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A determined Patrick Gardner overcomes critics’ doubts, brings his dream back home

From Merrick, Long Island, to Cairo and Manila and back again, Patrick Gardner hoping for one last step.

Raptors 905 v Long Island Nets Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s the classic ‘local boy makes good” story, just that the local in question did good after a detour through Cairo and Manila.

Patrick Yousef Gardner of the Long Island Nets grew up in Merrick, Long Island, a five mile, ten minute drive from Nassau Coliseum. He still lives in the Nassau County suburb but he has changed his NBA rooting regimen.

“So, I’m all for the Nets, but as a kid I grew up as a Knicks fan — I was a Knicks, Yankees, Giants fan,” The 6’11” big told Lewis. “Yeah, you know, times have kind of changed now. So loyalties have kind of changed.”

The journey from Merrick to Uniondale may be short if measured in ground miles, but it’s taken Gardner six years and stops in Garden City; Burlington, Vermont; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Las Vegas, Cairo and Manila, the final two as a member of the Egyptian national team at the FIBA World Cup.

He doesn’t seem daunted by all the stops and hurdles. Getting beyond them defines his journey. After all, he started out at Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, going from a bench player on the junior varsity as a freshman to honorable mention All-State in New York as a senior.

When he graduated high school, the then gangly 6’8” Gardner had no college offers, not from Division I or II. So he enrolled at Nassau Community College in nearby Garden City and once again surprised, spending three years at Nassau, the final year of eligibility the result of an injury. In his final season, Nassau made it to the national finals and he was named a third-team JUCO All-American. He had begun proving himself to doubters, one of who was Iona’s then coach Tom Cluess. After working out for Cluess in the Spring of 2019, Gardner got a kick in the pants. Cluess told Gardner he wasn’t a Division I player.

“Well, that’s a great thing you just brought up, because I do remember when coach Cluess did say that about me,” Gardner told Lewis.

“I’m trying to focus on the moment, but sometimes, when you think about how far you’ve come — just after practice or on the bus or something — you kind of think about how grateful you are to [be here], that I’m in a position like this and how far I’ve come. But it wasn’t easy, and there’s still a long way to go.”

Ultimately, Gardner got a shot at Division II St. Michael’s College in Burlington, where he excelled despite the pandemic. St. Michael’s coach, Eric Eaton, told him that if he wanted to play ball for money, he could do it but needed to play in another gear, in particular get stronger.

Encouraged by Eaton and wanting to prove Cluess wrong he surveyed Division I possibilities, transferred to Marist in Poughkeepsie where last season he led 11th ranked Marist to the MAAC Finals where he faced top-ranked Iona. The Cinderella story ended there, though, despite Gardner’s 23 points and seven boards. The journey kept providing opportunity.

“I definitely had to get stronger, and I started to shift more of my focus in the weight room, so going there four or five times a week,” Gardner told the Post, admitting he was nowhere near his strength goals. “But other than that, just keeping [my head up]. It has to do with my mental strength, too, because in order to play at the highest level, you need the confidence to go in there and know that you belong.

That determination caught some attention as did a solid performance last April at the annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a portal for college seniors hoping for Summer League invites. He wound up on the Heat Summer League team, did okay, and got noticed by the Nets who agreed to give him an Exhibit 10 deal and a place close to home.

At the same time Gardner filled another dream, playing for the Egyptian national team. The son of an Egyptian mother who spent his summers in Cairo, he needed to get some paperwork cleared up in time for the FIBA World Cup in the Philippines. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.4 rebounds but his big moment came vs. Mexico when his 20 points and seven rebounds helped Egypt win its first FIBA game in 30 years.

“It was incredible. … I hope to do it again,” Gardner said. “The people and coaches, I’ve met lifelong connections, lifelong friends that I still talk to.

“And just playing against competition, such a high level. Even if you don’t do good in games [or] you do good in games, it still helps you because it gives you a point of reference to see … this is the level that I need to reach. So, just a great learning experience.”

Indeed, Gardner wound up playing against Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Sabonis and Montenegro’s Nikola Vucevic, all NBA starting centers.

Like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson who played in Manila for Team USA, Gardner’s season so far has been filled with fits and starts. He’s averaging 6.3 points and 3.8 rebounds, but his shooting, the biggest card in his development hand, is nowhere near what he had hoped for. hitting 26.9%t from the field and 18.2 percent from 3-point range.

Gardner however hasn’t been deterred yet. His determination, in fact, may be his best trait.

“A lot of good things and obviously some things to improve on, just getting in and out of screens, quicker feet into shots and just getting used to the pace,” Gardner told Lewis. “I’d say to me: You belong here. There’s a reason why you’re here, so just keep playing with confidence and everything else will take care of itself.”