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Need an idea for the athlete in your life?

Need an idea for the athlete in your life?

Those early presents are special
Need an idea for the athlete in your life?
Niskayuna native Garrett Whitley
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The newest baseball or softball glove is great. A brand-new basketball is awesome. The freshest jerseys, posters and keepsakes -- all good.

That's what athletes from and representing the Capital Region told me when I asked them which holiday gifts they received as youngsters still stick out the most.

The why, though, was the key.

While you can't go wrong during the holiday season in purchasing the latest and greatest sports-related gear for the athlete or sports fan in your life, what became clear in talking to local athletes is that the gifts they remembered most had little to do with their practical use.

It was all about how those gifts made them feel when they received them, and how they still feel now looking back on them.

Like a glove

Take Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks. The favorite holiday gift University at Albany's record-setting running back received came quick to mind. When he was 11 or 12 years old, he got his first pair of receiving gloves. He doesn't remember the brand, only that they were black and pretty slippery. Ibitokun-Hanks remembers most that it was his father who gave him the gloves, and it was his father who would throw him passes to catch while the future Great Dane wore them.

"We'd go out and work on catching all day with them. We'd do drills all day," said Ibitokun-Hanks, a first-team all-conference selection this past season for UAlbany. "He was the guy out there with me all the time."

'A step up'

For Ibitokun-Hanks, those gloves brought up memories of time spent with his father, but also time spent working on achieving a dream to play his sport at a high level. That's the direction Garrett Whitley's mind went when he started talking about his favorite holiday gifts. The Niskayuna High School graduate and 2015 first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays has always been something of a baseball machine, both playing and consuming the sport with a superior drive. The presents he received around the holidays reflected that, he said, as his room filled with baseball-related jerseys, hats, tree ornaments and posters -- everything but autographs, something the 19-year-old who now signs a lot of them said he never had an interest in collecting.

For Whitley, the gift he remembers most was a wood bat. It was similar to the ones he uses now as he works his way through the minor leagues, and getting that first wood bat as a teenager made him hungrier.

"It was the first one I ever had to use in games and to train. I was probably 14 when I got that," he said. "It was a new step for me. Obviously, when you're little you're always swinging metal bats, but you know the pros are swinging wood. So [when I got that bat], it was like I'd taken a step up."

Fan first

But athletes are fans, too. Evan Fisher, a

sophomore forward on the Siena College men's basketball team, channeled that part of his life when asked which gift still made him smile the most.

"I'm a big Baltimore Ravens fan," said Fisher, who is from Maryland. "I remember I got an Anquan Boldin jersey the year they won the Super Bowl. So that's the [gift] I remember the best."

Time well spent

Sometimes, though, the best presents are -- well -- about being present. They cost no money.

Kayla Treanor, a Niskayuna High School graduate who went on to score the most goals in the history of the Syracuse University women's lacrosse program, played several sports growing up. She was always busy with her own sports, much like her father Mark was busy during the winter months when he coached the

Silver Warriors boys' basketball team. But Treanor could always seem to find a way to get in some extra athletics-related time around her November birthday and the holidays.

"My favorite thing, it wasn't really a gift like a piece of equipment or anything," she said. "But every year for my birthday or Christmas, my favorite thing -- my biggest thing -- was that I got to go watch my dad's practices and sit on the sidelines."

As a young kid, Treanor said, she idolized the players on her father's team. High school athletes, she said, were her role models. More than that, though, the chance to spend some extra time with her dad was why she'd try to turn practice visits into holiday gifts.

"That was always really special to me," she said.

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