‘Great basketball player … a better son’

Connor Ross becomes emotional as he speaks about his friend and

Former Gilroy High School basketball coach Jeremy Dirks will
never forget the first time he heard the name Andrel Gaines. The
handle came with swagger – and quite the following.
Former Gilroy High School basketball coach Jeremy Dirks will never forget the first time he heard the name Andrel Gaines. The handle came with swagger – and quite the following.

One day, player after player darted into Dirks’ classroom to gleefully announce, “Andrel is back,” meaning Gaines had returned to his hometown Gilroy after a four-year stint in San Jose.

“Oh, he can play,” Dirks recalled one female student saying. “And he’s fine, too.”

His interest piqued, Dirks decided, “I had to find out who this Andrel was.”

He and so many others did. On Saturday, they shared everything they had learned during an emotional, two-hour ceremony at the Gavilan College Gymnasium that blended young with old, tears with laughter and soulful standards with original, personal lyrics.

About 900 people – many dressed in black – gathered to honor Gaines, 19, a former GHS star and Gavilan freshman who died Nov. 18 from injuries he suffered in a devastating car crash in Millbrae almost two weeks earlier. Friends and family offered their heartfelt, moving reflections of Gaines, who was “a natural leader,” they said, on and off the court.

“He was a great basketball player. He was a better son, a better grandson, a better cousin, a better nephew and a better friend,” Gaines’ uncle Anthony Avila said. “Andrel had a way of touching all those he came in contact with.”

Friends sang and rapped original pieces they wrote just for Gaines, and photos of the often-smiling young man flanked his closed casket. His framed No. 11 Gavilan jersey was propped up next to a projector screen, used to display a slideshow depicting Gaines through the years – basketball games, graduations and quiet moments spent with close friends. After the service, 12 pallbearers – mostly Gaines’ GHS teammates who were dressed in black coats with blue armbands that bore his initials – carried the casket into a waiting white hearse, which made its way to the St. Mary’s Cemetery on First Street for a brief, private burial.

“As a young kid, I looked up to Andrel,” said Travis Harris, who was a year behind Gaines in school, as he stood at the podium. “I loved his smile. I loved everything about him. Don’t be sad that he’s gone. Cherish the memories we have of him. And he will be resting in paradise.”

Michael Baumgartner, who coached Gaines alongside Dirks at GHS, briefly choked up before describing what he thought Gaines was doing at that very moment.

“He’s up there right now, in heaven, playing in the biggest arena of all. I can see him there with Jesus, and Abraham and Ezekiel, and they’re telling him not to shoot that 3-pointer,” Baumgartner said. “And it’s nothing but net.”

Gaines was raised in Gilroy before spending 7th through 10th grades in San Jose, where he attended Silver Creek High School. He returned to Gilroy in October 2008 and later laced-up his sneakers for the Mustangs during his senior season, playing point guard and earning an all-Tri-County Athletic League selection while carrying a 3.4 grade point average.

He earned many awards, but rarely spoke of them, friends said.

“When asked about them, he’d just smile and say he forgot to mention them,” Avila said.

Gaines graduated from GHS in 2010, and was set to start for the Gavilan basketball team this season before the nightmare accident, which also injured two of his teammates and two female companions riding in the car. The Cadillac CTS Gaines was riding in, driven by teammate Billy Heard, crashed into a center median on U.S. Highway 101 as Heard reportedly swerved to avoid a tire in the road. As the vehicle sat on the highway, a Nissan 300ZX driven by Dennis Leffew, 43, of San Jose, slammed into the Cadillac, the California Highway Patrol reported. The accident is still under investigation.

Gaines was on life support at San Francisco General Hospital for 12 days, and scores of friends – some who made daily treks from Gilroy – visited him at his bedside. A “#PrayForAndrel” campaign on Twitter drew thousands of responses, while a Facebook prayer chain garnered thousands more.

“There’s no doubt Andrel Gaines made an impact on this school. His life touched a lot of people,” school spokeswoman Jan Berstein Chargin said. She paused for a moment to compose herself before adding, “For our students, they’ve been asked to confront something many people don’t have to confront until they’re much older.”

If losing a son wasn’t already tragic enough for Gaines’ family, his maternal grandmother, Carolyn Avila, died peacefully in her home the next day at age 67.

“I’ve asked, ‘Why does it have to happen to a young guy, to a good guy?’ It got me angry,” Dirks said.

But Dirks said the wave of support for Gaines and his family – also highlighted in letters mailed to the family from all over the state – proved what Dirks called a “real miracle.”

One freshman student at GHS even held her own bake sale and raised $32 to donate to the Gaines family, Dirks said. When Dirks asked why she would put so much effort into helping someone she had never met, she replied, “Because everyone said he’s such a nice guy. And I just like to help nice people.”

“It’s restored my faith in people, in God,” Dirks said. “That is a lesson I’ve taken from all this – that people do care. This outpouring has renewed my spirit in people.”

Gaines has also inspired some upcoming changes. The Mustang alumni basketball game, dormant for several years, will return each year in Gaines’ honor, and the school will create a scholarship fund in his name.

On the Gavilan athletic department’s website, Gaines is still listed as a member of the men’s basketball team.

Though Gaines’ death comes before he ever had a chance to play for the Rams, Gavilan teammate Austin Vojvoda recalled with a smile, and with tears, how Gaines was able to foster meaningful friendships in just a short time. In front of the packed gym, Vojvoda described Gaines as “detail-driven,” and the two would often stay late after practices honing their play. It didn’t take long before Vojvoda was sitting on Gaines’ couch, sharing a helping of his grandmother’s revered spaghetti.

“Andrel filled our lives with amazing details. And we’ll carry them on, keep them forever,” Vojvoda said.

His voice broke as he began to well up.

“My best friend, my brother – God bless Andrel,” he said.

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