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There are times, Ebony Gainey admits, when she wonders about what could have been or thinks back to what she envisioned the present would look like when it was still a future waiting to take shape. Only a belief that all things happen for a reason offers the strength to keep regret and bitterness at bay, the past less deserving of her attention than the future.
Whatever happened Saturday when Gainey took the court for Dayton's game against Fordham, the first game of a college career seemingly cut short by a heart ailment before it began four seasons ago, wasn't going to change any of that. As Dayton coach Jim Jabir suggested beforehand, whether Gainey got a shot or scored mattered less than simply seeing her in a uniform and in the starting lineup after withstanding years of adversity, including the loss of a beloved older sister and the loss of a sport that enthralled her.
Except that for at least 118 seconds, Saturday wasn't about past or future. It was about a present in which Gainey was once again a basketball player.
"Once I got out there it was just basketball again," Gainey said.
And no basketball player wants to go out on a miss.
Off the opening tip, Gainey got an opportunity to run the play Jabir said would come her way. The only problem was that things were out of kilter from the start, the initial pass squirting through Gainey's legs on the perimeter before she was able to save the ball from going out of bounds and miss an off-balance shot from the baseline. Knowing the plan all along was to get her out of the game as quickly as possible, she wondered if that bad bounce might be the last one she got on a basketball court.
"I kind of thought Coach was going to call a timeout or something, I didn't know," Gainey said. "I did think it was going to be the only chance. But he didn't call timeout and I had a chance to go play defense, so I figured I'd get another chance at it. So I had to clear my mind and calm down."
And when Dayton star Justine Raterman stole back the ball after just 33 seconds and eschewed any opportunity for a break in favor of a half-court set, the Flyers went right back to the senior playing for the first time in her hometown.
Collecting the ball beyond the 3-point line on the left side of the court, as had been the design of the initial play, Gainey faced up, saw her defender bracing for a pick coming from the lane and caught the opponent flat-footed with a strong drive in the opposite direction of the screen. Two dribbles later, Gainey went up strong from the left side and watched her contested shot glance off the backboard and the front of the rim before falling back through the net.
"I don't know if I felt like it was going in right when it left my hand," Gainey admitted. "It kind of rattled around the rim a little second, so I kind of stood there for a minute to make sure it was going in. But once it hit the backboard, it felt good after that."
An important part of Dayton's success the past four seasons as a teammate, mentor, coach and friend on the sideline, Gainey could look up at the scoreboard and see her contributions toward a win formally represented in a lead. A little more than a minute later, the horn sounded and she gave up her spot for good to regular starter Patrice Lalor.
With the eventual 69-51 victory, Dayton clinched a tie for third place in the Atlantic-10 regular season. That result on the scoreboard was the one Gainey pointed to as the day's big accomplishment, but neither the win nor the place in the standings will likely be what many remember about the final home game of the 2010-11 season.
"I will forever remember it and forever be grateful for everybody putting so much time into getting it to happen, and for the coaches just allowing me to do it," Gainey said. "I will forever be grateful to everyone who had a part in making it happen. It was just an amazing day."
And for Gainey, one field goal is one more reason to keep believing.
"It's not about what could have been," she said, "it's about what is ahead."