Cameron Powell’s name does not appear on the University of Miami basketball roster. His contribution to the Hurricanes’ historic season is not reflected on any box score, and he is unable to be at the Frank Erwin Center this afternoon when the No. 2-seeded Canes play their NCAA Tournament opener against No. 15 seed Pacific.
But anybody who has been around this magical Miami team this season knows that Cameron is a big reason sixth-year senior center Julian Gamble plays with the energy he does, came out of three knee surgeries stronger than ever, and truly appreciates the opportunity to be a college athlete — something often lost on big young men in big shorts with big egos and big NBA dreams.
Gamble says he embraces every minute on and off the court because he has learned to — from Powell, his 9-year-old nephew. Cameron has cerebral palsy and Bartter syndrome, a rare kidney disorder that required him to spend 10 of his first 12 months of life in the hospital. He has undergone 10 major surgeries, speaks only a few words, and is fed formula through a tube every three hours.
When UM clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference championship last Sunday in Greensboro, N.C., after a thrilling win against North Carolina, the first thing Gamble did was jump over the UM bench and head into the stands to give his mother and Cameron hugs and kisses. The sight of Gamble, a hulking heavily tattooed 6-10 and 250-pound guy gently kiss- ing the cheek of his fragile nephew, was enough to bring Gamble’s mother, Sarah, to tears.
“We have an incredible relationship, and he really keeps me grounded,” Gamble said of his nephew, who lives in Durham, N.C., with Julian’s mother. “He makes me appreciate life a little bit more. He’s my pride and joy, along with my mom. Having them with me at the ACC championship was incredible. Whenever I face any obstacle, I think of Cameron and he gives me strength. If he can get through what he does every day, how can I not appreciate my life?”
Sarah Gamble concedes she was upset and extremely disappointed when her eldest daughter, Raquel, on a full basketball scholarship at Norfolk State University, called during her first semester with news that she was pregnant.
“I never finished college, something I still regret, and I wanted better for my children,” said Sarah Gamble. “So, to be honest, when I found out this baby was going to be born, I was pretty upset with my daughter. I know how hard it is to raise a child, and we didn’t even know yet that Cameron would be such a sick little boy.”
When Cameron was 3 weeks old, he was diagnosed with the kidney disorder, and the cerebral palsy set in a few months later. Sarah Gamble and her husband had separated when Julian was 7. She was working full time in human resources at the time Cameron was born, making $60,000, living in a nice house and driving a Mazda Millenia. Julian and his two brothers were in high school, and everything was going well.
She tried to let her daughter take responsibility for her newborn son, but realized soon after Cameron was born that Raquel was not prepared to care for a special-needs child. One doctor suggested that the department of child services be called because Cameron did not appear to have a stable family environment. Hearing those words broke Sarah Gamble’s heart.
“It killed me to hear someone say we didn’t have a stable family, so I said to myself, ‘Sarah, put pride to the side, and take care of your grandson,’ ” Sarah Gamble said, her voice cracking. “I was unhappy with the path my daughter took, but I was not going to let the state take that sweet little boy from us. I’d make some sacrifices and let Raquel finish school.”
She quit her job, and stayed home with her grandson. Eventually, her savings ran out, and the Mazda was repossessed. They had no choice but to move to the projects in Durham.
“All I had to live on was Cameron’s Social Security, which was $300 per month,” Sarah Gamble said. “We moved into the projects and we learned really quickly that the core of our happiness doesn’t come from money or nice clothes or a car. It was very humbling. We learned to appreciate the smaller things, and our love for each other.
“It was scary. We had a bullet come through the wall one night. But we learned that a lot of the people living there were great people. Circumstances brought them there, just like us.”
Julian was in high school at the time, and he quickly became a father figure to Cameron. He bathed him, helped change him and feed him. He watched Cameron’s favorite TV show, Price is Right, with him. He played a game with him where every time Cameron touched Uncle Julian, he would fall over and the two of them would laugh. Julian also was his nephew’s assistant in the Miracle League, a T-ball baseball league for disabled children.
Raquel got her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from North Carolina Central University in 2010. In a few months, she is scheduled to earn a master’s degree in forensic science from Florida Gulf Coast University. She has two other sons, a 2-year-old and a newborn. She keeps in contact with Cameron via Skype, and visits when she can.
Sarah Gamble went back to work four years ago, when Cameron began attending school. She and Julian get great joy from Cameron’s small successes — a new word (“all right” is the latest), using his hands to select photos on an iPad, smiling at UM basketball games. Julian Skypes them every day.
“He may not be able to audibly communicate, but he communicates with me and I understand him and he understands me, as well,” Gamble said. “We have a lot of fun together. I wouldn’t be the same person without him.”