Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Monday, April 9, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Former basketball standout Kevin Gaines finally had enough.
He hadn’t picked up a basketball in seven years, put on more than 50 pounds and was wearing 44-inch waist pants, and spent too much time drinking alcohol and going out to Houston-area nightclubs. For all intents and purposes Gaines’ basketball career — one where his off-the-court troubles overshadowed his solid performances — was nothing more than a bad memory.
The 6-foot-4 guard from Clark High School, who was a five-star recruit and elite point guard prospect for the class of 1999, was living the life everyone assumed he would after being kicked out of two college basketball programs more than a decade ago for alcohol-related arrests.
Instead of continuing to shine at Michigan, where as a freshman he averaged 11.7 points and 4.8 assists in playing 32 minutes per game, Gaines was dismissed from the team before his sophomore season after being arrested for drunken driving. He received a second chance after transferring to Houston, but never finished his sophomore season after being arrested for assaulting a woman at nightclub.
That arrest was essentially the last time Gaines has been heard from. But, thanks to his recent dedication to living a clean live and re-establishing his basketball legacy, Gaines’ career still isn’t finished.
In 2009, he quit drinking and decided to give basketball one last try. He shed the weight, slowly got his skills back and is starting to resemble his old self.
He emerged this winter at the Euro Challenge Camp in Las Vegas — a tryout of sorts for professional teams overseas. He weighed about 195 pounds and had the quickness back in his game. It was like the Gaines that shined at Clark, where he was a four-year starter, part of the United States’ Junior national team and the Sun’s Player of Year in 1999.
Gaines earned a professional contract with Yaralla Port City Power of the Queensland Basketball League in Australia. Finally, after nearly a decade of inactivity, Gaines was back.
By no means is this a top professional league — it’s the D-League of Australia — but for Gaines it marks a major accomplishment in his comeback. And, this time, he’s more mature to handle the responsibilities. He leaves this week and the season starts in May.
“My journey isn’t over. It’s just beginning,” he said. “As I got older and started to look back at things, I realized it was my fault. I put myself in those bad situations. They were my bad decisions. But I’ve changed. We all do. Like my cousin says, you are a walking resume. I have to walk around knowing what I want to accomplish.”
And part of the future is acknowledging the past. He takes responsibility for the mistakes and has googled his name plenty of times to rehash those immature actions.
“It reminds me of where I came from and where I am at,” Gaines said. “All of that stuff is my fault. There is nothing I look back on say I wish I could erase. That stuff helped me get to where I am now.”
Gaines had done so much damage to his career and personal life that several in his circle of trust started to believe excelling in basketball — or life — might never happen. Mitch Mitchell, his AAU coach with Mad Moves, had been a loyal advisor every step of the way and through both arrests. He couldn’t believe the self-destruction.
“The last time I saw him was in 2004 and I told him to ‘lose my number until you get your life back together’,” Mitchell said. “I was there for him through everything, but he had to grow up. He messed himself up at Michigan and Houston. But you know the best thing? He conquered it. He doesn’t drink anymore. He goes to church. He is clean. That’s an incredible story.”
Mitchell was shopping at Sunset at Galleria mall in 2009 when he ran into Gaines’ mother. “She said you have to get back in Kevin’s life,” Mitchell said.
It took about two weeks for the men to contact each other, but once Mitchell got Gaines on the phone his message was simple: Give basketball one more try.
First things first. Gaines had to lose the weight. “He weighed 255 pounds and that’s me being generous,” Mitchell said.
Soon Gaines moved back to Las Vegas to continue his conditioning and reclaim his basketball skills under Mitchell’s watchful eye. Gaines joined a competitive league at the Tarkanian Basketball Academy behind Palace Station and realized his could still play.
“Being able to sit back and look at the game of basketball, I appreciate it more now,” Gaines said. “I always wanted to be in the NBA and be a great basketball player, but I never knew the dedication of it. When you are young, sometimes you get sidetracked and don’t focus on the big picture.”
For Gaines, that bigger picture involves more than basketball.
Gaines, a father of three, has a family to support and bills to pay. He works at a Las Vegas Athletic Club and took a night job cleaning a doctor’s office. He would often return home from work at 7 a.m. to take a quick nap for an early afternoon practice — either conditioning at the UNLV track or working on his skills at a gym.
Yes, this is a different Kevin Gaines. He hasn’t had alcohol since 2009, doesn’t go to the clubs and is focused on changing his legacy.
He doesn’t want to be remembered for the DUI in Michigan or his failed college career.
“With the troubles I had got into in school and the problems I had in basketball, I let myself down, I let my family down and the city of Vegas down,” Gaines said. “From leaving out of here with all that potential, I just decided to stay away. I felt I couldn’t show my face because the legacy I had when I left here.”