DAYTON, Ohio — Ebony Gainey didn’t read anything into the text. Dayton’s director of basketball operations wanted to see her after class. Probably had some errand for her to run.
Happens a lot.
The 6-foot forward is used to it. She was one of the school’s top recruits in 2007, an all-Ohio player with a quick first step and a soft left-hand shot. A heart condition prevented her from ever getting into a game. The school kept her on scholarship for four years as an assistant.
Make copies. Help with practice. Travel to games. Encourage teammates. That was her job.
“You name it, I try to help,” she said. “Whatever the coaches need.”
With the Flyers’ final home game — the one honoring Gainey and the other seniors — a few days away, she figured the text message involved preparations. She walked into the athletic offices and was surprised to see coach Jim Jabir and the rest of the staff waiting for her, all of them grinning.
“At this point it’s like, ‘What did I do?’” Gainey said.
It wasn’t about anything she did wrong. It was about something she’d ached to do but never got the chance.
She was going to play.
“Coach Jabir finally told me, ‘We want you to start and we want to draw something up for you to get you a bucket,’” Gainey said. “And my mouth just dropped.
“When we got out of the room, I just bawled. Honestly, I never thought it would happen.”
She’d waited nearly four years for this one shot.
The small forward expected to score a lot of points when she accepted a scholarship to Dayton. She was rated one of the nation’s top prep players at Dayton Meadowdale, averaging 11.6 points, 10.5 rebounds. 7.7 assists and 4.5 blocks as a senior. Jabir spent a lot of time selling her on her hometown university.
“She was quick and could get to the rim on anyone,” said Jabir, now in his eighth season at Dayton. “She was slight, but really smooth. I loved watching her play. I thought she was going to be a great player.”
On July 7, 2007, Gainey was getting ready to start her freshman season. Her oldest sister, Kenyattia, was home for the summer from Ohio State. She wasn’t getting out of bed that morning. Something was wrong. Ebony and another sister shook her.
Kenyattia had died of a heart attack that came without warning.
“It hit me hard,” Gainey said. “It was definitely hard to put into perspective what happened, how it happened, why it happened.”
Jabir was on the road recruiting when he heard the news. He came back to Dayton and attended the funeral. The 48-year-old coach had been diagnosed with a heart condition a few years earlier.
“It was personal for me,” he said. “Not only my relationship with Ebony and her mom, but my own situation. I’d been sick for three years at that time. It hit me pretty hard.”
Basketball helped Gainey work through her grief. Three months later, she was practicing with the Flyers, getting ready for the season, when she had trouble breathing and mild chest pains. She figured it was her body getting used to the rigorous conditioning.
Gainey was sent for medical tests. An EKG came back good. So did a special EKG. She did fine on a stress test. The cardiologist ordered an MRI as a final check. When that result was back, he called her into his office. Gainey assumed she was going to be cleared to practice.
What she heard was surreal.
“It’s not all clear, but I do remember bits and pieces of it,” she said. “I remember him telling me I wasn’t going to be able to play. A part of me just kind of sat there in shock. I didn’t want to believe it.”
The MRI found some scar tissue and enlargement in the heart. Moderate activity was all right. Playing competitive basketball was far too risky.
Her career was over.
Jabir wanted to keep her on scholarship for four years, a generous offer from someone who understood better than most what Gainey was handling.
“I was intent on fighting for it if I had to, but the administration didn’t think twice,” he said. “It wasn’t even a two-minute conversation. They didn’t need persuading. We were all on board.”
At first, it was difficult for Gainey to be so close to the game when she couldn’t play it.
“It definitely was hard,” she said. “You sit on the sideline and you see your teammate miss a shot and you say, ‘Aw, I could have hit that shot,’ certain things like that. You go through scenarios in your head, thinking, ‘What could this be like if this was me?’
“As time goes on, I kind of embraced my role in a different way, to be more a part of the team now in the way I can be instead of the way I want to be.”
Occasionally, she picks up a ball and shoots after practice, remembering that sweet feeling when the ball slips through the net. Nothing like it.
“It feels good to know you can still hit a jump shot,” she said.
Jabir wanted more for her. He came up with the idea of getting her into the final home game long enough to take a shot. He would run a play that got her the ball on the left wing and provided a teammate as a screen, leaving her a path to the basket.
“I didn’t want to embarrass her,” he said. “I wanted it to be dignified because she has so much dignity.”
Last Saturday, Gainey suited up in her No. 13 jersey — the one she wore during practice as a freshman — got introduced as a starter and was on the floor for the tipoff. With a cluster of teary family and friends in the stands, she got the ball as planned, headed for the hoop, lost her grip and missed.
She went down the court to play defense. The Flyers got the ball back and set up the same play. Gainey got the pass, got the screen, beat the defender and put up a soft shot with her left hand that banked off the backboard and slipped through the net.
What a moment.
“Magic!” is how Jabir described it.
At the first dead ball, Jabir got her out of the game. The crowd erupted.
“I could just see the joy in her face,” said her mother, Juanita. “Although everything that’s transpired was not great, that was as sweet as it could possibly be.”
The clock read 18:02 when Gainey sat down on the bench and caught her breath.
“My lungs were burning, but I felt great,” she said. “Best two minutes of my life.”