A heartbroken Dupree McBrayer woke up Tuesday morning thinking the previous day was just a nightmare. Then it hit him that his mother was really gone, that he would never talk to her again when going through hard times.
The Gophers senior guard wrote this in a Twitter post, adding that he wants to make her “proud every day.”
Coach Richard Pitino said his basketball team is already proud of McBrayer, who impressed players and coaches with his loyalty and leadership during an emotional few weeks. The third-year starter and team captain is expected to play Wednesday night in the team’s Big Ten home opener against No. 24 Nebraska. All the Gophers can do is support McBrayer while he mourns the loss of his biggest supporter.
“He’s been amazingly strong and resilient,” Pitino said. “I can only imagine dealing with that at a young age. It’s just sad. I’ve gotten to know his mom. She was a great, great lady. She was so supportive. Had just retired and was just going to come up here a bunch and watch him play.”
Tayra McFarlane, who died at age 58 on Monday in New York after a battle with cancer, taught her three sons to be tough, work hard and stay out of trouble while raising them as a single mom in Queens.
Her sons learned from an early age what hard work looked like, watching their mother log long days and late nights to take care of them. McFarlane’s lessons were meant to keep the boys from going down the wrong path, from living lives that resembled those of the inmates where she worked. For over 20 years, she was the Rikers Island prison assistant warden.
McBrayer’s brothers are more than 10 years older than him. He remembers growing up with only his mom around, and her being everything to him — parent, best friend, role model.
“It was always me and my mom,” McBrayer said earlier this season. “She was like my mom and my dad. She was always there. She taught me things my dad was supposed to teach me. I guess that’s why we’re so close; because I understand why she did the things she did when I was younger.”
McFarlane introduced basketball to all three of her boys at a young age “to stay on top of them and their whereabouts and keep them busy,” she told the Star Tribune in McBrayer’s freshman year.
Looking back, McBrayer recognized his mother’s sacrifice to put him in a position to get a scholarship and play college basketball. Noticing his talent, McFarlane spent money on her youngest son to play in AAU tournaments, sometimes instead of paying bills on time. She would tell him to go to a friend’s house so he wouldn’t be cold if there was no heat in the house.
“The gas was off and the electric was off,” McBrayer said, “but she would try to earn enough to get it back on. She did the best she could to put me through the best life. I couldn’t be more thankful to her.”
Pitino, who signed McBrayer out of Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.) in the 2015 recruiting class, tweeted his fondest memory of McFarlane on Tuesday morning. It was from a recruiting trip to New York when she was thinking of a way to prepare a meal for Pitino, knowing he was Italian. Assistant Kimani Young, who recruited McBrayer and is now at UConn, was there as well.
“I remember when she made me drink a Budweiser and eat lasagna at 10 a.m. on Dupree’s home visit,” Pitino posted. “One of the coolest, most supportive moms I have ever had.”
McFarlane retired from her warden job this past summer to be able to attend more games this season, and she had planned to be there for Senior Night.
When McBrayer struggled as a freshman, Pitino knew he couldn’t be harder on McBrayer than his mom already was. When he called her during that first season feeling depressed, she would tell him: “I didn’t raise you to be a quitter,” McBrayer said.
McBrayer was able to turn things around. The following season, the Gophers reached the NCAA tournament and McBrayer played a major role, averaging 11.1 points as a part-time starter.
Last season, McBrayer was supposed to break out, but faced adversity again when he missed five games and sat out practices for most of the season while coping with a lingering leg injury. McBrayer played through pain during the second half of the Big Ten season, because “growing up with my mom, she always told me to be tough,” he said in January. “Even though I’m hurting, I still try to go out there and help any way I can.”
The Gophers started this season 5-0, thanks in part to a healthy McBrayer, who was named a team captain with fellow senior Jordan Murphy. But McBrayer was playing with conflicting emotions; he found out this fall his mother was battling cancer.
McBrayer missed the team’s media day and fan scrimmage Oct. 28 to be with McFarlane in New York after she had a stroke. Her health continued to decline. McBrayer saw his mom just after Thanksgiving, catching a train from New York to Boston to meet the Gophers before their Nov. 26 loss at Boston College. On that visit, McBrayer’s family had to decide how his mother’s last days would be spent. McBrayer went scoreless against BC, shooting 0-for-8 from the field.
Coaches and teammates admire McBrayer for playing through such an mentally draining time.
“That’s our brother right there,” Murphy said about the crafty 6-5 lefty who is averaging 10 points and 2.3 assists in 29 minutes so far this season. He scored 13 points in the 79-59 Big Ten-opening loss Sunday night at Ohio State.
About 24 hours later on Monday night, a grieving McBrayer posted pictures of his mom and had to tell his social media followers on Instagram: “today I lost my best friend in the whole wide world.”