Gamble’s path to success continues to pay off for Hurricanes
Having endured three surgeries on his left leg, which helps carry his 6-10, 250-pound body, Julian Gamble long ago could have given in to pain and discomfort.
The thought of 9-year-old Cameron Powell, his nephew who is more like a brother, makes any such thoughts silly.
Back home in Durham, Powell lives in a wheelchair. Because of Cerebral Palsy and a rare kidney condition called Barter disease, he has undergone 10 surgeries and endured numerous seizures.
“He’s a really strong kid,” Gamble said. “He’s been my inspiration. He’s kept me grounded.”
Strength and perseverance have helped Gamble, a Southern High School graduate, become a valuable member of the University of Miami men’s basketball team, which is ranked No. 14 in the country and leads the ACC.
He sat out two entire college seasons, including the 2011-12 campaign after he suffered a torn ACL. Now 23 years old, he received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA that allowed him to play this season.
When Miami center Reggie Johnson suffered a broken thumb in December, Gamble stepped into the starting lineup and has helped carry the Hurricanes (16-3, 7-0 ACC).
A year ago, Miami coach Jim Larranaga wouldn’t have considered such a thing possible. But Gamble rehabilitated his knee, got into better shape and arrived for the start of practice fit and healthy.
“I thought it was going to be very difficult for him to contribute with that injury, but he worked so hard to rehabilitate the injury and to lose weight,” Larranaga said. “He went from 265 to 245 during the summer.
“When I saw him in September, he was like a different human being. I just thought this guy was going to have a huge impact this year.”
Lessons learned on, off the court
Gamble’s impact is immense for the Hurricanes, a program that hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2008. His interior scoring and rebounding are only part of what he does.
“In team meetings, I ask a lot of questions and invariably Julian is the one raising his hand and answering all the questions,” Larranaga said. “I tell the rest of the guys, ‘I’m tired of Julian answering all the questions.’ But what it tells me is he’s very smart and very confident. He’s willing to put himself on the line because he listens and he learns.”
Gamble learned long ago the importance of giving to others. His mother, Sarah, showed him firsthand.
When Julian’s sister, Raquel, gave birth to Cameron, their mother agreed to take over his care when he was 4 months old.
“It was really a lot for her, so I wanted to do that,” Sarah Gamble said. “I really wanted her to finish school. I didn’t finish college. I felt it was important for her to do that.”
That allowed Raquel Gamble, who started college at Norfolk State, to get her criminal justice degree at N.C. Central in 2010. She now is at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is on track to earn her master’s degree in forensic science after this semester.
Julian, who was a student at Southern when Cameron became his mother’s responsibility, had to adjust to having a special needs child in the house. He saw how his mother juggled Cameron’s care and her full-time job, and he knew he had more responsibility, too.
“It mostly evolved from wanting to help my Mom,” Julian Gamble said. “I wanted to ease her stress and workload. I know what it takes to take care of him now. All of that stuff, I do on my own. I do it for my Mom and for him. They are the two most important people in my life.”
David Pyper, who was on Southern’s basketball staff during Gamble’s career there, remains close. He has seen how life’s challenges, particularly Cameron’s, have matured Julian into a solid citizen as well as a basketball player.
“That’s what’s helped him understand that life is bigger than basketball,” said Pyper, an assistant at Southern who was Gamble’s head coach his junior and senior seasons.
Finding a home
Gamble’s injuries complicated his playing career at Miami, a school he didn’t know was interested in him until the summer before his senior year at Southern. Until then, smaller schools such as Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond and Virginia Military were recruiting him the hardest.
But Frank Haith, Miami’s head coach at the time, saw Gamble play well against J.J. Hixson, the former N.C. State star now with the Portland Trail Blazers, in an AAU game. He pursued Gamble and offered a scholarship.
“He was a really good guy,” Gamble said. “The overall school atmosphere, it wasn’t too big. Coming out of high school, I wanted to go somewhere different. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone to improve myself as a person on and off the basketball court.”
It’s not like Gamble had time to get very comfortable as a youngster when he moved from school to school. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old and living in Richmond. Sarah Gamble returned to North Carolina to find a job, living in Charlotte before moving to the Triangle.
Julian said he went to three middle schools before entering Southern High.
But he finally found a home in Miami, even if his playing career was slow to blossom. His scoring averages over his first three seasons were 2.4, 3.5 and 4.0 points.
Just before his sophomore season, another hurdle was placed in front of Gamble. His father, Julius, died of liver failure on Sept. 10, 2009, in a Connecticut hospital.
Julius Gamble was on a transplant list, just six days away from receiving a new liver when he died. Julian’s birthday is Sept. 15, and he had planned to visit his father. But Julius died before he could get there.
“It was an unfortunate situation,” Julian Gamble said. “It was difficult on me, but my teammates and my coaches really helped me at that time and definitely my faith. Everything happens for a reason.”
Gamble moved forward with basketball and his studies as he grieved.
College decision, Part II
Because he already had been on campus for four years, Gamble finished his undergraduate degree in sports administration, with a business minor, in 2011. Around that time, Haith left Miami to become Missouri’s head coach.
Larranaga was hired from George Mason to take over the Hurricanes. Gamble was getting feelers from other schools where he could transfer and play one year immediately under NCAA graduate transfer rules.
Larranaga hadn’t seen Gamble play, so he told him the truth about his new program.
“He was being courted,” Larranaga said. “Since I had not seen Julian play, I didn’t really know how to advise him, except to tell him what direction we were going and (that) we would like him to be a part of it.”
But Gamble, after all that moving around as a younger student, didn’t want to go anywhere.
“This is where my heart is,” Gamble said.
Before he could play for Larranaga, Gamble tore his ACL in the summer of 2011. But the NCAA gave him the extra year and Gamble put in the work to be ready to help the Hurricanes.
Because of that, he will be in Raleigh today when Miami plays N.C. State at 4 p.m. at PNC Arena. On Thursday night, he was in Durham spending time with his mother and with Cameron.
Today, Sarah and Cameron will be courtside at PNC Arena watching Julian play in person. David Pyper, who now teaches and coaches at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, will be there, too, as will Michael Fuga, a former Southern assistant coach who is now principal at Durham’s Rogers-Herr Middle School.
They represent Julian Gamble’s trusted circle. The best thing, Julian Gamble said, is seeing Cameron smile, like when Cameron plays like he’s hitting Julian and the big center overreacts and falls over.
Or when they sit and watch “The Price is Right” — Cameron’s favorite show.
“We have a really good time together,” Julian said. “I spend most of the time trying to make him laugh.”
After all the pain they’ve both gone through, that feels pretty good.