Chris Gaston's unforgettable ride
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Fordham's Chris Gaston is blessed with what coach Tom Pecora calls "a rebounder's body." The 6-foot-7, 235-pound sophomore is powerfully built with exceptionally long arms and hands that can reliably pluck basketballs out of the air.
There's also the chip on his broad shoulders that developed over time.
Gaston was 10 when his father, Hector, who was a high school coach in New Jersey at the time, began taking him to train with older players after school. They bloodied his lip, pushed him around and taught him to scrap for the ball. But because of academics, colleges barely recruited him out of high school.
Gaston is now the nation's third-leading rebounder, averaging 12.6 per game on a 6-6 Fordham team that already has tripled its win total from a year ago heading into its Atlantic 10 opener this week.
"It's just nature," Gaston said last week of his rebounding prowess. "Just being smart about it and having a little plan."
Making good decisions off the court was a skill that didn't come as naturally. Two weeks after being named the A-10 rookie of the year, Gaston emerged dazed and frightened from the front passenger seat of an overturned car, feeling fortunate to be alive after a March 21 high-speed crash.
Gaston said he had left a friend's birthday party in his hometown of Union City, N.J. to grab a bite when the driver of the Cadillac he was riding in began racing with another vehicle.
"There was a point we passed three red lights in a row, and I knew I was going to die," Gaston said. "I said to myself, 'We're going to die.' I'm telling him, 'Stop! Stop! Stop!' but I didn't want to push the wheel. Three red lights in a row, 5 o'clock in the morning, going really, really fast."
The cars eventually collided, and Gaston said he counted as the Cadillac flipped eight times before landing upside down. The driver of the vehicle fled on foot and faced criminal charges while the three passengers were sent to the hospital.
Gaston's injuries were not serious. He escaped with bumps and bruises, receiving treatment for the skin that was scraped off his right arm and for scars on his elbow and shoulder.
Gaston said it was "a stupid decision" to put himself in that situation. His poor judgment had previously overshadowed his accomplishments on the court while playing for Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and powerhouse St. Anthony High School. "I remember Coach Hurley telling me, 'He's a walking double-double,'" said Jared Grasso, the assistant coach who recruited Gaston to Fordham. "And Coach Hurley isn't one to throw around compliments like that."
Hurley taught Gaston versatility as a forward, but many times he was kicked out of the gym because of his lack of assertiveness in the classroom. "I was failing," Gaston said. "I wasn't trying. I didn't try. I thought I was just going to get to where I wanted to go by playing basketball. I wasn't thinking."
Recruiters knew of Gaston, but most shied away because his grades were so poor. He went on to St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., to play under Hurley's son, Dan, then needed a second year of prep school in New Hampshire to become eligible.
Gaston committed to Fordham, where high school teammate and friend Jio Fontan talked him up while Grasso followed the academic and athletic progress he made. "Nobody ever wanted me," said Gaston, who did not respond to recruiting interest from junior colleges. "I had nowhere else to go."
The Gaston signing paid off, as he burst onto the scene at Fordham last season, averaging 18 points and 11.4 rebounds per game to set the school's freshman scoring record and lead the A-10 in rebounding. The conference's top freshman remained focused even during the Rams' 2-26 season and winless conference campaign that saw Fontan quit the team and the school fire head coach Dereck Whittenburg five games into the season.
"He was miserable," Hector Gaston said of his son. "He said he would give up all of those accolades for some wins. It killed him. Everywhere Christopher had played at, they were winners."
Grasso, after serving as the interim coach, did not get the permanent position and landed at Iona, but out of loyalty to the struggling program that had taken a chance on him and needed him just as much, Gaston never considered transferring.
Grasso did leave Gaston with some words of wisdom during a heart-to-heart shortly after the accident. Hector, who taught Chris at a young age to rebound by placing a lid on the backyard hoop, broke down and cried during the meeting, the Puerto Rican native was shaken by the thought of losing his youngest child.
"For a kid as talented, I told him, 'You got to realize, you can't put yourself in situations like that,'" Grasso said. "He's different. He has a great opportunity in front of him. It could be taken from you like that."
Said Gaston: "It was just a lesson I needed to learn. I know better now."
Pecora, who had passed on the opportunity to recruit Gaston while previously coaching at Hofstra, is a new voice for him. On the eve of Fordham's first game this season, he had his players take sheets of paper, each of them containing a statistic from the 2-26 season, and threw them into a fire pit as a way of keeping last season in the past.
What hasn't changed is Gaston living up to Hurley's vision of him as a consistent double-double player. While relentless on the boards, he's also averaging 15.5 points on 49 percent shooting and already has nine double-doubles on the young season, including one in the team's memorable comeback win over St. John's.
With Pecora, the Rams have won six games in the first two months -- one more than they combined to win during the previous two seasons combined.
"I knew we had to go and rebound because last year there were nights they shot the hell out of it but still didn't win because they didn't defend and rebound," Pecora said.
"[Gaston] is athletic enough to go get the ball. He's very good at positioning himself. He's very good at tipping the ball to himself. He's great at getting the weak side just by nature."
Gaston, who'd like to cut down on his turnovers and improve his jump shot, is an expert at understanding how positioning and angles play into rebounding. He cleans the glass and can play like a guard, looking to lead the Rams on the fast break and, perhaps, to only their second winning season since 1992.
Winning rookie of the year hardware was certainly a nice start. But Hector is partial to the Jesus medallion his son wore the day of the wreck, and it now hangs on the rearview mirror of his own car as a reminder of what could have been lost.
"Being here and just doing what I've been doing has just been a blessing," Gaston said.
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.