Tom Droney ’10. The name is a staple to many in the Sewickley Academy community. His basketball skills set him apart on the court, and his drive for greatness has propelled him in sports and in life. He’s talented, determined, and passionate both on and off the court. And in his post-professional career, he’s taking on the role of coach and mentor, setting youth up for success by paying it forward.
Tom started his career as a Panther in Grade 8, transferring from St. Margaret of Scotland School in Green Tree. Although all of his brothers went to Seton-La Salle, Tom felt comfortable at Sewickley Academy and quickly noticed the impact of the institution. “Coming to Sewickley Academy kind of opened my eyes,” he reflected. “When I first started, I noticed students were more goal-oriented than what I was accustomed to. Being around all of those people with so many dreams and aspirations rubbed off on me.”
An athlete since age 4, Tom played multiple sports, including soccer, baseball, football, and ran cross country. He committed to basketball once he enrolled at the Academy. “I realized that the best opportunity I had to pursue an athletic scholarship was to choose one sport and focus on it,” he said. “It was a tough decision. At Sewickley, I was away from my childhood friends, and I didn’t make a lot of friends at SA at first, so basketball was a nice gateway and I was able to put a lot of time into it.”
Admittedly, Tom had a few attitude issues on the court when he first started playing as a Panther. Athletic Director and Head Coach Win Palmer quickly stepped in as a mentor for Tom, providing advice that would go beyond his years at the Academy. “Mr. Palmer is very fair. If you are doing what you need to be doing, you’re fine. If you’re not, he’s going to make sure it’s done his way and the right way,” Tom said. “He is one of the most level-headed people I have met in my lifetime. Not too much rattles him, and if it does, he doesn’t let it show.”
Tom credits not only his coaches, but also his teachers and the administration for helping him to succeed at Sewickley. “The teachers were so willing to help me before or after class. I wasn’t good at chemistry, and Dr. Zawacky spent an hour or two each week working with me to help me out,” he recalled. “[Former Head of Middle School] Dr. Sour was influential for me as well; she was very tough and strict. I didn’t understand it at first, but when I got older, I realized it was because she cared so much about me and a few of my friends. That’s why she was tough on us.”
In his four years as a starter and varsity athlete, the Panthers won four section titles (2007-2010), back-to-back WPIAL titles (2009 and 2010), and a PIAA title (2010). Tom joined the ranks of the 1,000-point club his junior year, a moment that still holds fond memories for him (he has the picture of Coach Palmer and his parents hanging up in his room). Lincoln Park was Sewickley’s biggest rival in that era, and the Panthers defeated the Leopards at the buzzer in the WPIAL final and PIAA semifinal Tom’s senior year.
His dedication and discipline capped a remarkable high school career which led to 20 scholarship offers from schools like Notre Dame, Davidson, and the University of Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Tom chose to continue his sport at Davidson. “Davidson is a small school with only about 2,000 students, so I felt comfortable as it was similar to SA,” he said. “As an athlete, I felt like a priority there. I liked the coaches and the support system was great.”
As a freshman, Tom started every game. The team won the Southern Conference in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and received a bid to the NCAA Tournament his senior year. He went through a lot of ups and downs as a Wildcat, oftentimes struggling on the court and in the classroom. But, he had his best individual year his senior year and was named Honorable Mention All-Conference, First-Team All-Defensive, and First-Team Point Guard.
After college, Tom was contacted by numerous agents who wanted him to play overseas. He was ecstatic – after all, the dream was to play basketball professionally. He turned down an opportunity to play in the NBA G League and signed with Estonian team Tallinna Ulikool/Kalev in 2014. “The culture is technologically advanced, and the capital city was beautiful but very cold and dark,” he said of Estonia. “In the winter, you could go two to three weeks at a time without seeing the sun.”
Tom was not the only foreigner on the Estonian team, as he was joined by two other Americans and a Canadian. The international season went from November until May, and the athletes competed in 60 games a season. The season, however, wasn’t the hardest part. It paled in comparison to preseason. “Preseason, which started in September, was the hardest thing I ever had to do. We would run in the woods for eight or nine miles. I remember running and thinking, ‘Is it ever going to end? Will I ever make it to the finish line?’” Tom laughed. “And we did it quite a bit, not just once or twice!”
Besides the physical challenge of the sport and the emotional challenge of being away from home, Tom also faced a language barrier as Estonian is a complicated language and the older generation does not speak English. Tom’s coach, Kalle Klandorf, didn’t speak any English, but the assistant coach, Arido Roos, did and played the role of translator. Tom played two seasons with the Estonian team and was named the Estonian Korvpalli Meistriliiga (KML) April Player of the Month during the 2015-2016 season. He pursued career options in Spain, Cypress, and Sweden, but ultimately decided to move back to the United States in 2016 and focus on his own basketball venture with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
The experience has been full-circle for Tom, as he played on an AAU team growing up in Pittsburgh. While overseas, he partnered with former AAU teammate Nate Perry, who was playing in Turkey at the time, to start recruiting a team back in Pittsburgh. “AAU teams have their own events outside of high school sports and focus on spring and summer travel club basketball,” Tom explained. “A lot of programs around here are for kids with varying levels of experience, and we focus only on trying to get the elite of the elite kids, the top athletes, for our AAU team.
Tom and Nate help the young athletes get the recognition and exposure they deserve by calling coaches, sending out highlight tapes, and promoting their players in hopes of getting them recruited by colleges. In the past three years, they’ve helped 12 kids get into Division I schools.
As the assistant basketball coach for Kennedy Catholic, Tom brought home another state championship this year. The Golden Eagles won their third consecutive state title in March. Although the journey to Hershey is familiar, the experience throughout the season is quite different as a coach. Tom is working to understand the other side of the game, and learning how to control his temper. “There are a lot of times that you want to flip out, and I need to be patient. I was in a professional environment with older players and understanding that kids are kids and they are going to make mistakes is the biggest obstacle I have to overcome.”
Tom has had an extreme amount of success in his career in a relatively short amount of time and credits his parents for helping him achieve a lifetime of athletic accomplishments. "My parents always supported me with whatever I wanted to do. They were never helicopter parents, they let me figure it out on my own. They nudged me if I wasn't doing the right things, but they never forced me to do anything,” he said. “I have had a lot of success because I never felt pressure from my parents and I didn’t get caught up resting on my laurels. I’m always focused on what the next move is, and how I will reach the goal I set.”
Currently, Tom works at his family’s business, Mt. Lebanon Office Furniture and Interiors, which his grandfather started over 60 years ago. Although he has no plans of going into sales for an extended period of time, he is grateful for the flexibility the job provides, enabling him to coach basketball on the side. No matter what his future holds, he is sure basketball will be a part of it to some degree. He has a few words of wisdom for current Panthers and inspiring athletes everywhere. “If you really want it, you have to commit yourself 100 percent or someone else will,” he said. “Always put the team first and foremost, then focus on how to better yourself and how to help your team. The talent will rise to the top.”