#Playing4George: The Life and Legacy that Inspired a Program

#Playing4George: The Life and Legacy that Inspired a Program

Contact: Katie Parker, kparker@uscupstate.edu 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - On July 18, 2012, George Gaines Jr. left this world after a long and grueling battle with cancer. He left behind a wife, two children and one grandchild, not to mention a George Gaines size hole in the heart of every USC Upstate Spartan.

Monday night the Upstate athletic department alongside the women's basketball program will honor the life and legacy of Gaines at the team's home-opener against St. Andrews at 7 p.m. The athletic department will announce the establishment of the George Gaines Jr. Memorial Scholarship designated for women's basketball.

Gaines' relationship with Upstate Athletics began in 1997. After retiring from the military he decided he wanted to get a college degree so he enrolled in classes at USC Upstate. One day while Gaines was working at an auto parts store in town, Upstate Athletic Director Mike Hall came in looking for a battery for his daughter's car. Hall and Gaines struck up a conversation and Gaines proceeded to tell Hall that he had recently enrolled at Upstate and that his wife Brenda worked in human resources on campus. Hall instructed Gaines to swing by his office one day and discuss the possibility of employment with the athletic department. This encounter led him to take a position working in athletic facilities and game-day management.

In his new role, Gaines worked with all of the athletic programs. He immediately was drawn to the women's soccer program because of his friendship with Kendall Reyes, the coach at the time. From there, Gaines started working more closely with head coach Jennifer Calloway and the women's volleyball team before striking up a friendship with Laura Timmons, a former head coach of the Upstate women's hoops program.

"Mike told him to come in and maybe they could get him a job with athletics," Brenda said. "He started with game set-up and well, it's George so everyone just fell in love with him."

A short time later, the Spartans hired Tammy George to steer the women's basketball program. Gaines and Coach George became fast friends. 

"They would talk every day and then it just got to the point where he would mostly just help out with women's basketball," Brenda said. "It got to the point where, when she brought in recruits she made sure he met them because she wanted to know his take on the girls that would play. I can't even really describe their relationship because I didn't even know Tammy that well at the time, but it was really special. She always wanted his take on things. She just really looked up to him to help her out with things. He was a good judge of character and she just wanted his opinion and looked up to him."

Coach George first met Gaines when she was being interviewed for the head coaching job at Upstate. Gaines was the facilities director at the time and Hall introduced the two as he was showing her around campus.

"Mike (Hall) introduced him as the intramural coach of Lunchtime Hoops," Coach George said. "He was introduced to me as the winningest coach at Upstate. Mike said, 'I think I found you another player for Lunchtime Hoops.' And George just said, 'well, we'll have to see; she'll have to try out.' Well, I got the (women's coaching) job and the first time I played I scored a couple points right away so I asked him if I could make his team and he said, 'I think so; I think I can find a spot for you.' Lunchtime Hoops was always guys verses girls and he was always the captain of the girls team."

A friendship forged out of pick-up basketball games in the Hodge Center with colleagues quickly grew into more than just an office bragging-right competition. Gaines became like a father to Coach George. According to her, he always carried cards with his phone number that said, "You can always call on me." And he meant it. That was his mantra; that's how he lived his life.

"George (Gaines) is just one of those people you meet and you just don't realize how important they will become in your life and what they'll mean to you," Coach George said. "I didn't know the first time I met him how important he was going to become in my life.

"I think, he's just George," Coach George added with a slight laugh and a shrug of the shoulders, as if that explains everything about the man who impacted her and her program so much. "He just wanted to be involved. He wanted to impact people's lives. He was there for all of the girls, if they ever needed anything he was there. For girls who couldn't always get home for holidays or weekends, he would have cookouts and make them feel like they had a home."

Since he worked in the athletic department, Gaines was always around the different facilities. He worked every sporting event the Spartans had, so he was a constant presence. He would randomly stop in when the women's basketball team was practicing just so he could stay up to speed on how the team was doing.

"When he walked in, everyone would turn and look at him," Coach George said. "It disrupted practice, but I didn't care because that's just the kind of relationship we had. He would just stop in to see how things were going. He would meet kids when they came on visits. Even when he got sick he still came around. But he was always doing something with one of the sports and I would just let recruits meet him."

"He loved the women's program," Brenda said. "It was like he adopted the girls when they came in. We would always have the girls over for dinner and have cookouts for them. I think that really kept him going. He just really loved being around young people. In my opinion, I think that's what kept him going on for so long when he got sick. We always called them like our own children. I think that kept him going and that helped him want to be here. "

"What I'm going to miss most about George is him being like a father to me," said Upstate senior guard Tee'Ara Copney. "At school he was like a second dad to me and that's what I'm going to remember most about him."

Aside from Gaines becoming a father-figure to Coach George and the players, he also was a constant sight at every home game. He kept the team stocked with not only positive attitudes, but also with chewing gum. He made sure to arrive early to every contest to stock the locker room with gum and to be there when they ran out onto the court. He would stand by the locker room door and high-five each player as they ran out for warm-ups.

"Before every game I could walk in and he would have thrown like seven or eight packs of gum on my desk and I knew who it was from," Coach George said.

 "He made sure he was there every game before they came out," Brenda said. "If he was running late he was always like, 'I gotta go, I gotta go, I gotta be there when they run out.' I think they even looked forward to that. That was his main thing."

"My favorite memory about George is running into the Hodge every game and he was there with a high-five and always had gum before the game," said Upstate senior forward Lauren McRoberts. "He always had a smile on. He taught me to enjoy life, to always have a smile. Life's short; it should be fun. We were lucky to have him in our lives. He touched all of us in his own way."

Gaines was diagnosed in 2006 with cancer. It started in his colon and spread to his lungs and then to his liver. The disease took a toll on him and eventually he had to resign from his post as the go-to facilities man of Upstate Athletics.

"(Tammy George) has always been a good person, but when he got really, really sick she really helped out a lot," Brenda said. "She would come to the house and help out with the yard and pool, when he couldn't do that anymore. She really helped us out a lot."

Gaines' wife Brenda might not have been able to fully describe her husband's friendship with Coach George, but the Spartans' skipper certainly expressed how she felt about the man who deeply impacted not only her basketball program, but also her life. Coach George, like many others, went to social media to sort through her emotions after Gaines passed away this summer. In her own form of a eulogy, Coach George posted the below comment on the Upstate women's basketball Facebook page July 24, 2012.

"Dear George,
Today along with many other of your family and friends I celebrated your life and reflected on many great times. Following your funeral I had to take off on a recruiting trip to Ohio to find future Lady Spartans and while these young ladies will not ever get to meet you, they will however know the name George Gaines and hear stories of your importance to me and my basketball program. As long as I stomp up and down the sidelines at the Hodge you will forever remain a part of me and my program. Nobody will be allowed to sit in your seat behind the bench at games. I am glad that you will no longer have to suffer and you are in a better place but I truly miss hearing your sweet voice. I never knew my dad, he died when I was four years old and in many ways you fulfilled that role for me here on earth. I now have two angels in heaven watching over me. Tell my dad hello for me. Miss and love you so much.

Gaines made a lasting impression on Coach George and the Upstate women's basketball program. For a humble Sumter, S.C., native his legacy will always be remembered among the Spartan athletic community.

"He taught them to fight until the end and don't give up because he didn't," Brenda said. "He fought until the end. He would always tell them, 'I don't care how far you are behind the game's not over. Go out there and fight to the end. Play like it's still 0-0.'"

"He just really cared about the kids," Coach George said. "I think he helped me know that you have to create that family atmosphere for the kids and that was the biggest thing to me. He was like a father to me. You take care of your kids and make them feel like this is home."

"He would probably tell them to keep on winning for him," Brenda said. "He's looking down on them and he still enjoys watching them play and he would say what he told me, 'let me go, keep on living your life and keep going. Keep fighting hard.'"

And that's just what the Upstate women's basketball team plans to do this season as the Spartans are "Playing4George."