On Monday, 23-year-old Jimmy Gavin committed to Winthrop University after two all-conference seasons at the Division II level.
His transfer won’t be met with any kind of Twitter buzz from college basketball types, but Gavin’s journey to becoming a first-time Division I scholarship basketball player was anything but typical.
As a sophomore in high school, Gavin was 5-foot-4 and 90 pounds. He was never able to play a varsity sport in high school as he was dealing with Crohn’s disease, which made him progressively weaker. Three years after last playing organized basketball, the tragic death of his younger brother brought Gavin back to Chicago from Mississippi State.
This spring he heard from nearly 50 Division I schools during the recruiting process. Now he’s earned his chance to play college basketball at the Division I level in his final season. A far cry from a player who became winded after four possessions of a game during his later years of high school.
“There’s a difference in people wanting you to succeed and people believing that you actually can,” Gavin said. “And I think a lot of people doubted me.”
Jimmy Gavin was a promising but scrawny and undersized starting point guard on the freshman team at Prospect High School during the 2006-07 season. Hailing from Arlington Heights, a middle-class suburb northwest of Chicago, Gavin was coached on the freshman team by John Camardella, a young and energetic former Division III player at Illinois Wesleyan. Camardella would soon be promoted to the varsity head job at Prospect by the summer of 2007.
Gavin and Camardella never had the chance to re-unite on the varsity level.
In his second year of high school, Gavin made the sophomore basketball team, but he had became noticeably slower. He was reluctant to share the struggle that he was going through.
“I had kind of started to get sick my freshman year. By sophomore year, it was kind of at its worst,” Gavin said. “I was about 90 pounds; about 5-foot-4.
“Sophomore year, I was on the team and I was getting sick non-stop. But I did finish out the season. I definitely missed time, but I was still a member of the team.”
During the winter of his sophomore year, Gavin was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a bowel ailment that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract.
Crohn’s can cause abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition. The malnutrition and constant struggle to retain nutrients leaves many Crohn’s patients weak and makes them lose weight. The disease can be painful; at times debilitating. Life-threatening complications can arise. There is no cure for Crohn’s disease, but medical treatment options and lifestyle changes can help prevent issues from regularly recurring.
Gavin tried different combinations of medications to help with Crohn’s but each one came with unique side effects. Things started to get better once Gavin found the proper combination of medication and diet to reduce the inflammation caused by the Crohn’s. Gavin had to get rid of things like bread, soda, foods with seeds and fried foods from his diet, but it helped to limit the effects of Crohn’s.
By his junior year of high school, competitive basketball really wasn’t an option. As a senior, the 5-foot-11 Gavin admitted he “halfheartedly” tried out for the Prospect varsity team but he wasn’t physically ready to compete at such a level. He ended up playing in a local park league and spent some time in intramurals. Gavin never played a minute of high school varsity basketball or any other varsity sport at Prospect. His body, and his battle with Crohn’s disease, wouldn’t let him. Gavin came up near his normal weight by the end of high school, but it was already too late.
“I was kind of a stubborn kid, so I never really told anyone what was going on,” Gavin said. “It had to get so bad where it was physically obvious that I needed some help. I just felt that basketball would kind of pass me by.”
“He just wasn’t himself,” Camardella said. “He just wasn’t and you could tell. He was giving everything he’s got.”
As Gavin graduated from Prospect, he moved on to college as a student at Mississippi State. He had no ambitions of attempting to play competitive basketball even though he still had a love for the game.
“I would still go play pick-up sometimes. But it was hard for me to watch basketball and even sometimes play,” Gavin said. “I still knew how to play, it was just hard to be connected to the game because I knew how much I loved it. It was tough. There was definitely a period where I wouldn’t watch basketball at all.”
Everything changed for Jimmy Gavin on March 24th, 2011, a month before the end of his freshman year at Mississippi State.
Sitting in the passenger seat as his friend drove, Jimmy’s younger brother, John “Jack” Gavin, was killed in a one-car accident. Jack Gavin was 16 years old, just a sophomore at the same high school Jimmy had gone to.
Jimmy had an urge to be there for his family during a time of need. He felt like he needed to be at home, so during the fall of his sophomore year, he opted to withdraw from Mississippi State and returned home to Arlington Heights.
“Everything kind of came to a halt for me. It was a lot of pain that I had to go through,” Gavin said. “Nothing can prepare you for a pain like that.”
At home in Arlington Heights, Gavin began attending community college in the spring semester. As a way to keep his mind occupied in his free time, a healthier Gavin, who had grown to over 6-feet tall, decided to start playing basketball again. By learning to get plenty of rest, eating a proper diet and balancing medication, Gavin was able to reduce the effects of Crohn’s disease enough to consistently be on the court near full strength.
The promising ability Gavin showed early in high school started to return. Finally showing signs of returning to full health, Gavin began playing basketball again on a regular basis by working out on his own.
“There’s definitely a lot of motivation to succeed just to kind of honor [my brother] — and my whole family,” Gavin said. “I kind of wanted to play just to put a smile on my family’s face, for one thing.”
A taste of success, every improvement, added fuel to Gavin’s fire. Camardella said Gavin would show up any time basketball was being played at Prospect just to get some time in at the gym. When that wasn’t enough, Gavin would travel all over the Chicagoland area to get a run in. Getting better, playing whenever possible, it became an obsession, not just because he was trying to cope with the loss of his brother, but because Gavin, quite literally, was never able to play before.
“Jimmy was everywhere when it comes to hoops,” Camardella said. “He was at Prospect, then all the sudden he’d be in the city, then he’d be going somewhere else for an open gym. And someone would be like, ‘Hey, I saw your guy Jimmy at this place.’ He was non-stop.”
During the summers, Gavin played in open gyms with high school players and ran summer-league games in Chicago with NBA players like Patrick Beverley and Shawn Marion. His goal was to soak up every bit of knowledge that he could. Former college basketball stars like Jerome Randle and Jeremy Pargo played against Gavin. Whenever he played with talented players of any background, Gavin would pick their brain to see how he could add moves or learn about operating a certain play.
By chance, while running pick-up ball at a local XSport Fitness health club, Gavin ran into Kyle Miklasz, a guard at local NAIA Roosevelt University. The duo grew up in Arlington Heights and played in youth leagues together as kids. Miklasz was soon calling his trainer and former AAU coach at Full Package, Steve Pratt, asking if he could bring Gavin with him to workouts.
Pratt was initially hesitant to work with the now 6-foot-2 Gavin. As the trainer of professional, college and competitive high school basketball players, Pratt didn’t know how a player with no varsity basketball experience would acclimate to high-intensity basketball training.
“Kyle brought him to the gym; had [Jimmy] come to the gym. We started training,” Pratt said. “Jimmy’s a freak athlete — and really slippery. But he was really raw, like a pick-up player. And we worked on tightening up his handle and really working on his shooting mechanics to help him become a great shooter.”
“When I was working out that summer, I was trying my hardest to create opportunities for myself,” Gavin said. “But they’re hard to come by because the basketball world is small. I was pretty much an unknown commodity with zero resumé or experience. So I ended up working out with Full Package’s gym.”
Working out with Pratt nearly every day, Gavin showed athleticism that nobody back at Prospect ever believed he would have. The full-time workouts and being in better shape transformed Gavin into a completely new athlete and basketball player just a few years after he couldn’t physically compete in a high school varsity game.
“I remember when [Jimmy] came down he jokingly said, ‘Hey, I can dunk now.’ And I said, ‘No you can’t, no you can’t, no you can’t.’ And he goes up and just hammers one,” Camardella said. “That’s the number one thing that just blows me away. The speed, the strength, the athleticism out of a kid that, back in high school, couldn’t get up and down the court three times without looking winded. And now you’ve got a kid who is able to windmill dunk.”
After taking the year to be home with family, Jimmy looked to enroll back in school with a chance at playing college basketball. Gavin went to a few local coaches, including Pratt, asking for potential opportunities at a college basketball program. Pratt recently had a guard from Full Package’s AAU program, Ka’Darryl Bell, go to in-state Bradley in Peoria. Braves head coach Geno Ford agreed to let Gavin play in an open gym with his players.
“I explained to Geno, the kid has never played varsity basketball and he’s sick,” Pratt said. “And I go, ‘But he’s really good…'”
All Gavin needed was a chance to prove himself. Ford was shocked by the results.
“[Geno] calls me up and goes, ‘I can’t believe what I’m watching. It’s like the movie ‘The Natural,'” Pratt said. “‘[Gavin] just went, like 15-of-20 3s scrimmaging with our guys. What’s his story? Who is this guy?’ And we were just laughing.”
Ford offered Gavin a chance to walk on at Bradley. Gavin accepted and returned to college full time in central Illinois. After dealing with illness and family tragedy, Gavin would finally have a chance to re-start his basketball career as a Division I walk-on.
It was a great first step for Gavin but he still had dreams of ascending as high as he could within college basketball. It was about continuing to build confidence as he looked to reach his professional basketball dreams.
“It’s all about rebuilding that confidence in yourself. Because at one point, I don’t know that anybody probably believed I could do it besides myself,” Gavin said.
Starting anew at Bradley, Jimmy Gavin joined the Braves for the 2012-13 season as a 6-foot-2, 180-pound walk-on guard. His first season of competitive basketball since his sophomore season in 2007-08 when he began to miss time with Crohn’s. With the Braves, he began lifting weights while attempting to get into proper basketball shape for the first time.
Gavin had completed a year of coursework at Mississippi State and some classes at a local community college for a semester and was a considered a sophomore at Bradley with four years of eligibility remaining.
At the Missouri Valley program, Gavin made 10 appearances during the 2012-13 season and averaged 1.8 points per game. His season ended after having an intestinal resection procedure to help with his Crohn’s disease. The intestinal resection removed the Crohn’s-affected section of Gavin’s intestinal tract and his healthy intestines were attached back together.
He hasn’t had any problems with Crohn’s since the operation.
Having a potentially limited basketball career due to Crohn’s made Gavin seek out more playing time than his situation at Bradley. He sought out scholarship opportunities in hopes of getting a chance to prove himself with consistent minutes. Wisconsin-Parkside, fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance at the Division II level, was the only school to offer Gavin a full basketball scholarship. He was a risk; Gavin hadn’t completed a full season of basketball since his freshman season in high school.
“You could see the ability,” UW-Parkside coach Luke Reigel said. “When we signed him we didn’t know if we could even get a full year of basketball out of him. With everything he had battled from Crohn’s, we really rolled the dice and hoped that he could stay healthy. Because from an ability standpoint, we saw the potential was there to be an all-conference type of player. We didn’t know if three games in, 15 games in, if he’d be done playing.”
UW-Parkside was returning experienced wings in a three-guard offense. The Rangers needed an offensive spark off the bench and it quickly became apparent that Gavin could more than hold his own playing at one of the better Division II programs in the country. Reigel compared Gavin to noted former Detroit Pistons sixth man Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson. Now at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Gavin played 30 games and started four in his first season at UW-Parkside, averaging 16 points per game while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
In his first full-and-healthy season since the 2006-07 campaign, Gavin was a second-team all-conference selection for the Rangers during the 2013-14 season.
“There were multiple times early on where he’d have four or six points in the first half and was just trying to get a feel for the game,” Reigel said. “Then he’d have times where it was 16, 18, 20 points in the second half of games. And it was scoring every way possible. Getting to the rim, he was knocking down threes, scoring in transition. That’s when we knew he was at a little bit different level than maybe some other guys around the league.”
The Rangers once again made the NCAA tournament in Gavin’s first year with the team. Being the new guy in a college program was a tough enough transition, but Gavin still needed to pick up nuances to the game like help defense and the lingo that comes with playing in a basketball program. For as talented as he was, he was still a bit unpolished at the college level. After his first season at UW-Parkside, Gavin got in the gym again and wanted to improve his defense and using his right hand.
To start his junior season, UW-Parkside made Gavin a starter in his second season with the team. Starting every game for a team that won 26 games, Gavin led the Rangers in points (17.4 ppg) and assists (3.0). He was a first-team all-conference selection and UW-Parkside once again made the NCAA tournament. He scored in double-figures in 28 of 30 games on the season.
“This year we asked him to guard the other team’s best player, get better on help defense and making plays away from the ball — which we talk about all the time. And he took a huge step forward this year,” Reigel said. “From his first year to his second year, he got much better defensively.”
He also put together a number of highlight-reel performances. There was the two-handed alley-oop that Gavin threw down. The 40-point performance on the road at Illinois-Springfield. Gavin also had some big performances in the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament. Playing an aggressive, attacking style on offense, Gavin wasn’t afraid to pull-up and shoot 3-pointers from anywhere within NBA range with his smooth left-handed jumper.
After two all-conference seasons in a row at UW-Parkside, the graduating Gavin faced a difficult decision with one year of college eligibility remaining. Would he leave behind a successful UW-Parkside program that gave him his shot at playing time? Or ascend to Division I immediately as a graduate transfer and do everything possible to play basketball at the highest level?
“For me, I know what I want. I know what my ultimate goals are,” Gavin said. “I want to become a professional. I want to do different things with it. I’ve been trying to make sure the situation [I’m going to] is good.”
After fielding calls from mid-major programs all over the country, Gavin officially visited Pepperdine and Winthrop this spring before opting to play in the Big South. Playing time was an important factor for Gavin and he wanted a good fit for his style of play. He’s also happy to pursue a Master’s degree in the liberal arts program as another fallback option for life after basketball. Gavin might be moving on to Division I but he’s thankful of the opportunity he had to play at UW-Parkside and play for Reigel when no other school would offer him a full scholarship.
“It’s been great,” Gavin said. “I’m really appreciative for the opportunities that Coach Reigel gave me. He took a chance on me when he didn’t have to. I’ve been fortunate to play with some talented players.”
The goal now for Gavin is to make an impact at Winthrop and, maybe, make some money playing professional basketball when he’s done. It sounds crazy, but Gavin doesn’t care.
“People have doubted him his whole life with regards to his disease and moving forward,” Camardella said. “He doesn’t really listen to the outside world telling him what he can and can’t do.”
“I’ve had to fight for every opportunity that I’ve had, and it just kind of puts this chip on my shoulder,” Gavin said. “It’s just… Why not? There’s nothing that someone can put in front of me that I can’t overcome.”