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The Sad Saga of Tommy Gaines

The story of a Georgia basketball legend who lost his dreams to drug addiction, and his quest for redemption

I’m standing in the dark in downtown Atlanta, waiting for a man who carries his clothes in a polka dot suitcase and his teeth in his sweatpants pocket. He said he would be here, at Five Points Plaza, at 6:30 a.m. In the seven months that I’ve known him, though, Tommy Gaines has said a lot of things. He said he first dunked when he was 11, that he first smoked crack when he was 20. He said he used to be an All American. He said he’d never use drugs again. Most of the things he’s said are at least partially true. Others are not true at all. They are stories exaggerated, memories eroded, or explanations of a reality that he never fully grasped. They are vows — to himself and to those who love him — now broken.

But he’ll be here. He promised. The sun has not yet risen, but the drunks who passed the night on park benches are stumbling to nearby flophouses to sleep away the morning. Construction workers emerge from McDonald’s clutching coffee. And there, just across Peachtree Street, I spot Tommy. He is still striking, 6-foot-6 when he stands up straight, gray at the temples and in his mustache. But in the month since he disappeared, Tommy appears to have aged five years. His clothes hang as if on a coat rack. His belly has vanished; his eyes have gone red. He shakes my hand and nods, as if willing his next words to be true.

“I’m ready,” he says.

He turns down Peachtree and starts walking.

The first time I met Tommy, his clothes were stored underneath a bed and his dentures were still in his mouth. We were sitting in the lobby of the homeless shelter where he lived. For hours, he talked through his impoverished childhood in Bainbridge, Georgia, and the small-town stardom that basketball gave him as a teenager. He talked his way from the old bicycle wheel that he’d nailed to a pine tree as his first hoop, to the night he’d dunked on an entire high school team’s starting five, to the scholarship offers, the All America honors, and the grown women who wanted to seduce the teenage boy destined for the NBA.

Tommy would come off down screens to catch and release unblockable jumpers from as far out as 30 feet. If his man stuck with him, he would power dribble once to get all the way from the perimeter to the rim.

Much of this could be verified. The Chicago Sun-Times had named him the no. 29 player in the nation, 13 spots behind Christian Laettner and three spots ahead of Robert Horry, who’d been his roommate, Horry would later confirm, at basketball camps. (The Chicago Tribune had ranked Gaines 25th.) Tommy was a lanky volume shooter and an athletic marvel, a late-’80s J.R. Smith in the rural Deep South. Newspaper archives reported numbers that seemed preposterous: 28 points and 14 rebounds per game as a senior, 41 points against future Heisman winner and Knicks point guard Charlie Ward, dozens of scholarship offers, a 42-inch vertical leap.

On the court, Tommy was, as someone would tell me months later, after he’d gone missing, “a bad, bad boy.” He would come off down screens to catch and release unblockable jumpers from as far out as 30 feet. If his man stuck with him — and rarely did his man stick with him — he would power dribble once to get all the way from the perimeter to the rim. He didn’t much care for defense, but that was fine, because whatever Tommy gave up, he earned back on the other end. He couldn’t handle the ball, but that was OK too. With that release and those hops, he could subsist on nothing but jumpers and lobs.

Sitting there in the homeless shelter, Tommy talked me through all of that. He wasn’t boastful, just matter-of-fact, and he spoke with a quiet gravity, as if every sentence carried a secret. After a couple of hours, though, we both knew where the story needed to go. “I guess I should tell you how I picked up my little addiction,” he said. After all, there was a reason we were sitting here in this shelter and not in some suburban home bought with NBA retirement savings, or even in an apartment paid for by earnings from a 9-to-5 job. The same search for Tommy’s basketball exploits also turned up stories about prison sentences and drugs.

Sure, I said. Go ahead. “It was 1992,” he said. “I was right here in Atlanta, right downtown. I had a tryout for the Hawks. There was another guy at the tryout named Chris Washburn.” That name sounded familiar. Washburn was one of the most famous draft busts in NBA history. He’d been chosen one pick after Len Bias, and on the night Bias died of a cocaine overdose in Maryland, Washburn had been up in the Bronx, getting high on the exact same drug. After less than two seasons in the league, he’d flamed out, another promising career lost to addiction.

Tommy continued: “After the tryout was over, I went and got in the shower, and Chris Washburn is in there, and he’s in there right in the shower smoking a pipe, a pipe of crack cocaine. I finish my shower, and he says, ‘Here, try this.’ So I try it and I don’t like it. Then he says, ‘Try it again.’ That time I liked it.”

Tommy paused. It sounded preposterous — yes, Washburn was an addict, but smoking in the post-practice shower? Tommy nodded slowly, eyebrows strained as if reaching into his skull to pull the memory back out. He didn’t look like a man in search of the right lie. This was his addiction’s origin story — the one he told to friends, to me, and even, it seemed, to himself. “I went with Chris Washburn, and we got a room at the Hyatt, right downtown. All the way up on the top floor. And we put the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on, and we locked up in that room, and we stayed up there all night smoking. I was hooked. I was scared, though, real scared. I didn’t like it, but I did like it. I don’t know how to explain.

“And then that next morning, he got in the shower. As soon as he got in the shower, I got out of there. I jumped up, and I got all my things, and I ran out of that room. I got in my car and I started driving as fast as I could, all the way back to Bainbridge. I got down to about Macon, driving down I-75, and I came around a turn going fast, and I flew off the road and hit a guard rail. My car went straight into a ditch. But I didn’t have a scratch. And I just got out of that car, and I just started running. I was just running down the interstate. I thought I was gonna run all the way home. Then finally I got tired and stuck my thumb out.

“Even back in Bainbridge, though,” he said, summing up 22 years in two sentences, “I still wanted more. I ended up right back on them drugs.”

Later that morning, in an assembly hall at an elite private school in northwest Atlanta, for the first of many times, I watched Tommy cry. He was sitting on a stool in the front of the room, hiding his eyes from the children who looked back from the bleachers. He’d just told them how happy his life had once been, how he was loved by his parents and siblings, and how he’d been famous for what he could do with a basketball. About how he’d delighted in the game but had chosen another path. How that path was — and here he paused, looked down, and began to tremble as the tears fell — “that path was drugs.”

The students clapped and cheered to support him. “But this is my turnaround,” he said. “And I wouldn’t change turning my life around for nothing.”

After the speech, we headed to the gym. No class was in session, so Bill McGahan, founder of the homeless shelter where Tommy lived, found a basketball and began feeding Tommy as he floated around the perimeter, shooting jumpers. He moved to his right, catching and shooting until he reached the baseline, and then he slid back to his left. He missed more than he made, but his release was high, quick, smooth. Though 45 years old, potbellied, and carrying years of drug abuse on his body, Tommy still looked like a ballplayer.

I had known him only a few hours, but already I liked Tommy. He was curious — fascinated by the most mundane details of others’ lives. He was humble — understated in recounting his past glory and fully aware of the damage he’d done to himself. More than anything else, though, he was delighted by his own sobriety. He’d been clean four and a half years, and he was still exhilarated by the simple acts of meeting strangers and shooting jumpers.

McGahan liked Tommy, too, and now he grinned as he watched him shoot. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” he asked. Whether he heard McGahan or not, Tommy didn’t respond. He just caught and shot, caught and shot, until he’d sweated through his shirt and the bell rang for the next class to start. Tommy walked the ball over to McGahan, who put it back in storage, and we walked to the door. On the way out of the gym, Tommy turned to me: “I’m still pretty good, right?” There was no boastful glint in his eye or bravado in his voice. His face was imprinted with the same searching expression he’d had all morning. He had wanted to know if I thought his stories were entertaining, if his athletic résumé was impressive, if his commitment to sobriety was strong. And now he wanted to know — did I think he was good at basketball? I nodded and told him yes.

gaines-tommy-bainbridge-1987-88Courtesy of Larry Slaughter

The next day we met at Dunkin’ Donuts. I ordered a coffee, and Tommy walked up behind me, and for a moment, I wondered if I should buy him one too. Before I got the chance to offer, though, Tommy pulled out his wallet. “Man, I love doing that,” he said. “Just walking up and buying something like that. I don’t have to ask nobody for nothing.”

He could do it because, for the first time in years, Tommy had a job. And as we walked back outside, he got to work. He set down his coffee and pulled on two latex gloves, then joined a group of six other men, all wearing blue baseball caps and blue T-shirts tucked into blue pants, as they picked up trash around the abandoned parks and vacant buildings and drug den motels of Atlanta’s Fourth Ward. This was his new life. Stopping every few feet to bend over for a piece of trash, Tommy kept telling his story.

He’d been born in 1968 as Tommy Gaines III, the fourth of five children born to Emma Lou Gaines and Tommy Gaines Jr. They ate dinner as a family and played fetch with their dogs Black Gal and Spot. “It was perfect,” Tommy said now. “Best childhood you could ever ask for.”

Until 1980, when Tommy Jr. died in a car crash. Now Emma Lou was left to raise and provide for her five kids. She worked days as a custodian in local schools and nights as a maid for wealthy homeowners. She let her kids do as they pleased. She had no other choice. “My dad never got to see me grow up,” Tommy said. “Sometimes I’m glad. I don’t know if I would have wanted him to see how I turned out.”

He could dunk before puberty. By high school he could shoot from any spot on the court. As a junior, he was All-State. As a senior, an All American.1 All around Bainbridge, Tommy was a star. Strangers bought him meals and clothes. His girlfriend did his homework. On game nights, fans drove from as far as Florida and Atlanta to see him play.

Tommy, however, barely considered a future in the NCAA or NBA. His mom was in Bainbridge. So was his girlfriend. And then there was his son, born to another girl while they were still in high school, nine months after she and Tommy had sex under the bleachers at a football game. Bainbridge was a 10,000-person town, a place of cotton fields and abandoned homes and a poverty rate twice the national average. “I never saw nobody leave Bainbridge,” Tommy said. “Not for basketball, not for college, not for nothing.”

Tommy told outrageous stories of his own recruitment, none of which can be confirmed, all ranging from the suspect-but-feasible to the nearly impossible. He said the University of Georgia gave him money. He said UGA gave his high school coach money, too, which he believed was done to keep other coaches from recruiting him. He even said that a UGA assistant coach gave him a sheet of paper telling him how to answer each question on the SAT the night before the test. With those answers in hand, Tommy claimed, he made a qualifying score.

Tommy kept going. He said he went to Georgia for a year, then to a junior college in Texas, then to another school in Florida. Finally, after washing out of all three schools — “It just didn’t work out,” he said, as if that explained it all — he ended up in Atlanta, trying out for the Hawks and smoking crack with Washburn in the Hyatt.

Once he tried it, crack consumed him. He wanted nothing else. But crack cost money and Tommy typically had none, so back home in Bainbridge he began stealing — from stores, from friends, from his mom’s jewelry cabinet, and from his then-wife’s purse. He would take the money and buy what he wanted, and then he’d smoke till it was gone and he found himself craving again.

As he thought back on it, only a few moments stood out. There was the time Tommy’s mother told him, tears in her eyes, that she’d bought a police scanner so she could listen at night, praying that the crackling radio voices wouldn’t pronounce him arrested or dead. There was the day he showed up at his sister’s house, desperate and hungry, and she put a plate of meat and bread on the porch, then shut the door in his face. There were his routines: using free newspapers and dollar-store Windex to wipe windshields for a dollar; walking into CVS, chatting up the salespeople, then walking out with batteries or deodorant stashed under his shirt. There were the days when he approached strangers asking for cash. “I hated that,” he said. “I felt less than a man doing that.” But mostly, there was the same routine: wake, steal, sell, buy, smoke, sleep, repeat. So it went for more than 20 years. Except, that is, for the time he spent in prison.

The charges were varied. Selling cocaine in 1994. That one he denies to this day. Still, he did five months. Then four years for possession in 2000. Tommy served three. Then, the most recent conviction, for burglary, in April 2010. Tommy was back home in Bainbridge. He was broke, and late one night he walked past a Zip Trip convenience store and he punched through the window and made off with two armfuls of boxes of cigars. As he ran, he dropped a box on Bower Street, and then he dropped two more boxes on Vada Road, and all of this made it quite easy for the police, who were following close behind, to trail Tommy until he came into view, wearing a red pullover and black tennis shoes, with a fresh gash from the broken window on his right arm.

Back to prison. Day after day, he waited for visitors and letters and phone calls that never came. His family cut off contact. “They wanted nothing to do with me,” Tommy said. Not his kids, not his sister or brothers, not even his mom. “I told myself, The only reason you in here is them drugs,” he said. “The only reason your mama won’t talk to you is them drugs. You gotta leave them drugs alone. You gotta let ’em go.” He was scheduled to be released on June 12, 2013. On June 11, he sat alone in his cell. “I said, Are you gonna do the same thing again, or are you gonna quit doing this?

In prison, he’d had a vision. He could see himself in a house with a yard and a grill. He could see himself checking the mail, cutting the grass. “Not yet,” he said, “but someday, that’ll be me.”

Upon his release, Tommy moved to a halfway house in Douglasville. He stayed clean. Then to another halfway house in Atlanta. Clean again. One day he went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and he met a couple of fellow addicts who were wearing shirts from Georgia Works.

“What’s that?” Tommy asked.

It’s a work program, they said.

“What do y’all do?”

We pick up trash, they said.

“Man,” Tommy remembered saying. “I want to pick up trash too.”

So here he was. “If you’re homeless in Atlanta,” McGahan, the Georgia Works founder, later told me, “you can find a bed to sleep in, and you can find a place to eat. There are enough services around town that do a great job of providing those things. But what about getting off the street? We didn’t see many resources out there to help people do that.”

McGahan founded Georgia Works in October 2013. Tommy moved in the following spring. He opened a bank account and visited Child Support Services, which forgave the debts he owed from years of missed payments. He started working, earning $222 per week. One hundred dollars for rent, 50 for savings, and 72 Tommy could spend as he pleased. At the time, in the spring of 2014, Tommy worked for Georgia Works, which contracts its trash services to entities around town. By the end of his year in the program, though, Tommy hoped to find work for a private employer. “I think I could learn to drive a forklift,” he said. “That would be good.”

After that first trip to Atlanta, Tommy stayed in touch with me. He would call to say hello. He would text: “This is TOMMY, just checkin on you I am great.” He’d gotten in touch with his daughters, ages 24 and 16, and begun building relationships with them. He talked to his mom and brother nearly every single day. He got a driver’s license. He spent his afternoons picking up trash. He was saving money. He was dreaming of moving into his own place.

In early July, I got a call from McGahan. He said Georgia Works had cleared space in its budget for two new site supervisors. They would do grunt work — cleaning, driving, running errands — and they would serve as mentors for new residents. They wanted to hire people who’d been through the program and knew what it was about. One of the jobs would go to Tommy.

There was more. As part of his promotion, Tommy was moving out of the shelter. For the first time in almost 20 years, he would have his own home. That’s where I found him on July 15, standing at the rear of a moving truck in an apartment complex in East Point. I shook Tommy’s hand and we grabbed a couch — a blue husk with broken springs that he’d gotten from the furniture bank. We carried it up and around the winding staircase. “Oh, this is exciting!” Tommy said, sweat soaking through his white button-down shirt. “This is the day I been waiting on.”

The apartment was surrounded by drug haunts and would require a two-bus commute, but it was his. “To put my name on something legit,” he said, “that’s powerful.” He loved signing his lease. Paying his $437 deposit, he said, “made me feel like a man.”

He couldn’t begin to count the number of places he’d slept since the last time he’d had his own home — the rundown apartments belonging to strange women, the halfway houses, the jail cells. In prison, he said, he’d had a vision. He could see himself in a house with a yard and a grill. He could see himself checking the mail, cutting the grass. “Not yet,” he said now, “but someday, that’ll be me.”

When Tommy was living on the street, he would wake up some mornings, find a bench in downtown Atlanta, and watch the city come to life. He would see the construction workers in their reflective vests and the fast-food workers with their name tags and company-issued polo shirts. He would see nurses in scrubs and lawyers in suits. All of them headed to work. He wondered: Could he do that? Could he enter a world where people woke up and went to jobs? Now, standing in his new apartment, that was his dream. To wake, shower, ride the bus to work. “Then,” he said, “I just want to come home and pay my bills.”

After we finished, the Georgia Works volunteers climbed into their van. “Congrats, Tommy!” a few shouted on their way out, and he nodded thanks as they rode away. Tommy walked back upstairs and through the door of his apartment. He wandered around for a moment, through the living room and his two bedrooms, including a guest room for his mom or daughters. Finally, he collapsed onto the couch, and he leaned his head back against the wall. “I never thought this would ever come true,” he said. He pulled the key out of his pocket and held it in front of him. It was scratched and dull, but the way Tommy looked at it, you would have thought it shone. He rose and walked out to drive the company van back to Georgia Works for some afternoon meetings, and he took care to shut the apartment door lightly. He put the key in, and he locked up his new home.

A couple of months later I received an email from McGahan. “Give me a call sometime about Tommy,” he said. “It’s not good news.”

“Tommy Gaines is no longer employed by Georgia Works.”

That was it. When I called McGahan, he told me that was all he was permitted to say. The rest could be inferred. Tommy had been a model employee. He’d shown up on time and done everything they’d asked. There was only one reason he would get fired. After four and a half years, Tommy must have relapsed.

I called Tommy and didn’t get an answer. I texted him and didn’t get a response. I drove to Atlanta, through downtown and out to Tommy’s apartment in East Point. I turned down the same street where the moving truck had been parked 10 weeks earlier. I parked and walked toward Tommy’s building. And right there, on the front balcony, I saw him. He was sitting in a fold-out chair, hunched over his left foot. As I drew closer to the stairs, he came into clearer focus. Tommy was clipping his toenails.

“I been good,” he said when asked. He nodded his head and dropped his eyebrows. “But, you know, things have been a little slow.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He put down the toenail clippers. He looked out over the balcony, to the street. “I got food poisoning the other day,” he said.

He looked back down, studying his bare feet. Weeks earlier, he’d stood up straight on this balcony, towering over the men who shook his hand and offered congratulations. Now he hunched over, his limbs folded in to conceal his body. After a few moments, he began to cry. Finally, after he’d wiped his tears and raised his head, Tommy broke the silence.

“You know,” he said, “every time you try to get over—” He paused. “Every time you try to do good. People just. They just—”

He went quiet again. After another minute of silence, I asked, “Have you been using?”

His head jerked up. “What? Um, I had a beer,” he said. He nodded, then he looked at me and said it again. “I had a beer.”

After a quick trip to the grocery store, he loaded up his empty refrigerator. I tried to find out what had gone wrong, but Tommy said little. He shot me an apologetic look. “I don’t think I want to talk about it no more,” he said.

Before leaving, I asked one more question: “What if Georgia Works offered you a spot back in the program? Not working there anymore, but doing rehab and everything else. Would you do that?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I think I would.”

The next week, McGahan told me, Tommy showed up at Georgia Works. He didn’t want to go to rehab, he said. He just needed his last paycheck. He was headed south. He said he was going home to Bainbridge.

For weeks, I heard nothing. Calls went straight to voicemail until, eventually, Tommy’s number stopped working. In late October, I flew to Tallahassee and drove north into Georgia, past peach and cotton farms and billboards begging drivers to come to Jesus. I arrived at Bainbridge High School and entered the gym. I walked up to the first person I saw, a melon-bellied bald man of about 40 years, and I asked if he’d ever heard of Tommy.

“Tommy Gaines!” shouted the man, a coach who introduced himself as Larry Cosby. “He was a bad, bad boy. Woo! That boy could do some things on the basketball court.”

I told Cosby I’d heard that Tommy was back home. He’d heard nothing, he said, but he gave me the numbers of a few people I should call. “If he’s here, you’ll find him,” Cosby said. “Everybody in Bainbridge knows Tommy Gaines.”

I drove by his old house on Oleander Drive. “Tommy Gaines ain’t in no Bainbridge,” said a neighbor, William Peterson. “But if he is, I know exactly where he’ll be.” Peterson told me to make a right, then a left, then another left when the road reached a dead end. If I kept going, just before the liquor store, I’d find an oak tree. “You’ll know it when you see it,” Peterson said. “Ask for Preacher.” He warned, though, “It’s getting to be afternoon, now. Preacher probably already pretty far gone.”

I pulled up to find a few men and women scattered around in lawn chairs under the tree. Everyone had a drink in hand: Bud Light Lime, Coors, Styrofoam cups filled with ice and neon liquid. It was Tuesday. I asked for Preacher, and they pointed me to a nearby house, where a man sat sipping a Colt 45 on his porch. I introduced myself. I asked if he knew Tommy Gaines.

“Know him?!” Preacher shouted. “Shit, that’s my cousin!”

He asked what I wanted with him, and I explained. “Yeah, I seen him,” he said. When, I asked. “I guess it was about 1996.”

I thanked Preacher for his time and turned back to my car. “Hey!” Preacher yelled as I left. “You see Tommy, tell that motherfucker he owes me money!”

I kept driving. I went to Thomasville, about 40 miles away, where I pulled into the driveway of Tommy’s high school coach, Larry Slaughter, who hadn’t heard from Tommy but had remembered a few stories. “Tommy could have been a pro.” That was the way Slaughter saw it. But Tommy was scared, Slaughter explained, scared of the outside world. “When you hear people say they never saw a life outside of Bainbridge,” he said, “you’ve got to understand just what they mean.” Slaughter said he’d taken Tommy and his teammates on a road trip, and one night, he found them in the hotel, just riding the elevator, laughing as they rode up and down and up and down. One summer he took Tommy to a camp at Louisville. They pulled into the parking lot, and Slaughter waited for Tommy to get out. He wouldn’t do it.

“Please don’t leave me,” Slaughter remembered Tommy telling him. “Please just take me back home.”

By then, Tommy had already committed to Georgia. But, Slaughter said, “Right then I knew, there’s no way he’s ever going to set foot on that campus.” And he didn’t. Tommy had told me he spent a year at UGA. But the school has no record of his attendance. A search of newspaper archives can be confusing. One article in June 1988 announced that Tommy had qualified to play for the Bulldogs. Another article that July said he’d been denied admission. To Slaughter’s memory, Tommy had been set to go to Athens, but he’d decided against it. “There was a girl,” Slaughter said, as if that explained it all.

“One day I seen him float,” Tommy’s sister said. “Just fly through the air like he was never gonna come down, and he dunked that ball.”

I got back in the car and drove west to the town of Cairo. I pulled up at the house of a woman who, in the ’90s, had gone by the name Patricia Gaines. “He was sweet,” explained Patricia, whose last name is now Stephens. We sat on her front porch as she recalled her life with Tommy. “Sweet, and helpful, and very handsome,” she said. They’d started dating as sophomores. The day after high school graduation, right there in Bainbridge, they were wed. At this point in the story, they sounded like genuine high school sweethearts. They’d fallen hard and fast, with the feeling that their love was permanent. But then I asked why Tommy never made it to Georgia, and before she could take a breath, Patricia answered: “Drugs.”

She’d been naive, she said. She didn’t want to believe it at first. But midway through the summer after graduation, after their wedding, Tommy was already addicted to crack. “There was no way he could have made it at Georgia,” she said. “He knew it. So he just told them he wasn’t gonna go.”

By that fall, the lies had become routine. Tommy would say he was going to play basketball, and then he’d go missing for three days. One afternoon he told her to drop him off for a haircut. He showed up at the house at 3 a.m., barefoot after selling the shoes off his feet for drugs. Patricia heard around town that Tommy would snatch and run from dealers. At night, she stayed away from windows, scared one of them would come back for revenge. She found money missing from her purse. Once she found her father’s jewelry rolled up in Tommy’s sock. Time after time she forgave him, but it wore on her. The moment of no return wouldn’t come for a couple more years.

That was 1990, when Patricia was pregnant with their daughter. She and Tommy had set up a piggy bank, which they invited family and friends to use for donations. When the baby was born, they would take the money and use it for clothes and diapers, maybe a stroller. But when Patricia went into labor, Tommy was gone. When she gave birth, he was nowhere to be found. When she finally returned home, she still saw no sign of Tommy. But she saw the piggy bank. It was broken, and the money was gone.

I asked what she felt, all these years later. “Nothing,” she said. “There’s nothing I have left to feel.”

By now it was clear that Tommy wasn’t in Bainbridge. There was no place for him here. His mom and two of his brothers had moved to the Pacific Northwest. His other brother was like him, floating in and out of prison. Tommy did have one relative still living in a home in Georgia, though. So I drove north to Albany and found the apartment listed for Tommy’s sister, Margaret Marshall.

“Oh, yeah, Tommy relapsed,” Marshall said as we sat in her living room. It was the first outright admission that I’d heard. “I haven’t talked to him, but I hear about him. I have a friend up there in Atlanta, and she sees him around sometimes. She says he’s just hanging around, right downtown.”

She thought back to Tommy’s basketball career. “One day I seen him float,” she said. “Just fly through the air like he was never gonna come down, and he dunked that ball.” She was proud but melancholy. “Everybody was pulling on him, every different direction,” she said. “He was living for them people. He never really lived for himself.” I thought about a conversation I’d had with Tommy soon after we’d met. He’d been thinking back on how the game affected his life. “Sometimes I wonder about if I never played basketball,” he told me. “I think maybe I could have went to college. Like really went to college. Got a degree and everything. If people just told me it was important. But the only thing was basketball. That was it. Sometimes I think all them people — them coaches and everybody else — they was just using me. Sometimes I think I was nothing but a piece of meat.”

Back in Bainbridge, I’d stopped in the high school library and found Tommy’s senior yearbook. His image — lean and muscular with his ageless, vacant stare — was plastered all over the basketball team’s page, alongside the words “led by Tommy Gaines.” I found his senior bio, which listed his on-court achievements: Region Player of the Year, All-State. But when I looked for a senior portrait, there was none to be found. Maybe Tommy had skipped picture day. Maybe something else had kept him away from school. I kept flipping, looking for a candid, a quote, looking for his face in the picture of a club, but I found nothing. Except as a basketball player, it was as if Tommy Gaines didn’t exist.

gaines-tommy-2-bainbridgeCourtesy of Larry Slaughter

It was late afternoon on a Friday when finally my phone rang. “Hello!” the voice on the other end shouted. “It’s Dwight!”

I did not know Dwight. But I had spent the last two days wandering around downtown Atlanta, introducing myself to anyone who might know Tommy. I’d walked up and down Woodruff Park, the homeless hangout two blocks from the Ritz-Carlton, interrupting games of chess and cards with descriptions of a graying former basketball star. I’d written my number on the whiteboard at Georgia Works. I’d given out business cards to half the homeless men at Five Points, a plaza downtown. You just missed him, they would tell me. Tommy was right here earlier today.

I’d gotten my hopes up when a private security guard called me over. “I found him!” he shouted. “He’s right over here!” I had to hide my disappointment when the guard introduced me instead to a down-on-his-luck truck driver named Marcus.

So I took Dwight’s call. Why not? “How’s it going?” I asked.

Before he could answer, another voice came on the line. “Hello,” it said. I recognized the shy baritone, that below-the-gnat-line Georgia drawl.

“Hey, Tommy.”

We met 30 minutes later at Five Points. Tommy was gaunt, with sagging flesh. So much of him had vanished. He was a skeleton in Phat Farm sweats. “Do you want something to eat?” I asked.

“I can’t,” he said. “My teeth.” Tommy reached into his right pocket and produced a set of dentures. Crack had long ago caused his teeth to rot, and since he’d been back on the street, his dentures had rotted too. “I can’t eat nothing,” he said. What about a smoothie? I said. I think McDonald’s has smoothies.

We ordered and sat across from each other while Beyoncé played in the background — This diamond, flawless / my diamond, flawless. After a few sips of Coke, I figured I should say something: “It seems like things have been pretty rough.”

For a while, he cried. “Four years,” he finally said. “I’d been clean for four years, and I let it all go.” He gestured out the window, to the street. “This ain’t me,” he said.

I told him that I knew how strong he’d been, how much he’d grown, how he’d worked to get his life together. I told him I’d seen his sister, how she’d told me she believed in him. We sat for a while. He rocked back and forth, ignoring his smoothie. I asked if he’d thought about going back to rehab.

“I was talking to somebody about one today, over at St. Jude’s,” he said. “But they only take people on Mondays.” He looked up. “You gonna be here on Monday?”

Now it was Monday.

Five Points Plaza, 6:30 a.m. Tommy was here, just as promised. “I’m ready,” he said as we turned down Peachtree toward St. Jude’s. I asked how he felt, and he said good. I asked if he was nervous, and he said no. I asked about his weekend, and he said it was uneventful, that he passed the time waiting for today. Tommy was quiet, but he walked quickly, with purpose. If he were sitting on the street, he might look at himself and think he were on his way to work.

We passed a man exiting his car near the corner of Peachtree and Renaissance Parkway. He was maybe 50, short and plump, with a gray goatee. “Sir,” Tommy said, “do you know anything about St. Jude’s?”

“It’s right down there,” he said. “Just keep going.”

“OK,” Tommy said.

“Hey,” the man called as we walked down the block. “Please go, brother,” he said. “Please.”

We arrived to the locked doors of St. Jude’s at 6:57. The center would open in an hour. So we sat on the curb to wait, and Tommy loosened up a little and began telling stories again. His memory jumped back to Christmas 1975. He was 7. There was a snowstorm  a once-per-generation event in Bainbridge. They made snowballs, and his father threw one that hit Tommy right in the face, and as it melted, he licked the moisture from his cheeks. That was five years before his father died. That, Tommy said, might have been the happiest he’d ever been.

Later, I asked about UGA — why hadn’t he gone? Tommy said it was all because of drugs. He admitted he’d started using the summer before he was due to enroll. I’d done everything I could to corroborate his story about Washburn. But neither the Hawks coach at the time, Bob Weiss, nor their general manager at the time, Pete Babcock, had any memory of Tommy. Washburn had never responded to my calls or emails. Tommy had said the tryout was in ’92, but Washburn was banned for life from the NBA in ’89, meaning Tommy’s timeline was impossible. “Tommy never had a tryout with the Hawks,” his high school coach had told me. “No way. Absolutely not.” Now I wondered if the story had been a blatant lie, a partial truth, or perhaps a falsehood that Tommy had somehow convinced himself to believe. I wondered, but as we sat and waited for the rehab center to open, I didn’t ask.

At eight o’clock, the doors unlocked and Tommy walked to the front desk. “I want to get in the program,” he said. A tall white man introduced himself as Karl, and Tommy followed him to his office.

“What brings you in?” Karl asked.

“Drugs. Crack cocaine.”

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“On the street.”

“How long have you been homeless?”

“About a month.”

“How long have you been using?”

“This time? About a month. Before that I’d been clean four and a half years.”

“When’s the last time you used?”

“Saturday.”

For about five minutes, they went on like that. Then Karl shifted to questions about Tommy’s health. When had he last seen a doctor? Had he tested positive for HIV? Before long, Karl reached a question that, in the moment, seemed perfectly routine.

“Do you have high blood pressure or diabetes?”

“Yes.”

“Which?”

“Both.”

“Do you have any medication?”

“No.”

Moments later, Karl dismissed Tommy. “Let me show this to the nurse,” he said. “And then let me find out if we have any beds.”

When Karl returned, he apologized and said that, according to policy, the center couldn’t admit Tommy without a 30-day supply of blood pressure medication. Karl gave Tommy a sheet of paper. “Alternatively,” he said, “you can try one of these places.” It was a list of other rehab centers around town.

Outside, the sun had crept upward and the city was awake. “Let me call Bill,” I said, referring to McGahan. “He’ll know what to do.” Tommy said nothing, just looked straight ahead. On the phone, McGahan said that he and everyone at Georgia Works would do whatever was needed. If Tommy wanted help, then he would have it by the end of the day.

We walked back toward Five Points. Phillip Hunter, executive director of Georgia Works, would meet us there. He was bringing forms that would begin the process of getting Tommy’s medication. But Tommy’s resolve was weakening.

I thought back to the day I’d first met Tommy, when he’d grown furious with himself over the decisions that led him to ruin. I wondered then what it had taken for Tommy to summon so much strength. Now I wondered if he could ever get it back.

“I already know what Phil’s gonna do,” he said. “He’s gonna want me to go back over there.” Over there meant Georgia Works. That’s where Tommy’s former colleagues were, where the men he once mentored were living. “I ain’t going back over there,” Tommy said. “No way.”

Why not? Did something happen? Did someone hurt you?

“They talk bad about me over there.”

But what if that’s your only choice? What if it’s going there or going back to the street?

“I ain’t going back over there.”

We kept walking. A few minutes later, while we waited at an intersection, Tommy looked at me. “Do you know?” he said. “Sometimes I wish I was dead.”

“Would you ever hurt yourself?” I asked.

“No,” he told me. “That’s off the table. I just wish it sometimes.”

I thought there must be some arrangement of words, some perfect sentence I could have said to comfort him. I stood on the corner and stared at the traffic light across the street, searching for a way to convince Tommy that life was worth living.

This is all I came up with: “We’re supposed to go straight here, right?”

Tommy nodded, the light turned, and we kept walking.

We reached Five Points Plaza. Hunter arrived with senior site supervisor Alvis Sims to meet Tommy. Hunter explained that Georgia Works would take care of everything. By the end of the day, Tommy would be back in St. Jude’s. He turned to Sims: “Don’t leave him until he’s checked into that program. No matter what, don’t leave his side.”

Tommy stood up straight. “What do you mean don’t leave me?” he asked. “You’re acting like I’m in prison. Like I can’t go wherever I want.” Hunter looked back at Tommy but said nothing. “You’re gonna tell him not to leave me?” Tommy said. “If I want to, I can walk away right now. I’m a grown man. I respect you as a man. You gotta respect me as a man.” Hunter remained quiet. He just looked back at Tommy. “No,” Tommy said. “That ain’t right. That ain’t right at all.”

Then Hunter spoke: “Tommy, we’re trying to help you. We care about you. That’s all this is.”

I thought back to the day I’d first met Tommy, when he’d grown agitated, furious with himself over the decisions that led him to ruin. “I am determined,” he said, almost shaking with every word. “I refuse to repeat my past.” On that day, I wondered what it had taken for Tommy to summon so much strength. Now I wondered if he could ever get it back.

Tommy shook Sims’s hand. “Thank you.” Then mine. “Thank you.” Then Hunter’s. “Thank you for everything.”

He turned around and walked away.

This story could end right there in Five Points Plaza. In truth, it could have ended anywhere. It could have ended with Tommy shooting jumpers alone in that high school gym, recapturing some sliver of what he’d lost. It could have ended with him walking into his apartment, embarking on a new beginning he never thought he’d have. It could have ended with Tommy walking through the doors at St. Jude’s. Or when Tommy was turned away from rehab. Or when he said he’d never go back to Georgia Works. It could end in the coming weeks, when case managers will find him on the corner and ask if he is ready for rehab, and Tommy will keep saying no, just give me some time.

None of those were endings. They were just moments, all weighted by the same addiction, filling a life no one but Tommy can understand. The happy endings were not guaranteed to stay happy. The sad endings never had to stay sad. But instead of choosing one of these, let’s move forward another month, to a late-November morning in downtown Atlanta that felt, finally, like the end of something.

Hunter walked from a meeting downtown toward Georgia Works for another day of intake and fund-raising and doing whatever he could to keep his program’s 40 men off the streets. He wore a jacket — it was starting to get cold out. The shelter was abuzz with talk of two homeless men who had reportedly been killed in their sleep. Police suspected a serial killer. One of the victims was a middle-aged man named Tommy — and here the news required a double take — Tommy Mims.

Hunter walked into the building and looked to his right. Tommy Gaines sat on the lobby couch, his frame wilted and his stare hollow. Tommy had felt the chill and heard the reports. He’d cursed himself, night after night, for falling back into addiction.

He rose, walked to Hunter, and shook his hand. “I decided it was time for me to come to you.” 

Filed Under: Basketball, atlanta, Georgia, High School Basketball, Tommy Gaines, Atlanta Hawks, University of Georgia, Chris Washburn

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn