Last night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Utah Jazz had me on the edge of my seat. Not because it was tight, or because LeBron was being LeBron; putting the Cavs on his back with 20 fourth-quarter points in what appeared would be an impressive comeback victory.
It was because of Sundiata Gaines , the rookie in his fifth NBA game who's buzzer-beating three-pointer ripped the proverbial rug out from underneath King James' court.
A standout at Georgia University, Gaines signed a ten-day contract with the Jazz on January 5th after tearing it up in the NBA's D-League (23.9 points and 6.9 assists in 14 games). Last night's performance (3-for-3 with nine points in nine minutes, including the game-winner) pretty much guaranteed we're going to be seeing more of the kid.
What had me so unusually ecstatic, though, was the fact that I actually played with Sundiata. That's right. Alongside him, sharing the ball with him, running people off the court with him. And the funny thing is...I'm not nearly as talented as him.
How It Happened
My high school career was spent at an inept Long Island basketball program as a 6'1" role-playing swingman who averaged 12 points per game. One college showed interest in me, and it's not even one worth mentioning. Certainly, I'm not someone you'd expect to be balling with an NBA player.
During the offseason, my varsity team played in a league comprised of others from all around Long Island. Ironically, my team's point guard was also the last guy on the bench for another team called the New York Gauchos ; a legendary team that NBA greats Stephon Marbury, Rod Strickland, Chris Mullin, and Jamal Mashburn, among others, have played for.
One unusual night, my team was short players. Our point guard decided to put a call in to a couple of his teammates to see if they wanted to come down and fill in (by fill in, I mean dominate). As it turned out, there were two that happened to be itching for some extra basketball. Luckily for us, the two happened to be Sundiata Gaines and Ronald Ramon, the ex-point guard of the Pitt Panthers.
My introduction with each was brief; a quick handshake and a "whatup?" before they immediately took their places on our layup lines. Each carried themself with an aura that could best be described as half swagger and half laziness.
"How good can these guys be?" I remember thinking, just as Yatta (Sundiata's nick name) popped a lollipop into his mouth in between layups. "Is he gonna play with that?" I wondered. He didn't, but it was a humorous indicator of his attitude towards our game: It was beneath him.
We were matched up against a team equal to us in terms of skills and height. We had a 6'5" center, but the 6'1" Yatta insisted he take the tip. We obliged him, even though the other team had a 6'5" center of their own. "This is going to be interesting," I thought.
Yatta easily out-jumped the other team's center, tipped the ball to Ronald, who immediately fired a pass right back to Yatta as he streaked towards the basket. He caught it, glided across the floor and effortlessly dunked it with two hands.
We had scored in three seconds. And not only that, but Yatta and Ronald were already full-court trapping the other team's point guard. Ronald immediately ripped it out of the poor kid's hands and layed it in. 4-0. Eight seconds into the game. As my jaw started to drop, the reality of the situation dawned on me; these kids did not belong in this game.
128-24. Reread that score again, so it sinks in. Never in my life had I witnessed such a savage beating. The other coach literally begged our coach to take it easy, but there was nothing our coach could do; these kids were unstoppable machines.
Reverse dunks, alley-oops, behind-the-back passes; anything you can imagine. If they missed a three-pointer, they were literally at the rim, a second later, tipping in their own missed shot. I can count on one hand the times they passed me the ball, but I didn't care; I felt like I was watching NBA players.
While I don't know the exact number, I am sure that Yatta and Ronald together scored 100 of the 128 points we scored as a team. It was a display that opened my mind to the real definition of a "good basketball player." It was unlike any experience I've ever had, and I haven't looked at the game of basketball the same since.
Like that, it was over. They were gone, never to return again. Ringers, in the true sense of the word. After their destruction, the other team's coach complained to the league, who promptly moved us into the toughest division possible. Naturally, the studs couldn't make the next game, and we got spanked by 50.
In all, I will never forget the day I got to play alongside an NBA player. And as I watched Sundiata's cool, confident demeanor in his post-game interview, I couldn't help but think how his attitude was exactly the same as it had been when I met him. He knew exactly how good he was, and he probably knew he'd be in the NBA someday. I'm glad he actually got there; even though there's no way in hell he'd remember me.