MIKE BOTHWELL ’23 AND JALEN SLAWSON ’23 DIDN’T HAVE TO RETURN TO FURMAN FOR A FIFTH SEASON OF BASKETBALL, WHICH WAS AVAILABLE BECAUSE THEIR PLAYING CAREERS HAD BEEN DISRUPTED BY THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.
They were good enough players that they could have entered the NCAA transfer portal and finished their careers in a Power 5 conference like the ACC or Big Ten. They could have chosen to get a head start on their professional careers, either in the U.S. or overseas.
Instead, Bothwell and Slawson returned to Furman to provide one final push to a program that has been in steady ascendance for a decade. And the roommates and best friends accomplished everything they hoped for during the 2022-23 season, leading the Paladins to a school-record 28 wins and a long-awaited berth in the NCAA tournament, where they upset Virginia in the first round, 68-67, before falling to San Diego State, 75-52, in the second.
It was the first time the Paladins had made the NCAA tournament since 1980, and the program’s first tournament victory since 1974.
“We were a younger team this year, and it was the first time (Bothwell and Slawson) had to provide the majority of the leadership,” Furman head coach Bob Richey says. “They knew they had to do the things they were asking the younger guys to do, and they did it every day. You could see their growth as players and as leaders throughout the season.”
A STRONG CULTURE
Bothwell and Slawson’s individual seasons were sublime. Slawson was the Southern Conference Player of the Year (15.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocked shots per game), and Bothwell was the league’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game. Both were consensus first-team all-conference selections and finalists for the Lou Henson National Player of the Year Award.
For the record, finishing their careers at another school was not an option for either Bothwell or Slawson. They did give consideration to their pro prospects after the 2021-22 season, but their love for Furman and their desire to push the basketball program to a higher level of achievement convinced them to return.
“I never gave a thought to any other college,” Bothwell says. “No knock on the people who have done that, but the culture here at Furman is really strong, and there’s no other place I would want to play. It didn’t make sense to look at other schools.”
“Nobody had to beg them to stay,” Richey says. “There was no wavering. They said this is what we’re doing. Let’s go get it done.”
Furman’s breakthrough season was nearly a decade in the making, and there was no guarantee Bothwell and Slawson would be at Furman to help make it happen. Before he made his initial visit to campus, Bothwell says he was sure he wouldn’t be attending the school. It was a long way from his hometown of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and he didn’t know much about the basketball program. But all that changed after that first visit, especially when he met the Paladin players.
“All those worries went away immediately,” Bothwell says. “I could see there was something special going on in the program. I told myself that even if we didn’t win a game, I would still enjoy my time here.”
Furman was closer to home for Slawson, who grew up in Summerville, South Carolina, so he was more familiar with the direction the program was headed. “Every school talks about its culture and how great it is, but once you visit you can tell whether it’s genuine or not,” he says. “I knew right away the culture at Furman was real.”
It didn’t take long for Bothwell and Slawson to become close friends. They texted and talked on the phone regularly after signing with the Paladins, and they discovered they would be roommates once they arrived on campus. They got along so well they remained roommates throughout their five years at Furman.
The Bothwell and Slawson families are close, too. Their mothers texted almost every day, and Bothwell’s mother, Karen, stayed with the Slawsons whenever she was in Charleston. Slawson’s father, Tom, a former Citadel basketball star who works for Palmetto Lincoln in Charleston, even gave Karen a good deal on a car.
Bothwell and Slawson did more than just play basketball at Furman. They made it a point to attend games of every sports team on campus. They watched football games on Saturdays, setting up two TVs in the living room, with Slawson learning to pull for Bothwell’s Ohio State teams. They also played a lot of video games their first couple of seasons before Richey suggested that time might be better spent in the gym, which turned out to be solid advice.
It is not lost on Richey, Bothwell or Slawson that one of Furman basketball’s most painful moments ultimately led to the celebration of last season. That moment occurred in the 2022 SoCon tournament championship game when Chattanooga heaved a desperate, last-second shot from far beyond the three-point arc to beat the Paladins, 64-63, and keep them out of the NCAA tournament.
“The pain I felt for Alex Hunter (’22), Conley Garrison (’22) and Rob Swanson (’22), that being their last memory at Furman, that sealed the deal for me to return,” Slawson says. “I wanted to come back and rewrite the story for them.”
Bothwell agrees. “Everything happens for a reason,” he says. “If that (Chattanooga) shot doesn’t go in and we make the tournament, who knows if the two of us would still be here? But when we lost like that, it made us even hungrier to win the conference championship. It’s not a negative experience if it teaches you how to handle adversity.”
A $40 million impact
For the 2023 NCAA tournament, Furman gained $40.1 million worth of media value, according to an analysis conducted by The Nielsen Company, which factored in social media engagement, TV coverage, and editorial and news broadcast mentions of Furman. That means Furman would have had to spend the same amount on paid advertisements to reap a comparable benefit.
Since March 1, the @FurmanPaladins accounts have had over 3 million impressions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
During the month of March, engagement with @FurmanPaladins main account pages spiked:
- A 726% increase in page visits, 930% increase in mentions and 191% increase in impressions on Twitter
- An 800% increase in page visits and a 447% increase in new “likes” on Facebook
- A 117% increase in profile visits and 258% increase in new follows on Instagram
WHO COULD HAVE IMAGINED?
Richey says there is no doubt what Bothwell and Slawson have meant to Furman basketball. They are the program’s winningest players (with 116 victories) and the leaders of what is arguably Furman’s greatest team.
Bothwell’s 2,016 career points are the fourth-highest total in school history, and he is among the top 10 in assists and steals. Slawson ranks 18th with 1,509 points, third with 192 steals and is tied for second with 182 blocks. He joins Jonathan Moore and George Singleton as the only Paladin players to total at least 1,000 career points, 600 rebounds, 200 assists and 100 blocked shots.
“They both really embody what this program is all about,” Richey says. “You can see how they developed as players, how they became more mature. They’re kids of high character, and they both love Furman. They leave here as champions.”
Bothwell and Slawson say they couldn’t have imagined what was in store for the Furman program when they signed their letters of intent. Who could have predicted they would play in front of sold-out crowds in Timmons Arena and host games at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in downtown Greenville? Or that they would earn a trip to the NCAA tournament and upset Virginia in a thrilling game that would give the Paladins a burst of national exposure?
“Those are things that Coach Richey couldn’t have pitched to us as recruits because he couldn’t see that far into the future,” Bothwell says. “That’s the best thing about all of this, that we’ll be able to come back and see what we helped build. Hopefully, it will be a tradition that just continues to grow and break barriers. It was good before us, and we’ve helped make it even better.”