It’s standing-room-only once again at the Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz, and the atmosphere inside is decidedly high voltage. The hometown Santa Cruz Warriors are taking it to the visiting Reno Bighorns in an NBA Development League battle, up by 15 points in the final minutes of the third period.

The 2,556 manic fans packed inside have their eyes on the Warriors’ dazzling back-up point guard, Kiwi Gardner. The compact and kinetic Gardner has swiftly become a crowd favorite in Surf City, his seemingly boundless energy both captivating and contagious as he slices and darts his way across the court. With his mid-length dreadlocks bouncing in time to an uptempo improvisational jazz riff—think Miles Davis blowing “Seven Steps to Heaven” on the hardwoods—he doesn’t just run and jump. He sails, he soars.

At only 5’7” and barely out of high school, Gardner is already something of an urban legend in the region, and, indeed, in the world. Highlight videos of his high school and semi-pro performances have garnered more than eight million hits on YouTube. The effervescent 20-year-old already has his own internet TV show, Kiwi Gardner: The Truth. And National Public Radio is following him this season with regular reports on his progress.

The kid already has an identifiable brand, if not necessarily a marketable product. In the age of the Internet and instant celebrity, hype sometimes precedes substance. But wherever he plays, Gardner captures the imagination of those around him. Even when he’s on the bench, he’s an energetic dynamo, applauding and cheering on his teammates.

“He’s the modern-day Rocky [Balboa],” says the Warriors’ president and visionary impresario Jim Weyermann, himself no stranger to the value of marketing. “He’s the classic underdog. He’s a symbol, an icon. He represents the dreams of everyday people aspiring to something greater than themselves. They are affirmed by his very presence on the court.”

Tonight, Gardner is a whirling dervish of affirmation. With the Warriors holding a comfortable lead and their offense running on all cylinders, he is doing everything right—driving the game deep into the paint, pushing the Bighorns on their heels, bolting past defenders in a blur, then passing the ball to his teammates as they make assault after assault to the hoop.

The Bighorns try to slow down the pace to a more human rhythm. Gardner pushes back—he zigs! he zags! he spins! he flies! he twists!—then sinks a reverse layup while seemingly changing direction in mid-air.

In one amazing sequence, he seemingly does it all: passing, shooting, stealing, getting fouled—at this point, he hasn’t missed a free throw for the entire season. He darts toward the basket again with an arching alley-oop pass, as his teammate Dewayne Dedmon guides the ball home while being fouled on the play.

During the first possession of the fourth quarter, it’s Gardner again, dribbling back and forth between his legs, skipping and slashing toward the basket, executing a give-and-go with Dedmon, then dishing a perfectly timed shove-pass to Kevin Kotzur for an easy lay-up.

As the fans go wild, Gardner races down the court to his newfound mentor—Casey Hill, the Warriors’ superb head coach—and in a scene straight out of Hollywood, encourages Hill to extend both his hands for an emphatic celebration slap.  The 30-year-old Hill, who usually wears a serious demeanor on the floor, breaks into a broad smile. On the bench, Gardner’s teammates do the same.

The scene is magical, captivating. The entire house is cheering, smiling, people turning to each other in joy, sharing “high fives” with each other. A new era has momentarily settled on the Santa Cruz Warriors. It’s Kiwi Time.

**

A few weeks after the game, I attend a morning workout session with the Warriors and remind both Gardner and Hill of the sequence, and the broad smiles return to each of their faces. “That was ours,” Gardner emphasizes. “We did that.” Note the emphasis on the plural.

Gardner has embraced Hill’s leadership with a profound enthusiasm. In many ways, the coach’s guidance of his pupil has been a lifeline for Gardner, whose fledgling basketball career had nearly run out of rope. “That’s my guy,” Gardner says of Hill. “The support was there from Day One. From before he even knew me, he’s given his all. He really gets inside my head. He’s encouraged me to do better. He was born to coach.”

I ask Hill, a decade older than Gardner, about his player’s unbridled enthusiasm, and he smiles.

“I’m fine with it,” Hill says. “He’s a team player. He has a will to win. Good instincts. He’s raw, but very coachable. He listens. He’s a sponge. He’s soaking it all in. I’ve seen a lot of improvement. That’s the reason he’s still on the team.”

Gardner is not only the youngest player on the Warriors, he’s also the youngest player in the entire league, and Hill realizes that he’s in a special position with his youthful protégé.

“I can’t pretend to know where he’s come from,” says Hill philosophically, acknowledging Gardner’s less-than-idyllic background. “But I do understand where he’s trying to go.

“He and I have a good player-coach relationship,” Hill adds, “I enjoy having him on the team.”

It’s a great story with an ending that has yet to be written. Here’s the deal: Keyondrei “Kiwi” Gardner has come a long way this year from the rough streets of East Oakland, where he was born and raised. Gardner essentially got burned out of a four-year scholarship to Providence College in the Big East Conference—a bit more on that later—so that his tenure with the D-League Warriors is essentially amounting to his collegiate career.

“Do you realize how long the odds were?” Weyermann enthuses. “He walks off the street without any college experience, and he makes the team. It’s unheard of. I don’t know of anyone who’s done that during my tenure with the league. This is the cream of the crop he’s going up against.”

After scratching his way onto the Warriors last November, Gardner has made tremendous headway. In December, he had a game for the ages, scoring an unheard of 23 points with a little more than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, while leading the Warriors to a come-from-behind victory against the Bakersfield Jam.

With the Warriors down by 17 points, Gardner simply took over the game. He drove, he hit from the outside, he dished off, he drove some more, then drained a three-pointer with a minute left to put the Warriors ahead for good.

His performance in Bakersfield was statistically off-the-charts. If you project his 23-point scoring performance over the course of an entire 48-minute game, he would have been on pace to score an unimaginable 120 points.

Weyermann was at the game. “It was one of those rare moments when someone accomplishes something well beyond the ordinary,” he said, “where they excelled beyond their capabilities. The challenge is to establish a consistency in their performance.”

**

There’s been a lot written about Gardner on the Internet, not all of it accurate. Born in 1993 in Oakland, Gardner was raised by his mother and his extended family (his father, he says, was never part of his life), in the working-class neighborhood east of Maxwell Park, just up the hill from the meaner streets of Fruitvale and International Boulevard. He grew up playing basketball at the local YMCA and, later, at the Boys and Girls Club.

“From the time I was four years old,” he says, “basketball has always been my game.”

Oakland has a great athletic legacy. NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell went to McClymonds High School, and the likes of Frank Robinson, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan—all baseball Hall of Famers—cut their teeth in its sandlots. In recent years, guys like Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, J.R. Rider and Antonio Green have sprung from the playgrounds of the East Bay to make their mark in the NBA.

Then there are the legendary streetballers from Oakland who never made it to the pros, guys like Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell (known as Waliy Abdur Rahim since his conversion to Islam), the subject of an award-winning documentary film, Hooked, whose dunking game was legendary, but whose NBA dreams were destroyed by drugs and violent crime.

Gardner’s family didn’t want him to get caught up in the same dynamics that ruined the lives of many young men growing up in Oakland neighborhoods. They sent him down to San Leandro to attend middle school, then out to the San Joaquin Valley to attend Manteca High School. He admits that he arrived in Manteca with a bit of an attitude, an edge, maybe even a chip on his shoulder, certainly with something to prove.

“Pride,” he says. “I probably had too much pride.”

He was all of 5’4,” and weighed 125 pounds soaking wet. But he fought his way onto the varsity as a freshman (he briefly quit over the assignment of a locker) and developed into one of Northern California’s premier prep players. He was named all-league as a sophomore and was MVP of the Valley Oak League his junior season, leading his team into the sectional playoffs both years.

But not everyone in the Valley Oak League was a fan. Some coaches thought he was too cocky, and too much of a hothead. He was suspended for five league games for making “unintentional” contact with a referee following the receipt of a technical foul; some in the league pushed to have him banished for the remainder of the season.

“He’s the most talented player I ever coached,” says his high school skipper David Asuncion. “By far. But he was also the most challenging.” Asuncion chuckled at the memory: “Let’s just say that there were aspects of his attitude that were tough to contain.”

By his senior year, Gardner was ready for yet another move. As a way of getting him better exposed to national collegiate scouts (and getting him away from some of the controversies that were haunting him in Manteca), he switched to Westwind Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Arizona, playing on Westwind’s national touring team, on which he averaged 23.7 points a game.

“I could always score,” he says with confidence. “No matter where I go, that’s never been an issue.”

He was widely courted by top-notch colleges—even if his size was often viewed as a detriment by scouts—and he set his sights on the Big East, one of the most prestigious Division I basketball leagues in the country. He scored a full ride to Providence College, a Catholic basketball powerhouse in the heart of Rhode Island, and he headed east in the summer of 2011, with big, big dreams.

Gardner worked out with the Friars, but he never saw a second of time on the court. Instead, Gardner became a disposable cog in the machinations of big-time college basketball. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruled that he was academically ineligible (they didn’t accept credits from a course at Westwind). Providence appealed, unsuccessfully, and, when the smoke had lifted, it became clear to Gardner that the Friars were going in a different direction in terms of their point guards for the following season.

He returned to California, and, although only 19 and not having played any organized ball since high school, he was named the Most Valuable Player in the prestigious San Francisco Pro-Am summer league in 2012, averaging a phenomenal 33 points per game against some of the most talented college and professional players in the country.

The MVP award meant nothing to his collegiate career; Gardner was a vagabond once more. That fall, he wound up at a no-name junior college in Midland, Texas—that’s right, the redneck home of George W. Bush—where he never clicked with his coach, Chris Craig, and where, he admits, he never quite found his game.

Less than two months into the season, he was dismissed by Craig for a “violation of team rules,” but then Craig went on a spree of his own, posting “end-of-the-world” prophecies on his Twitter account and blogging about a New World Order and the possible assassination of President Barack Obama, whom he referenced as “the Antichrist.” Craig was later arrested in Colorado on a series of charges. According to news reports at the time, he had begun referring to himself as an “Islamist jihadist.”

**

Gardner made a beeline back to California. He hung out in Oakland for a while, but then decided to head to Southern California, where he had some mentors he had connected with at Westwind. He admits that in respect to his basketball career, if not life itself, he had hit rock bottom. His two shots at college ball had both gone south.  He was done with it.

“I was not happy with the game,” he says.

Gardner enrolled in a couple of classes at Santa Monica City College (math and English, he says), riding a bus each day from downtown Los Angeles to West L.A., on which he had plenty of time for some serious soul searching. “I needed to find myself,” he acknowledges. He began working out each day at a nearby gym—“I had to rebuild my basketball confidence”— and started to envision a way back into the game.

Gardner was on a mission. With only nine games of junior college basketball under his belt, he set his sights on the NBA’s Development League. He participated in open tryouts for a half-dozen D-League teams—Los Angeles, Idaho, Fort Wayne, Bakersfield, Reno and Santa Cruz—where he played “damn well,” in his words, but no one signed him straight to a team. Finally, in the seventh round of the D-League draft on All-Saints Day, November 1 of last year, Kiwi Gardner was the Warriors’ final selection.

He was hanging onto his dream by the skin of his teeth.

**

The NBA D-League is unlike any other in professional sports. Weyermann, who came to the Warriors by way of baseball (he served as president and CEO of the Single A San Jose Giants before assuming his position with Golden State), points out that while there are “167 teams in minor league baseball, there are only 17 in basketball.”

The vast majority of guys who play minor league baseball never make it to The Show. The D-League is a different story. More than half of the current league has NBA experience (127 players, to be exact) and seven players appearing on the Santa Cruz roster this season have had a taste of NBA experience, including Joe Alexander (Milwaukee), Hilton Armstrong (New Orleans), Maurice Baker (Portland and Los Angeles), Seth Curry (Memphis), Dewayne Dedmon (currently playing for the Philadelphia 76ers), Dominic McGuire (Washington) and Mychel Thompson (Cleveland).

The 10-man active rosters in the D-League are like a convention of fruit flies, always in flux. There are no guaranteed contracts. Seth Curry, the younger brother of Golden State’s all-star point guard Stephen Curry, was brought up to the Memphis Grizzlies with a 10-day contract earlier this year, but saw all of four minutes of action before he was released back to Santa Cruz. (My prediction is that he will get another NBA call-up again this season.)

Moreover, D-League salaries are microscopic compared to the NBA. Although the NBA refuses to make D-League salary scales public, several sources confirmed to me that D-Leaguers are paid at three different rates: roughly $13,000, 19,000, and $25,500 annually. They get housing, modest per diems and medical benefits. That’s it. Players can make much more overseas. They play in the D-League in the hopes of getting that call up to the NBA, à la Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets.

Once players realize that the NBA is beyond them, they head for greener pastures. Two of Santa Cruz’s most popular players from last season—Travis Leslie and Stefhon Hannah— are currently playing in France and Italy, respectively, for significantly higher salaries than they made in Santa Cruz.

At least for now, Gardner likes his proximity to not only the NBA, but to NBA talent. He says that teammates like Curry and Baker, both point guards who have had quick sips of coffee in the NBA, are mentors and role models for him.

Kiwi Gardner isn’t chasing the bucks, he’s chasing a dream.

**

Gardner got lucky in catching Hill at the Warriors. They provide an interesting mix: Hill the scion of NBA royalty; Gardner a kid from the streets. Both are looking to make basketball their careers.

After serving as an assistant coach with the Warrior’s D-League franchise the last two seasons, Hill assumed the head coaching position in Santa Cruz this past year. His father, Bob Hill, served as a longtime NBA coach for the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and, finally, the Seattle SuperSonics, and the younger Hill worked under his father for two seasons as assistant coach of the Tokyo Apache in the Japanese professional league.

Although Hill presents himself as a demonstrative presence on the court during games, particularly vis-à-vis the referees, during practices he is calm and far more casual, a guiding force for his young players, all of whom have dreams of making it to (or back to) the NBA.

The Warriors D-League team is one of the strongest franchises in the NBA—the Warriors’ attendance and income generation was tops in the league last year—and they seem to be sailing beyond that in the 2013-14 campaign. Their games at Kaiser Permanente Arena have the feel of a community event to them, and, with Weyermann’s guidance, the franchise has gone to great lengths to establish itself in the greater Santa Cruz community.

Gardner has played a role in that effort. This month he has participated in the Warriors’ “Read to Achieve” program at Gault Elementary School; later he met at Grind Out Hunger with a young girl named Kiera battling bone cancer.

“I love meeting kids in the community,” he says. “It helps keep me grounded.”

But his primary focus is clearly on basketball, improving his game.

For all of his moments of greatness this season—and they have been delightful—there have been more than a few instances of frustration and signs of holes in his game, particularly careless turnovers and missed scoring opportunities. Gardner is the first to admit it.

“I’ve got lots to work on,” he says, “lots of room for improvement. No doubt about it. I know it.”

While his defensive game is surprisingly solid—“defense is my strong suit,” he says—Gardner’s biggest challenge has been learning the tempo and rhythms of the professional game. In high school (and on the playgrounds of East Oakland), he set the tempo. At the professional level, he needs to find it.

“You simply cannot try to force the game at this level,” says Weyermann. “Great players learn to let the game come to them.”

Hill concurs. When I liken Gardner to a diamond in the rough, the coach nods his head. “My job is to polish him,” he says.

For all of his talents, Hill says, Gardner needs to understand “the flow of the game, what it means to be at point during a valuable possession.” Hill concedes that it will take plenty of game action for him to get there.

His biggest task with his 20-year-old student, Hill says, is keeping him humble. With all of the attention on the Internet and his name being chanted by fans at the games, it’s no small order. “He needs to focus his attention on the court.”

Hill says he has no idea whether Gardner will ever make it to the NBA, but with the professional game continuing to explode internationally, he says that he hopes to groom Gardner for a long-term professional career.

“The opportunities will present themselves,” he says.

Gardner masks none of his ambitions about playing in the NBA.

“I want to have a long career there. And I intend to work hard to get it,” he says it with conviction, from a place deep within.

As my conversation with Gardner winds down, Coach Hill swoops by, playfully pulls off one of Gardner’s tennis shoes and tosses it out onto the basketball court. Everyone smiles. Hill turns to look back on his way out the Arena, and our eyes meet for a brief moment. We all know the prank was his way of trying to keep Gardner humble.

“I’m super, super humble,” Gardner says to me, smiling. “But I’m super, super hungry, too.” 

Geoffrey Dunn is the author of Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II and Sports of Santa Cruz County. Special thanks to the Warriors’ public & community relations manager Matt De Nesnera for his assistance with this story.