Gaines' long and difficult path to Athens

ATHENS - The bullet grazed his neck, Sundiata Gaines says, just grazed it, using that word again and again.

And then, after prodding, he points to the two-inch scar in the front of his neck and the half-inch circle at the hairline on the back of his head, and it's clear it was worse than that.

"It was much worse than that," said his father Ronnie Gaines, tearing up 14 years after the incident. "That was the toughest time in our lives."

Gaines, a freshman point guard at Georgia, spent two weeks in the hospital after he was accidentally shot on a New York street as a 4-year-old. 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.

"It knocked me on the ground, but I didn't really feel anything," he said. "I was about an inch away from probably dying."

At that point, Ronnie Gaines said, he decided his son was saved for a reason. Five years later, he figured out what that reason was.

"I didn't realize it until he was about 10 years old," Ronnie Gaines said. "I said, "Look at this talent he's got."

Sundiata Gaines' basketball skill took him across the country and even overseas and was measured against some of the nation's best players before he ever arrived on Georgia's campus eight months ago.

As a member of the New York Gauchos, one of the nation's most prestigious AAU teams, Gaines played in tournaments across America and in Europe along with teammates Russell Robinson, who's now at Kansas, and Ronald Ramon, who's now at Pittsburgh. He's played pickup games with Julius Hodge, the reigning ACC player of the year, and, recently, on the city's famed Rucker Park courts with former NBA standout Mark Jackson as his backcourt mate.

"He's been around players," his dad said.

In November of 2003, the New York Daily News named Gaines one of the city's ‘10 Players You Just Have To See' but real attention is hard to come by when you share a city and a graduation date with Sebastian Telfair, the New York City guard who went straight from high school to the NBA last year.

"Even Telfair did not want to deal with Sundiata too much," Ronnie Gaines insists. "I said, "You're the one the world don't know about, but they will learn about you."

The world hasn't taken notice yet, but Athens, Ga., has. Gaines is one of the few bright spots on a Georgia basketball team that appears headed toward a long season. The Bulldogs (6-5, 0-1 SEC) play South Carolina (8-4, 0-1) today at 8 p.m. in Columbia, S.C.

Gaines has scored in double digits in all but one game and is averaging 14.7 points, which is second-best on the team. His 17 points against Western Kentucky in November were the most by a Bulldog freshman in his first game since Dominique Wilkins in 1979, and he's coming off a career-high 23 points and six assists against Tennessee on Wednesday.

Sundiata Gaines drew serious recruiting interest from most of the schools in the Big East, along with Florida State, South Carolina and Georgia. He narrowed his final choices down to Pitt and Seton Hall along with the Gamecocks and Bulldogs. Georgia was a late entrant into the race.

"Ronnie Gaines was as skeptical and as pessimistic as any parent I've ever had an initial conversation with," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said.

The scandal under former coach Jim Harrick that led to Felton's hiring made national headlines, and all Ronnie Gaines knew of Georgia was that the school had NCAA sanctions on the way. Paralyzing NCAA sanctions, Gaines thought. Felton finally convinced the Gaines that Georgia's punishment would not be overly severe, but before he could do that, he had to break down that first wall. He and assistant coach Mike Jones did that with persistence. Ronnie Gaines has helped run AAU basketball tournaments in New York for 30 years, so he knew the recruiting game.

"The one thing I learned is when it comes down to recruiting time and the head coach takes a few times to come see you, that's something to take notice of," Gaines said. And Mike Jones is a real beautiful guy. He took a lot of time with my family.

"They showed an interest. A lot of the coaches who talked to me had the same interest, but it was over the phone. There's a big difference when they spend time with your family."

While Ronnie Gaines was impressed by the personal touch, Sundiata was smitten by the obvious playing time the Bulldogs could offer. While some schools talked about how he might come in and play as much as 20 minutes a game, rebuilding Georgia could almost promise him a starting job and 35 minutes a game.

"They've made good on their promise," said Sundiata Gaines, who wanted to play early basically to get a head start on all the other freshmen. I won't be a normal sophomore."

Gaines has started all 11 games and is averaging 35.4 minutes per game. He's second on his team in rebounds (4.8 per game) and 29th in the nation in steals (28).

"I think he's smart enough and driven enough that he's going to develop into a tremendous player," Felton said.

Gaines has experience with rebuilding projects. He joined the famous Archbishop Molloy High team while in his teens, becoming part of a group that produced future pros Kenny Anderson and Kenny Smith but hadn't been elite in several years. He made an hour round-trip commute from his home in Queens by bus and subway to and from his school in the Bronx each day. By his junior season, Archbishop Molloy was in the state semifinals.

Still, Gaines' family talked to him when he decided to come to Georgia, preparing him for the tough times that lay ahead.

"He said, ‘Dad, as long as I'm out there on the court, we're going to be in the game," Ronnie Gaines said. "That's the confidence he has in himself."

Gaines comes across as shy but does have an unshakable faith in his ability. He will tell you without a hint of embarrassment that some of his former high school teammates owe their college careers to him.

"I helped a lot of those kids get into schools they never thought they would have gotten into," he said.

That athletic arrogance is one of the first things that attracted Felton. "He expects to dominate you," Felton said. "He expects to beat you. He plays with a chip on his shoulder."

That shows on the floor when he takes last-second shots - like he did to send the Oregon State game into overtime - or, more often, when he dribbles the ball into the lane no matter the size or skill of the opponent waiting. Gaines has gone to the free-throw line 25 more times than any of his teammates.

"I ain't ever backed down from anybody," he said.

When you come back from where he's been, there's no need.

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