Adversity does not scare Julian Gamble. It inspires him.
The native of Durham, N.C., is enjoying the ride of his life as key contributor for No. 5 Miami (Fla.), which is having a year like no other in school history.
Gamble redshirted as a freshman and played sporadically for the Hurricanes for the next three seasons. In the summer of 2011, right before he was to start his senior campaign, Gamble tore his ACL and was out for the year.
At about the same time, Jim Larranaga became the new head coach of the program, but did not see Gamble even walk until last February.
“It was quite clear he couldn’t run or jump or move at all, and he was petitioning the NCAA to get a sixth year of eligibility,” Larranaga said. “I thought it would be difficult, plus he’s probably not going to be able to use it anyway [because of the slow recovery.]”
“[Larranaga] told me, and even voiced to the media, that he didn’t know how much I would be able to contribute,” Gamble said. “That gave me extra motivation to step it up.”
Gamble was determined to get better physically, and become a contributor for the Hurricanes.
“I knew I hadn’t had the types of seasons I wanted to … I knew I was a better player than I had showed during my career, and I knew with Coach L. I would have an opportunity to do that,” Gamble said.
Gamble began strengthening his leg over the summer –- running, jumping and losing 20 pounds.
“When we saw him in September he did not look like the same person,” Larranaga said. “He was in phenomenal shape -– running fast, jumping high and was so strong. I knew immediately when I met him the first time he was a smart young man and had a great personality and a lot of leadership skills, but not until I saw him run and jump like that did I think he was going to be able to make the contribution he has.”
Gamble started the season as the Hurricanes’ sixth man, but an injury to starting center Reggie Johnson created an opportunity for him and he soon cemented himself into the starting lineup. He has started 21 of the Canes 27 contests, averaging 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, while leading the team with 52 blocks. Gamble has started all 15 games against Atlantic Coast Conference foes, helping the Hurricanes post an impressive 14-1 record in league play.
“When the season started, we had a lot of guys coming back from last year, so he was doing a good job coming off the bench as our sixth man,” Larranaga said. “When Reggie Johnson got hurt, he got the opportunity to move into our starting lineup and immediately had a great impact. He’s continued to play very hard and very well throughout the season.”
Gamble, who sports a tattoo with the word “perseverance” on his left leg because he has undergone surgery on it three times, does not only draw inspiration from his struggles with injury. He looks to his 9-year-old nephew Cameron, who is wheelchair-bound due to a crippling affliction know as Bartter syndrome. Cameron was born with the disease and is not able to communicate verbally.
When Gamble was in high school, his mother Sarah originally took custody of his nephew so his sister could finish college. Gamble helped her care for Cameron, and the two formed a special bond.
“It was an adjustment period at first because I was not used to taking care of a young child with so many needs,” Gamble said. “I just watched my mother and picked things up, and tried to help her out by taking care of him. I kind of became a father-figure to him in my high school days, and that helped me mature a lot faster and appreciate life for the little things.
“He’s been a big inspiration for me, and so has my mom, because of the adversity he has been through,” Gamble said. “He’s nine-and-a-half and has had 10 surgeries so far.”
Cameron’s most recent surgery was right before the Hurricanes played at North Carolina in January. Gamble’s mother asked Larranaga if he could spend some extra time with Cameron while the team was in Chapel Hill — a wish the coach happily granted.
“Julian has always been there for him,” Larranaga said. “He is like a big brother, and his nephew looks up to Julian and really enjoys his company. Julian’s very loving and cares about his mom and his family, and wants to be a good role model.”
Cameron loves to watch Gamble play basketball, or look at pictures from the games that Sarah takes when she is able to attend.
“When he watches the games, he is constantly looking for me on the court,” Gamble said. “He is very aware of what’s going on and I think it gives him a lot of joy.”
Gamble, who loves to see Cameron smile, keeps in constant contact by phone or communicates by Skype with his mother and nephew.
“Being around Cameron has helped me appreciate life for the little things. Sometimes, as basketball players, we can take for granted the simple things that people like him can’t do.”
This weekend, Gamble will be able to visit with his family as the Hurricanes travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on No. 3 Duke on Saturday.
“[Being able to play in front of family and friends] will personally give me a lot of energy, and it will give our team a lot of energy,” Gamble said.
While the short homecoming will be nice for Gamble, it will still be a serious business trip for the Hurricanes. Miami can clinch the ACC regular season title with a victory against the Blue Devils. The Hurricanes have defeated Duke in each of the last two meetings after destroying the Blue Devils 90-63 in January. Last year when Miami visited Duke, the Hurricanes came home with a 78-74 victory. This season, the Blue Devils have yet to lose on their home court.
“It’s going to be a pivotal point in our season,” Gamble said. “I think it’s going to be an epic battle … it’s going to be a classic.”
The Miami-Duke game will air at 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN.