He answers to the nickname of “Ticket.” Someone attached it to Davonte Gaines when he was a young basketball star in Buffalo, in recognition of his wondrous skills and ability to turn any game, any possession, into a show, a hoop event.
But last year at Tennessee, Gaines was like an unused ticket, tossed into the back of the dresser drawer. As a sophomore at a Power Five school, he fell to the bottom of the Vols’ depth chart, overtaken by a couple of elite freshmen one-and-dones who would stay for one year and jump to the NBA.
Kim English, a Tennessee assistant coach at the time, remembers it well. He can still see Ticket sitting alone on the UT bench early in the 2020-21 season, a virtually forgotten man who didn’t play a second in the team’s first two contests against Colorado and Cincinnati.
“I sat next to him when our benches were spaced out because of Covid,” English said Monday from Virginia. “I went to him in the middle of one of those games and told him to make sure he keeps his attitude and mindset in check, because your number will be called at some point, and you have to be ready.”
Gaines never really got his chance last season for a talented but flawed Tennessee team that got upset in the first round of the NCAAs. He averaged only 3.6 minutes a game and 0.7 points.
But English knew Ticket had a lot to offer. He also knew he had the character and integrity of a great teammate. He watched in fond amazement when Gaines would pull aside Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer — the freshmen who were taking his playing time — to offer advice and encouragement.
Sure enough, Ticket finally got the call. After the season, English was hired as the head coach at George Mason. He was 32 at the time, the fourth-youngest head coach in men’s Division I. One of his first moves was to reach out to Davonte Gaines.
“After the NCAA Tournament, I sat at home and talked with my parents, to figure out the best situation for me,” Gaines said Monday before practice. “I came to the decision that it was time for me to find something new.
“It was definitely difficult for me,” he said of transferring. “I had a great relationship with the players there in Tennessee and the coaches. Even the community. I had a good presence. People loved to be around me, and I loved to be around them.”
Gaines talked to several schools. People wondered if he might wind up at Georgia State with fellow Buffalo native Rob Lanier, who had recruited him at Tennessee. Desmond Oliver, another Buffalo guy, had just left the Tennessee staff to be the East Tennessee State head man.
But he was ticketed to Fairfax, Va., to George Mason of the Atlantic 10. “After talking to Coach English and knowing him and being around him the last two years, it was a no-brainer,” Gaines said.
“I didn’t know it when I said it at the time,” English said, “but his number was going to be called this season at George Mason. And he was prepared. I’m not sure there’s a transfer with more of a production increase this season in America. I’d like to look up those numbers.”
Ticket has finally arrived as a junior at George Mason. The 6-7 lefty guard is averaging 11.1 points and a team-leading 8.0 rebounds a game in 29.1 minutes for the Patriots, who are 6-5 after a big win last Saturday at Georgia of the SEC.
Gaines is shooting the way he did when he was dazzling the high school crowds at Health Sciences, where he was first-team all-Western New York in 2018. As of Monday, he was shooting 53.6 percent from the floor, 51.6 from three-point range, and 82.1 percent from the foul line.
It would take hours to analyze all 350 Division I schools, but English has a point. There can’t be more than a handful of players in the country, transfers or otherwise, with those kind of shooting numbers.
“Honestly, I’ve always been confident in my ability to shoot,” said Gaines. “I know the numbers from my two years at Tennessee don’t show that. But there never was a point where I was not confident in my ability as a shooter. Over the summer, I kept building on that confidence.
“Once I got here in June, it was one of the things I wanted to show that I can do. I give props to Coach English and the whole coaching staff for working with me and being patient with me, letting me allow into the role I have now.”
Gaines has another familiar role: Leader. That’s a quality that appealed to English, a former Missouri star getting his first head job. He had observed Ticket in difficult circumstances and been impressed with how he handled himself. He called Gaines a “protector of his teammates at Tennessee.”
“He’s a great teammate,” English said. “Always has been. At Tennessee, we had some young players who didn’t get it fully. But they were McDonald’s All-Americans. They were playing over Ticket. Many were the instances where I saw Ticket taking those guys under his wing, giving them advice, talking them through a set, how to guard a play or how to deal with Coach (Rick) Barnes.”
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Watch News 4’s 2018 coverage of Gaines’ commitment to Tennessee
Johnson and Springer both went in the first round of the 2021 NBA draft after playing one year at UT. Gaines wished them well. No hard feelings.
“All my life, I’ve been conscious of those around me,” Gaines said. “I was always a leader on the team, one of the guys who others can go to if they have questions or an issue. I felt being one of those guys who could help them out was part of my DNA as a player.
“Even on the court, I always got their backs,” he said, “taking responsibility for mistakes that happen. Even if it wasn’t my fault, letting them know I’m there for them. Guys respond well to that. Everywhere I’ve been — high school, prep school, even in college when I was coming off the bench at Tennessee.
‘It was never personal. I knew the situation that was in front of me. I was trying to make the best of it, make the best of the time I got, even in practice, competing with those guys. If they had questions and needed help, I was always there to help. I felt like they were my brothers. We were all knit together.”
Ticket has three natural brothers. Older brother DeAndre and Antonio played football at Erie CC. Younger brother Daequan plays high school football for Maritime Charter. Gaines attributes a lot of his caring and leadership qualities to his mother, Denise Leonard.
“My mom raised four boys by herself, so it was always a situation where you had to be together,” Gaines said. “She came down to my first two games at George Mason. A bunch of my family drove down, like 17 of them came down. That passion, that togetherness, it comes from my mom and my brothers, that sense of someone always having your back.
“Also having that community thing, growing up in Buffalo, everybody helping each other out,” he said. “A lot of people helped me in my life to get to where I am. So I felt like me giving that back to people is all part of being who I am.”
One of them was Ty Parker, who mentored Gaines on the basketball court from a young age and became his adopted father a few years ago. Then there was the late Neal Dobbins, a community leader whose son, Hakeem, played AAU basketball with Gaines. Hakeem now plays at Brockport State.
Dobbins, who died last spring from complications tied to Covid-19, used to drive the neighborhood kids around to games when they were young.
“On the way home once, he told ‘I’m here for you. I’m like the godfather,’” Gaines said. “He told me he was going to be around for a long time. He used to say I was going to the NBA and he wanted me to get him a truck. He’d always say, ‘Don’t forget my truck!’”
Dobbins had lost his oldest son to gun violence in 2003. He became a fierce community advocate on the issue of illegal guns in the city and founded MVP, a community group for parents of the victims of gun violence.
Gaines knew all about the violence. When he was 14, he was playing basketball in Roosevelt Park when a fight broke out. Gaines ran and was grazed by a gunshot in his left wrist. His friend Raymond Patterson, also 14, died after being shot in the back while attempting to flee. Joseph Gant was later convicted of second-degree murder and attempted murder in the shootings.
Ticket has a tiny scar below his wrist where the bullet grazed him, a ready reminder of how precious life can be, and how lucky he is to be alive and playing ball.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “You look at what happened to me. It’s been getting worse ever since. I hear of a lot of young kids in Buffalo passing away. The other day, I heard about a 16-year-old girl there. She probably didn’t do anything to anybody and she got shot. We got to keep praying for families who lose young ones to gun violence.”
Life could be snatched from you in an instant. Ticket was shaken last week when he found out his mother had been in a serious auto accident.
“She’s doing good,” he said. “She was in the hospital for awhile. She just came home, chilling out with my brothers.”
You count your blessings. Gaines, a sports management major, plans to play professionally after college. He has two more years at George Mason — three if he takes advantage of the extra year the NCAA granted to all the players because of last year’s pandemic-shortened season.
English is certainly glad to have him. Gaines is one of three players who transferred to George Mason, including fifth-year seniors D’Shawn Schwartz and DeVon Cooper, the Patriots’ second- and third-leading scorers.
George Mason hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2011, when it went for the fifth time under Jim Larranaga. They made the Final Four in 2006 in some of the most stirring and historic mid-major runs in the game’s history.
English, who scored 20 points for Missouri in an NCAA tourney first-round game in Buffalo in 2010, intends to restore Mason to hoop prominence. They won at Maryland when the Terps were ranked and beat Georgia last weekend. They could make noise in the Atlantic 10, which seems even more wide open now that St. Bonaventure has come back to Earth.
“I couldn’t spell rebuild if you asked me to,” English said. “It’s not in our DNA. We’re going to try to put a roster together every season that we think can compete in every game and for championships. That’s just our mindset. We do it in recruiting. We do it in the culture that we cultivate every day.
“All of the basketball ability aside, humility and integrity, character, being a great teammate, selflessness, those are things that I absolutely want to be staples in our program,” English said of Gaines. “There’s also a competitiveness. I’m sure it was not easy for him not playing as much as he wanted to at Tennessee.”
Gaines said beating two Power 5 schools showed that George Mason can play with the big boys. The goal, he said, is to be a mid-major powerhouse.
“So, we’re going to keep building this thing up to something very special,” Gaines said. “Those wins show what we can be in the near future.”
He’s too young to remember George Mason in ’06, but he’s heard the stories. Wouldn’t it something if they got back to the NCAAs in his first season in Fairfax, and got placed in the subregional at KeyBank Arena in his hometown?
“Oh, that would be lovely,” he said.
Now, that would be the ticket.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.