In November of 2015, Sundiata Gaines was playing for the Reno Bighorn in the NBA's G-League. It was the last U.S.-based professional team he played for. (Associated Press)

Years later, former Georgia star Sundiata Gaines still on move

Gaines has fun with that part.

“I’ve been to Turkey,” said Gaines, the starting point guard on Georgia’s 2008 SEC Tournament championship team. “I was in Italy twice, China, most recently Saudi Arabia, Uruguay, Israel. I was in Venezuela for, like, two months. That’s pretty much it.”

Actually, it’s not.

He left out Georgia, as in the eastern European country, not the fair state in which Gaines once lived and attended college. He played for BC Armia in the capital city of Tbilisi in 2011.

That also does not include all those stops Gaines made within the USA. Those would include his G-League stints in Reno, Nev.; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Boise, Idaho. Add in short NBA stretches with Utah, Minnesota, Toronto and New Jersey, and you can see that basketball has taken Gaines all over the world.

“My dad tells me all the time, ‘You’ve lived a full life already,’” said Gaines, who turned 34 on April 9. “And he’s right, I almost have. I’ve been on the road non-stop, doing different things.”

It was evident that Gaines wasn’t shy about moving around when he left Jamaica, N.Y., in 2004 to play basketball for the University of Georgia. The Queens area of New York remains home for Gaines. Getting back there from his most recent hoops outpost proved a harrowing experience.

Gaines was the starting point guard for Al Hilal Riyadh in the Saudi Premier League earlier this year. In late March, Gaines was on one of the last flights from Saudi Arabia to land in New York. He said they touched down at John F. Kennedy Airport “about five hours before they closed the (U.S.) borders.”

“My life could definitely be documentary,” Gaines said with a chuckle. “It’s something a lot of athletes like me can relate to.”

That would be athletes “on the brink.” Those are Gaines’ words.

Nothing has ever come easily to Gaines. He was shot in a gun accident as a 4-year-old in Jamaica, N.Y., a bullet narrowly missing his jugular vein as it passed from the front to the back of his neck. Gaines had to change schools frequently after his parents separated when he was in elementary school. When he finally made it to UGA, the Bulldogs finished above .500 just once during his four years in Athens.

Gaines’ story took another dramatic turn not long after he arrived home in New York. His mother, who was residing in Stroudsburg, Pa., died April 18.

Ayanna Kofi was 68 years old. Her cause of death was COVID-19.

“Yeah, that’s what they say it was,” Gaines said this week during a phone interview from New York. “We weren’t able to get an autopsy, but they’re pretty sure that’s what it was. That’s the first time in my life I’ve had somebody close to me pass away. It’s tough, but me and my brother are hanging in there all right. We’re just taking things day by day.”

Gaines’ brother is Shaka Gaines, 42. Sundiata Gaines turned 34 on April 18.

He said his mother suffered from high blood pressure and had some other health problems, but otherwise her death was unexpected. Kofi is among 55 deaths and 1,173 cases of the virus-caused disease in Monroe County, Pa.

The situation is even more dire where Gaines currently resides with his father, Ronnie. The 54,121 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Queens are the most in the five boroughs in New York, which reports more than 175,000 citywide.

Gaines said he’s fine. He worries more about his 12-year-old daughter, Teyana Gaines. She lives on the other end of the city in Long Island with her mother. Currently he sees her mostly on FaceTime.

“Most of the time I’m in the house,” Gaines said. “The only time I go out is usually for shopping for food and little things I need. Otherwise, I’m all right, my dad’s fine, everybody’s fine.”

For Gaines, it’s unusual just to be home. He’s seldom home. Typically, he spends eight months or more a year in another country. It’s something he has come to enjoy.

And Gaines hopes to be back globetrotting as soon as he’s able. He’ll be a free agent this year – again – and expects to catch on with some pro team somewhere, maybe in Saudi Arabia, but certainly somewhere in the world.

Gaines was an undrafted free agent coming out of Georgia and played his first professional season in Italy. But Gaines was oh-so-close to living out his dream of an extended NBA career.

Gaines earned a spot on the Utah Jazz’s roster out of the G League. A week later, he made the game-winning 3-point shot against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.

After playing for four NBA teams in three years, mostly on 10- to 30-day contracts, he finally earned a two-year deal with the New Jersey Nets in March 2011.

A week later, he suffered a broken hip in a nasty fall underneath the basket against Cavaliers.

Gaines has been on the road ever since.

“I would see him back when I was with the Knicks when I was in the city,” said former Georgia teammate Dave Bliss, now an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “He’s always playing somewhere. Just to make it as an undrafted guy is hard. But he’s gotten some good years out of basketball.”

He has, but Gaines said his best years were with the Bulldogs. “Yatta,” as he came to be known by his UGA teammates and fans, started all 123 games Georgia played from 2004-08 under coach Dennis Felton. Gaines ranks 11th on the Bulldogs’ list of all-time scorers with 1,469 points and second in career assists with 476.

UGA guard Sundiata Gaines stretches before the game against Xavier.
Photo: Rich Addicks / AJC

Georgia never won much during his tenure, but Gaines was the main reason the Bulldogs were able to pull off one of the more unlikely championship runs in sports history. He was named MVP of the tornado-interrupted 2008 SEC Tournament in Atlanta. Georgia won the title after entering as the league’s last-place team.

“Everybody stepped up, and that’s what propelled us to get over that hump,” Gaines said. “The spirit of that team was great. Everybody was confident, everybody was encouraging each other. The energy was positive, even when we had to play two games in one day.”

Gaines remains the only player from Georgia’s last championship team still playing basketball. Albert Jackson was the last to give it up, retiring from a career of overseas ball last year.

Gaines is not quite ready to call it quits himself. He plans to give it “a few more years” if he can.

And while his NBA dream never materialized, Gaines said he realizes now that God simply had a different plan.

“Looking back at it now, it will always be a blessing just to make it (to the NBA),” Gaines said. “I never knew how long I’d play. But just knowing I was talented enough, that I was capable, is good enough for me. And I got to continue my career and travel the world.

“To be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the majority of these countries. Maybe one or two on vacation, but certainly not lived there for months at a time like I have. … I don’t regret anything.”

At this point in his life, Gaines is comfortable looking back. It’s looking forward that’s a little troubling.

“I know my career’s coming down on the back end now, so I’m having to think about what I want to do after basketball,” he said. “That’s going to be a tough transition. I can go a lot of different ways. Hopefully, I can find a passion for something similar to basketball. That’s a hard thing to figure out.”

Everybody brings up coaching to Gaines, which he understands and doesn’t hate. But he’s not so sure.

He’s thought a lot about the trucking business.

“Anything with travel I think will always be in the works for me,” Gaines said.

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