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He’s Gray in name only
It wasn’t the same Steven Gray who had played for Gonzaga in years past when the Bulldogs took on the University of Illinois at Key Arena Dec. 4.
Gone was the skinny teenager with the short haircut and the familiar No. 32 (his father’s jersey number) since Gray’s freshman year in high school.
Instead, No. 41 had 10-15 pounds of muscle, a mop of dreadlocks and several tattoos to accentuate his new look. Still, his attitude and demeanor were unchanged. Neither was his play on the court.
The former Bainbridge High School star made his starter spot permanent in his junior year last season, earning All-West Coast Conference first team honors. He also shared co-MVP honors with former teammate Matt Bouldin at the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Gray helped the team to its 10th straight WCC regular season title and its 12th straight NCAA appearance.
His fluid shot and steady play at the shooting-guard position have earned him platitudes and with this, his senior season, comes the increased expectations of where he’ll fall in the NBA Draft.
Several mock drafts have him going in the mid-to-late second round; others project him going undrafted, but having a strong career overseas. Many of his ex-teammates have made the move to play in pro basketball leagues around the world after falling just short of the NBA.
While Gray has thought about going that route, he doesn’t want to have it dominate his thoughts until after his final college season.
Right now, he’s more concerned with earning his degree in sociology (he’s on track to graduate). Gray is also dedicated to helping a young team learn the ins and outs of Division I basketball so it can win another WCC title and return to the NCAA tournament.
While they’ve lost several players and return only four upperclassmen, Gray said he’s confident in his teammates.
“You can see the progress,” he said. “What I’m thinking is, as opposed to year’s past, this is a team that can consistently be getting better and not plateauing at a point.
“I’m hoping we can put things together and see that we can play with (opponents), if we can put a whole game together,” Gray continued. “It’ll just be a matter of coming ready to play and learning from the past games and keep building.”
Another key for Gray is becoming more of a leader on the court. While he isn’t someone who leads by screaming on the court – it’s not in his nature – Gray knows what is expected of him from head coach Mark Few. So he does what ex-Gonzaga teammates David Pendergraft and Abdullahi Kuso did for him as a freshman and help his younger teammates any way he can.
“Something that I’ve really taken note of is the influence I do have,” he said. “I just give these guys at least a good first impression on how things should be done here and let them know it does get tough at times but we’ve all been through it. I just try to be that guidance for them.”
Gray said he also works on the issue of trust that his teammates place on him now that he is considered to be the leader of the team.
“That way they feel more comfortable with me leading the group and didn’t think that I was coming from a place where the coach was just placing it on me and then being forced to follow it,” Gray said. “As long as my teammates understood where I am coming from that’s all that matters to me.”
Sophomore center Kelly Olynyk said they have full confidence in Gray and his leadership abilities.
“Some outside people don’t think he has (been a good leader), but inside (the team) we all trust Gray 200 percent – not even a 100 (percent),” he said. “We ride Steve (but) we love Steve. He’s done a great job – he’s even put us on his back a couple of times. He’s done all he possibly could to prepare himself and us for the season.”
While Few has voiced his concerns over whether Gray was fully committed to play basketball due to his outside interests detailed in some stories a few months ago, he said after the Illinois game that his comments were being blown out of proportion.
“He’s been an absolute joy to coach and be around,” Few said. “I wish I had 12 or 13 of him. No doubt about it. He’s been as easy and low-maintenance a guy as you can ever have.
“Plus, he’s a warrior on the court,” Few continued. “He’s one of my all-time favorite Zags.”
Junior center Robert Sacre, who has been Gray’s roommate since his freshman year, also spoke highly of Gray.
“I love Steve,” he said. “I’ll do anything for him. He’s awesome. He’ll work with you, he’ll bend over backwards for you – he’ll do anything for you.
“If anyone badmouths Steven Gray, they badmouth this team,” Sacre continued. “Steven Gray’s a great leader. We all look up to him.”
A time for change
But while Gray is becoming more comfortable with being a team leader, he hasn’t confined his growth to only basketball. He has wanted to be like his friends and peers, whose college experiences include expanding their horizons to find out who they really are.
So last year, after he and Sacre went to see a friend perform in a play and the director asked Gray to try out for a part, he auditioned and won the lead role of Darren Lemming in “Take Me Out.” It’s a Tony Award-winning play about a pro baseball player who decides to come out to his team and the world.
This year, he played Tybalt in “Romeo & Juliet,” while Olynyk played Abram.
Gray, who had never acted before, said it’s been a great chance to step away from basketball and the opportunity to be someone else for a change. It has allowed him to get away from the stress and expectations placed upon him and reinvent himself – if only for a few hours.
“That was the most gratifying thing about it,” Gray said. “I could completely remove myself from my reality and jump into someone else’s. It was like a mini-vacation.”
He was aware of the comments about him playing a role where his character was gay, but didn’t worry about what others thought of his choice of roles.
“Once I found out he was gay, I just said, ‘Well, that will make things more interesting,’” he said.
Another important development in his personal growth was visiting Zambia through Gonzaga-in-Zambezi, an international summer academic program. Gray said the inspiration came when he found himself restless and wanted to get away for a while.
Gray spent a month teaching literature to sixth-grade students and experienced what many in Africa go through on a daily basis. He lived in a simple cement building with spiders and lizards running everywhere, with no hot water and electricity for only part of the day. He only had a few changes of clothes.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was soaking up this different way of life and getting a perspective on things. Just to get away and not have any connection to the outside (world) was so refreshing. I got to reflect and be put into situations and see things that I wouldn’t get to see otherwise.”
He said he enjoyed spending time with the kids, who called him “chindele,” or white person, because of his mixed race.
Gray and some of his classmates played against the local school basketball once, but mostly they played soccer and danced every day. He brought home many CDs and cassette tapes of African music, which he listens to often.
Gray also spent time in a remote village where he said he was “blown away” by the villagers’ generosity despite them not having much themselves.
He also found out how hard they worked, relating a story where a farmer about Gray’s age walked six days to Angola to sell his cattle.
“They don’t have the greatest resources or the most of anything and they are so happy with each other,” Gray said. “From my perspective, they seemed legitimately happy. It was so simple, whereas people here just seem to want to get the most stuff and they don’t seem happy. It really changed my perspective on a lot of things.”
In a symbolic gesture, he changed his official hometown from Bainbridge to Irondale, where he grew up and attended Chimacum High School before moving to Bainbridge for his junior year.
Gray said the change was to honor his birthplace and where he’s really from. His parents, who are divorced, have moved back there.
“Coming into my senior year (at Gonzaga), I felt it was time to start being ‘me,’” he said. “So I wanted to change the number and start fresh.
“That’s what college is for,” he said. “You’re finally out of your parents’ house and it’s your time to figure out who you want to be as an adult and start shaping yourself. My mind started changing on things and it was me really stretching to find out who it is I want to be and how I want to be seen and being really happy with that.”
It’s no surprise then that Gray said he will use his senior thesis to communicate what he’s gone through these past four years at Gonzaga. His topic: social perceptions and the reality of the college male athlete.
Gray said he is excited to get all his thoughts and ideas out on paper, but he is also happy with what he has accomplished at Gonzaga.
“After these four years, I can honestly say I’m really happy with how I ended up and how my head is now,” he said. “I’m really happy with the choices I’ve made.
“I’m really excited to be out on my own and really get to be just my own self and not have this ‘Gonzaga basketball player’ stigma.”