University of Miami center Julian Gamble grew up in Durham, N.C., and starred at Durham Southern High School, just minutes away from the Duke University campus. Nobody needs to tell him about the magnitude of Wednesday nights nationally televised home game between the 25th-ranked Hurricanes and the top-ranked Blue Devils.
This game is so big that UM students are planning to camp out for tickets on the grass alongside BankUnited Center, affectionately being dubbed Larranaga Lawn. It isnt quite Krzyzewskiville, the area outside Cameron Indoor Arena on the Duke campus, where students set up tents before big games and coach Mike Krzyzewski has been known to have pizza delivered. But by UM standards, this pregame hype is as big as it gets.
You can count the number of UM basketball sellouts on one hand, and this one will join the short list as a capacity crowd of 7,972 is expected. ESPNs ever-excitable Dick Vitale should have plenty to shout about.
The last time the teams met, Feb.5, 2012 in Durham, UM pulled off a 78-74 upset in overtime. Hurricanes center Reggie Johnson scored 27 points in that game. He will be in street clothes this time, recovering from a broken thumb. Starting in his place is Gamble, a 23-year-old, sixth-year senior who grew up a North Carolina Tar Heels fan, despite his Durham address. He has stepped up big in Johnsons absence.
Not only has Gambles scoring doubled from 4.3 points per game to 8.9, but his touch and tenacity around the rim also are key reasons the Canes are 13-3 and sit alone atop the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 4-0 record. Gamble faces a huge test against Duke (16-1, 3-1 ACC) and its All-American forward Mason Plumlee, who averages 17.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
ESPN commentators joked that in the win against North Carolina, Gamble backed into the paint like an older guy backing down a young guy in a YMCA league. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said that is exactly how he wants Gamble to play.
When they say old man, they should really describe it as fundamental basketball in the low post, Larranaga said. Because a low-post players job is to attack the rim and get inside buckets for you, and he does it with his left-hand jump hook, his offensive rebounding and running the floor. Those are three fundamental things we ask him to do, and he is doing them very, very well.
Gamble is extra motivated against teams from North Carolina because they didnt recruit him heavily out of high school. Though he averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks as a senior at Durham Southern, he flew under the radar until a phenomenal showing at the AAU Breakdown Hoops Festival in Miami in the summer of 2006.
Then-UM coach Frank Haith immediately took notice, as did coaches from Tennessee, Kentucky, St. Johns and Georgetown. Gamble fell in love with Miami at first sight and never visited another school.
That was kind of my coming-out party, Gamble said. I didnt have anything to lose, so I was really aggressive and had a great week. I really liked Coach Haith and the laid-back family atmosphere on the team, so that sealed the deal for me.
It also helped that Anthony King, another Durham Southern grad, was on the UM team at the time. But Gambles college career hasnt gone as he anticipated. He sat out his freshman year, averaged 7.5 minutes and 2.4 points as a redshirt freshman, 13.3 minutes and 3.5 points as a sophomore, and 15.2 minutes and four points as a junior. He tore his ACL in the summer of 2011, and sat out the 2011-12 season. He was granted a clock extension by the NCAA, allowing him to play a sixth season.
In the meantime, he earned a degree in sports administration with a minor in business administration. Larranaga calls Gamble one of our smartest players on the court, almost like another coach.
Midway through the second half of last weeks game against Boston College, Gamble approached Larranaga with a suggestion. Were behind, and Julian comes over and says, We need to go small, Larranaga said. Kenny [Kadji] and I dont match up well with those three-point shooters. He was right.
Watching Wednesdays game from back home will be his proud mother, Sarah, a 6-1 executive assistant at a pharmaceutical company who played some basketball in her younger years. Gamble calls her my rock, and honored her with his first tattoo in 2007. Since then, much of his upper body has been covered in tattoos. He got his latest on the eve of this season. It is the word Perseverance on his left leg, which has withstood three surgeries.
On his wrist, he often wears a watch that belonged to his late father, Julius, who died of liver failure in his early 50s on Sept.10, 2009. The alarm on the watch is set to 2:25 p.m., and when it buzzes every day, he thinks of his father. The Gambles separated when Julian was 7, but they remained close.
His fathers passing was very hard for Julian, but his faith and his teammates kept him going, Sarah Gamble said. Coach Larranaga has been amazing, too, keeping Julians confidence up even when he wasnt playing. Its so exciting to see his perseverance pay off.