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    Dan McHale is tempted to bring a ping pong table into the office and challenge Reece Gaines for old times’ sake. The former residents of University of Louisville’s Bettie Johnson Hall are reunited. Over a decade later, they are together again. This time at Eastern Kentucky University. Gaines will be in his first season as a Division I basketball assistant. He is working under McHale, EKU's rookie head coach. Neither of them ever dreamed that they would go from ping pong competitors to working side by side.

    Back in 2001-02, McHale was a staff assistant for Rick Pitino’s first season at UofL. Gaines was a star junior guard. “I lived with the guys,” McHale said.  “My sole responsibility was to monitor them, get to know them. You do all the grunt work as a grad assistant. Reece lived right across the hall.”

    Occasionally that meant ping pong. Gaines said he lost the majority of the matches versus McHale. Huh? How could Gaines, who finished his career as the UofL basketball program’s fourth all-time leading scorer with 1,945 points, not dominate? “It’s totally different,” Gaines said laughing when asked about comparing basketball to ping pong. “I’m alright. I’m OK.” Gaines was the 15th overall pick in the 2003 draft – one of the greatest in league history. It’s the class of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. 

    Gaines played a total of 71 games in the NBA for three different teams. He described his pro career as “not very good” and said it was a “life lesson” When his playing career ended, Gaines did something he never considered before. Get into coaching.That was McHale’s dream. After serving as an assistant coach at Minnesota for Richard Pitino, McHale is now in charge of his own program. When it came time to fill out his staff, McHale reached out to his former ping pong buddy. Gaines didn’t take the easy or privileged route. He became a volunteer assistant at Division II Bellarmine University while he completed his sociology degree at UofL. He spent three seasons with the Knights, including last season’s Final Four team.

    Gaines credits Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport for allowing him to grow into his role.“He never wanted to discourage me,” Gaines said. “He allowed me to be involved in the floor. That was a big thing.” McHale took notice.  So much so that when he was hired by EKU, he spoke to Gaines at last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis. Usually someone of Gaines' stature doesn’t begin their coaching career at a non-Division I job.“That really got my attention,” McHale said. “He’s in it for the right reasons. He’s checking his ego at the door and he’s going to teach at the ground level.”

    Gaines and McHale aren’t the only ones at EKU with UofL ties. Doug Davenport, who spent the past three seasons as UofL’s video coordinator and is Scott Davenport’s son, is also on staff. First-year success will be a challenge in 2015-16. Belmont is the clear-cut Ohio Valley Conference favorite. EKU has lost most of the talent from its 2013-14 NCAA tournament squad. Gaines knows success in coaching isn’t easy. As a basketball player, he could affect the outcome like when he made his memorable 3-point basket to beat Marquette in 2003. As an assistant coach, all you can do is prepare and watch your players. That’s OK for ol’ No.22.

    “You realize it’s not all about you,” Gaines said. “It’s about your players.”

    Photo courtesy of Eastern Kentucky University

    Michael Grant's picture

    About Michael Grant

    Sports reporter in Louisville. Film buff. Capricorn.

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