Gary Gaskins turned the key to start his 1994 Chevy Caprice and cranked up the heat.
He leaned his seat back and fell asleep. He awoke cold, started the car and let the heat circulate again, switching off the ignition and drifting off in the brief warmth.
The process repeated about each hour throughout the night until sunlight streamed through the window, signaling Gaskins to start his day.
The parking lot at Universal Technical Institute in Orlando, Fla., had become home to the former Beaufort High School basketball standout, who was studying in the school's automotive technology program.
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Gaskins had not yet rediscovered basketball. That would come in the gym as he killed time before night classes. He didn't know junior college basketball -- and the housing, education and financial aid that came with it -- was an option. Or that a skinny kid from Beaufort, four years removed from high school graduation, could still earn a scholarship to an NCAA Division I program like Oklahoma State.
Gaskins just wanted to stay warm during Florida's brief chill.
The UTI parking lot wasn't his first preference. A security guard patrolling a lot near an Orlando subdivision told him he had to move on. A police officer forced him to leave a McDonald's parking lot.
The school lot was the next logical choice.
His classes ended at 1 a.m., so Gaskins waited for his classmates to leave and leaned the seat back in the car he had driven since his junior year at Beaufort High, a car he bought from his grandfather for $1,200 -- half saved from working at Burger King and half matched by his father, Randy.
Gary Gaskins remembers riding in the back seat of the Caprice growing up when he visited his grandfather in New Jersey. For six months, in late 2010 until May 2011, the car was Gaskins' home.
His situation wasn't from lack of a support network, but of unfinished business. His father, a career military man at the time a U.S. Air Force reserve, told his son he could return home to South Carolina. But Gary Gaskins figured he was already on his second chance, having been honorably discharged from the Air Force following high school after injuring himself on an obstacle course. He left for Florida to learn the mechanic's trade and was going to finish his classes.
That meant toughing a couple winter months in his car, because his roommate in the apartment they rented moved back home and Gaskins lost his job. He returned home from class in the early hours one morning and his key no longer fit the lock.
Gaskins offers a snapshot of himself in his Twitter biography: A tall man walking through life bored. Never was he more bored -- and broke, cold, hungry and perhaps reckless -- than those months living in his car.
He was also fortunate.
Sink or swim
Gaskins returned to Beaufort this December during his holiday break. He drove the Caprice to Battery Creek High School, where his Eagles were playing the rival Dolphins. Beaufort High coach Bruce Beasley asked his former player to speak to the team.
When Gaskins stepped into the visitors' locker room, he heard the whispers.
"That's that Gary Gaskins dude."
The local fame was new. Gaskins left Beaufort with no college offers, only junior college interest. He didn't know the junior college process, or that the top junior college players move on to Division I programs.
His friends back home didn't believe him when he talked about letters he received from Tennessee, South Florida, Central Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma State, among others. Gaskins? Gaskins wasn't that special in high school.
"He always had good potential," Beasley said. "You could see that. We thought he had to become a little more aggressive. I'm sure he has now."
Gaskins grew three inches after high school, sprouting to 6-foot-10. In Orlando, living out of his car with nothing to do but surf the Internet on his PlayStation Portable using the free McDonald's wireless, Gaskins turned to the gym.
He and his friend, Berkeley McDowald, played on the goal at the Park Central apartment complex until the rim broke.
At the next gym, Darryl Hardy spotted the tall, skinny kid he noticed wearing the same clothes to play each day. Hardy runs The Gemini Foundation, a nonprofit serving children 19-and-under in the Orlando area that counts NBA star Tim Duncan as a board member. Hardy played professional basketball in 12 countries and his network includes several NBA players. Hardy became Gaskins' mentor.
Pickup games with Hardy often included NBA talent, and Gaskins was forced to play tougher.
Hardy, a product of a poor area of North Philadelphia, admits to not having much of a soft side, though his friends in the South are working him. He didn't let up on Gaskins, who weighed 200 pounds and didn't have the frame to bang with the likes of Hardy -- 6-9 and 245 pounds -- and the other big men who joined the games.
Sink or swim, Hardy called this part of the process.
"Everybody abused him, in love, until he was able to hold his own," Hardy said. "Once he reached that point, he was ready. It was beautiful."
Hardy outfitted Gaskins with a new pair of shoes through the foundation's partnership with Adidas and gave Gaskins some hand-me-down clothes, though the fit was baggy.
Gaskins played in a showcase Hardy organizes each year and, after a few minutes watching Gaskins play, junior college coaches began walking to the side of the court where players exit.
Gaskins visited Brevard Community College in Melbourne, Fla., asking coach Jeremy Shulman if he could stay an extra night. Gaskins wanted another night in a bed, to take a hot shower and watch television. He also wanted another shot to impress coaches. The next day, he outplayed Brevard's starting center, Roger Warren, who is now at Troy. Gaskins dunked on Brevard's big man three times and was pulled into an office and offered a spot on the team.
The agreement included tuition and meals, plus the $2,700 Pell grant he would receive each semester. Gaskins -- who was paying for gas and his modest Virgin Mobile bill with a monthly check from his aunt in New Jersey, washing in public bathrooms and stealing food from WalMart -- asked where to sign.
Shulman became the first to learn what others had only suspected of Gaskins' living situation.
"I said 'Do you ever wonder why you always pick me up at the school? And drop me off at the school?' " said Gaskins, whose car insurance and registration had long since lapsed. "I remember coming back to my car after I signed. I looked at him and said, 'It was worth it now.' "
Fight for your position
Gaskins quickly wrestled the starting spot from Brevard's other big men. He spent the summer playing in showcases throughout the country. The letters from college coaches came rolling in.
This past fall, Gaskins built the courage to reveal his Orlando tale to his Facebook and Twitter networks. Friends, no longer doubters after watching Gaskins' highlight videos, sent messages of encouragement. Reporters asked for his story.
Gaskins signed with Oklahoma State during early signing period back in November. A visit to Stillwater, Okla., for a home football game and basketball preseason fan event sealed his decision.
He looked like the Cowboys' current big men, tall and lean and able to run the floor like a guard. He'll be entering a similar system to the one he plays at Brevard.
Gaskins will be a junior when he arrives on campus in the fall. He believes he'll fit in the rotation at power forward and center with the Pokes' returning big men, believes he'll become a prominent part of the team, just as he has at Brevard.
"I'm a freshman from Orlando living on the streets, and I came in and started over them," Gaskins said. "You know what I'm saying? You've got to fight for your position. That's the same way I'm going to do at Oklahoma State, come in there and fight for my position."
During that meeting in the locker room at Battery Creek in December, Gaskins told his contemporaries not to give up on life's path if it didn't immediately show itself, that he took a non-traditional route.
It's never too late.