CONWAY — Anthony Raffa is in the midst of a standout senior season that should secure his legacy as one of the most productive players to ever come through Coastal Carolina’s basketball program.
He’s on the brink of becoming one of the Chanticleers’ top-10 all-time scorers, he’s averaging more points per game than all but two other Big South Conference players this year and he was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter just last week for one of his latest highlight-reel contributions.
It’s been a memorable few years here for Raffa, no doubt, but not just for him.
Even though they weren’t initially on board with his choice to transfer after his freshman season at Albany, his parents Andrew and Sallee Raffa have been in the crowd for every game – home and away – to support their son and watch him prove that his bold decision has indeed been a success. And as he wraps up his collegiate career this winter, he’s giving them plenty to focus on while another big part of their lives is being rebuilt back in Strathmere, N.J., after enduring the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
Mildred’s Strathmere Restaurant – the seasonal beachfront establishment that the Raffas have been involved with for more than 40 years, now own and live above – is being renovated with hopes of it reopening in March, and in the meantime, there are at least 15 more basketball games to take in while Coastal’s 6-foot-1 senior spark plug continues to add to that legacy.
“There’s really not much that we can do,” Sallee Raffa said of spending one more winter on the Grand Strand while getting frequent reports from New Jersey on the progress back at Mildred’s. “So I’m glad we’re able to [watch Anthony play]. But we wouldn’t have missed it regardless.”
“I would have been here anyway,” Andrew Raffa reiterated before Coastal’s home game Wednesday night.
Basketball season is basketball season, after all, and this is what the Raffas do – game after game, year after year.
But that said, in recounting the experience of weathering the storm as two of the few residents to remain in Strathmere during the hurricane in October, both added that they feel fortunate the situation didn’t end up any worse for the family.
“We were lucky,” Andrew admitted. “Thank God we’re alive. The restaurant got destroyed, but we can repair that. If the building would have been gone, God only knows what would have happened.”
Waiting out the storm
As Hurricane Sandy made its way up the coast in late October, Andrew Raffa kept tabs on the ever-changing weather reports and assured his wife that everything would be all right.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” Sallee recalls him telling her. “… We’ll probably just get a little bit of wind.”
As the storm intensified and it became clear Strathmere was going to get a lot more than just wind, Sallee sent her other adult kids to safety and suggested she and her husband do the same, but Andrew wasn’t about to leave everything behind.
“He said, ‘We’re not leaving the restaurant. We’re going down with the ship,’ ” Sallee recalled. “… When the storm started getting closer, the township called and said, ‘Look, we’re going to come and get you because this is your last shot. You’ve got to get out of town. You’ve got to go.’ I told Andy, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He said, ‘No, you can go, I’m not going.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not leaving you.’ ”
Both Andrew and Sallee have worked at Mildred’s since they were teenagers, starting out washing the dishes and floors. Her parents had worked there as well, and the restaurant – which specializes in Italian food but also serves steaks and seafood to hungry vacationers – had become a veritable part of the family. When the owners passed away, they left the place to the Raffas, who had taken care of the establishment’s namesake in her final years. They’ve owned it since the late 1990s. Their kids have gotten involved as well, and Andrew still arrives between 4 and 5 a.m. every morning during the summer season to start making gravy and call the seafood market in Philadelphia with that day’s orders.
And he wasn’t about to leave the building unattended regardless of the warnings.
“The National Guard called us and [said] they were coming through between 12 and 2, and that would be the last time they’re coming on the island, and if you don’t want to get picked up, we’re not coming back no matter what happens,” Andrew said. “I said, ‘You can get on the truck with them, but I’m staying.’ So she stayed with me. She got a little nuts hollering at me, ‘We should have left, we’re going to die!’ ”
As the winds crashed against the building, Sallee recalls thinking the force was going to break through the wall. After the first big swell of the tide, Andrew went downstairs to check on the restaurant and reported that everything looked dry. Sallee went to see for herself, and within five minutes, there was several feet of water flooding the place.
But they survived, and so will Mildred’s. Andrew says there was at least $300,000 in damage, but they were protected by flood insurance and work is ongoing to get the restaurant ready for the upcoming season.
“Fortunately nothing happened to them,” Anthony said. “Stuff happened, but it can be repaired.”
And so in the meantime, the show goes on for him and the family in Conway and wherever else the Chants’ road map leads.
Focusing on basketball
As the Raffas tell it, Strathmere, N.J., and the neighboring town of Sea Isle City are the kind of places where most everybody knows each other and when one of their own is doing well, others tend to take notice.
Such as the mayor of Sea Isle City, who according to Andrew Raffa, owns a lounge and bar adorned with posters and newspaper clippings of Anthony’s basketball successes. And when the mayor noticed that Raffa was listing Strathmere in his CCU bio, he reminded the player that he was originally from Sea Isle City and should represent his hometown. Raffa obliged the request and made the change official.
“It’s a small town that’s very supportive,” Raffa said.
None more so than the owners of Mildred’s, though.
Andrew and Sallee have not missed one game of their son’s college career. They started traveling when he attended prep school in Massachusetts, continued through his one season at Albany and on through his Coastal years. They rent a place at Barefoot Landing every winter after closing up the restaurant in October and plan their offseason around the Chants’ basketball schedule. If they can drive to games, they do. If they have to fly, they do.
“Never missed one,” Sallee said.
Last year when the Chants missed the cut for both the NCAA tournament and National Invitation Tournament and instead accepted an invitation to play in the lesser CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament against Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., Andrew told his son they weren’t going to be able to make the game this time. They were already back in New Jersey, and if it wasn’t at least the NIT, they didn’t see the point in making the trip. Not that he meant any of that.
“We didn’t even call up for tickets. We bought our own tickets at the place and we were sitting all the way up at the top,” Andrew said. “And then finally we came down and he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have played a little better.’ ”
Raffa says he always makes a point to spot his parents in the stands and if he makes a mistake on the court, he glances over to his father for a quick exchange of advice or encouragement.
“I’m the only one that has attended college in my family, and I think they appreciate that,” Raffa said. “I’m the first one to get a college degree in my family, so they understand that I care about my academics and my ability to play basketball. They like that, and they support me for that.”
And they also supported him when he chose to leave Albany after starting 25 games as a true freshman even though Andrew thought his son was making a mistake.
“I thought he was young, and you know how young players are – they think that they know everything,” Andrew said. “They’ve got to get a little discipline, and I said, ‘No, I think you should stay right in Albany.’ … I couldn’t convince him to stay there.”
Said Raffa: “When I’m set, it’s set in stone, so there’s no changing my mind. They said, ‘It’s not greener on the other side.’ I said, ‘It’s going to work out. I’m going to find a place where I can be successful academically and athletically.’ I found Coastal Carolina, and I’ve been successful academically and athletically.”
After increasing his scoring average from 11.7 points as a sophomore in his debut season at Coastal to 16.7 last year, he is averaging 18.1 points this season and has scored at least 20 in seven of the team’s first 14 games despite usually being the focus of opposing defenses.
Earlier this season, Raffa became the 17th player in program history to score 1,000 career points and with 38 more he’ll crack the Chants’ all-time top-10 list with room to climb even higher before all is said and done. An NBA scout commented while watching Raffa play earlier this season that even though the senior may be undersized, the scout likes the confidence and intangibles he plays with and is going to make sure the 6-foot-1 guard at least gets a pro tryout with his organization.
One way or another, Raffa hopes to play professional basketball at some level, but he has a backup plan.
“If basketball doesn’t work out, I’ll probably go back there and take over the restaurant with my family,” he said.
The youngest of five kids, he too goes back home every summer and works in the restaurant, helping out in the kitchen at least a few days a week around his offseason basketball workouts.
Mildred’s will be there for him – new and improved after its repairs – but his parents wouldn’t mind either if he gave them another reason to hit the road next basketball season.
“We just love to support him,” Sallee said. “It’s our life.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.