BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Takal Molson left home four years ago seeking a brighter spotlight and higher level of basketball competition. Aspiring to play professionally, the Buffalonian has been through peaks and valleys on his mission, motivating Molson to be grateful for the moments that remain in an unexpected sixth year of college. 

Molson called it a blessing to be back in Western New York last weekend. Recovered from a major knee injury, reconnected with family, friends and mentors, Molson reveled in James Madison’s visit to University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena, where his freshman season began with a breakout performance for Canisius.

“I was begging for this trip to happen last year,” said Molson, who is in his second season with James Madison after transferring from Seton Hall. “It didn’t work out, but I was smiling and cheesing when I saw the news that we were coming to Buffalo this time.”

(AP Photo/Chris Seward)

The homecoming victory behind him, Molson had a greater challenge ahead when James Madison took the floor Sunday in Chapel Hill against No. 1 North Carolina on ESPN.

“When the lights get brighter, it’s more fun,” said Molson, who led the Dukes with 19 points, six rebounds and three steals in the 80-64 loss, James Madison’s first loss of the season. “The goal is to win one game at a time. And when it gets to tournament time, I think we’ll be right there.”

An NCAA tournament trip would be Molson’s first. He scored more than 1,300 points for teams that won 65 games in four seasons, but his March Madness experience has been limited to one CBI game with Canisius.

Molson’s moves

A local star in two sports for St. Mary’s who played for a national champion prep school basketball team, Molson was MAAC Rookie of the Year and all-conference as a Canisius sophomore. But the Golden Griffins never advanced further than the MAAC semifinals.

Sitting out a season at Seton Hall in which the Pirates would have certainly been an at-large selection for the canceled 2020 NCAA tournament, Molson was a bench contributor to a 14-13 team that passed on playing in the ’21 NIT.

Molson went back to the transfer portal in search of a bigger role on a team with NCAA tournament potential.

“He was going to have one great year for us and then go off to be a pro,” said James Madison coach Mark Byington, who was eager to feature Molson the way Reggie Witherspoon had at Canisius.

The Duke’s big dance hopes were dashed in preseason when the program announced its Sun Belt move. The Colonial Athletic Association ruled them ineligible for the conference tournament and its NCAA auto-bid prize.

James Madison 12-5 with Molson averaging 12.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 steals when he tore his ACL in January. They finished 15-14. 

Molson was determined to run it back. With his eligibility clock paused during the coronavirus pandemic, he was granted one more year to redeem his college dream, pursue a master’s degree, and position himself for a pro contract.

“It was an unfortunate that the knee injury delayed our plans,” Byington said. “But I’m fortunate to get back an older, mature guy who is tough, likable, and someone I can lean on. Takal acts like a pro right now. The way he approaches scouting reports, the way he approaches workouts, he’s grown in the past year.”

Welcome back

Molson’s summer rehabilitation often brought him back to his old home floor at the Koessler Center. The transfer portal didn’t break the bond with his former college team.

“Coach Witherspoon is still like a father figure to me,” Molson said. “Any time I run into him, it’s all love with that program.”

Witherspoon acknowledged that “most of the time when guys leave, it’s awkward.”

“But it’s never been awkward between us,” Witherspoon said. “I told Takal when we were recruiting him that for the rest of his life, I’m there for him. He checks in with me all the time when he’s back home.

“I’m really proud of his perseverance, going through a couple of injuries over the years. I’m just really happy to see him having success at James Madison.”

Photo by Jonah Bronstein/WIVB

The toughest freshman Witherspoon remembers coaching has been seasoned by a variety of basketball experiences. Molson has shown little rust returning from injury. He is the Dukes’ second-leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points on 56% shooting, with 4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 23.8 minutes through the first four games.

“It’s great to see him out there moving around as well as he is after the knee injury,” said Ty Parker, who coached Molson in the Corey Graham Elite AAU program.

Parker, the coach at Health Sciences Charter, where Molson finished high school, said the stops and starts on a winding college path put Molson right where he’s supposed to be.

“It’s worked out in his favor,” Parker said. “He had two great years at Canisius. He had a good year at Seton Hall, but it wasn’t exactly what he wanted. Now he has found the spot where they let him be the best version of himself.”

Where to next?

“The sky is the limit,” Parker said. “We’ll see how the season progresses. But I think Takal definitely will have the opportunity to play pro basketball. Hopefully that’s the NBA. But he’ll definitely be getting paid somewhere.”

Molson might be focused on the nation’s No. 1 basketball team this NFL Sunday, but there are others when he wonders about transferring his skills to a different sport.

“All the time. Every Sunday,” said Molson, who was an All-Catholic quarterback for St. Mary’s. “I’d need a few months to get back in that type of condition, but I love being out on the football field.”

Wherever he ends up next year, Molson’s admirers back in Buffalo are happy to see him healthy and thriving in his final season of college basketball.

“Takal is an inspiration,” said Jeremy Rowe, who has trained Molson since 11th grade and was a high school teammate of Molson’s cousin Lazar Hayward, an NBA draft pick who played seven pro seasons.

“He’s shown resiliency,” said Rowe, who attended the game at UB with two area high school players. “He had highs at Canisius. I was here at UB when he scored 25 in his first game. Some lows at Seton Hall. Now he’s back out here playing solid after the injury. 

“It’s come full circle, and it’s awesome to get to appreciate his growth in the game.”

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Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.