In the fourth game of his freshman year, Chris Gaynor, who had been handed the ball on the first day of practice by Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall and told to run the team, committed a couple of crucial turnovers on the road at South Carolina and the Gamecocks beat the Eagles 62-52.
In the disappointment of letting one get away, Marshall sought out Gaynor, put his arm around his shoulder. He didn't pat him on the back and say "hey, that's OK," because it wasn't. Marshall didn't like mistakes, particularly by his point guard.
But in four games, Marshall had seen enough to know what lay ahead.
"We're going to win a lot of games together," Marshall told him.
With so many games come and gone since, Gaynor had forgotten that exchange until recently.
"Yeah," he said, "I remember. At that time, that was very important. For a player who's going to have the ball in his hands 90 percent of the time, to have a coach say that, it gives you unbelievable confidence."
It seems like a short time ago the 5-10, 160-pound Gaynor, with a little swagger in his step, was trotting onto the floor of the Winthrop Coliseum. It's been 124 games.
And Gaynor can see the end of his career coming at him like a two-on-one fastbreak. He's got Saturday's home game with UNC Asheville and one game in the Big South Conference tournament guaranteed.
To go beyond that, to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year, he's got to keep doing what he's done.
The Eagles have won 96 games and three straight Big South Conference titles with Gaynor running the show.
Marshall's gone now, off chasing wins at Wichita State, but what he said as they walked off the floor of the Colonial Center in 2004 has come true and then some.
"After that South Carolina game, we finished that year well," Marshall said. "We finished the next year even better, and the next year better than that. He's just a tremendous winner."
A leader in waiting
A winner is what the Eagles needed, after the 2003-04 season. The Eagles finished 16-12, their worst record in the last 10 years. Marshall lost three point guards that season.
Marshall told then assistant coach Randy Peele "we've got to find the consummate point guard."
They had seen Gaynor as a rising ninth-grader as he came to Winthrop's team camp along with his teammates from Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"He was a little bitty fellow," Marshall said. "He didn't wow you with his athleticism. He wasn't the quickest. He didn't jump that well.
"But he could play."
That fall, Gaynor, a ninth-grader, was handed the ball by Mount Tabor coach Andy Muse. A few months later, Mount Tabor reached the final eight of the state tournament with a team dubbed "Chris Gaynor and The Miracles."
"He was the only player we had," Muse said. "And the final eight is as far as the program's ever gone.
"He was a special player, a leader who always put the team first. He started for me in his freshman year and didn't come off the court until he left for Winthrop. He's done the same for them."
Gaynor was conference player of the year and an all-state selection as a senior in 2004.
In between, the Eagles pushed the recruiting process, calling every time they could within NCAA rules and making sure he knew they wanted him.
Peele says Gaynor "will tell you I called him every day, but that would be a violation, and his parents would probably say I drove him crazy."
"Coach Peele and coach Marshall stayed with me," Gaynor said. "They called on a consistent basis. They wanted me."
Virginia Commonwealth, UNC Wilmington, S.C. State, most of the Big South schools and others were interested, but Gaynor committed to the Eagles before making his official campus visit.
Peele remembers telling Marshall that he "had to close the deal" with Gaynor. Peele, an old point guard himself, knew what they had. The last time Marshall saw Gaynor play in high school, he flashed the thumbs up sign to Muse as they left the gym.
"I saw enough to know what we'd be getting," Marshall said.
Gaynor was sitting in the drive-thru of a Winston-Salem Taco Bell the summer after his senior season, when his cell phone rang.
It was Marshall.
"I was trying to get my order and he calls," Gaynor said. "He just wanted to tell me he'd be putting the ball in my hands when I got there."
Something that's in his blood
He's always had the ball in his hands, and more importantly, knew what to do with it.
Gaynor grew up playing with an older crowd, including his brother Albert, four years his senior. Also in the group was his cousin, Chris Paul, the former All-American at Wake Forest and an NBA star with the New Orleans Hornets. Whit Holcomb-Faye, who went on to star at Radford, was there, too.
At that time in Winston-Salem, Muse said, the talent level was high.
"They played all the time in gyms all over the city just trying to get better," Muse said. "He was in some tough situations with the talent Winston had at that time. But you knew he'd be a player."
The older guys didn't mind knocking the skinny little dude around.
"I was the smallest one out there," Gaynor said of the games at the Central YMCA or anywhere else they could find a hoop.
Early on, he got the better of Paul.
"He dominated and then I hit a growth spurt and caught up," Gaynor said, "then he hit another. I knew his moves and he knew mine."
Paul played at West Forsyth, and when their two high schools met it was in front of a packed house. In games, they were never matched against each other, which was probably a good thing. But in the offseason they played on the same AAU team and won a national title in 2002.
Gaynor and Paul are better players because of each other.
They talk often about ball and life.
In one of their last conversations, Gaynor told Paul he's going to be a father. He and his girlfriend, Tanyesha Sumpter, who he met at Winthrop, are expecting a boy -- Christopher Michael Gaynor Jr. -- in May. Paul will be the child's godfather.
"He's a superstar, but he still keeps up with me," Gaynor said.
He's part of the family -- one, Gaynor says, that "has a lot of branches."
None bigger than Albert Gaynor II, his father, who coached him in every sport from track to soccer to that AAU national title. Soccer, his dad say, was probably Gaynor's best sport growing up, but his son gravitated to basketball quickly.
With each sport, his father passed along the lesson that no matter what, Chris Gaynor had to compete.
"He was good at all the sports he tried," Al Gaynor said.
And he expected to win.
"He hates to lose at anything," Al Gaynor said.
Even the board game Sorry, where the whole family turns the game into a contest of survival, winner taking all the bragging rights. They don't just play until someone wins. They play until there's one loser left.
"He thinks he's the best at that," his father joked, "but I am."
And dad isn't always easy on the son. Al Gaynor doesn't see everything his son does through the rose colored glasses of a proud father.
"I called home once when things weren't going well and told him I didn't know how much I could take," Gaynor said. "He told me to suck it up, because he wasn't going to pay for me to go to college."
"Big Al" as he sometimes called, has never pulled punches with his kid.
"If I played terrible, he tells me," Gaynor said.
"Sometimes I just tell him he's got to work on some things," Al Gaynor said, "like right now, free-throw shooting."
But one thing is certain. Al Gaynor isn't surprised by what his son has accomplished.
"Not really," he said. "When he's played, even when we won that national AAU championship, he expected that to happen. His expectations are very high. He expects to win when he goes on the court."
Not lacking confidence
Peele, who took over for Marshall this season, has called Gaynor "cocky" and "stubborn," and the two have had their disagreements.
"He burns me up some days," said Peele, who once had a cocky and stubborn side to his game as a player.
And then in the same breath he adds "he's the best point guard in our league."
In a game this year, Gaynor didn't like the offensive set Peele had called, so Peele, as the play was going on, told him "OK, run what you want, but you better score."
You can't set the Big South record for steals or become the school's all-time assist leader without a big dose of confidence. And you can't have an almost 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio for your career, either.
And, most of all, you can't win championships.
"He has an edge to him," Muse said, "but it's not a bad attitude to have. He's a very loving and caring person, and that shows by what he does for his team. He knows exactly what the team needs. That's a special trait.
"But no, he doesn't lack for confidence."
Gaynor wants to wants to win so badly that since high school he's thrown up before almost every game. When he doesn't, the coach gets worried.
Before the final eight game in the state tournament his freshman year at Mount Tabor, Muse noticed he hadn't bothered to make his ritual trip to the toilet.
"He waited until after the starting lineups were announced," Muse said, "then comes over to the sideline and throws up on the floor, all over my khaki pants. We always had a trash can standing by after that."
It's been the same at Winthrop, and one of Gaynor's most embarrassing moments came his sophomore season. Just as the official was getting ready to toss up the ball to start the Newberry game, Gaynor threw up at midcourt.
Marshall, laughing, even had to help mop it up.
"I'm never really nervous," Gaynor said. "It's just an anxiety attack. It's funny because I've played so many big games."
And won some, too.
Gaynor has always done what's best for the team. If that meant pass, he passed. If it required a few more shots, like this season, he's taken more.
Whatever it takes to win.
"He's like the starting pitcher in baseball, the quarterback in football, the goalie in hockey," Marshall said. "They're measured in wins and losses. And he's certainly won his share."
And you can't throw what Marshall used to call "daggers" without a little swaggger in your step.
Marshall said Gaynor wasn't the greatest shooter -- a point Gaynor has often disputed -- but he always seemed to make those shots that sent the message to the other team, "you're not winning this one."
Two years ago, his 3-pointer with one second on the shot clock and 1:30 in the game sealed the Eagles' win at Birmingham-Southern and a regular-season championship.
Last year, he hit a floater in the lane late to tie the score and allow the Eagles to escape Radford with a 62-59 win, the Eagles' biggest scare in what would be a 14-0 run in the Big South.
And perhaps the biggest of all was the 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:20 to play that gave the Eagles a four-point lead and the cushion they needed to beat Notre Dame 74-64 in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional in Spokane, Wash.
"Big shot," Marshall said then.
This year he hit back-to-back 3-pointers that led to the upset of then-unbeaten and No. 12-ranked Miami.
His three straight treys broke open a 45-all game in the win over Georgia Tech.
In the team's best interest
Gaynor's scoring numbers are modest and belie his impact. He's averaged about eight points for his career. He's producing about 10 a game this year, his career high. He's shooting 45 percent on 3-pointers. He's had 13 double-figure games, including three straight.
He's always thought he should shoot more.
Marshall once called him "front rim," because it seemed every shot he took came up short. Unless it mattered. Gaynor jokes with roommate Michael Jenkins about how much he'd score if he got as many shots.
But he's always come back to what he could do best for the team, and he'll keep doing that until this year's over. He hopes there's a few more weeks left.
He still believes he can play professionally and hopes to get a shot somewhere, perhaps overseas, next year.
"I've got three (championship) rings, and not many people can say that," he said. "I was mid-major MVP last year. I think I've got a lot of stuff to back it up."
If he can't play professionally, he may try to use his degree in mass communications to become a TV analyst. He's articulate, has a great smile, knows the game. He worked a couple of Winthrop women's games on radio this year and did well.
Or he might coach.
"I could see that," Muse, his high school coach said. "He'd be excellent."
And, of course, he plans on taking care of his girlfriend and Chris Gaynor Jr.
He'll leave Winthrop as the most successful point guard in the school's history, because the only numbers that have really mattered have been those on the scoreboard.
He's been on the right side of most of those for four years.
"It's been what I thought it would be," Gaynor said of his career. "When I came here, I set some goals. I wanted us to be a top 25 program and we did that last year. I wanted to break the assist record and I've got a chance. I wanted to make history by winning in the NCAA tournament.
"And it's gone by so fast."
A fact not lost on Peele, who has already pondered a future without Gaynor.
"Some times we take him for granted," Peele said, "but I know we're going to miss him when he's gone."
Gary McCann • 329-4074