Climbing up the ladder

SEATTLE – It’s a whole new world for Steven Gray.

The BHS grad and former Spartan basketball star, once a big fish in a small pond, is now simply a goldfish in the vast ocean that is Division I basketball.

And he’s quickly learning how much work goes into competing at the top level in college.

“In playing the games, it hasn’t been too bad,” he said. “But everything else is just ridiculous.

“I thought last year’s two hour practices were tough, but here we have three hour practices every day,” he continued. “It just takes up so much of your time. That was a big surprise to me.”

Gray, now a freshman at Gonzaga, was in town last weekend as the Bulldogs lost to the then 11th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers 82-72 at the third annual Battle in Seattle at Key Arena.

In front of 15,141 people, some of whom were his family, friends and former coaches and teammates at BHS, the two-time Associated Press state player of the year came off the bench to score eight points and grab five rebounds and a steal in 26 minutes.

But Gray was in a bit of awe of how the Volunteer defense shut them down for most of the game.

“They were quick,” he said of their top guards in All-American candidate Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell and J.P. Prince. “It was a lot different than in the two games I’ve played (against Northern Colorado and Oklahoma).

“They’ll pressure you better than most teams in the country, but I just gotta take what I learned in this game and grow from that. It’s a good learning experience.”

While the Zags search for a consistent rotation after getting everyone healthy, Gray is trying to fit in with a new team and a new role – coming off the bench.

He’s also doing it with increased media attention (many of the Zag games are on FSN locally and several are on ESPN) and in a new place 291 miles from home where the lack of activities and the weather can wear on a person.

“There’s nothing to do in Spokane,” he said. “It’s cold, it’s snowing and it gets dark at 3:30 (in the afternoon). It’s tough.

“I’m excited to go down for California for a little bit (to play Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine Jan. 12 and 14 respectively).”

But Gray said he gets to see his family on weekend visits when he can and he’s had several friends come and visit him, including former teammate Rudy Sharar and BHS coach Scott Orness.

He also hangs out with his fellow freshman teammates Austin Daye and Robert Sacre.

The three are in adjoining dorms and take care of each other, making sure they get enough rest and make it to practice and class on time.

The three also spend their down time watching movies they’ve bought at Wal-Mart spanning numerous genres (Gray said he enjoyed “Last King Of Scotland”) and playing video games (Madden and College Hoops 2K8 are popular).

But Gray said he’s not comfortable playing himself in a video game.

“It’s really weird seeing myself in a game,” he said. “I don’t like it. It’s just so weird. You want to shoot too much and if you shoot and you miss it, you’re (mad).”

The true freshman is also working back into game shape after suffering his first major injury during basketball season.

In an exhibition game against Emporia (Kan.) State on Nov. 7, Gray was trying to slide over to provide defensive help for teammate Larry Gurganious, but collided with him, fell backward and put his hands back to protect himself, injuring his shooting wrist.

It was later diagnosed as a break, with surgery becoming necessary.

He went in for the operation five days later to have two pins inserted and was out for four weeks.

“It was so hard,” he said. “They went to the East Coast (for games against St. Joe’s and Connecticut) and I couldn’t do that. So I had to stay back (home) and work out.

“I couldn’t touch a ball, I couldn’t do anything,” he continued. “All I could do was defensive slides.”

So he worked out with a team manager and former Gonzaga star (and current LA Clipper) Richie Frahm when he was in town to stay in shape and rehab his wrist.

He also got support from his teammates as they kept his spirits up while he was out.

When he was cleared to play, Gray made his season debut against Northern Colorado Dec. 17, scoring 12 points.

He also grabbed four rebounds and had an assist in 28 minutes.

Against the Sooners in the All-College Challenge in Oklahoma City Dec. 20, Gray scored three points and grabbed a rebound in 13 minutes.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It had been so long just sitting and watching and waiting, it was so exciting to get into an actual game.

“To hit my first shot (a three-pointer against Northern Colorado), I was so happy,” he continued. “It was a lot of fun. Just being able to run out with the guys... I’m going to take this and enjoy every minute of it, because not a lot of people get a chance to do this stuff.”

Against Tennessee, Gray’s performance was a mixed bag as he admitted earlier he would be a little nervous playing close to home.

He scored his points all in the first half – on a putback after grabbing two offensive boards after getting a defensive rebound, on a fast break (but took a hard fall after the score) then later, connected on two consecutive three pointers to briefly give Gonzaga the lead.

Gray left and reentered at the 3:52 mark in the first half, missing with an alley oop pass to Josh Heytvelt and getting caught up in a brief controversy when he was apparently fouled by a Vols player, though after a short break to check the replay, the officials determined otherwise.

While there was the good, there was also the bad, as he was stripped the first time he touched the ball.

Gray was also late in getting over to cover his man on defense, resulting in several Vols getting clear shots.

But with the game still within reach, Gonzaga head coach Mark Few put Gray in for the last few minutes, a big step for him at this point in the season.

“Being there for the big part of the game, that gives me a lot of confidence,” he said. “Going into the rest of the season, (that means) Coach (Few) has trust in me and that boosts my confidence so I’m going to take that and play hard and let everything happen.”

Gray missed on both his three point attempts in the second half, but grabbed two rebounds and made a save off a Heytvelt block that almost went out of bounds.

Few said he’s been happy with how Gray has worked his way back from injury.

“He was rolling right along and he was a real integral part of where we were going into that exhibition (game),” he said, noting that Gray led the team in scoring during one of their scrimmages. “Now he’s scrambling to get back because you get behind guys and you get behind in reps (when you get hurt), but he’s going to have a great career at Gonzaga.

“He’s got a great mentality and he’s got great skills and can do a lot of things that we really appreciate. He’s going to help us a lot this year.”

Teammate Jeremy Pargo also likes what Gray brings to the team.

“Steven’s been great,” he said. “He’s a great guy and he does a lot of things to help us out. We just want him to play hard.”

And while Gray got to meet with his friends and former teammates (“It’s weird seeing him on TV,” said ex-teammate Austin Wood) he couldn’t stay long as the team had to take the charter back to Spokane to play Utah.

Against the Utes on New Year’s Eve, Gray had two points, two rebounds, two assists, a steal, two fouls and no turnovers in 23 minutes in the Zags’ 61-59 win.

Gonzaga plays at 5 p.m. against Georgia at the Spokane Arena Saturday.

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