day … I was riding my bike without training wheels.”
By the time Flaherty reached seventh grade, basketball was a constant. Tom would organize pickup games between other girls from HoopsAmerica and his daughter that often went to 30, full-court, no matter the weather. When people came down the bike trail that cut through the same park as the court, they stopped and gawked.
After that, Flaherty would take 300 extra shots and run two miles on the boardwalk.
Tom had two rules: Flaherty had to do well in school and she had to work out. They only ran into a problem once — a day in middle school when Flaherty decided she didn’t want to go play basketball.
The Flahertys’ backyard had a stone wall, and Tom got creative.
“Here, shovel stones,” he told her. “See how you like that.”
Flaherty obliged and soon had tears in her eyes. She stopped after two minutes.
“He was just making me dig stones and put them back,” Flaherty said. “Like, the most pointless thing ever.”
“Dad, I think I’d rather play basketball,” Tom recounts her saying. “I’d rather work out at a sport.”
The blacktop smelt like tar, the humidity was thick enough to add extra weight to clothing and still the games went on.
Tom kept an attendance book throughout, to see who kept showing up every summer, every day, to work out and play pickup. The initial workout was for two-and-a-half-hours, followed by two or three games, then a two-mile run. Flaherty estimates they started in fifth grade and went until her freshman year in college. Only the strong survived.
“There’d be 20 girls on again at the beginning of that summer that started. And you would see the attendance, and maybe five lasted through the whole (time),” Tom said. “ … And you could see the five or six or seven or eight people that stayed with it went to major Division I colleges.
“ … It’s pretty intense. I mean, a lot of people would say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll go down to the park and play,’ or ‘We’ll go down.’ They ended up not lasting long. Because these kids had the ability to work hard. They wanted to make something of themselves, you know?”
“It felt fun. It felt free,” said Sadie Edwards, a former Demon and current senior guard at USC. “ … It was much different from like, structured basketball. But, that’s for me, personally. I don’t know, that’s where you learn to play basketball.”
With Tom, a former guard at Seton Hall, involved — and often playing in the games himself — hours stretched into full days.
“We’d play like three games to 20 and he’d be like, ‘No, do another one,’ ” Flaherty recalled. “So you’re there all day, basically. That’s your whole day.”
Once everyone else went home for the day, drenched in sweat, Flaherty stayed and worked. She would do 300-400 extra shots those days, just like the extra workouts with her dad after AAU practice, just like the 500-600 extra shots she does on the gun now, even with leftover soreness from a foot injury sustained two weeks ago against Northwestern — the same game in which she scored a season-high 36 points.
Not everybody on the team worked as hard as Flaherty. Then again, not everybody had Tom, the impetus for working out seven relentless days a week. When the team was together at practice, the workouts were the same. But Flaherty separated herself by working at home.
“I would say other girls all worked hard, but Katelynn would be an exception because she had her dad there to do the work each and every day and make sure that she was doing it,” Leary said. “And ultimately, it became who she was. That’s who Katelynn is.”
Flaherty’s dad rode her harder than everybody else in practice, in part because it dispelled any notion of bias and in part because he wanted her to develop an ethos of hard work.
“I think he wanted a lot out of me,” Flaherty said. “And then showing that he could get on his own daughter made other people feel comfortable when he yelled at them.”
In the summer of 2016, when both were going into their junior collegiate years, now-senior forward Jillian Dunston joined the festivities. The workouts nearly broke Dunston — a basketball warrior in her own right.
“I was so beat up after two days that (Flaherty’s) dad told me just to do the drills to half-court,” Dunston said. “Everyone else did them full-court. I said, ‘I can’t move.’ My body was cramping — I only cramp in basketball games, not in workouts — I mean, it was tough.”
Added Flaherty: “People say it’s crazy and (Dunston) was like, ‘No, you’re literally crazy.’ But I think it’s just been a way of life.”
Tom and Leary preach the value of hard work like nuns preaching abstinence.
“(Flaherty) would come back (after practice) and work out,” Tom said. “Other girls had the opportunity to, but they did other things.
“Which was cool,” he adds in a tone that makes you question just how cool it was. “You know, everybody has their own thing, you know?”
It’s rare that anybody actually works hard for such a sustained period of time. Flaherty did, and started reaping the rewards before high school.
After a local tournament at Rutgers when Flaherty was between eighth and ninth grade, C. Vivian Stringer, the coach of the Scarlet Knights, asked to meet with Tom. She promptly offered Flaherty a scholarship. Tom’s reaction was one of incredulity.
He didn’t know if his daughter had the speed to play in Division I. He knew she could shoot, sure, but running with the best competition in the nation was a different issue altogether. And if he didn’t know for sure, neither did Stringer.
“ ‘It’s ridiculous to think my daughter can play Division I basketball when she’s just starting 9th grade,’ ” Leary recounted Tom saying. “ ‘That’s impossible.’ ”
In the coming years, however, Stringer would be proven right.
“I think that’s when I knew, ‘Okay, well if I can start working really hard, then I can get a lot of these pretty big-time offers,” Flaherty said. “ … That was definitely incredible, in ninth grade, you have a full ride to a huge school.”
The Demons are unlike most AAU programs. Leary describes their philosophy as similar to the Golden State Warriors — sharing the ball and shooting a lot of 3-pointers — then explains they don’t practice shooting 3-pointers and believe in the value of 1-on-1 games for development.
“It’s been Tom’s feeling that you don’t have to practice a large number of 3-point shots in order to be a really good 3-point shooter,” Leary said. “It’s developing a rhythm in that your body identifies with the distance that you are from the basket. You don’t have to rethink it, when you’re — or make adjustments, conscious adjustments, when you’re shooting from 17 feet to 25 or 26 feet. You’re — if you’ve done enough repetitions, your body just naturally knows the additional force that you need in order to shoot from (distance).”
It’s a contradiction, but one that’s developed, among others, Flaherty and Jones on the women’s side and Luol Deng and Jay Williams on the men’s.
“You just practice your form over and over and over again, so it becomes natural,” Flaherty said. “And then when I was at the point where I was strong enough to shoot from (3-point range), it just felt like shooting a regular shot.”
The Demons don’t play in many tournaments either, purposefully so, preferring to focus on training.
They do, however, participate in the Rose Classic, a New York City staple. The Demons were in the finals against Exodus during the summer before Flaherty’s junior year. Then, Tom got ejected, with his team down big and without doing anything wrong.
The first technical went against him because someone affiliated with the program yelled at the referee. The second because the referee mistook his yelling at a player for arguing. Tom was forced to leave the gym.
“Tom never talks to referees,” Leary said. “I mean, he’ll talk to them, but he doesn’t complain about fouls, that’s just not what he does. He coaches, and is just entirely focused on the coaching. Whatever happens with the refs happens with the refs, so be it.”
Added Flaherty: “I think that’s the first and only time ever (he was ejected).”
Exactly how much the Demons were losing by at this point varies depending on who you ask — the consensus is between nine and 15. What doesn’t is the awe in describing what happened next.
Flaherty went off, raining triples like a math savant rattling off digits of pi.
“She scored like the next 17 points,” said Leary, who coached in Tom’s absence. “It was unbelievable.”
Added Edwards: “They were tough (shots). They were like, off the dribble, stepbacks, all sorts.
“… That moment, I was like, ‘She’s special.’ Like, she has a chance to do something special. As she can channel that and be that all the time. Because she can be that all the time.”
Tom watched part of the ensuing action from the door, but not enough.
“After the game is over, I go out and tell Tom, ‘Tom, you gotta come back in for the awards ceremony,’ ” Leary said. “So he’s obviously fuming — he just got kicked out of a game in which he did nothing wrong. He said, ‘Let’s just go. I don’t want to, I’m so upset right now, I don’t want to go in.’
“Tom,” Leary replied, “we won.”
Her first year in Ann Arbor, Flaherty was coming off a lisfranc injury and struggled in the early goings of practice.
When the tide changed, though, it changed fast.
“We came back from (a trip to) Cedar Point and she didn’t miss a single shot in open gym that day,” Dunston said. “ … We played like 10 games. I’m talking not one thing. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ She was like, ‘That’s how I normally shoot.’ ”
Flaherty’s work ethic also made an impression. Nicole Munger had met her just once — an awkward hello forced by their parents when the two future Wolverines attended the same game in New York — before she enrolled a year behind Flaherty.
Munger thought she worked hard, but she hadn’t worked out with Flaherty. She kept trying to outlast her and kept falling short.
“She’ll be in the gym for four hours on a summer day,” Munger said. “I’ll just be like, ‘I’m going home.’ ”
That work ethic has always paid dividends for Flaherty, but none more this season. The senior has turned Crisler Center into her personal playground, draining pull-up triples and blowing by anyone who closes too hard. She has played 40 or more minutes eight times this season and hasn’t slowed down. Against Illinois — days after playing the entirety of an upset win at then-No. 8 Ohio State — she heaved a half-court shot at the first quarter’s buzzer to the delight of a group of little girls in the crowd, then finished 5-of-8 from outside for the game.
On Senior Day this Thursday, she’ll play her last regular season home game at Crisler Center, leaving as the face of the program — not just for this season, but ever. Her number will likely be the first ever retired by the Michigan women’s basketball team. She deserves that honor without a shadow of a doubt.
The game ended 45 minutes ago, a standard blowout over the Fighting Illini, but the girls are still waiting. They’re on the Blissfield travel basketball team, age nine, and can’t stop asking the same question: “When is Flaherty coming?”
Without ever spending hours on a blacktop, running extra miles or taking extra shots together — hell, without ever meeting — Flaherty imprinted a love of basketball onto the group.
“I've been following her a long time,” says Kara Perser, proudly informing her audience that she has been to almost every home game and watches them on the road. She even brought a poster to the game.
Flaherty had left the interview room a few minutes prior after taking questions, mostly about a half-court shot and another great game in the midst of another great season. Whether she’s coming to meet this starry-eyed crowd is an unanswerable question, at least for a reporter who stopped to talk on his way out of the building.
“When is Flaherty coming?” the chorus chimes.
Finally, one changes up the question.
“Have you interviewed Flaherty?” another one asks.
Once she hears an affirmative from the reporter, she makes a request.
“Tell her I love her.”