Basketball Saves The Day

For the longest time, Gary Gaskins didn't want to tell his story. When people asked how the 6-foot-10 kid from South Carolina ended up accepting a scholarship to play basketball for Brevard Community College in Melbourne, Fla., he kept his answer short. He told people that while living in Orlando, he knew someone who knew the coach. Coach liked his game and offered him a scholarship.

It was that simple. But that barely scratches the surface.

"Only a few people know this, but I'm becoming a little more comfortable with telling people about it," Gaskins said. "It's been two or so years since it happened. I have an inspirational story."

Gaskins, a verbal commit to Oklahoma State's 2013 recruiting class, doesn't have to remind himself of how lucky he is. He doesn't have to battle an ego many Division I caliber recruits carry. Because in late 2009 and early 2010, Gaskins had almost nothing.

For six months in Orlando, his home was in the backseat of a 1994 Chevy Caprice. Basketball was a hobby. Survival was a way of life.

"Two years ago, I was sitting in my car. It was freaking cold in the winter time," Gaskins said. "And now, I'm here. That's why it's so crazy."

Military Man
Gaskins was born in Norfolk, Va., but spent most of his youth in Beaufort, S.C. His father served in multiple branches of the military.

In high school, Gaskins was a solid basketball player, but far from a major college prospect. At that time, he was 6-foot-7, but his skinny frame and unrefined skills kept him from gaining much attention from recruiters. He had a few options, mostly NAIA and NCAA Division II programs, but nothing caught his attention.

He wanted direction in life. He wanted to make his father proud. So he enlisted. "I decided to go into the Air Force to follow my dad's footsteps," Gaskins said.

His military debut didn't last long. During basic training on the obstacle course, Gaskins had a leg injury. Its severity caused the Air Force to honorably discharge him until it healed. Once healthy, he was welcome to return.

During his rehab process, Gaskins had a change of heart. Still lacking direction, he chose to follow his passion and pursue a career in doing what he loved most – working on cars. Gaskins enrolled at Universal Technical Institute in Orlando, a year-long program that specializes in training for careers as professional automotive, diesel, collision repair, motorcycle and marine technicians.

"I thought, ‘Hey, I can join the military until I'm 30-some years old,'" Gaskins said. "Why not try something else?"

Inspired and reinvigorated, Gaskins got an apartment with a fellow student from Georgia in Orlando and was ready for the career change. He had a part time-job with a moving company. It barely paid his half of the rent, but it was enough.

But early in the school year, Gaskins was hit with news that changed everything.

"My roommate couldn't take it no more, he was homesick," Gaskins said. "Three days later, he left and went back to Georgia. So now, I am in an apartment by myself and I can't pay rent."

Then Gaskins lost his job with the moving company. It was hard to find a part-time job, let alone balancing it with his commitment to UTI. When rent was due and he was unable to pay, he moved everything into his car and called his dad back in Beaufort.

"He said, ‘Do what you've got to do. If you need to come back, come back, you're my son. Or you could rough it out,'" Gaskins said. "I made a decision. I lived six months in my car.

"I could have taken the easy way out. I went into the military. Technically, I failed, and I had to go back to South Carolina. I didn't want to go to Orlando and fail again. I was going to rough this out. I was going to get my degree from UTI and move on from there."

Stealing for the Bible
Gaskins eventually found another job at a local pizza place, but could only manage eight hours per week. It paid for his basic essentials, but often times, that quickly ran out. With no money to his name, he had to take drastic measures to cure his hunger pangs.

"Of course, I didn't have money, the need for me to eat was great," Gaskins said. "I was stealing for the Bible. I never stole anything for personal interests. I stole to stay alive. When I was at Walmart, I would take a piece of meat or something like that, go into the bathroom and eat it, then leave."

That was only part of Gaskins' struggle. To ensure no one at UTI found out about his living situation, he had to maintain a clean appearance. A large portion of his income was spent on washing clothes. With no bathroom or shower, he cleaned up in public bathrooms.

He also faced the issue of parking. It didn't take long for security personnel at different lots to knock on his window, telling him he needed to move along if he didn't want to get towed. Eventually, he settled on parking in UTI's lot. Unique scheduling meant that students in his section got out of class at 1 a.m. When his friends drove home, he stayed with his car.

But that's not where the problems stopped.

"I had South Carolina tags on my license and they expired, and I had lost my license, I don't know how," Gaskins said. "And I didn't have any insurance, of course, because I didn't have any money. I literally got pulled over like four or five times and I never got a ticket or anything, I got off the hook. I was thinking, ‘Man, I guess God is looking over me.'"

When the calendar rolled to January, cold nights were followed by the bright sun shining through his windows and into his eyes. There's nothing to glorify about this portion of Gaskins' life. He wondered if he could last until graduation in June.

There was only one thing that helped him through.

"Every single day I played basketball, because I had nothing else to do," Gaskins said. "It helped me not worry about what was on my mind."

Flat Top and Purple Shoes
One year after Gaskins graduated high school in 2008, he grew three inches. He was now 6-foot-10. But he had barely picked up a basketball since that growth spurt – at least not in a competitive environment. That changed in Orlando.

With the help of a friend who knew the area's best local gyms, Gaskins spent nearly all his free time playing the game he loved.

"I hadn't played basketball since high school," Gaskins said. "I missed playing. So that year, I started going from gym-to-gym-to-gym, every single day.

"The difference between Orlando and South Carolina; one, the competition is better. And there's also the opportunity to know somebody or run into somebody with connections. People who can recognize talent."

In the spring of 2010, Gaskins played a pickup game against an Orlando-area basketball scout named Darryl Hardy. Hardy was impressed by Gaskins' dunking and blocking ability. So he handed Gaskins his business card and told him he should come to a local showcase.

In attendance was Brevard Community College head coach Jeremy Shulman. But Shulman almost didn't show up. The collegiate season was nearly over and the energy to recruit was low. He eventually decided to go.

"We get there, and there's Gary," Shulman said. "We know nothing about him. Darryl just said he had a big kid, he doesn't know much about him as well."

Shulman said anytime his recruiting staff attends a workout, they make inside bets with each other to guess which players will stand out.

"I take Gary, the skinny center with the flat-top and the purple shoes on," Shulman said.

Turns out he was spot on with his pick. "The very first play down the court, Gary catches the ball in the low block, spins to his right shoulder and dunks on a kid on the baseline," Shulman said. "I look at my assistant coaches and I say, ‘I am glad we came out to this showcase.'"

In April, Shulman invited Gaskins on an official visit. After touring the facilities, the two sat down in Schulman's office. The coach offered Gaskins a scholarship.

"When I came on that visit to Brevard, coach didn't know I was homeless," Gaskins said. "He sat me in his office. He told me, ‘You get 2,700 bucks a semester, free housing, free food.' I'm literally sitting there thinking, ‘Do you know what I'm going through in this moment right now?'"

Gaskins's life direction changed in a matter of weeks. Had it not been for his living situation, he might not have played as much basketball. He might have never met coach Schulman.

"My family tells me that God works in mysterious ways," Gaskins said. "Sometimes you need a setback to do something great. Six months in my car turned into four years of playing college basketball."

The timing was nearly perfect. Gaskins was on pace to graduate from UTI in June. After that, he returned to South Carolina for a month to be with family. Then he would fly back to Melbourne, Fla., to start summer classes at Brevard.

During that period back in his hometown, Gaskins finally had the amenities of normal life – a warm bed, a shower and food. He said it was similar to the end of the film "Castaway." Tom Hanks returns to society after living alone on an island. The simple things he used to enjoy in life were suddenly amazing.

"I took a shower, made my bed and looked up at the ceiling," Gaskins said. "Just being inside of a house – I couldn't take that for granted. Just watching TV. I hadn't watched TV in six months."

But when Gaskins first arrived in Brevard, old habits returned.

"I signed that contract with Brevard and I got some money, but I was so used to stealing and stuff like that, I was still trying to get some food," Gaskins said. "And then I almost got caught. A lady told me, ‘Hey, put that stuff back.' I think it was a sign from God. You got the contract from Brevard, there's no need to steal. From that moment on, I never did it again."

Late Bloomer
It didn't take long for Shulman to see he had a true talent on his hands.

"It was one of our first workouts and (Gaskins) is just dominating one of our sophomore bigs," Shulman said. "He dunked on him about two or three times. I think it was at that moment where I thought this kid had a chance to be really, really good."

As a freshman at Brevard, Gaskins was part of a three-man rotation at center behind two sophomores. Coming off the bench, he averaged 5.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. His block average ranked No. 20 among all junior college centers.

Shulman said Gaskins is the definition of a late bloomer. It was hard for him to believe that an average high school player who hadn't played competitively in more than two years had this kind of potential.

It was hard for Gaskins to believe too. Especially when other schools started calling.

"All of the sudden, I've got Marquette, Tennessee, Arizona State, FAU, Marshall, all of these schools talking to me and sending me letters and stuff," Gaskins said. "I literally came off the streets, never was really recruited in high school, and now I was getting all this exposure.

"My friends didn't believe me one bit in South Carolina."

After a collegiate showcase in Tallahassee, OSU assistant coach Chris Ferguson contacted Gaskins and invited him on an official visit over Homecoming.

"I liked the environment, the college town, everybody wearing OSU shirts, the fan support, everything," Gaskins said. "The team here is really together and they were really accepting … Coach (Travis) Ford is a really humble guy."

He committed that Saturday night after the football game against Iowa State, and will sign with the Cowboys during the NCAA's early signing period which begins Wednesday. Gaskins hopes to bring physical presence in the post when he arrives in Stillwater next season.

"That's where the defense comes into play," Gaskins said. "People look at me and say, ‘Oh, he's skinny.' But I'm stronger than I look. Of course, I need to put on some weight. I'm working on that right now. As a big man, you have to bring that physicality to the table."

His journey to Division I basketball was incredibly unorthodox, but Gaskins believes it made him a better person. So does his coach at Brevard.

"I keep coming back to the humble part, which is so impressive about Gary," Shulman said. "I remember last year as a freshman, he was just amazed he was starting to get phone calls and letters from high Division I schools. He just could not believe it because two months prior to that, he was living out of his car."

Shulman believes with the right coaching, Gaskins has a bright basketball future.

"Just like I told coach Ferguson and coach (Travis) Ford at OSU, the sky is the limit for him," Shulman said. "He can be as good as he wants to be, and he's got the physical tools to reach whatever level he wants to. Whether he puts in the number of hours it's going to take, the hard work and the true passion for the game to get to the highest level, it remains to be seen.

"But I think he's got a legitimate chance making money playing this game. I think at least playing overseas is a legitimate goal for him."

But at the moment, Gaskins is just grateful to have the opportunity at hand. His past fuels him. And so does that same 1994 Chevy Caprice he spent six months in. It's a reminder of how far he's come.

"I'm still driving it to this day," Gaskins said. "Me and my car have been through a lot. I'm going to drive it until the wheels fall off."

(This story will appear in the December edition of Go Pokes Magazine. To begin your subscription, Click Here)

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