Gainey to play first and last game
Heart disease cut career short as a freshman, but she'll play in Saturday's Senior Day
It is a truth of both muscle and metaphor that one basketball game cannot mend a broken heart.
Watching the ball rise in the air for the opening tip, a split-second of stillness and inhaled silence giving way to a blur of movement and the squeak of sneakers, will not repair the myocardium of Ebony Gainey's damaged heart. Rubbing a defender off a teammate's screen, catching a pass and squaring up to the basket cannot fill the void left by a sister and best friend who went to sleep one night almost four years ago and never woke up.
But a basketball game, at once insignificant and monumental, can help heal a spirit. To that end, as she prepares to take the court for the first and last time as a member of the Dayton Flyers in Saturday's home finale against Fordham, Gainey knows what advice she would receive from one person who will not be there.
"Honestly, I think she'd just tell me to keep my head up, stay focused and have fun," Gainey said of late sister Kenyattia. "She knows how much fun I have playing, so she'd just tell me to have fun."
It has been a long time since she's been able to have that kind of fun, brief though her time on the court Saturday will be. In the summer of 2007, a matter of weeks before Gainey was to begin her freshman season at Dayton, her hometown school, older sister Kenyattia passed away in her sleep from heart-related issues, a story that was chronicled in the Dayton Daily News the following year. Basketball was Gainey's release from reality in the months that followed, the place where she still controlled events. It wasn't always an easy adjustment to the college game, Dayton coach Jim Jabir recalled, but there was never any doubt that she was a special talent poised to exert immediate influence.
"She worked her whole life to get a scholarship," Jabir said. "And then she starts out freshman year, and she's going to play. You can tell that her ability is limitless. When she started putting it all together and becoming more efficient and doing more with less moves and stuff, you could all of a sudden see this amazing growth."
I feel like whether she gets a shot or she doesn't get a shot, it doesn't really matter. What's more important is she's out there because we've never seen her in uniform.” -- Dayton coach Jim Jabir on Ebony Gainey on Senior Day
Until the day not long before the opener when she had trouble breathing in practice. Tests revealed cardiomyopathy, defined by the Mayo Clinic as a "disease that weakens and enlarges your heart muscle." It was what killed Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers during a game in 1990. On the advice of doctors, her career was over before it began, before she ever put on the uniform for a regular-season game.
And the one thing that had provided the most comfort following her sister's death was suddenly a fresh wound.
"It definitely was a rough time," Gainey recalled. "I think I didn't show it on my face much, but I definitely felt it. There's always something greater that might come for you. This must not have been my plan; God didn't have me playing basketball as a plan forever. But it was a hard time. I struggled with it for some time."
From the outset, Jabir and the school made it clear they would honor her scholarship for all four years. That would have been the case even had her ailment been one with which the coach was unfamiliar, but there was a connection in this case. Just four years earlier, Jabir had to have a pacemaker installed as a result of a different heart disease, one that forced him off the bench for an extended period during the 2004-05 season.
Jabir said the specifics of their situations haven't been a topic of conversation since those first days. Be that as it may, Gainey said she appreciated having someone around who understood what it was like to have a heart condition threaten something that is far more passion than mere activity. And even for a coach who is as far from aloof as one can be with his players, enjoying nothing so much as needling the more easily agitated of them to the point of consternation, a unique bond emerged with the player whose name it seemed he would never call during a game.
"When she was diagnosed with the disease, we talked about it for a little bit, and then we've never really talked about our similarities again," Jabir said. "I think it's probably better that way. But I think because playing time has never been an issue, she almost became someone we could talk to -- and I could talk to and vent and ask questions of. That's what it turned into, and she became kind of like a student-coach, and she became, you know, a friend.
"She's always been mature, so she's someone that when you needed an opinion, you could trust she was going to give you a good one."
It wasn't easy for Gainey to accept that she was no longer a player -- it's still difficult for her to process. But with time, by the end of her sophomore year as she dated it, acceptance grew ever so slightly less difficult. She remained part of the team by any measure other than creating postgame laundry: cheering, coaching, mentoring, helping however she could.
"It's always hard because you wish you were out there, and you wish you could do the same things they were doing and you wish you could help when maybe you're down or something," Gainey said. "It's definitely gotten easier. The girls always tell me, 'You're just as important as anyone that's actually on the floor.' So everyone from managers to the head coach has really been supportive and helpful in making sure that I understood and knew that I was just as important and helpful as everyone else was."
[Ebony Gainey] became someone ... I could talk to and vent and ask questions of. That's what it turned into, and she became kind of like a student-coach, and she became, you know, a friend. She's always been mature, so she's someone that when you needed an opinion, you could trust she was going to give you a good one.” -- Dayton coach Jim Jabir
She thought that was why director of basketball operations Amanda Fischer texted her in class recently and asked her to come by the office, figuring Fischer had some task for her to complete. It was only when she arrived and found not just Fischer, but the coaches and training staff waiting with Cheshire Cat grins that she suspected something was up. Having received clearance from the doctors and trainers, they told her she was going to get to put on the uniform for Senior Day. And she was going to get to show off the No. 13 jersey in the starting lineup.
Jabir isn't seeking charity, and Gainey isn't coming in with four years of cold -- she has been able to play some half-court ball and participate to a limited degree. In action, it probably won't look much different than countless other home finales around the nation, when little-used senior reserves get a chance to make a brief appearance in the starting lineup. But without disrespecting the work those players put in, this one will mean a little more.
"I don't want to turn it into a circus, but we're going to try to run a play for her," Jabir said. "And if it works, that's great. And if it doesn't, it's all right, and we'll get her out of the game as quick as we can. I also don't want to disrespect Fordham or the game itself, so I want to be careful. But I feel like whether she gets a shot or she doesn't get a shot, it doesn't really matter. What's more important is she's out there because we've never seen her in uniform."
To call it a happy ending is to perhaps forget the total heft of the sadness involved. A minute of time on the court doesn't square the books when weighed against the profound loss of a sibling or a life-altering medical condition of her own. But when Jabir spoke to Gainey's mother, Juanita, this week, she spoke of a belief that all of this is part of making her daughter into the person she needs to be to fulfill her ultimate destiny. And amidst the swirling emotions enveloping Gainey's families, basketball and biological on Saturday, there will be joy.
"Seeing her walk out in a uniform, it will be bittersweet," Jabir said. "And then it kind of reminds me, too, of your own mortality, in a way.
"But more than anything, I'm just going to be proud that she's out there and she stuck with it. She's going to get her degree and she's going to go do great things with her life. And I'm really proud of her."
Gainey will always have a broken heart. But as she said Kenyattia would remind her, Saturday is about having fun playing the game she loves with every bit of it. And in so doing, showing off a healed spirit.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.