The Wolfpacker

Nov-Dec 2021

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 48 of 51

NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2021 ■ 49 employ a five-guard starting lineup, with Gainey at the point. The rookie made 13 starts on the year and became so entrenched in the lineup that he averaged 39.8 minutes per contest in the Pack's final nine games. State beat second-ranked Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and won its final three regu- lar-season games. By the time the ACC Tour- nament rolled around, the Wolfpack squad was clicking and Gainey was contributing. "I had struggled with some injuries early in the season, and I was just happy to be getting a chance to be on the court," ex- plained Gainey, who was named to the All-ACC Tournament first team. "There were some moments during the tourna- ment that I was fatigued and tired, but I did my best not to show it. That's the way the whole season was for me: up and down and up and down, and once I started playing I wasn't about to come out. "It was so much fun." He'd just like to hold onto the iron-man record for as long as possible. "I used to keep an eye on the tournament to see if someone might break that record," he said. "I don't know if they will. The game has changed. It's faster-paced and there are more possessions. "I might be able to hold onto it for a long time." The '97 tournament was a revelation for Sendek, young and eager to establish himself as a coach and to re-establish the Wolfpack's relevance in the ACC. With Gainey in the lineup over the next three years, along with the return of Thornton and the arrival of Sendek's first wave of recruits, like Kenny Inge and others, they accomplished those goals, playing in the National Invitation Tournament in each of the coach's first four years at the helm. In Gainey's final season, the Wolfpack ad- vanced to the NIT semifinals at New York's Madison Square Garden. Gainey served as team captain his senior season and finished his career ranked second in program history for games started (103), fourth in steals (190), tied for fifth in games played (128) and ninth in assists (344). He spent some time playing profession- ally overseas, but returned to Raleigh to look for a new direction in life. He had never really considered becoming a coach, but a two-year administrative internship in the NC State athletics department led to a low-level position on head coach Sidney Lowe's staff and a pathway to other jobs. "I can remember one night coming back from Georgia Tech and [assistant basket- ball coach] John Groce telling me I should think about being a coach," Gainey said. "I told him, 'Coach, I don't know if I could handle people like me.' "It was never anything I thought I would do." Since leaving NC State, however, Gainey has spent nearly two decades at Elon, Ap- palachian State, Arizona, Marquette (twice, including a stint as associate head coach) and Santa Clara, developing his on-court coaching and his off-court relationship- building skills. "When I was a player, I didn't really know what coaching was," Gainey admit- ted. "It's so much more than what I ever saw. You are, in a sense, an educator. You have to develop relationships. You have to learn to tell someone you care about the truth, and sometimes that's hard to do so that it gets through to them without being demeaning. "That's what's great about this job." Both Barnes and Sendek, who employed his former Wolfpack player as an assistant coach in 2017-18, believe Gainey is ready to branch out on his own and lead a pro- gram sometime soon. "He is the complete and total package as a coach," Sendek said. "Everything he has done in his life has been enriched with his character and the person he is. He is the consummate gentleman and family man. Whatever Justin touches is going to be better for it. He'll be an integral part of Tennessee's success in the near future and, when given the opportunity, he will be a tremendous head coach." And maybe one day, if given the opportu- nity, Gainey will let someone he trusts play in 159 minutes of the ACC Tournament. ■ Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker and can be reached at During his freshman year at NC State, Gainey set a conference record by playing all 160 minutes in the Wolfpack's four games at the 1997 ACC Tournament. PHOTO COURTESY NC STATE ATHLETICS

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