Stith had never heard of Gaze, but thought he seemed a good guy to play for. Luckily Stith’s older brother Jeff Mallory, a former professional player, gave him some good advice.
“Jeff said ‘you need to google him,'” Stith recalled.
After a season with the Tigers, Stith has become a fixture in the Big V championship as an import with McKinnon Cougars and one of the league’s elite players. Big V sits just below NBL1 in the pecking order of off-season leagues.
Stith is 201 centimetres tall and can fill either forward role, but aside from that he has the happy-go-lucky disposition of someone who has risen through the ranks of division three college basketball into state league Victorian basketball and now to the fringe of the NBL.
Since Dean Vickerman took charge of Melbourne in 2017, Stith has been one of the players who regularly trains with the team. He has lived in the city for most of the past five years, making a life with his Australian girlfriend Katie Bluzer.
During the past three pre-seasons, Stith has played a few games for United and he also suited up for the club in their NBA pre-season clash with Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017.
That year he was in the US on holiday and messaged Vickerman asking for some tickets; he received a reply that the coach could “do him one better and give him a jersey”.
But the events of the past two weeks were even more unexpected. Prather needed knee surgery on the verge of the season and a few days before the season-opener with South East Melbourne, Vickerman called to ask if Stith was available for the Phoenix game and the trip to Perth two days later.
Stith only played two minutes against the Phoenix but saw some more time against Perth and knocked down six points from his three shots in a heartbreaking loss. The team was due to fly to the US a few days later.
“I thought the concept was that I would play in the NBL games,” Stith said.
“My next thought was that if I’m going to the US I’ll need time to prepare but I didn’t want to force the issue so just let the coaches and team make a decision.
“Dean messaged me when we got back and said ‘we would like to take you to the States if you are available’ – I don’t know if he is joking with the ‘are you available?’ – my response was I would check my schedule.”
Stith made some quick calls to his family back in the US and his mother, brother Jeff and his aunt from Las Vegas all travelled to Los Angeles to watch him play at Staples Centre against the LA Clippers last Monday. It was the first time they had watched him live since college.
Katie also made the trip from Australia and Stith revelled in bringing his US family together with his partner and his United family, who have made him welcome as a practice player for so many years.
“To be on the court at Staples Centre with all those guys and then have my family and my girlfriend all in that same mix was nothing sort of a dream come true,” Stith said.
Melbourne United play Perth Wildcats at Melbourne Arena on Sunday at 5pm.
Roy Ward is a Sports writer for The Age.