Gray's star is self-made
There was a time when few regarded her as a varsity high-school girls' basketball player, much less a future Pac-10 recruit. Back during the evenings when she'd be left alone to work out at one end of a court while the rest of her club team practiced at the other, it was enough to hope that she'd just stay out of trouble.
But those times are long gone for Reshanda Gray. Only some 400 miles separate the University of California at Berkeley from the mean streets of south-central Los Angeles, where Gray is from, but culturally it may as well have been 400 light-years. Even so, the ultra-athletic, 6-foot-3 forward has made the biggest leap of her young life, committing to the Golden Bears during a press conference at her high school, Washington Prep, on Wednesday afternoon. The No. 22 prospect in the ESPNU 100, Gray chose Cal over her other finalist, USC.
To those who know the backstory, it is a startling achievement.
"She's testimony that you don't have to start out a superstar," said Elbert Kinnebrew, Gray's club coach with the Cal Sparks, "to end up being a superstar."
As Kinnebrew points out, it's not like Gray took a running start to overcome the obstacle course that life tossed in front of her. She was a high-school player, raw as sushi fixings, and not some fifth grader, when the Cal Sparks program first got its hands on her.
Tony Scott, who coaches a younger team for the Sparks as well as the varsity girls at Inglewood High School, went to see another kid on the Washington Prep junior-varsity team when its coach asked him to take two others. Scott later called Kinnebrew with a report.
"I have one kid (Deajanae Scurry, a San Diego State signee) who is going to be a superstar," Scott told Kinnebrew. "The other is long & we'll see."
"We'll see" happened to be Gray, who grew up an area so graffiti-riddled and violent, she'd witnessed a knifing and shooting death by the time she was a teenager. But she was so tall, people kept asking if she was a basketball player. To silence the queries, as well as give her something to do during the dog days of summer "besides hang out and get into trouble," Gray gave the sport a try.
Turns out, basketball was a saving grace. It steered her away from gang-banging. And it gave her a path out of South Central.
"If it wasn't for basketball," Gray said, "I'd be dead or in jail.
For a time, even basketball put her into lockdown. During practices for her first Sparks team, she was isolated at one end of the court to master the elementary task of making layups while her teammates prepared for more sophisticated maneuvers, such as playing games. A year later, playing for Kinnebrew's wife, Karen, on the Sparks' second team, she regularly ran the top team's starting posts "ragged" during scrimmages, according to Kinnebrew. Those former Sparks Gold inside players, Kacy Swain and Sheila Boykin, are the centerpieces of a national top-10 signing class for UCLA.
A year after that, Gray was in Colorado Springs, Colo., with club teammate Ariya Crook-Williams, at tryouts for USA Basketball.
"I was like, 'Omigosh, I'm so nervous, the air's funny and all the best players are here,' " Gray said. "I just didn't want to get embarrassed."
Gray figured she'd give herself the best shot by "working hard, rebounding and running the court well." Still, stacked up against elite inside players such as Chiney Ogwumike from the 2010 class, Elizabeth Williams from 2011 and Breanna Stewart from 2012, it seemed like an improbable task.
And, of course, the expectations weren't very high. In fact, the night before the U17 and U18 teams were announced, Crook-Williams, having given her all for a second straight year, was saying her goodbyes to the other players. She turned to Gray and said, "See you on Wednesday," meaning the next Sparks practice.
They didn't see each other until July. Gray was named to the U18 team that won gold at the FIBA Americas Championships. She celebrated by grabbing her cell phone and calling everyone she could think of.
"She just invests 100 percent in everything she does," Kinnebrew said of Gray. "She wins when everyone else around her is losing.
"To go from where she started to USA Basketball and now Cal. I don't know if something like this will ever happen again."
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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