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  • Writer's pictureCollin Atwood

Redeemer's Isaiah Brinkley Keeps The Dream Alive

"Legend" is a title Isaiah Brinkley has wanted since he was 10.

Not because he seeks fame and fortune, but because he aspires to approach his father Terry Brinkley, who holds that status in Rochester, New York.

Everybody knew Brinkley’s father from his time playing basketball at Benjamin Franklin High School.

“Terry was an extraordinary basketball player,” his older brother Ron Howard said. “He is one of the legends of Rochester.”

Terry and teammate Trent Neal led their high school to a regional championship title in 1984.

“Everyone came out to watch the Trent Neal and Terry Brinkley show,” Howard added.

Terry’s quickness and all-around skills as a point guard warranted attention from others and, to this day, strangers in Rochester approach Brinkley to tell stories about his father’s greatness.

“I want to have that type of notoriety and that type of legendary status in my city as well,” Brinkley says. “I want to be like him.”

Brinkley’s drive to fill his father’s shoes led to him taking basketball more seriously at around 11.

He started playing for his dad at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Rochester knowing that true talent had walked through those doors.

“If you’re nice [at basketball] you went to that gym,” he says.

National Basketball Association players like Isaiah Stewart, Thomas Bryant and NBA G-Leaguer Quinton Rose all came from Rochester and spent time playing in the gym on Genesee Street. Brinkley had the chance to play against the elite players who came from his neighborhood.

How did Brinkley do guarding future NBA players?

He would tell you he got “killed.”

But Brinkley’s mother Deadraia Tisdale says he never shied away from a challenge.

“He was so impressed with their abilities,” she says.

It only intensified his urge to be like his father.

“That was definitely a driving force for me,” he said. “It was an eye opener that it could actually be done.”

Brinkley had more than just NBA-level talent standing in his way to achieve his father’s status.

Far from legendary

With a father, uncles, cousins and grandparents all playing, Brinkley inevitably found his way to the court at 5 years old.

It wasn't legendary.

“I scored on the wrong basket my first few times being out there,” Brinkley said.

Between the ages of 5 and 11, basketball barely entered his mind. He was family-oriented, loved science and going on adventures and playing games, especially on his PlayStation 2. The flip switched at 11. Instead of playing Madden and NBA 2K or watching Buffalo Bills games with his son, Terry Brinkley started giving him pointers on the court.

They studied a lot, worked out even more and, on the rare occasions they played one-on-one, Brinkley would come out on top.

“He gave me the blueprint on how to stay relevant and successful,” Isaiah says.

Much like his father, Brinkley was often the shortest player on the court, causing him to watch highlights from stars on the smaller side — Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas among them.

He learned to not let his size limit him: “Size wasn’t really a problem for me because I was fast."

He got that from his father too.

A Division I referee once told him about a time his father stole the ball from someone so quickly that no one even saw it happen.

In the making

His father cemented his legacy in high school and Brinkley hoped he might do the same, but started off playing on the junior varsity team — as most freshmen do — for University Preparatory School for Young Men. He "did damage” to the varsity squad during scrimmages and felt he deserved a promotion.

“The year I thought I was going to get moved up to varsity somebody else got moved up,” he said. “It was kind of hurtful.”

Sophomore season started the same way the first one ended and going two full years with zero varsity minutes is not the stuff of legend. Brinkley waited, his call never came, but then the playoffs started.

Brinkley made the cut to go to sectionals and didn't just serve as a bench jockey, logging solid minutes and scoring double digits in two playoff games.

Come junior year, he was — at last — the starting point guard.

“That was big for me,” he said, but it wasn't his time to take full control.

“We had a lot of seniors that needed the ball,” he says. “Sometimes you have to wait your turn.”

Brinkley did not have a jaw-dropping regular season, but during a Christmas tournament realized he had waited long enough. Brinkley helped lead the team through the tournament and into the championship game against Batavia High School. Slowly, he realized he could be a productive point guard on a winning team.

That thought was fact by the end of the championship game, where Brinkley scored six threes and led his team to victory – earning tourney MVP.

“That was the game that took my confidence to a whole other level,” he said. “It propelled me to be who I am today.”

But shortly after his junior season ended, everything changed.

Bad news

One day, Brinkley’s father sat him and his older sister down for a serious conversation - one he wasn’t ready for.

“You could definitely tell that he was going through something,” he said.

He would’ve noticed sooner if Terry had not always tried to be strong for his kids. Brinkley says his father never beat around the bush, so he cut right to the point and broke the news to his kids: It was cancer.

“It was definitely heartbreaking,” he said. “Nobody wants to see their father or anybody go through that type of beating on your body.”

Brinkley’s father had bone marrow cancer, which includes leukemias and multiple myeloma. According to the American Cancer Society, two out of three people with acute myeloid leukemias who get standard chemotherapy go into remission.

With his father’s sickness lingering over him, Brinkley still had to complete his senior year in hopes to play basketball at the next level.

“Senior year was a good time for me,” Brinkley said. “It gave me more time to get my name out there and implement my career in Rochester basketball.”

No championships, titles or banners were won during his final high school season. In fact, his high school team lost in the sectionals on a buzzer beater fadeaway.

“I think about it all the time,” he says.

Brinkley planned on attending Mohawk Valley Community College to continue his basketball journey.

Mohawk Valley ups and downs

After ending his basketball career believing he had made a name for himself, Brinkley strived to accomplish something his father didn't. Terry Brinkley had an offer to play at Xavier, but academics derailed him.

Being enrolled at Mohawk Valley put Brinkley one step closer to achieving that goal.

However, his first semester as a member of the Hawks did not go to plan.

“I wasn’t really playing a lot,” he says. “We had a lot of guards on our team, so it was hard for everyone to get minutes.”

Prior to the start of his second semester and next half of his freshman season, Brinkley received news that his grade-point average was a few points off from being eligible to finish the season.

“It was so tough seeing people play basketball,” he said.

With his father going in and out of the hospital for treatments, basketball was therapy.

Without it in his life, he had reached a low point.

The only thing besides time spent with his family that could mend his wounds was getting back to the game.

Brinkley’s parents — especially his mother — pushed him to focus on school.

It must’ve worked because Brinkley decided to take control of his own fate.

“My mindset on school just changed during that time I was ineligible,” he said.

He immediately started seeing a tutor, spending hours in the library and visiting his academic advisor more often. Grades were not going to be the reason he didn't play.

After spending a semester strictly focusing on his studies and taking a summer course, Brinkley went into the next year with grades high enough to play his sophomore season.

That summer Brinkley and his family received even more exciting news than his eligibility.

It took two years of constant hospital trips and chemotherapy sessions, but Brinkley’s father had finally entered remission. Brinkley’s aunt had been a bone marrow match, which meant an operation could be done to help fight the cancer.

This called for celebration.

Going into his second year, Brinkley did not have to worry about grades or his father’s health and could finally focus on furthering his drive to be legendary.

Hurdle of a lifetime

At Mohawk Valley Brinkley scored eight points a game and shot 47.7% from the field.

An average season at Mohawk Valley convinced Brinkley to look for other options to further his career.

Brinkley recalled playing against Onondaga Community College and thought he would have a better chance at succeeding there.

“He contacted us,” coach Erik Saroney says. “I really wasn’t that interested.”

Onondaga already had a great team with a lot of guys returning and Saroney did not know if Brinkley could help. Saroney's assistant, however, stuck his neck out for Brinkley and thought he deserved a shot. Not completely convinced, Saroney told Brinkley that he could practice with the team, but had to prove himself.

So, for the 2018-19 season, Brinkley had a chance to achieve his goals at a new school. That goal became far more difficult during the summer as his father’s cancer returned and — this time around — seemed tougher on Terry than the last.

Terry still assured his kids that everything would be alright and Brinkley wanted to believe him, but knew it wasn’t true.

“He lost his hair so I kind of knew something was going on,” he said.

Frequent hospital visits had to be squeezed into Brinkley’s schedule to visit his dad.

“I’d come home and just be there with him at the hospital or at his house,” Brinkley said.

In June Brinkley and his family made a routine visit to the hospital to see his dad while he recovered from another chemotherapy session. Brinkley and his father spent time alone in his room at the hospital, talked and watched television together.

In the middle of their conversation, his father’s eyes closed.

Brinkley assumed he had fallen asleep.

Just to assure himself, Brinkley attempted to wake him up.

“Dad!” he yelled.

No response.

Quickly, he ran for the nurse.

Doctors and nurses flooded the room, checking his father’s body temperature, pulse and respiration rate. Brinkley headed to the waiting room to see his family and a routine visit turned into a nightmare: Terry Brinkley was gone.

“It kind of broke me,” Brinkley says.

Only one thing was left to do – accomplish everything he promised his dad he would.

The breakout season

Following his father’s death, Brinkley had the support from his family and basketball to keep him on his feet.

“My family and Isaiah’s dad’s side, it's a village,” Brinkley's mom says. “ We always try to encourage and support and to be there for each other.”

He took the whole summer to work on his game so he could earn his minutes at Onondaga. After initially being skeptical, Saroney gave Brinkley credit after watching him work.

“He did really well in school, fit in with the guys on the team and was just a pleasure,” Saroney says.

In just his third game of the season, Brinkley proved his worth. In a triple-overtime battle against Fulton-Montgomery Community College he took over.

“It was insane,” Saroney said.

Down by two with seconds left in regulation, he took his shot at the hoop and nailed it, sending the game to overtime. Not only did he do it once, but two more times to send the game to triple overtime. It was a stunning outburst from a guy who barely made the team but now was playing a crucial role. The third overtime played out the same as the rest of the game and came down to the wire.

Again, Brinkley had the ball in his hands, this time at the free-throw line. He hit both in a 101-98 victory.

“I couldn’t have asked anything more of him,” Saroney said.

When it was over, the guy who had to earn his spot had dropped a mind-bending 52 points. He scored at all three-levels and thrived in the transition.

“I thought I had like 30,” Brinkley said.

He celebrated with the team in the locker room as they gifted him the game ball.

But something else about the number 52 turned out to be far more significant. It did not matter that he broke a record, scored a career high or even won the game.

Eventually Brinkley made the connection that his father had passed away at the age of 52.

“That’s something that will always stay with me,” Brinkley says. “I could’ve had way more points, but I guess God wanted me to have 52 just to have that connection.”

Knowing that his dad was by his side, Brinkley had an amazing season.

“We had a really good year that year and I think if you take him off that team, we're completely different,” Saroney said.

Brinkley earned first team All-Region recognition and was runner up for conference Player of the Year. He also led the team in scoring with 20.6 points a game while shooting 44% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc.

But Brinkley wanted more.

Solidifying his legacy

When Brinkley moved on from Onondaga, he reached out to schools around the country.

He talked to the coaches and worked out with the teams, but no opportunities presented themselves.

Eventually a coach from Canada contacted Brinkley.

“He reached out and made it known that I was wanted,” Brinkley says.

That coach was Jamie Girolametto from Redeemer University of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association. The Royals play in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association.

“Redeemer was a good fit for me,” Brinkley says. “I'm happy that I made the decision to come here.”

The decision to cross the border surely surprised Brinkley’s mother.

“I knew nothing about Redeemer,” she says. She told Brinkley, “if this is what you want to do, go research and study it and bring it back to me and we’ll talk about it.”

Based on his first season performance at Redeemer, he made the right choice. Brinkley led the Royals with 18.2 points per game, but the real accomplishment came in the 2022-23 season when Brinkley scored his 1,000th career point on a Euro-step layup.

Children bring pictures of him to Redeemer and tell him he is their favorite player. He signs and gives them a little advice about how they need to stay in school and work hard for what they want.

Along with playing basketball at the professional level, Brinkley dreams of helping children excel on the court, like his father once did.

“I was raised where it’s the older person’s time to give back and give you the blueprint on how to play basketball or go about being a professional,” he says.

He hopes to one day run his own basketball camp or coach his own AAU team.

“It’s my turn to give kids that type of energy and hope that they can play basketball,” Brinkley says.

Although Brinkley may not be a household name across the nation, Isaiah – like his father – has reached the local legend status in more than one community.

“I see a lot of similarities between them,” Tisdale says, “but I also see their uniqueness.”

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