By the time Devin Gray finished his junior year at Clemson, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the Atlantic Coast Conference. A 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward, Gray had a game that combined power and finesse, grit and grace. His left-handed shot was smooth and his baseline drives nearly unstoppable.
“[Former Clemson star] Dale Davis and I used to say he had the best baseline game we had ever seen,” recalled James “Chubby” Wells, who played at Clemson in the late 1970s and would become Gray's agent and mentor.
Gray's life changed dramatically after that junior season. The night Arkansas beat Duke for the 1994 national championship, Gray experienced chest pains. He went to a local hospital, where it was discovered that the former St. Frances star had a blood-clotting disorder in his heart.
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It was a condition that afflicted Gray for the rest of his life and, his former high school coach said, impeded his basketball career.
Until the day he died in August in Atlanta, at age 41, Gray had never stopped playing basketball or working out, despite having at least three heart-related episodes in his last few years, according to his cousin, Zeke Marshall, who grew up with Gray in Baltimore and had remained close as a business partner.
In 2009, Gray underwent an angioplasty — a procedure in which a balloon is used to open narrowed or blocked arteries — but he had another episode a year later in which he experienced “discomfort” in his chest, Marshall said.
When it happened again last summer, Gray had just finished playing “four complete basketball games,” Gray's mother, Patricia Gray-Carter, said she was told shortly after her son died.
“He had never done that before, and he passed out,” she said.
When Marshall received a text message saying that his cousin was being taken to the hospital, he remembered thinking, “He's pulled through every other time, why wouldn't he pull through now?”
“What I was told was, he left the health club to get a smoothie because it was hot,” Marshall said, “and when he got in the car, he started to have spasms.”
‘I love this kid'
Gray will surely be on the minds of many in Baltimore when Maryland and Clemson play their final regular-season game as ACC opponents today. The news of his death hit especially hard here, particularly for former St. Frances basketball coach William Wells.
When Gray showed up as a freshman in Wells' gym class, he played soccer, not basketball, despite being nearly fully grown.
Gray would become Wells' project.
“You see a big 6-5, 6-6 kid in your classroom and you're saying to yourself, ‘I love this kid, he can play [basketball] — he's going to play,'” Wells recalled. “I asked him if he played basketball and he told me no. I passed him the ball, and he fumbled with the ball. I said, ‘I'm telling you right now, you're going to play basketball.'
“He really didn't want to play. He said he was a soccer player. I told him, ‘You're clumsy and you can't run. Let me teach you how to play basketball.' We start talking, and I told him: ‘You might have a future here. His mother wanted him to graduate high school and go work. I said, to him, ‘Let me help you at least get to college.'”
What struck Wells immediately was Gray's leaping ability.
“He was touching the block up on the rim and I was thinking, ‘What do I have here?'” Wells said. “He was pretty raw, but you can work with kids who really want to try.”
Gray was receptive to Wells' coaching. “Devin was like clay, and William Wells definitely molded him into the basketball player he was,” said Derrick Chase, who was a year ahead of Gray at St. Frances. “Even though he was a raw talent, he always tried. He always put his heart out there.”
Gray helped St. Frances win the junior varsity championship in the Baltimore Catholic League as a sophomore, when the school still didn't have a varsity team. He then moved in with Wells and his family at the suggestion of Gray's mother, Patricia.
“His mom said, ‘If you think he's that good, you take him and let him live with you,'” Wells recalled. “We ate, slept and talked basketball.”