Monday, April 13, 2015

Gbinije brothers: Duke transfer Michael plays with brother Brandon on mind in 1st season with Syracuse

Michael and Brandon Gbinije are complete opposites.

That’s according to their mother Yvette, the woman who’s guided them toward adulthood.

Michael stands at 6 feet 7 inches, while Brandon is 5 feet 9 inches. Michael is the classic extrovert, always out and about meeting new people. Brandon prefers to stay at home and inside.

Michael plays on the Syracuse basketball team. Brandon is a freshman at Richard Bland College in Petersburg, Va., and lives with their parents.

Their differences stick out right away, but they also bring them together. It’s what makes them so inseparable. It’s why every time Michael steps on the court, he has Brandon in mind. This year, as he plays backup point guard and sometimes shooting guard for Syracuse after transferring from Duke, he’ll be doing it all for Brandon.

After all, he’s his best friend. They’re both each other’s inspiration. Michael knows Brandon doesn’t have the physical ability he does, so he plays for Brandon. To make his brother proud.

“That’s my favorite human being in the world,” Michael said with a grin.

Michael wears No. 0 in honor of Brandon. Brandon’s favorite superstar when he was a child was Gilbert Arenas, who goes by the moniker “Agent Zero.” When Michael played at Duke, Brandon loved watching Austin Rivers, who donned No. 0, as well.

Michael also wears the No. 0 because he is out of chances. After barely seeing the floor at Duke, he knows this is his last opportunity. Brandon would love to play Division I basketball, so Michael has to live the dream for him.

“I know he wants to accomplish some goals that I have accomplished, but he just can’t,” Michael said. “He just doesn’t have the ability. Sometimes I wish I could give him the experience, so that’s why I do what I do.”

Michael was 2 years old when Brandon was born. They immediately became incredibly close.

As children, they would read the “Cat in the Hat” together. Brandon even dressed up as the Cat from the book for Halloween one year.

They both spray-painted their hair green for “Crazy Hair Day” in elementary school — the Dennis Rodman look, Brandon called it.

And as they grew older together, they became pranksters.

Michael smiled while talking about the time he and Brandon tied their dad’s shoes together when he was asleep. He and Brandon dressed up in costumes to freak out their chihuahua Tyga sometimes, too.

For Christmas in 2011, Michael bought Brandon a dark gray “Beavis and Butthead” T-shirt. It was Brandon’s favorite show. The shirt is the best gift he’s ever gotten from Michael.

“We watch a lot of comedy movies,” Michael said. “A lot of ‘Step Brothers,’ Will Ferrell, ‘Jackass.’ All that good stuff.”

Michael listens as Brandon reels off his list of impressions. One of his favorites is John Wall, where he speaks rapidly and in clichés and changes the inflection of his voice to sound like the Washington Wizards point guard.

“He sometimes looks to me for jokes,” Brandon said. “Sometimes I give him jokes. Sometimes most of them are not funny, but I try.”

But even more so, the brothers have bonded through basketball.

Brandon remembers when they went to a game between Michael Jordan’s Wizards and Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers in November 2002. Brandon pulled for his favorite team, the Wizards, while Michael rooted for the visitors.

The two legends went back and forth as Brandon and Michael watched in awe, mesmerized by the incredible skill both players possessed. Jordan finished with 25 points and Bryant dropped 27 as the Wizards beat the Lakers 100-99.

Brandon was pumped.

“I was totally excited and proud,” Brandon said.

But he never taunts Michael when his team wins. He’s “not the taunting type” because he knows Michael never does that to him.

Brandon said Michael has beaten him 148 out of 150 times in games of 21. They’ll go out and play in their driveway on their NBA-style hoop. And nearly every time, Michael will win. But he’s always supportive afterward and never puts his brother down.

While the pranks and laughs have continued throughout the years, Brandon followed every step of Michael’s basketball journey as it became more and more serious.

He went to every one of Michael’s basketball games at Benedictine College Preparatory in Richmond, Va. As Michael honed his game and quickly became one of the smoothest, most dominant players in Virginia, Brandon watched from the stands and cheered.

Michael’s high school coach Sean McAloon reminisced about how after every game, Brandon would walk over to Michael and congratulate him, win or lose. McAloon said Brandon was Michael’s biggest supporter.

After talking to his brother, Brandon would walk over to McAloon and congratulate him, too. Win or loss.

“Great game, Coach. Great game.”

Michael never dwelled on bad games because of Brandon’s unwavering support. He was just fortunate to have the chance to play.

“He can see what his brother has gone through,” said Yvette Gbinije, the boys’ mother. “I think that humbles him more. He’s really proud of him.”

Michael’s high school assistant coach Mike Strickland recalls during Michael’s senior season that he would always ask if Brandon could join in pick-up games. Even though Brandon wasn’t close to the other players physically, Michael would always include him.

When Michael went to college, though, it became more difficult to keep in touch. They don’t see each other nearly as much as they used to. Brandon is majoring in engineering, but also wants to go into the medical field. And on top of that, he’s interested in directing films.

He plans to make a live-action drama of the movie “Balto,” a dog that helped save children in Alaska in 1925. Brandon’s possibilities are endless.

Michael’s transition to college wasn’t quite as seamless. A lack of playing time, coupled with difficulty adjusting to the culture, sparked an unexpected transfer.

Not even Mom knew he was going to transfer. She knew it was a possibility, but was shocked when she heard the news.

“Actually, he really didn’t say much to us because he knew how we would react,” Yvette Gbinije said. “We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what to say.”

After sitting out due to eligibility rules last season, Michael’s busy trying to fit in at Syracuse and get accustomed to his role on a new team once again.

But this time, he’s an integral part of a national championship contender, not simply a bench-dweller. He’s never played point guard before and struggled bringing the ball up in the preseason.

His mom said he loves it, though, and is eager for the challenge.

For the kid who gracefully and coolly thrashed high school competition and then sat on the bench at Duke, he’ll have a chance to shine once again with Syracuse. Backup point guard is the Orange’s Achilles’ heel, and Michael will be expected to fill that void.

No matter how well or how poorly he plays at point guard, Michael knows Brandon will be proud of him. Although their time together has dwindled, it makes seeing each other that much more special.

Whenever Michael returns home, they always greet each other the same way: a hug followed by a high five. Sometimes Brandon is so excited to see Michael that when they play fight, Brandon hits him as hard as he can. So hard it actually hurts, Michael said.

“We talk a little bit, then hit the games,” Brandon said. “Video games, board games, you name it.”

Uno, checkers, Scrabble, “NBA 2K.” Michael usually takes Brandon in checkers, but Brandon has his number in Scrabble.

The next time they’ll see each other is during Thanksgiving Break, when the Gbinijes head to Maui, Hawaii, to see Michael and the Orange play.

For the rest of his playing career at Syracuse, and maybe even in the NBA, Michael will always have a No. 1 fan. Something — someone — to play for and keep him motivated.

“Everything’s a struggle (for Brandon), but he just keeps going,” said Yvette Gbinije. “That’s why I think Michael looks at him as his inspiration.”

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