Former D-League player Sundiata Gaines, as Zach Harper rightfully declared, is not a household name. Still, after hitting that 3-pointer to lead his Utah Jazz over the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers last night, he might be on his way. You know what? Even if he's not, he made a lot of fans in the process.
Gaines has turned himself into the perfect D-League success story. There's no longer a need for the advertising of Jordan Farmar, Ramon Sessions, Aaron Brooks and all of the other players that made three-game stops while on assignment from their NBA clubs, because Gaines just made himself the poster boy of the D-League.
It's a perfect story that illustrates every point of why I love the D-League. Gaines persevered throughout life's highs and lows, tragedy and happiness, to achieve his dream of being in the NBA.
Could he have made more money playing overseas? Yes. Still, Gaines chose the D-League for the same reason those like myself choose to follow the D-League - it's a bounce away from the NBA and it's an awesome story everytime a player is called-up to the big show.
This Gaines story, after last night, may have made me the happiest for any D-Leaguer to receive a call-up. In all honesty, Martin Scorcese and Spike Lee couldn't have got together and scripted a movie this perfect.
[The story begins, as Gaines tells the Deseret News the backstory on why he was named Sundiata]
GAINES: I'm named after Sundiata (Keita c. 1217-1255), who was the king of Mali. He led his people through a lot of battles and wars. He went through a lot of adversity. Sundiata was a fighter and a leader who competed and he did whatever he had to do for his people.
At the age of four, he survived a stray bullet that nicked his neck. Apparently, he was outside a copy store waiting for his older brother when he opened the door for a man who turned out to be a New York City police officer carrying a gun in a briefcase. The cop dropped the briefcase and the gun went off, sending the bullet through Gaines' neck.
Even after that brush with death, Gaines went on to become a great player at Jamaica, New York's Archibishop Molloy, a school that's produced fellow NBA point guards Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson. This meant that he had his choice of many of the top college programs in the nation. Instead, he decided to go to a school full of turmoil when he turned down Pitt, Boston College and Seton Hall to go to the University of Georgia.
See at Georgia, a school that was still suffering from an academic scandal during the Jim Harrick era that nearly decimated the program, he was guaranteed a lot of minutes, which meant an opportunity to impress straight out of the gates.
NARRATOR: As we'd find out from that dfecisaion until last night, and hopefully beyond, opportunity is all that 'Yata needed.
[I know, I know, it sounds cheesy, but it's true. Actually, it'd probably be true with almost every player in the D-League, but Gaines is the player that was given an opportunity, and thankfully, he took advantage of it.]
At Georgia, Gaines was named to the SEC All-Defensive team as well as being named the All-SEC Tournament MVP his senior season. 'Yata followed that up with a succesful stint at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, which was parlayed into a pre-draft workout with the hometown Knicks.
Despite his college success, Gaines went undrafted and spent last year overseas, playing for NGC Cantu in Italy. He played well enough, but, as Gaines told the Deseret News,
My dream has always been to play in the NBA. I've always felt I could play at the NBA level. If I didn't think I could, I would have just stayed overseas. But I'm 23 and have some years to go in basketball, and I wanted to give it a shot and be seen by NBA teams.
In November, after not playing for any Summer League teams or being invited to any NBA training camps, Gaines was passed on by 14 D-League teams before the Idaho Stampede made him the 15th overall pick. Once again, Gainesa proved quite few people wrong.
In 14 games for the Stampede, including six off the bench, the 6'1" Gaines averaged 23.9 points, 6.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 52% from the field.
Then, 10 days ago, after having a good first game at the annual D-League Showcase, this happened:
Yes, as Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor informed Gaines of his first NBA contract, the cameras were rolling. How freakin' priceless/amazing is that?
Wait, it gets better.
Yesterday, earlier in the afternoon, the Jazz decided to sign him to a second 10-day contract - unless, according to O'Connor, "something crazy happened."
Something crazy did indeed happen - but it hasppened in a good way.
Gaines entered last night's game with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter, taking the place of Deron Williams, who picked up his fifth foul and an injured left wrist to boot.
[And again, opportunity knocks.]
He entered the game in the fourth, sparking the Jazz to a comeback, scoring six points including an and-one in transition. He was subbed after missing a free throw down the stretch and watched from the bench as LeBron James took over, scoring time and time again. The Jazz managed to close the gap to three with nine seconds remaining. But no Jazz player could get open.
And then the climactic final scene happens!
Seriously, how do you write that movie any better?
A 'happily ever after' moment, couretesy of Spencer Ryan Hall's Twitter account:
Reporter to Sloan: "So does this mean Youre going to sign him to a second 10-day?" Sloan, smiling: "We're going to sign him for the year."
[Editor's Note: My alternate title was "When Opportunity Knocks, but I went with the " Long Shot..." deal because, you know, he's from the D-League, and thus, a long shot, but he also hit a long shot. It's a double entendre of sorts.]