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Men’s basketball captain Gray endures, matures

Senior point guard is hailed as leader as he winds down notable four-year career

February 26, 2013


Men’s basketball captain Gray endures, matures

WBNG-TV Feature

Contact: John Hartrick (hartrick@binghamton.edu)

VESTAL, N.Y.—When he takes the floor on Thursday in the final home game of his four-year career, men’s basketball senior captain Jimmy Gray will bookend a collegiate career that began in modest fashion on November 14, 2009. In his first game in the Events Center after a stellar scholastic career at Binghamton High, Gray logged two nondescript minutes in a win over Division II Bloomsburg. So much has transpired in the 3-1/2 years since that debut: Gray, the basketball player, has grown exponentially during a trying yet rewarding tenure at Binghamton; Gray, the young man, has grown even more.

In four years, he has worked with three head coaches and nine assistant coaches. He has played through injuries that would’ve shelved most others. He has absorbed the losses. Lots of them. And he has willingly met the media and answered the same questions after each setback, embracing a leadership role with unwavering integrity and class. Gray has seen the complete dismantling and rebuilding of the men’s basketball program under the guidance of three different athletic directors. Players have come and gone. But Gray has stayed. And endured. And matured.

Rewind the clock to the spring of 2009 when then-high school senior Gray completed a noteworthy career for the Binghamton High Patriots. He averaged 21.1 points as a senior and steered his team to sectional runner-up honors, earning All-Metro Player of the Year and all-state honors. Gray drained 70 three-pointers and torched defenses despite a reputation that resulted in full attention from every opponent.

By June, Gray was still undecided on his college choice, weighing some Division II and III options. At the time, he spoke with longtime Press & Sun-Bulletin reporter Kevin Stevens about his future goals.

“I want to play at the highest level I can play,” he told Stevens. “I want to be where there are smarter, better athletes, that’ll give me something to strive for. I want to be around people who are better than me, so I can strive to be better than them.”

Drastic changes accompany freshman year
With then-BU coach Kevin Broadus eying local talent to round out his reigning America East championship team roster, Gray was invited to join the program as a non-scholarship player. Little did he know that two months into college, the landscape of his playing career would change dramatically. Less than four weeks before the 2009-10 season began, Broadus and four starters were removed from the program and Gray bumped up the depth chart, now for interim coach Mark Macon. Still, with veteran guard Chretien Lukusa and budding star Dylan Talley in the backcourt and a nagging back injury front and center, Gray’s minutes were moderate. He appeared in 23 games and averaged under eight minutes per game. A 13-win season that featured an overachieving fifth-place conference finish ended on a sour note when the Bearcats were denied participation in the America East tournament just hours before boarding the team bus.

Gray recalls the many challenges from that first year on campus.

“I remember how hard a transition it was from being a high school student to a college student,” he said. “Both the academics and the basketball workouts were challenging. But whether or not I was getting playing time, I knew that my work ethic would eventually guide me to improve my game and focus in the classroom. With the issues surrounding the team that year, I had to take advantage of the opportunity for more playing time, and I did.”

As a sophomore, Gray moved into a more prominent role. He took over as a starter 12 games into the season and accumulated 203 points (6.5 ppg) while averaging nearly 28 minutes a game.
Included were several shining performances in front of the Events Center faithful: a 23-point performance against UMBC (5-for-8 three-pointers) and a 12-assist, 10-point double-double against Maine. Gray shot 44 percent from beyond the arc in his last 16 games and stepped up his production in conference play, averaging 8.1 points while logging nearly 33 minutes a game.

Lukusa, who was wrapping up his own impressive four-year career, noticed the change in Gray.

“When Jimmy first came in, you could tell he already had a good skill base,” Lukusa recalled. “But as the years went on and he got more comfortable, Jimmy definitely began to mature as a basketball player. Seeing how hard he worked and the time he dedicated to becoming a better player ... that pushed me on the days I didn’t want to practice or lift weights.”

Gray, in turn, took notice of Lukusa and other veteran players like Moussa Camara, Mahamoud Jabbi and Greer Wright.

“Those guys all were competitive players who pushed me every day and allowed me to become the player I have matured into today,” Gray said. “They also had good character and were good role models off the court. They taught me that education should be my focus and that basketball would take care of itself.”

As Gray was emerging as a quality America East point guard and team leader in his sophomore season, his surrounding parts were still in flux. Talley departed after collecting America East Rookie of the Year honors and, with several other roster depletions, the 2010-11 Bearcats finished the season with just eight recruited scholarship players and only eight wins. Gray secured one of those wins with a dramatic jumper in the final five seconds to beat Manhattan on the road. The team then showed its heart with a resounding 91-65 win over UMBC in the first round of the America East tournament, with Gray logging 34 minutes at the point.

In 2011-12, Gray was fully entrenched as a starter and, for the first year, as a scholarship player — and his game blossomed. With two years’ experience, he ran BU’s offense with precision and distributed and scored the basketball. He averaged 8.4 points, 3.6 assists and a conference-best 1.9 steals despite playing at times with three freshmen in the starting lineup.

Gray handles media attention with class
Serving as the “face” of the program, however, came with its hardships. As the team suffered through a winless streak that drew national attention, Gray, along with leading scorer Robert Mansell, kept up a routine that was both physically and emotionally draining. After logging more than 34 minutes a game, Gray would trudge to the media room and diligently answer questions about the latest defeat and the mindset of the team as the losses mounted. This is where Gray shined brightest. Amid any personal frustration, fatigue and injury, he spoke about standing tall as a team, pressing on and working as hard as possible. Never did he offer an excuse, though there were plenty of valid ones on an undermanned team handicapped by previous circumstances.

On the court, Gray continued his penchant for late-game dramatics. His pair of free throws with four seconds remaining sealed BU’s 57-53 upset of league-leading Vermont on February 21 — a win that snapped the team’s suffocating 27-game losing streak. Fans swarmed the Events Center floor to celebrate — the same way they shared the sweetness of BU’s conference championship game win three years earlier. It must have been bittersweet for Gray, who invested so much more in a 2-win season than many players put forth in 20-win campaigns.

Eight days later, Gray netted eight points in overtime and played the entire 45 minutes to lift the Bearcats to a 73-67 win over UMBC in the first round of the America East tournament. Gray calmly sank three free throws in the final 19 seconds to preserve the win. He capped his junior season with 16 points and nine assists in 40 gritty minutes against top-seeded Stony Brook.

For the season, Gray played nearly 35 minutes a game, fourth-most in the America East. Another off-season meant another change for Gray and the Bearcats, as a change in leadership brought in head coach Tommy Dempsey in spring 2012. Dempsey quickly leaned on Gray to help anchor the group of returning players and begin the process of breathing new life into the program.

Senior captain helps usher in Dempsey era
“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate Jimmy Gray,” Dempsey said. “His character and leadership qualities have helped my transition tremendously. I wish I had more time to coach Jimmy but I know he will be very successful moving forward.”

Gray embraced the captain reins in 2012-13, but even with the addition of freshman phenom Jordan Reed, the wins have been hard to come by. Despite battling through injuries and still going full speed for an exhausting 34 minutes a game, Gray has maintained his production and leadership. He is averaging 10.4 points and 3.4 assists and provided yet another signature moment with a game-winning three-pointer to beat Maine on Jan. 19.

Gray is scheduled to address the home crowd on Senior Night and he will no doubt be gracious and appreciative to the home fans — a loyal mass that has translated into nine consecutive America East attendance crowns for Binghamton. But on this night, it’s Gray, along with fellow seniors Taylor Johnston, Javon Ralling and Mike Horn, who will be celebrated.

With the finish line now in sight, Gray is on pace to finish third in career games played at Binghamton (112). He also ranks second in three other statistical categories: assists (284), three- pointers (154) and steals (140). Those numbers alone are enough to cement Gray’s legacy at Binghamton. But they don’t begin to define his impact on the program. When others went astray, he stood firm. When teammates left for greener pastures, he stayed put. When it would’ve been understandable for Gray to waive the white flag and “check out” mentally, he instead strengthened his resolve.

“I have thicker skin now,” he says.

“Jimmy was right there with us in the trenches,” Lukusa said of his overlapping two years with Gray. “He learned from the entire experience and has matured into a player who demands respect and leads by example. Because of that, I know he will be successful wherever his future plans take him.”

“Genuine” young man draws praise
Gray’s journey from walk-on player to scholarship captain with all-star credentials is a unique and inspiring story — one that wasn’t lost on former Binghamton High alumnus, North Carolina great and current Monmouth University coach King Rice, whose team came to Vestal in December.

“I’m proud of Jimmy,” Rice said. “Jimmy has done things not many people thought he could do. He had a dream of being a Division I basketball player ... and he’s been a pretty doggone good
one.”

But to define Gray as a basketball player-only would be shortsighted.

“Off the court, Jimmy is an extremely genuine person,” adds Lukusa. “He is willing to go the extra mile to help out his teammates or anyone in the community, whether it’s at the Boys & Girls Club or Magic Paintbrush or wherever ... on his own ... just putting in the time. That’s who he is. ”

Sports enthusiasts like to tout the lasting impact that participation can have on young men and women. Gray’s checklist of life lessons and personal growth is far more complete than that of most 23-year-olds: Handle adversity with integrity. Own your shortcomings and try to be better every day. Remain positive. Lead by example. Communicate. Be fair, honest and genuine. Win and lose with class. Strive for greatness. Don’t accept failure. Care for others and be a good citizen. On that stat sheet, Gray went a perfect 10-for-10.

“I’ve learned there is no gain without struggle,” he said. “I believe life is all about work ethic, no matter what your passion or career is. I’ve had challenges within the basketball program and in the classroom. But it’s how you handle those that’s important. I’ve had a great experience at Binghamton.”

With his hometown fans serving as a nightly backdrop, something special happened during Gray’s four-year journey at Binghamton. He taught us a thing or two about the intrinsic value of intercollegiate athletics and the depth of his own character. That is the legacy of Jimmy Gray.

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