How John Beilein helped Mike Gansey realize his NBA dreams

Sunday, December 9, 2018 - 7:11pm

Michigan coach John Beilein helped his former player, Mike Gansey, get back on his feet.

Michigan coach John Beilein helped his former player, Mike Gansey, get back on his feet. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Thanksgiving, 2006. Basketball buzzed in the background, but for the first time in his life, Mike Gansey wasn’t interested.

He was at his parents’ house in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. A perfectly pleasant place, but Gansey was supposed to be on the other side of that television set — playing basketball, not watching it.

That’s where he had been a year earlier, a star at shooting guard for John Beilein’s West Virginia Mountaineers. He finished sixth in the Big East in scoring that year and was named to the all-conference team.

He arrived at West Virginia two years before that, as a transfer from St. Bonaventure. Gansey knew it was the right fit from the first time he met Beilein, on his initial visit to Morgantown. Beilein told him he could live with his son, Patrick, a guard for the Mountaineers at the time.

Except when Gansey arrived on campus in the fall of 2003, there had been a miscommunication. He wasn’t living with Patrick. Within a week, they became best friends anyway, bonding over the misery of their NFL teams — Gansey, a native Clevelander, is a lifelong Browns fan, while Patrick follows in his father’s footsteps as a Buffalo Bills fan.

“We had a ton of similarities,” Gansey told The Daily. “You know how it is when you meet someone and it just clicks, and you’re like, ‘Man.’ We knew we were gonna be best friends from there.”

“He’s part of our family,” John Beilein said of Gansey now, 15 years later. “He’s probably as close as any kid that any of our children have met as part of our family.”

Gansey had to sit out his first season, redshirting and learning Beilein’s system. The next year — now living with Patrick for real — he became a star. That March, his place in Mountaineer history was immortalized when he scored 29 points in a double-overtime win over Chris Paul and Wake Forest in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and helped West Virginia make its first Elite Eight in 46 years.

It was all supposed to culminate in the summer of 2006, when Gansey was projected as a first-round pick in the NBA draft. When the Indiana Pacers selected Shawne Williams 17th overall, Gansey became the top player available on ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ big board.

But Gansey knew that wasn’t going to come to fruition. During pre-draft workouts, he hadn’t been the same player that he was during the previous two seasons, and he ended up going undrafted. The Miami Heat signed him to their Summer League roster, but his fatigue persisted.

“When I played Summer League in Miami, I was in a lot of pain,” Gansey said. “But I just thought I was worn down more than anything.”

He fought through the pain, went back to Morgantown and hoped for a second crack at the NBA.

One day with summer winding down, he and Patrick convinced the elder Beilein to take advantage of the fleeting warmth and play a rare nine holes of golf. But after persuading Beilein to join them, it was Gansey who had to quit midway through the round.

“I couldn’t even sit in the golf cart,” Gansey said. “And I was just like, ‘Something’s not right.’

“The next day, I was like, ‘I gotta go home, I gotta go to the Cleveland Clinic, I gotta figure this thing out.’ ”

Doctors quickly confirmed Gansey’s suspicion, diagnosing him with MRSA, a severe staph infection. Over the next two months, he lost 30 pounds and spiraled into depression, unable to play basketball for the first time in his life.

“He was very quiet,” said his brother Steve, who now coaches the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League. “It was a tough time for him and it was a tough time for our entire family, including me. Just to see my brother work his butt off and do everything that he absolutely strived for and it just being taken away from him because of a staph infection, it was very unfortunate.”

Then came the call.

Beilein was on the other end, inviting Gansey to return to Morgantown and live with him and his wife, Kathleen, as he continued to recover. Gansey had remained in communication with Patrick throughout his sickness. When Beilein got word of the situation, taking him in was the natural thing to do.

“He needed to be around the type of environment of happiness and fun that we have in our family,” Beilein told The Daily.

Gansey views it differently.

“Coach doesn’t have to do that,” Gansey said. “It just shows who Coach is, that when I was in a really bad place and depressed and had nothing to do, nowhere to go, that he and Mrs. Beilein and Pat were just like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come live with us?’

“It’s just who he is. It’s not just for me. He would do that for anyone.”

***

Now 35 years old, married with three kids, Gansey has an NBA championship ring locked away in his house — almost as he dreamt it in the summer of ’06.

The only difference is that it came not as a player, but as a front office executive for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship team. Both Mike and Steve Gansey use the same word to describe that night — unforgettable. Mike because he had realized a lifelong dream, Steve because his brother face-timed him mid-celebration from the locker room with Jamie Foxx.

“Me being a Clevelander … it was a surreal moment,” Gansey said.

Gansey’s journey to that locker room in Oakland began in earnest nine years earlier, when he returned to Morgantown to live with the Beileins. After spending that winter working out with Patrick and running youth camps around the state, he regained enough strength to take another crack at Summer League, this time with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Again, Gansey was unable to secure an NBA roster spot, but his performances were enough to earn a contract in the Italian league. The next season, he moved 700 miles north to Bremerhaven, a drab port town in the north of Germany.

John and Patrick Beilein came over for a game that year, in the winter of 2009, as part of a European tour that took them to see three former players. Despite having spent the past decade in Ann Arbor, John still shivers at the memory of March in Bremerhaven. Unfazed, Gansey persevered in pursuit of his NBA dream, jumping from Germany to D League stints in Boise, Idaho and Erie, Penn., before returning to Europe for a season in Spain.

Each summer, he would come back to the U.S., visit the Beileins in Ann Arbor, and then go back to Cleveland. He turned some connections with the Cavaliers into an opportunity to workout with players who stayed in town for the summer, playing 5-on-5 and joining in lifting sessions.

“Mike was such a nice guy and did whatever they wanted him to do,” Steve said. “It was a free workout, that’s really tough to get.”

At the end of 2011, when Cleveland had an internship open up in its front office, those summers with the team — as well as the year in Erie with their G League affiliate — paid dividends.

But it wasn’t just Gansey’s connections. Steve recalls his brother’s encyclopedic knowledge of the league long before his first job with the Cavaliers. One year when Mike was overseas, he decided he was unsatisfied with traditional NCAA tournament brackets and conjured a fantasy league for a couple friends. Steve was originally skeptical, but that quickly changed once the tournament got underway.

“It was actually really fun,” Steve said. “And I was just like, ‘Mike, you could definitely get into scouting and get into some basketball operations here.’ ”

Not long after his first job as an intern, Cleveland’s front office handed him the reins to Canton. Since then, it has been a rapid ascension to assistant GM, with his former coach by him every step of the way.

“I learned so much from (Beilein),” Gansey said. “Just how he approaches every single day, how he approaches his staff. ‘Cause he’s the leader, the head coach, I’m always asking his advice. And he always calls me. When LeBron left, he called me and said, ‘Hey, keep your head up.’ Just giving me some motivation and saying everything’s gonna be okay.

“He just cared. Little things like that that go a long way. And that’s just who he is.”

Now, when Gansey’s phone rings and the screen reads, ‘John Beilein,’ there’s nothing abnormal about it. Just two friends talking about basketball and family.

“He cares about you more as a person than a basketball player,” Gansey said. “He’s a basketball coach, but he’s more of a role model to me.”