Sundiata Gaines comes home to New York.
A New York City basketball hero returned home for the first time as a professional athlete last night when the Minnesota Timberwolves took the court against the hometown New York Knicks. And though Sundiata “Yatta” Gaines, 24, never even entered the game, a 121-114 Knicks victory, he was still beaming like Lupe Fiasco when he joined family and friends high up in the stands long after the game’s conclusion.
A graduate of Georgia, and, more recently, of Rucker Park and a slew of other NYC summer hot spots, Gaines gained national notoriety last season when he hit a buzzer-beating game-winner for the Utah Jazz in only his fifth NBA game. Long before that, though, Yatta, a Jamaica, Queens native, gained Big Apple fame for excelling at Archbishop Molloy and on the summer streetball circuits.
Now on the Minnesota Timberwolves, the stocky “New York City guard,” as teammate Wayne Ellington describes him, spent some time speaking with SLAM in front of his locker before Monday night’s homecoming.
SLAM: Welcome home…
Sundiata Gaines: Yeah, yeah! It’s good being home. It’s always good to be home.
SLAM: You have a lot of people here for you?
SG: Yeah, I got a nice little bit. I didn’t really get everybody out, but I got a nice little crowd.
SLAM: I’m sure you got a ton of ticket requests.
SG: Yeah. [Smiles] I got numbers.
SLAM: So, this is your first NBA game at Madison Square Garden, right?
SG: Umm… Yeah. Actually, this is my first game ever at MSG.
SLAM: You feeling any different emotions than usual?
SG: I feel good. I’m excited. It’s like, I was out there shooting and it felt like I was in my backyard; I wasn’t missing. So, I’m feeling good.
SLAM: Does it feel different, maybe more special, than a regular game?
SG: I mean it’s a regular game, but at the same time, for me it’s like another home game, being in New York. Just playing in front of my peoples and my friends and stuff, it makes it more exciting.
SLAM: Is it tough to play streetball here in New York in the summer and then play NBA ball during the year? Is it tough to transition?
SG: It’s easy because I’ve been playing [organized ball] my whole life. Streetball, I wasn’t really a crazy streetball player. I mean, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Nothing’s really changed.
SLAM: What’s it mean to come back home as an NBA player?
SG: It means a lot. A lot of people have dreams of playing in the NBA, and they don’t get the opportunity. Just for me to be on the court, this is my second year, it’s special. I just want to take every moment [in], and have a long lasting career.
SLAM: After last season, did you think Utah was going to bring you back?
SG: I didn’t really know. It was kind of a numbers game. It wasn’t really probably all because of my play. Good thing about it is, when you playing out here you playing for 29 other teams.
SG: Yeah, I mean I was going into the season with Utah. I went to training camp with them; they decided to go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I’m here.
SLAM: When the Jazz let you go, did you ever get nervous that you wouldn’t get picked up?
SG: Nah, not one second was I nervous at all. I knew I was good enough. It’s just a matter getting an opportunity to play, and potential getting on the court.
SLAM: Do you have a favorite personal New York basketball memory?
SG: Probably…I think it was Hunter College, like two years ago, I had 55 points in a game against Omar Cook.
SLAM: Wow. And aside from the big three in Utah, what’s your favorite NBA moment so far?
SG: I mean, that was my biggest memory, but probably the Playoffs. Playing in the Playoffs, getting to the second round. The energy and excitement and the playoff atmosphere of basketball is crazy.
SLAM: It doesn’t compare to anything else, eh?
SG: Nah, it goes to another level. Guys, they step their game up. Playoff basketball is where you need to be at.
SLAM: When you hit that shot, the game-winner against Cleveland, did you know it would become as big as it has?
SG: Nah. [Laughs] I really didn’t. After I hit the shot, I thought about it, like, I hit a game-winner, that’s good and all. But I didn’t think it’d blow up and be as big as it did. At the same time, I’m happy for it. It just comes from hard work and being persistent, staying in the gym working on my game.
SLAM: What do you think you still need to work on?
SG: Well, it’s a lot of little things. My shot’s come a long ways—it feels a lot better. I wanna continue to work on that. Also, as far as my decision-making at point guard. And just pretty much, when I get the opportunity to play, just to try to maximize every minute and try to become better.
SLAM: We gonna see you back out on the streetball circuit in NY this summer?
SG: I dunno, I dunno, I dunno. We got to see how the NBA’s holding out; if they’re gonna have this lockout or not.