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Sundiata Gaines climbed atop the scorer's table in triumph, having delivered one of the most memorable shots in nearly four decades of Jazz basketball.
Nothing could match that fantasy as a welcome to the NBA, unless it is this dose of reality: Eight months later, Gaines is the apparent No. 4 point guard in the Jazz's training camp, facing a huge challenge to make the final roster after the late addition of veteran Earl Watson.
Cold business, huh?
"I look at it as more motivation to keep myself going," Gaines said.
Coach Jerry Sloan likes Gaines' response so far. Having advised him during the summer about practicing more intensely, Sloan described Gaines' work Tuesday night as his best effort since he joined joining the team in early January. "You can't play this game as a point guard if you're going to be casual and cool," Sloan said.
Staying cool under pressure sure worked in Gaines' favor in January. His buzzer-beating three-pointer from the right wing gave the Jazz a 97-96 victory over Cleveland in a nationally televised game at EnergySolutions Arena.
It was well-timed, coming just as his initial 10-day contract was expiring. The play is preserved on multiple YouTube sites, combining for hundreds of thousands of views, with one heading describing it as the shot that "destroyed the Cavs franchise forever."
That may be a stretch. Saying it was a career-making moment for Gaines may be, too, depending on where the whole thing goes from here. Regardless, he's glad it happened.
"Not too many players come in the situation I was in, the circumstances, and do the things that I've done," he said. "I look at it as a great start and I want to continue to build on it. The shot was great, got me on the map, and I'm happy about it."
The Jazz replayed the shot in television spots in the weeks that followed and undoubtedly capitalized on their investment in Gaines. He earned about $270,000 in minimum salary for four months' work, plus a playoff bonus. That's nice, but there's far more money to be made if Gaines can land a 2010-11 roster spot.
That outcome seemed likely until last week, when the Jazz signed Watson. They already had Ronnie Price as the presumed backup to Deron Williams. When the Jazz signed Gaines in late January for the remainder of the 2009-10 season, they included a clause that gave them his rights for this season, with little (if any) guaranteed money. So this training camp would have been his only choice, anyway.
"I'm coming and competing; that's all I can do," Gaines said. "I know the system, I know the staff around here. I'm pretty comfortable and I like it. Hopefully, things will work out and I can stick around."
Having worn No. 15 last season, Gaines now sports the No. 2 formerly used by two of Williams' veteran backups, Derek Fisher and Brevin Knight. He would love to rank No. 2 or even No. 3 on the depth chart.
The only assurance is that Sloan's history of roster and playing-time decisions is based on merit, not salary or draft status. That's why Gaines and guard Othyus Jeffers, who also finished last season with the Jazz, recognize the challenge and opportunity of their current state.
Watson's arrival is "part of the business, and we just have to prove ourselves over and over," Jeffers said. "Competing … that's coach Sloan. Nobody here has a significant spot on the team, other than the superstars."
Gaines was an NBA star for one night, representing a huge advancement from Italy and Idaho, his first two professional stops after a storied prep career in New York and a solid tenure at the University of Georgia. If the Jazz waive him next month, he will have to regroup and find another basketball home.
Obviously, he's not thinking that way. As a Jazzman since January, "I'm feeling more comfortable with myself and my surroundings," he said. "I think my game's definitely elevated."
High enough to get him on top of the ESA scorer's table again?
That would be cool.