Tuongthach Gatkek
Portland native Tuongthach Gatkek during University of Florida men's basketball pre-season practice in Gainesville, Florida. (Courtesy University of Florida Athletics)
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Is Tuongthach Gatkek Maine basketball’s best-kept secret?

“Oh yeah, most definitely,” the University of Florida sophomore said.

As a self-proclaimed expert in all things Maine hoops, I’m a bit embarrassed to say Gatkek completely slipped under my radar. Heck, I even played in basketball leagues with his brother, Manny, and still didn’t know.

Greg LevinskyGatkek, who goes by Tuon (pronounced “Toon”) is set to begin his first season as a member of the University of Florida men’s basketball team. His winding road to the highest level of college basketball began in Maine.

A Portland native, Gatkek attended area schools before moving to Texas with his family when he was in middle school. He played his high school hoops at Caprock in Amarillo, Texas; went to prep school for a year after that, and most recently spent his first collegiate season at Trinity Valley Community College, where he averaged 10 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per game.

“It’s the journey he had to take … we all had to take,” said Manny Gatkek, who is two years Tuon’s elder, the oldest of eight siblings, and played two years of college basketball with two years of eligibility remaining. “Without all of those moves and going through what we went through, who knows where we would’ve ended up?”

I first became aware of Tuon Gatkek this past summer, when videos surfaced of the 6-foot-9-inch, 181-pound power forward throwing down ridiculous dunks to entertain kids while coaching at a summer basketball camp in Portland.

A few weeks later, seemingly out of nowhere, Gatkek pledged to UF on social media. Most student-athletes like Gatkek have their collegiate scholarship offers listed on various websites, but he didn’t even have a profile on most recruiting services.

That was by choice.

“The recruiting process was hard enough, so I felt like if I kept it to myself and my family it would be easier,” Gatkek said. “(But) some schools wouldn’t offer me because they didn’t think I really had anything.”

Florida plays in the Southeastern Conference, one of the best college leagues in the country. You’re probably wondering, as I did, how in the world did Florida find Gatkek?

In Maine, of course.

“I try to go to Maine every summer because I get to play a lot of basketball with my cousins and stuff,” Gatkek said.

A well-made video of Gatkek’s standout performance at the Noonan Nation Basketball Tournament on the campus of Saint Joseph’s College in Standish caught the attention of one of Manny Gatkek’s former coaches, Isaac Fontenot-Amedee, who then sent it Florida’s way.

Florida assistant coach Erik Pastrana was on the receiving end. After doing their due diligence on Gatkek’s academic standing, Florida offered him a scholarship. Many junior college student-athletes do not qualify for the NCAA academically, but Gatekek did.

“That was part of his mystique,” Pastrana said. “It started to heat up for him, but we were kind of quick to the punch with it. … He can do a little bit of everything. His greatest skill is his motor – he plays extremely hard.”

Gatkek has four more years of eligibility after this one. He’s working hard to add muscle to his slender frame – he’s already gained 10 pounds – and aspires to play professionally after college. From Maine to Florida via Texas, Gatkek is soaking up the opportunity.

“It’s an unreal feeling to be here,” he said. “Every day I wake up at a loss for words, like dang, I’m really at Florida.”

Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].