CORAL GABLES, Fla. — University of Miami center Julian Gamble grew up in Durham, N.C., and starred at Southern High School, just minutes from Duke.
Nobody needed to tell him how big last weeks blowout victory over the Blue Devils was.
That game was so big that UM students camped out for tickets on the grass alongside BankUnited Center, affectionately being dubbed "Larranaga Lawn." It isnt quite Krzyzewskiville. But by UM standards, that hype was as big as it gets.
How big? Warren Sapp, one of the biggest, baddest Canes ever, was in the building.
Gamble didnt shoot particularly well against Duke, but he controlled the paint, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking four shots as the Hurricanes posted a program-changing victory.
Two weeks earlier, Gamble, a 23-year-old, sixth-year senior who grew up a North Carolina Tar Heels fan, scored 14 points in the Canes 68-59 victory at the Smith Center.
Saturday, Gamble returns to the Triangle, leading the first-place Hurricanes against N.C. State.
Gamble deserves some of the credit for the Canes rise. His scoring picked up during Reggie Johnsons absence, but his touch and tenacity around the rim also are key reasons the Canes are 16-3 and ranked No. 14.
ESPN commentators joked that in the win against North Carolina, Gamble backed into the paint like an older guy backing down a young guy in a YMCA league. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said that is exactly how he wants Gamble to play.
"When they say old man, they should really describe it as fundamental basketball in the low post, " Larranaga said. "Because a low-post players job is to attack the rim and get inside buckets for you, and he does it with his left-hand jump hook, his offensive rebounding and running the floor. Those are three fundamental things we ask him to do, and he is doing them very, very well."
Gamble is extra motivated against teams from North Carolina because they didnt recruit him heavily out of high school. Though he averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks as a senior at Durham Southern, he flew under the radar until a phenomenal showing at the AAU Breakdown Hoops Festival in Miami in the summer of 2006.
Then-UM coach Frank Haith immediately took notice, as did coaches from Tennessee, Kentucky, St. Johns and Georgetown. Gamble fell in love with Miami and never visited another school.
"That was kind of my coming-out party, " Gamble said. "I didnt have anything to lose, so I was really aggressive and had a great week. I really liked Coach Haith and the laid-back family atmosphere on the team, so that sealed the deal for me."
It also helped that Anthony King, another Durham Southern grad, was on the UM team at the time. But Gambles college career hasnt gone as he anticipated. He sat out his freshman year, averaged 7.5 minutes and 2.4 points as a redshirt freshman, 13.3 minutes and 3.5 points as a sophomore, and 15.2 minutes and four points as a junior. He tore his ACL in the summer of 2011, and sat out the 2011-12 season. He was granted a clock extension by the NCAA, allowing him to play a sixth season.
In the meantime, he earned a degree in sports administration with a minor in business administration. Larranaga calls Gamble "one of our smartest players on the court, almost like another coach."
Midway through the second half of a recent game against Boston College, Gamble approached Larranaga with a suggestion. "Were behind, and Julian comes over and says, We need to go small, " Larranaga said. " Kenny [Kadji] and I dont match up well with those 3-point shooters. He was right."
Watching the Duke game from back home was his proud mother, Sarah, a 6-1 executive assistant at a pharmaceutical company who played some basketball in her younger years. Gamble calls her "my rock, " and honored her with his first tattoo in 2007. Since then, much of his upper body has been covered in tattoos. He got his latest on the eve of this season. It is the word "Perseverance" on his left leg, which has withstood three surgeries.
On his wrist, he often wears a watch that belonged to his late father, Julius, who died of liver failure in his early 50s on Sept. 10, 2009. The alarm on the watch is set to 2:25 p.m., and when it buzzes every day, he thinks of his father. The Gambles separated when Julian was 7, but they remained close.
"His fathers passing was very hard for Julian, but his faith and his teammates kept him going, " Sarah Gamble said. "Coach Larranaga has been amazing, too, keeping Julians confidence up even when he wasnt playing. Its so exciting to see his perseverance pay off."