Junior shooting guard Greg Gantt wasn’t always on top

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Ryan Cortes

Photos by Charles Pratt

This past July, assistant coach Peter Gash’s phone buzzes at 1 a.m. He’s in Kentucky, recruiting for the basketball team during its off-season. 

Greg Gantt, the shooting guard, has texted him: “Coach, I need to talk to you.”

A nervous Gash calls back immediately.

“Do you have the number for the [FAU] police?” Gantt asks him. “I want to get in to the gym and take shots.”

“I’m sitting there going, ‘It’s mid-July and Greg Gantt wants to get in the gym at 1 a.m. to take shots?’” Gash begins recalling. “A lot of basketball programs, when you get a call from a player at 1:00 in the morning, it’s something bad.”

A relieved Gash hangs up with the leading scorer on the team for the past two years and makes another call. He dials FAU police and has one thing to say.

“Greg Gantt’s outside,” the coach says, before hanging up.

For the next two hours, Gantt shoots a basketball alone.

For the last two years, no player has scored more points on FAU’s basketball team. Only four in the history of the program — a program Gantt’s only been a part of three seasons and that started in 1988 — have hit more than his 143 3-pointers.

He’s known for standing on the scorer’s table after games and dancing deliriously.

But Gantt does more than just smile and shimmy at success. He takes on challenges — something he’s done his entire life.

His mother remembers his first game ever. An eight-year-old Gantt took off toward an empty basket and scored the first points of the game. For the other team.

His dad would later hold a broom vertically in front of his face whenever his son would shoot. It forced him to have arc on his shot. The result? In 2010 he broke the FAU record for 3-pointers by a freshman.

Gantt has a deep bond not just with his dad, but his entire family. His mother and grandmother attend nearly every home game, and he even calls dad his best friend. This season, in fact, he has dedicated to his dad’s brother, James Gantt. Jr. The junior shooting guard’s uncle passed away weeks ago at the age of 51.

“He was like a second father to Greg,” Gantt’s mother said. “They spent so much time together.”

“Greg was very hurt by his passing,” said Gantt’s girlfriend of nearly eight months, Brittney Nash, a sophomore communications major. “He thinks about him everyday and misses him.”

“I know this about Greg,” said Ken LaVicka, the radio voice for FAU basketball. “If he’s going to dedicate a season to a family member, he’s going to make good on making the season the most worthwhile he can.”

When he was born, though, doctors predicted that Gantt wouldn’t be able to play basketball right now. Scheduled to be born in January of 1992, he was born two months premature on Nov. 12, 1991.

“I was only supposed to live seven days,” Gantt recalled. “And if I did live past that, then I would be handicapped.”

As a child, he was forever placed in disability classes. People around him believed something was wrong. Instead, the doctors were wrong. Gantt took reading comprehension classes and skipped kindergarten. He left middle school with straight-A’s and high school with a 3.9 GPA.

“I’m still not in any handicapped classes,” he said smiling.

He remained in Boca this summer — unlike most players — taking classes and working on his craft with teammate Dennis Mavin.

Nash admitted even she gets left behind at times when Gantt feels an urge to work.

“We had planned to hang out one night, and it was at midnight,” she said. “Then he suddenly decided that he needed to work on his shot.”

“He’s not even close to the most talented kid I’ve ever coached,” said assistant coach Peter Gash. “But he by far works the hardest.”

“I was only supposed to live seven days,” he recalled. “And if I did live past that, then I would be handicapped.”

****

It’s the middle of another long practice and head coach Mike Jarvis is yelling.

“If I can’t trust you, you have no place in this program,” he tells his team. “If we tell you to do 25 pushups and you do 15? Kick your ass out of practice. That goes for all of you.”

Gantt listens respectfully before practice resumes and he hits another open three-pointer.

Minutes later, Jarvis is yelling again. This time at Gantt.

“Greg, there’s a reason you’re a lousy defender,” Jarvis tells him in front of everyone. “And I’m going to keep calling you that until you become a great defender. Because anything less than great, is lousy.”

Gantt’s facial expression doesn’t change. Whether the criticism is true or not, fair or not, it doesn’t bother him.

****

Often this past summer, Gantt would be in the gym practicing with assistant coach, Peter Gash, and teammate, Dennis Mavin.

The practice had both players pitted against one another. Standing at the 3-point line, the players would take two steps to the left and shoot a three. Two steps to the right and shoot. Two steps forward, another shot.

The drill required the two players to make ten 3-point shots each, no matter how long it took. After the tenth make, the players were asked to “burn out” and shoot until they missed.

It was just another drill, like the hundreds Gantt and Mavin do daily. Until the one time Gantt turned the exercise upside down.

Shirtless and covered in sweat, Gantt took his turn at the top of the 3-point line. And he couldn’t miss.

“[Gash] said I made 18 three’s in a row,” he said. “I was feeling it. It was crazy. I would just shoot and look the other way.”

****

“Greg Gantt’s one of the most emotional people I’ve ever been around,” says assistant coach Peter Gash. “By far, the most emotional kid on this team. If someone hits a shot to win a game, he’s pounding his chest. If someone hits a three to win a game, he’s dancing. If we lose a game, he’s crying.”

Last year: After losing to George Mason 66-51, the third straight loss for the team, Gantt approachs Gash and the two walk towards the team bus.

“This isn’t going to happen again,” Gantt says flatly.

The Owls go on to win 15 of their next 18 games, before winning the regular season conference title.

****

Gantt’s high school career has paralleled his college one so closely, it makes him stop and wonder.

“Sometimes I get deja vu,” Gantt said.

Freshman year in high school? Gantt’s season ended on a last second play. A big man on his team missed the game winning layup with seconds remaining. “I remember I fell to the floor crying,” Gantt said.

Freshman year in college? Gantt’s season ended on a last second play, as big man Brett Royster botched a game winning layup against South Alabama in the conference tournament.

Sophomore year in high school? Gantt’s team won districts. The team was expected to go to the state finals, but fell short.

Sophomore year in college? Gantt’s team won its conference. It was expected to go to the NCAA tournament (favored to go, actually), but fell short.

Junior year in high school? Gantt’s team finally made state finals.

Junior year in college? “Hopefully,” Gantt said, putting two and two together, “this year is the NCAA Tournament.”

He played his high school ball in Gainesville. The path, he said, was always to go to UF. The team never showed real, tangible interest in him, though. They’d send a scout, occasionally, to watch Gantt play, but it wasn’t the level of recruitment he wanted and felt he deserved. So instead he bought stock into Mike Jarvis’ vision in Boca. And the only one to regret it? UF’s coaches.

“One of my old high school coaches told me after we played [UF], they told him it was a mistake letting me leave Gainesville,” Gantt said. “But I’m blessed to be here at this program, because Coach Jarvis believed in me first.”

****

Late last year, following a crippling 78-64 loss to North Texas that ends FAU’s March Madness hopes, Gantt and his friend and teammate Dennis Mavin retire to their hotel room.

The two sit on their beds and say nothing for two hours.

Finally, Gantt speaks up.

“From this point on, there’s no more failure,” Gantt tells him. “Me and you aren’t going home this summer. We’re gonna stay, and we’re gonna grind and work ‘cause I don’t want to feel this feeling anymore.”

****

“It just broke me down,” Gantt said. “He was like my second father.”

It’s Greg Gantt’s most important year ever, the season FAU is expected to not just defend its Sun Belt Conference title, but maybe even make the NCAA tournament. Gantt’s dedicating all of it to someone special: His 51-year-old uncle.

This past summer, while Gantt was busy lifting weights and shooting 3’s, he got bad news. His uncle was in a coma and rushed to the hospital. He couldn’t walk on his own. Couldn’t speak. The only thing keeping him alive was a breathing machine.

“It just broke me down,” he said. “He was like my second father.”

Gantt’s mother told him his uncle’s time was near. He should go see him soon, she advised. He wouldn’t have much time left to do so.

“The last time I saw him was on a Monday and he died that Thursday,” Gantt said. “I told him I’m going to dedicate this season to him. I told him how much I’ve grown up. And not knowing if he could understand me or hear me, but I was praying he could.”

“I told him everything’s going to be OK, and then he shook his head,” Gantt recalled. “I told him I loved him and he shook his head.”

The first regular season home game for FAU men’s basketball is Saturday, Nov.19 against George Mason at 7 p.m.