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Sundiata Gaines Class of 2004

Georgia’s Gaines driven to succeed by brush with death

By Josh Kendall, Gwinnett Daily Post Online Edition

 

 

THE GAINES FILE

Class: Freshman
Position: Point guard
Size: 6-foot-1, 190 pounds
Hometown: Jamaica, N.Y.
High School
: Archbishop Molloy High School
High School
honors: First-team All-Queens two years in a row… Averaged 28.2 points as a senior …Named MVP of the Catholic High School Association.
College honors: Team’s second-leading scorer (14.7 ppg) ... Leads Bulldog in steals (28) ... Second-best 3-point shooter on team (35.1 percent).

 

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 plays 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 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 Bulldogs 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.
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.

 

 

 

 

Tom Westman

Class of 1982

His Girl Aided In Brave Gig

 

BY MELISSA GRACE and DON SINGLETON
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS
Sunday, January 16th, 2005


 

 

 

The trim and hunky city firefighter who battled to outwit, outlast and outplay 19 rivals for $1 million on the new season of the TV hit "Survivor" drew inspiration from his own little girl.

It will be months before we know if 41-year-old FDNY Lt. Tom Westman comes out on top, but he's already a winner at home on Long Island and among comrades at Ladder 108 in Brooklyn.

Fellow firefighters said Westman took "personal leave" to compete on "Survivor: Palau," which is scheduled to premiere Feb. 17 on CBS. But he has said nothing about his time on the remote Pacific island nation.

"I can't," he said firmly Friday at his firehouse at Broadway and Union Ave. in Williamsburg. Those are the rules of the game, he said.

But out in Sayville, L.I., where Westman lives with his wife, Bernadette, and their three kids, Meghan, 8, Declan, 6, and Conor, 4, folks see their handsome, silver-haired neighbor as a winner no matter what happens on the show.

The son of a fireman, Westman is active in the FDNY's Emerald Society, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and Disabled Sports USA, where he teaches disabled vets to ski.

But around town he's mostly known as a doting dad who especially admires the courage of daughter Meghan.

The youngster lost her hearing at 18 months, underwent cochlear-implant surgery at 2 and now is doing great in the third grade.

Westman clearly has a lot going for him, but can he win "Survivor?"

Sure, says neighbor Jeanne Christensen. "He runs all the time," she noted. "And he's very, very strong-willed."

His only drawback, Christensen added, may be that "he's too nice."

The Queens-born Westman, who describes himself as "competitive," set a pole-vault record at Archbishop Molloy High School - 14 feet, 6 inches - that stood for 20 years. He keeps in shape skiing, sailing, scuba diving and playing golf.

Four other "Survivor" contestants have come from our area, but none won. So the stage is set for Westman to set another record.

With Lauren LaCapra

 

 

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