WILLIAMSBURG — The hole in Brandon Britt's heart grows smaller each day. He has more good days than bad, which is encouraging for family and teammates, for William and Mary basketball, and especially for Britt himself.
Britt pulled out of a spiral following the death of his father in the summer of 2011 to become one of the ringleaders of William and Mary's surge to begin the 2012-13 season.
As the Tribe (6-3) resumes play 7 p.m. Friday at Kaplan Arena versus Salisbury, Britt looks around and sees a team markedly improved from last season. He looks in the mirror and sees a young man more focused and better equipped to move forward.
"Winning is a big positive, and that's the main thing," said Britt, whose team already has as many wins as all of last season. "I'm just having more fun out there. Last year was a challenge, on and off the court."
Britt, a 6-foot-2 junior from Chesapeake, is the Tribe's No. 2 scorer, at 15.7 points per game. He shoots 53.6 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range. He and sophomore Marcus Thornton are the Colonial Athletic Association's highest scoring backcourt, combining for 34 points per game.
"He gives us a love for the game," Tribe coach Tony Shaver said. "He works really, really hard at getting better. He gives us an explosiveness that I haven't often coached here, offensively and defensively.
"I think the one thing we've convinced Brandon of, and Marcus too, for that matter, is if you really want to be a great guard, you've got to make your teammates better and you've got to make your team better. I think he understands that."
Greatness often was the furthest thing from Britt's mind last season. On Aug. 16, 2011, days before he was to return to Williamsburg for his sophomore year, his father, Gerald Britt, passed away at age 58 due to complications from cirrhosis of the liver.
Gerald Britt was a standout player at Hampton University in the 1970s, and his name still dots the school record book. He was Brandon's biggest fan, and Brandon considered his father his best friend.
"Everybody was getting ready for school, but I felt like my world just ended," Britt said. "And it didn't help that I didn't play well. I wanted to do well so bad, I wanted to play for him, I wanted to do well for the coaches, and I never really got in a groove. It was just tough."
Indeed, by nearly all measures, Britt played better as a freshman than as a sophomore. His scoring, shooting, assists, rebounds and happiness were down. His turnovers and sadness, were up.
"In a way, he might have gone through a little bit of a depressed mode," said Britt's mother, LaVerne Harvey. "The first few weeks after Gerald passed, he wasn't feeling school, he didn't feel like playing basketball. He'd call me and say he wasn't sure he wanted to keep playing."
Balancing when to push and when to pull back was a challenge for Shaver.
"I probably talked to Brandon more, individually, last year than any player I've had in the last 10 years," Shaver said. "Not just about basketball, but about other things — trying to help him through a tough time. There were times when I thought those discussions allowed him to take some positive steps, and other times when they probably didn't really sink in. We spent a lot of time together last year."
Britt's funk coincided with the Tribe's 6-26 record, its worst since 1993-94. Injuries played a big part in the team's season, and Britt often could not shake the emotional weight of his father's death.
"I think it played a big part," Britt said. "Him not being there, me not seeing him at the games, and me not being able to talk to him — call him up after a tough loss. I definitely think that impacted my season a lot. I try not to make excuses, but it is what it is. I was struggling with it all year. I still struggle with it now a little bit, but it's definitely gotten better."
Britt still worked hard last season — he even carried a cumulative 3.0 grade-point average and made all-CAA all-academic second team — and tried not to burden his teammates with his problems.
"When we'd see that he was down, the team would try to pick him up as best as we could," Kyle Gaillard said. "But it's extremely difficult losing someone that close to you. I've never been through anything like that. Honestly, I think he did a really good job of handling it, and he put all his energy into the team. He did everything he could to help this team succeed."
Time, faith and family allowed Britt to begin to heal. He was determined to set an example for his younger brother, Brehon, a high school sophomore and two-sport athlete who attends Atlantic Shores Christian School. He re-dedicated himself to basketball, particularly after a pointed postseason meeting with Shaver and the team's returning guards: Britt, Thornton, Matt Rum and Julian Boatner.
"He said that our guard play needed to get better, and in order for this team to be successful, we need to play better," Britt said. "Everybody has to play well, but it starts with the guards. He was just on us. Marcus had a good year, but collectively, we didn't play well."