The moment is caught on tape, already sent out to the viral video world.
At the beginning of the footage, UAB point guard Eric Gaines is at the top of the key, holding the basketball with teammate Jelly Walker guarding him. A teammate comes to set a screen on Walker, so another defender, 7-foot center Trey Jemison, jumps out to help. Gaines takes a quick step to his right, dribbles behind his back to squeeze through the mess, bursts to the goal and finishes with an emphatic slam dunk before another defender can help.
Gaines turns and begins a ho-hum walk toward the key. UAB basketball coach Andy Kennedy strides into the picture, looks at the camera with a smile and says, "I hope you got that."
Gaines shakes his head slowly when asked about the video, which is now about five weeks old.
“I’m not going to say [it’s] everyday, but it’s kind of getting normal to me,” Gaines said when asked if that was just an everyday play. “I don’t try to do stuff to go viral, but my game is a high risk, high reward player. If I do something, and it goes good, more than likely, it’s going to go up somewhere. I don’t try to go viral; I’m just out there playing.”
“Out there playing” for Gaines often turns into moments like that one. His speed and athleticism set him apart from many. Mix in a vertical leap that he says measured a little over 40 inches, and you understand how viral videos could follow.
Gaines was born in New Jersey before moving to Lithonia, Georgia, as a youngster. Football was his first sport of choice, but he quickly transitioned into basketball. He was taller than most kids at the time, which meant he played center. However, he noticed quickly that he was also faster than most. So, his version of playing center, at the time, meant grabbing a rebound and usually having success beating the defenders up the court with his dribble.
His first dunk came in the summer heading into his ninth-grade year. Many more followed, even though he didn’t get much attention during his first two years at Lithonia High.
“My senior year is when I actually blew up,” Gaines said. “Before that, I wasn’t highly recruited at all. I wasn’t playing on the [AAU] circuit. I was just playing regular leagues. Once I got put on the EYBL circuit, the first session, I did good, but I got hurt. Going into my senior year, I had to get surgery on my leg. I had a stress fracture on my shin. After that, recovering and things like that, I felt I had a chip on my shoulder. I just took my senior year serious. People started recording me, and I started to blow up. I was doing crazy dunks and things like that. They just started comparing me to Ja Morant, and it took off from there.”
He was a 4-star recruit who chose LSU over a host of other schools. He played in 63 games at LSU with eight starts last season. Most of his contribution came on the defensive end and getting the basketball to his teammates. He decided to leave after Will Wade was fired and his teammates began heading to other programs.
“Everybody on the team was kind of moving around after Wade got fired,” Gaines said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be stable there. I saw UAB, I got in contact with one of my guys, and he knew AK. They had a conversation. I gained the relationship with AK, built a trust with him, and it went from there. I came down here, saw the campus and talked to the coaches and players. I knew Jelly. I saw his experience last year and wanted to come over here and help.”
Now, some would suggest that Jelly Walker’s experience at UAB would be a reason that Gaines went elsewhere. They both play the same position. Both need the basketball to be successful. Walker is established as one of the country's top shooters and most dynamic players, the reigning C-USA Player of the Year and the favorite to win that award again.
It turns out that all of that is an extremely favorable recruiting advantage.
“Me and Jelly, we’ve been cool since I was in high school,” said Gaines, who added they first met during summer basketball. “We’d go to Miami together and work out, or I’d go to New York. I didn’t know I was going to end up here at all. Like I said, we all got our own path, and here I am.”
Gaines and the rest of his teammates spent the summer learning how to play on the same team. Gaines said Kennedy constantly switched lineups to get everyone accustomed to playing on the same team. His immersion into the team also included plenty of time playing one-on-one against his old friend.
“Jelly loves playing one-on-one. He feels like that’s what makes people better,” Gaines said. “Every opportunity we get, we play. Every day. That’s what he loves to do. It’s a different winner every time. That’s how close it is. We play three dribbles and one shot. A regular game, it’s harder because you got screens, and he’s running around the court.”
Gaines said one of his objectives this season is to show his offensive skills more than he did at LSU. Gaines established himself as an elite defender at LSU but was more of a distributor than a scorer. He’s worked toward expanding his game during the summer with UAB, and a recent opportunity helped him grow as a player.
He was one of 13 college point guards invited to participate in the Chris Paul Elite Guard Camp in Los Angeles. There were also about a dozen high school guards invited to the camp. It was a four-day camp with workouts a couple of times a day. Paul handled the drills with NBA coaches and players also helping. In between the drills, the players would play full-court four-on-four games and go into classrooms for instruction and film work.
“The experience was one of a kind. It was amazing,” Gaines said.
EG ➡️ CP3 Elite Guard Camp pic.twitter.com/ItLEXEIPGI— UAB Men's Basketball (@UAB_MBB) August 25, 2022
Now, he brings all of his experiences together for what is expected to be a special season at UAB. The Blazers begin official practice in October, with the season beginning with an exhibition game against Mississippi College and the regular season opener against Alabama State six days later. Gaines may just be ready to create some more viral videos with the help of UAB basketball strength and conditioning coach Jon Uribe.
“I worked on my legs a couple of times, but my bounce is really natural,” Gaines said. “I never really worked on my legs, for real, like squatting, box jumps, calf raises. I never really did that. For me to jump the way I jump it’s actually shocking to me because I didn’t know, I could get that high. Now that I’m working out with Jon, I’m actually doing things with my legs, and I see it elevating. It’s getting more crazy. John told me that he’s seen that I’m jumping a little bit higher than I used to jump.”
Get ready for more. I hope you got that.
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