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Wednesday, January 12, 2011
For Steven Gray, it's about simplicity

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

He has scored 1,000 points, playing in places as far-flung as Alaska and Maui and in NBA arenas like Madison Square Garden and the United Center. In three seasons, he's made it to three NCAA tournaments and this season was named to the preseason Wooden Award list, recognizing him as one of the top 50 players in the country.

Since he is Gonzaga's leading scorer (14.5 ppg) and assist man (4.5 apg), most everyone on campus knows his name and plenty scream it when the Bulldogs take the court.

Gray
Despite his many accomplishments at Gonzaga, Steven Gray was missing something in his life.

Yet as Steven Gray wound up his junior season and prepared for his final run at college, he couldn't shake the nagging feeling growing inside:

What had he really done with himself? What had he accomplished? "I think I felt,'' Gray said, pausing to search for the right word, "I think I felt closed in. I didn't feel like I'd done anything but basketball for my entire life. I looked at it as everyone comes to college to figure out who they are. I didn't feel like I had figured that out.''

At 22, Gray remains a work in progress.

But as he preps for his graduation, he has found some answers to the questions that dogged him.

He discovered them in a concrete-walled convent where the electricity popped on only at night and hot water was nonexistent; in a community where bicycles were the most common form of transportation and the basketball court was a concrete slab left baking in the sun.

Steven Gray found himself in Africa.


Let's insert the disclaimer right here.

At the risk of stereotyping, it's fair to say that Gray isn't your typical college student and certainly not your run-of-the-mill athlete.

He's a free-thinker, cut almost perfectly out of the granola Pacific Northwest cloth. His dreadlocks fly as he dribbles downcourt, and he favors funky shirts and sandals over the more conventional college uniform of T-shirt and sneakers.

As a junior, he played the lead part of a gay baseball player in Gonzaga's production of "Take Me Out," and this fall played Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet."

He's dabbled in various musical instruments, with guitar the latest choice.

"He's a really neat kid,'' Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "He's a guy that lives life and at 22, he's really lived the life.''

Gray just so happens to be a terrific basketball player as well. He grew up in Irondale, Wash., a port community about a six-hour drive away from Spokane. He split his high school career between Chimacum and Bainbridge, leading both high schools to incredible success.

He signed with Gonzaga early, committing before his junior season.

Steven Gray
Unlike in Spokane, Gray liked the fact that nobody knew who he was in Africa.

Gray went, of course, for basketball, but in Gonzaga he found the perfect place to stretch his wings. The small Jesuit university is far from a cloistered community. As part of its mission, the university "encourages its students to develop certain personal qualities: self-knowledge, self-acceptance, a restless curiosity, a desire for truth, a mature concern for others and a thirst for justice.'' The Gonzaga-in-Zambezi program is just one of the university's many multicultural offerings.

And in Few, Gray found the perfect coach. Few takes his players all over the country in search of bigger and harder nonconference games. Few's purpose is basketball driven -- better competition equates to a tougher team and bonus points in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee -- but he doesn't treat his road games as basketball business trips. He encourages his players to explore the cities they visit and understands that there is more to life than hoops.

Few admits that there have been times he's been frustrated with Gray's extracurriculars. The Shakespearean play debuted in October, just as the Zags were beginning to practice, and Few feared Gray was stretching himself too thin.

For the most part, though, Few not only endorses Gray's constant search for more, he encourages it.

"From a coaching standpoint, you always love those kids who are almost obsessive about playing basketball,'' Few said. "But I think Steve's approach is great. It's healthy. I wish everybody would sort of have that approach.''


Five years ago, Josh Armstrong took over as the director of the university's Comprehensive Leadership Program, an interdisciplinary program designed to introduce undergraduates to various leadership skills.

As part of his duties -- the best part, he will tell you -- he annually takes students to Zambezi, a rural community tucked in the southwestern corner of Zambia.

Only 15 students are selected to visit the African country each year, chosen through a fairly comprehensive process that includes an essay, interview and a minimum 3.0 GPA.

A year ago Armstrong received an e-mail from Gray, expressing his interest in joining the May trip.

Gray
Gray wanted an experience unlike any he'd ever had. He found it in the Gonzaga-in-Zambezi program.

In the middle of his search for answers, Gray had approached university's study abroad office, stumbling on the Gonzaga-in-Zambezi program.

Armstrong read the e-mail but was skeptical, worried that as a Division I athlete, Gray would be a little too high-maintenance for a monthlong trip that asks its participants to live so simply and selflessly. "The priests from Zambia were actually visiting, so I had them sit down with him, thinking he might be discouraged from what he heard,'' Armstrong said. "I wanted him to understand what he was getting himself into.''

Instead of scaring Gray, the conversation invigorated him.

He knew the program was exactly what he was searching for, an experience unlike any he'd ever had.

The talk also sold Armstrong on Gray. "It was so refreshing,'' the professor said. "I was worried he'd be looking for preferential treatment. That was the last thing he wanted. He contacted us because he wanted to be like everyone else. He told me he hoped he ended up doing dishes and just being one of the group. For him, the intercultural experiences were so powerful, but also it was great to be part of a community that doesn't see him as a someone who shoots the ball first.''

Liberated. Free. Those are the words Gray uses to describe how he felt in Africa. Brought to Zambezi to teach the basics of story structure to children, Gray instead was the one who came home with lessons learned.

Most of the children spoke English, but the majority of the older people could communicate only in their tribal dialect. Gray picked up enough words to start a conversation but found he was able to understand people even without words.

He relished living on what he needed instead of what he wanted or thought he needed and was never more thrilled than when his sixth- and seventh-grade students presented him with the creative writing pieces they had authored.

Steven Gray
His interaction with children was one of Gray's favorite parts about the trip.

"It was so different from anything I had ever known,'' Gray said. "It put me in a position to experience life through the eyes of different people. We get caught up so much in things here, and their lives are so simple. We have so much stuff. You don't need stuff.''

Best of all, though, was the freedom to be something other than a person known for his basketball skills. The Zambians clearly had no clue who Steven Gray was. The other Gonzaga students, who did, stopped caring long before their five-seat planes touched down on the bush that served as a landing strip.

And when some of the area kids, a group that had won the equivalent of a high school championship, assembled for a game of pickup ball, Gray said it was every bit as wonderful as wearing Gonzaga's uniform in a Sweet 16 game.

In some ways, it was even better. "We played outdoors, in the middle of a field,'' Gray said. "It had been so long since I had played like that. It was so refreshing and it, I don't know, it kind of brought back the purity of the game.''


Gray knew that, along with the souvenirs, pen pals and trinkets, he'd be returning to Gonzaga with a healthy dose of perspective when he left Africa.

He just wasn't aware at the time how handy it would be.

The Zags started this season a pedestrian 4-5, enduring that typical brutal nonconference schedule but coming away with nothing to show for it. Critics thought that maybe Few had finally outsmarted himself, scheduling a murderer's row that at one point had Gonzaga facing Illinois in Seattle (loss), traveling four days later to a game at Washington State (loss) and three days later heading to Notre Dame (loss).

The players weren't discouraged, sensing that a young team still trying to make do without Matt Bouldin and with a hobbled Elias Harris was just on the cusp.

But the criticism was harsh, especially on Gray, who averaged 4.2 turnovers in those five losses and suffered back spasms. "We were younger than I envisioned,'' Few said. "I think that surprised all of us. Without Elias and when Steve goes down, it just exacerbated it. I think the fact that we had to fight through it, in some ways that was good for a lot of these guys. They had never had to do that before.''

Steven Gray
While enjoying the simple things in life, Gray (the tall one in the background) felt liberated in Africa.

Signs point to the Zags emerging from what Few called "adversity inflicted by me." Gonzaga has won seven in a row, positioning itself atop the West Coast Conference standings.

Gray, healthy again, has all but eliminated his early yips -- he's averaging 1.2 turnovers in his past six games -- and is playing with a renewed sense of joy in the game.

"I look for the smiles,'' Armstrong said. "When they played at Wake recently, he hit a couple of big 3s, and I saw that big grin. I saw that every day in Africa, just that joy in his face. With the rigors of athletics, I think you lose sight of that sometimes. It can be grinded out of anyone, so I look for those small moments of joy and with Steve, I see them everywhere now.''


So the question is a simple one: Is Steven Gray satisfied?

When he collects his diploma and takes stock of what he did, will he leave Gonzaga empty-handed or fulfilled?

"I think I can say I did as much in college as realistically possible,'' Gray said.

More than 1,000 points, games across the country, three NCAA tournaments, two theatrical productions.

And one life-changing trip to Africa.

It's definitely a start.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.