May 8, 2018
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
Trevor Gaskins had second thoughts about getting on another airplane, one that would soar into the sky out of Panama and over 6,500 miles halfway across the globe. He'd just finished playing for the Panamanian national team in a tournament when he got a call from his agent saying he'd been signed by Maccabi Haifa of the Israeli Premier League. He hadn't been home to Atlanta in nearly a year and fatigue was wearing on him.
"I was contemplating not signing because I wanted to go home," Gaskins said. "I hadn't been home all year, and the team was telling me they needed me to be out there that Tuesday. I was like `that is crazy.'"
Such is the life of a professional basketball player trying to make a name and a living across the globe, but he'd heard of the European leagues and the opportunities that were there. He also would have a chance to experience something rare in professional basketball -- the opportunity to play with college teammates Reggie Buckner and Zach Graham, who both play with Maccabi.
Gaskins played at Ole Miss from 2007-11 and played in 101 games as a point guard for the Rebels before finishing his final year of eligibility for Mike White at Louisiana Tech. Gaskins - a dual citizen of the United States - is a basketball journeymen who's played in China, Columbia, Panama and Argentina during the six years he's been chasing his dream.
When he got off the plane in Haifa after 14 hours of flying and got to Maccabi's facility, he was reunited with his two friends. It was the first time he'd seen Buckner in seven years since he left Oxford.
"This is so rare to be playing with these two guys," Gaskins said. "I hadn't seen Reggie since I left. When I saw him, it was like nothing has changed. It was like I'd seen him last week."
Graham was a shooting guard under Andy Kennedy from 2007-11 who came to Ole Miss in the same recruiting class as Gaskins. Both are from Georgia. He averaged 14.2 points per game as a senior. Graham has ventured across the globe from Turkey to Puerto Rico with stops in Mexico and Venezuela along the way. He signed with the club in December of 2017, joining his buddy Buckner who has been with the team for the last two seasons.
"Once I heard Zach was coming, I couldn't believe it," Buckner said. "It was like being in the Ole Miss locker room again. That's all I could think about. He came in immediately, played well and helped the team. Trevor comes a month later and it was just an amazing feeling. We felt like we had all of Ole Miss over here."
Buckner is Ole Miss' all-time shot-blocking leader and is third all-time in rebounding. He helped guide the Rebels to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade in 2013 on Kennedy's winningest club, including a first round upset over fifth-seeded Wisconsin.
Here these three sat, reunited and a couple of days from playing a game together for the first time in seven years. The chemistry didn't skip a beat, they say.
"Once we heard Trevor was coming we were like `Man, this is crazy,'" Graham said. "The chances of this happening, playing with two of your teammates that you went to college with is super rare. Ever since our first practice here, the chemistry we built at Ole Miss is still there."
This trio comprises three-fifths of Maccabi's starting lineup as it heads down the home stretch of its season. Buckner came first, then Graham in December and Gaskins in February.
Life of an international hooper is not always an easy one. It's looking for one opportunity after the next hoping to work your way up to a premier league. The travel can be grueling, bouncing from team-to-team taking one chance after another. Graham recalls once traveling 22 hours from home to the Philippines when he signed with a new team.
They are constantly adapting to new surroundings, new cultures, trying to figure out how to convert currency or rent a car to get to practice. Foreign languages add another wrinkle to that.
Sometimes it's arriving to a new gym with entirely new teammates that are expected to play a game within a day. In an industry in which a player goes as far as his skillset and production takes him, chemistry can be rare.
"It is tough getting new players and building new chemistry," Gaskins said. "It is hard to put it together and play consistently enough."
As increasingly rare as it is to pair up with players you are familiar with, playing with one - let alone two - teammates is even more remarkable. As improbable as it is, it can be even more beneficial to their play.
"It is a confidence booster to be running with guys you are comfortable with. It is a lot of fun. I love going up and down the court with those guys," Graham said. "With Trevor, he can handle it and shoot it so we spread the floor and try to give him space to create. With Reggie, he is of course going to protect the rim, block shots and rebound. "Offensively, if we can get him rolling to the rim you can just throw it up and you know he will flush it."
The biggest advantage for them has been knowing what each of them does well and being able to use that to their advantage.
"We know what each other's strengths are," Gaskins said. "I am a point guard. It is my job to make good decisions with the ball and put them in good spots. Our chemistry is really good."
It helps off of the court as well. The three provide a sense of familiarity to one another as they get accustomed to a new country. Off the court, they play a lot of video games and reminisce on old times in Oxford. When they were first reunited, their teammates jokingly began calling them the 'Maccabi Rebels,' though Graham says he's not sure how well that name has stuck.
"It is like having family out here," Graham said. "It helps a lot on and off the court. That is a big part of playing overseas, your mental state. Having friends going through that with you and playing with you is always helpful."
The trio runs out of the tunnel onto the court together inside Romemo Arena in Haifa as they prepare for games. First comes Trevor, then Zach and Reggie after him. The three take in each moment and appreciate it for what its worth. They understand how rare this is and how fleeting this can be.
"You may hear of a couple guys playing in the same league, but three teammates playing on the same team overseas. That's unheard of," Buckner said.
Though they don't know how long it will last, they know it won't last forever. "There is nothing like this," Graham said. "Nothing like playing with not one, but two of your college teammates. It usually never happens. This will be at the top of my greatest memories of being a professional basketball player along with six championships."
There are only a handful of games left in Maccabi's season and the three don't know what next year will bring. But they do know how much they've cherished this season and the fun it has produced. For now, they're just appreciating it as it goes by, game-by-game.
"We have a lot of great stories," Gaskins said, "This is some of the most fun I have had playing on a team anywhere."