September 28, 2005
DANBURY, Conn. Wilby High School wasted no time honoring its most famous graduate. On Sept. 14, at a special assembly, Ryan Gomes had his No. 4 retired as a standing-room-only crowd packed the gym to see the first NBA player born and raised in Waterbury.
No one cared that he had yet to play his first game. The principal, superintendent, and a couple of coaches offered tributes. The mayor sent his congratulations. But the teenagers in the crowd grew restless until Gomes stepped to the microphone and called for quiet.
"When you walk into Wilby High School in the morning, do it with respect and with a purpose," said Gomes, the Celtics' second-round draft pick this year (50th overall). "Learn something every day. It can only help you in the long run."
Neither the school nor the Celtics could have scripted a better motivational message. The students hollered and whistled and cheered after he made each point.
Five years removed from Wilby, Gomes brought an impressively mature perspective to the ceremony. The Celtics hope he displays a similar precociousness during his rookie season. Following a partial post-graduate year at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg and four years at Providence College, Gomes represents the rarest NBA rookie; at 23, he will be older than almost half his new teammates when training camp starts Tuesday. He enters the league well-schooled in fundamentals, committed to defense, and more accustomed to learning different schemes than a player drafted straight from high school or with limited college experience. He could be the Celtics' starting small forward on opening night.
Gomes is convinced that fate played a role in his joining the Celtics: the prospect of starting, the easy two-hour drive from Waterbury, and the fact that his beloved high school coach was a devoted fan of all Boston sports teams were all things in his favor.
The most emotional moments during the high school ceremony came when Gomes remembered Wilby basketball coach Reggie O'Brien, who died three years ago after a heart attack. Gomes teared up when talking about his mentor. The intense coach and the laidback athlete were a close if odd couple so close that Gomes served as a pallbearer at O'Brien's funeral.
It was O'Brien who convinced Gomes to take basketball seriously and join the varsity. It was his widow, Nancy, who presented Gomes with a framed replica of his Wilby jersey. It reminded Gomes of all those in Waterbury who helped him reach his goal, standing by when he struggled with the SAT and saw recruiters lose interest, when he dealt with a weight issue at the start of his college career and thought of transferring, and when he was overlooked in the draft.
"A lot of people were making a big deal [about the ceremony]," said Gomes. "At first, I looked at it as just another day. But it really opened my eyes. [O'Brien] always told me to keep working and anything can happen. I used that as a tool. Once I started playing, that's what definitely came to be."
Gomes never heard NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik announce his name at the draft. Sometime around the 42d or 43d pick, Gomes left the Holiday Inn Express in Waterbury, where 40 friends and relatives had gathered for a draft night party. The wait was too difficult.
Gomes walked into the parking lot and found his mother, Teresa. They tried to figure out how everyone who said he would be a certain first-round selection could have been so wrong. Teresa called draft night the "toughest moment" in Gomes's basketball career.
"I know I don't make the decision, but I thought he should have been called way earlier than he was," said Teresa. "It was a long night for us. It was frustrating for us."
In the quiet of the parking lot, Gomes consoled his mother. After becoming pregnant as a high school senior, Teresa raised Gomes with the help of her mother and sisters. His father, John Brooks, lived in Waterbury for a while and developed a relationship with Gomes, though he never played a role in raising him. In many ways, no one worked harder or waited longer for the excitement of draft night than Teresa.
The two talked and prayed for about 10 minutes before Gomes decided reluctantly to rejoin the party. But as he walked toward the door, his phone started ringing nonstop. A few friends rushed outside and told him the good news: He was headed to Boston. Executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers called, ecstatic about the Celtics' good fortune. They considered Gomes a first-round talent.
"No teams guaranteed me anything, so I just hoped one workout really impressed a team and they picked me," said Gomes, who had returned to Providence for his senior year and earned a degree in social science. "A lot of teams brought me back twice. I was so confident that I was going to go in the first round that I just tried to focus on teams from 21 down to 30.
"When the first round goes by, I'm like, 'Uh oh, let's see what happens.' Then, it's 31, 32, 33, 34 and I'm like, 'Oh, man.' I started thinking, 'Just let me get drafted.'
"When I finally got drafted, it was bittersweet. You've got to have something to motivate you every day and I'm going to use it to motivate me."
Given the unpredictable nature of the draft and the gamesmanship of NBA executives and agents, players slide every year. Everyone had a theory about what happened to Gomes. Some thought Providence's disappointing 2004-05 season (14-17) reflected poorly on its star and all-time leading scorer (2,138 points). Some figured teams attached a stigma to Gomes after he earned first-team All-America honors as a junior, entered the 2004 draft, then withdrew. Some understood the inevitable domino effect when teams in the top half of the draft make unexpected picks.
The Celtics were shocked to find Gerald Green still available at No. 18 when many experts projected the high school phenom as a top-10 pick. If Green had been chosen earlier, Boston probably would have selected Gomes with its first pick. Ainge said Gomes, who had worked out twice for the Celtics, was "given serious consideration at No. 18" before the draft.
But teams interested in Gomes had questions about what position he would play in the NBA. Was the 6-foot-7-inch, 250-pound college star big enough to play power forward professionally? Was he quick enough to guard the small forward position?
Rivers has called Gomes a "power 3," acknowledging the rookie's ability to score on the block while signaling the Celtics' intention to play him primarily at small forward. While Gomes has proven a proficient scorer inside and from mid-range, Boston cares most about his ability to guard small forwards.
"I bet Ryan was a player everyone considered from 20 through the rest of the draft," said Ainge. "But there was always somebody else younger or more intriguing or more athletic. Ryan was a kid who kept sliding because teams had seen so much of him and they wanted to find what he couldn't do.
"Some people see him as a 4 [power forward] who needs to be a 3 [small forward] because he's a little undersized. As far as size goes, it's true, he's a little bit of a tweener. We just see him as a basketball player who can play 3 or 4. Ryan is smart enough and tough enough to do what he needs to do to be successful. He can guard threes and fours. There will be some tough matchups, but everybody has tough matchups."
After an impressive showing at the Las Vegas summer league, where he demonstrated the ability to guard small forwards, Gomes earned a guaranteed contract comparable to those awarded mid to late first-round picks. He signed a three-year deal worth close to $2 million in August. Players selected from No. 20 through 30 will make an average of $1.7 million over the next two years. As the No. 18 pick, Green will earn $2.2 million during his first two seasons.
Unlike many younger, more athletic first-round picks, Gomes is not a project, though adjusting to bigger, stronger, and faster competition will take time.
"He's not going to be a guy that will be featured on ESPN, but he may be a guy that is featured on our videotape when we're watching film as a team," said Rivers. "To me, that's always more important. He does a lot of things well and he does them the right way. His best quality is that he plays with a calm and he gets the job done. He's so good at letting the game come to him."
The flyer for a meet-and-greet at CLS Electrical Distributors in Westwood, Mass., promoted Gomes as a "Providence College All-American" and a "2005 Boston Celtic" knowing customers along the I-95 corridor would respond to both. The event resembled a family barbecue more than anything else, which suited Gomes just fine. He spent three hours signing autographs, taking pictures, and talking with fans. Gomes had his family and closest friends present, from his mother to his 5-year-old brother, Marcellus, to his high school sweetheart, Danielle, to his AAU coach and adviser, Wayne Simone, to his agent, Andrew Woolf.
The Celtics gave Gomes not only the security of a guaranteed contract but also the chance to stay close to Waterbury and Providence. He has always valued the support of those two communities. When deciding where to attend college, it came down to Providence, Dayton in Ohio, and Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
Since Providence was only two hours away from Waterbury and Gomes wanted to help raise Marcellus, the choice was easy. Besides, Providence stayed interested in Gomes from the time he emerged as a high school star his junior year at Wilby until he earned the SAT score necessary to play Division 1 basketball almost a year after graduation. While other schools looked elsewhere, Providence waited for Gomes and fostered a sense of loyalty.
But the strong relationship between Gomes and the Providence basketball staff temporarily soured when the long-awaited recruit arrived for his freshman year 20 pounds overweight. Several months away from organized basketball had left Gomes out of shape. Some at Providence suggested he redshirt his freshman season, though Gomes would not delay his college career any longer.
The unofficial and unhappy compromise was that Providence coach Tim Welsh benched Gomes for the first seven games of his freshman season. The move hurt Gomes, who figured he would play a few minutes here and there as he lost weight. Gomes thought about transferring.
Finally, with almost a quarter of the season gone, Welsh told Gomes to prepare to play. Making up for lost time, the young forward scored 15 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in his first college game. Thereafter, Gomes started every contest for the remainder of his college career, entering his name throughout the school record book.
"Ryan didn't have the work ethic he needed when he came in," said Welsh. "Things came so easily to Ryan when he played in high school and AAU that he wasn't used to what we asked. I told him, 'You've got to get in better shape and be a better practice player before you earn minutes.' He became one of the hardest workers I've ever coached. He was one of the few guys we coached that made great strides during the season. He's always at his best when people doubt him a little bit. He's a guy that will always find a way."
Gomes never dreamed of playing professionally as a young kid, at Wilby or even when he received a scholarship to Providence. He has always been more realist than optimist, a boy who watched his mother work the second shift at a nursing home and third shift at a residential home for troubled youth and saw a role model.
"I have a lot of friends that decided to go a different path than I did," said Gomes. "The hardest thing was staying focused and taking care of the things that I could control and not do other things that they might have done. That's a credit to my mom. Seeing her go to work every day, not get that much sleep, made me think that I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to make sure I had my priorities set."
With the exception of his inauspicious start, Gomes brought that same mind-set to Providence and ultimately surprised himself. He gained national recognition as a junior, averaging 18.9 points and 9.4 rebounds as Providence reached a national ranking as high as No. 12. Postseason accolades followed and the NBA beckoned.
"Providence way exceeded my expectations," said Gomes. "When my junior year came around and we started winning a lot of games and getting a lot of attention, that was when everybody started telling me, 'You've got a shot.' That was when it started to be clear to me that I could make it [to the NBA].
"I know this is a different type of season I'm going into than college. I know it's going to be a lot of hard work. I want to do that. I've got to buckle down and be in the best shape possible so that I'm ready to come in and contribute right away and do the things that I'm asked. I like to work my way up."