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.
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.”
Marshall, who played at St. Paul's and later at Cornell, recalled the only time he faced his cousin in an official game, during his senior year and Gray's junior year. It was in the championship game of a tournament at Lutheran High.
“St. Frances beat the hell out of us — they did the Phi Slamma Jamma on us. Every point seemed to be a dunk,” said Marshall, who later played professionally in Europe. “I had recruiters from Dartmouth and other colleges there. Some schools stopped recruiting me after that game.”
In leading St. Frances to its first BCL championship, “Devin put us on the map,” Wells said, helping draw a generation of players to the school, including Mark Karcher and Sean Mosley. Gray continued to live with Wells and his family after he went to Clemson.
“We just came to be family,” Wells said.
When Gray's mother visited her son's grave site Thursday, Wells' daughter, Keita, whom Gray “thought of as a sister,” her father said, went, too.
‘Just a competitor'
With Gray averaging 16.7 points per game and being named to the All-ACC third team as a sophomore, NBA scouts made their way to Littlejohn Coliseum to watch a Clemson team full of talent. Guard Chris Whitney was two years ahead of Gray, and center Sharone Wright was a year ahead.
“Devin was just a tough, hard-nosed player who could do a lot of things,” former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis said. “He was just a competitor. Some people will just go play the game, but you've got to do more than that. Devin not only played the game, he competed.”
While Gray had some high-scoring games for the Tigers — including 27points and 23 points in two games against Maryland as a sophomore — Ellis' favorite memory of Gray was his defense against Duke star Grant Hill during the 1994 ACC tournament.
“Grant Hill was just having his way with us,” said Ellis, who left after Wells' junior year for Auburn and is now the coach at Coastal Carolina. “They put Grant Hill at the point, at the top, and I put Devin on Grant. It was just a battle. Duke won, but Grant had to work for everything he got.”
It was the last ACC game Gray played for the Tigers. After having what was described at the time as a mild heart attack, Gray was forced to withdraw from his classes that spring and was declared academically ineligible after the fall semester. He joined a Continental Basketball Association team in South Dakota shortly after leaving Clemson.
Ellis said Gray was “one of the most underrated players in the country” but that his size and shooting range might have held him back from a sustained career in the NBA. Gray played a total of 27 games over three seasons in the league, mostly on 10-day contracts.
“His shooting range was about 15 to 18feet, and at 6-6, I think he got the most out of what he had,” Ellis said. “I think he was just a couple of inches shorter and his range was about 3 or 4 feet shorter than would make him that guy who would play in the NBA for a long time.”
William Wells thinks something else held Gray back in his professional career.
“I think the heart scares had a toll on Devin,” Wells said. “Devin really didn't go as hard as he could have. He did what he needed to do to get by. If he was physically strong and fit, Devin would have been in the NBA [a long time].”
Gray's mother said doctors told her 20years ago that her son's condition was “1 in 2 million” and that he was prescribed Coumadin, which prevents clotting in the heart but can increase the risk of bleeding.
Those who take the medication regularly are advised to avoid activities that put them at risk of bleeding or injury. It isn't known whether Gray was taking it regularly, or at all, before he died.
Wells said the two often had conversations about Gray's professional career, which ended with a team in Venezuela in 2001. He spent most of the past decade in Baltimore, where along with Marshall he helped start a foundation that paid for local youth to attend summer basketball camps at a fraction of the normal cost.
“To me, he should have stayed overseas [to play], not pursue the NBA career,” Wells said. “With the short season [overseas], he could have lasted longer over there [than] in the NBA. He wanted to be with the big boys in the NBA.”
That is what attracted him to Atlanta, where he was set to join Chubby Wells and former Clemson teammate Donnell Bruce in the sports agent business, representing NBA and European players.
Chase said he had seen Gray shortly before he moved to Atlanta.
“Looking at Devin, you would never know anything was wrong with him,” said Chase, now a business manager for Baltimore City schools. “Always on the go, never winded, nothing to give you an inkling that something was going on. … When I got the call, it was shocking. It took the breath out of me.”
As shocking as Gray's death was to his friends and family, they took solace in how beloved he was in Baltimore. When Chase showed up at St. Frances for Gray's memorial service in August, he was amazed by the number of people who had come to pay their respects.
Those who were there estimate the crowd at around 600, including nearly all of Gray's high school and college teammates.
“I was so overwhelmed. It helped get my spirits up. I couldn't get sad or down because it showed me that so many people loved my son as I did,” his mother said. “It really lightens your heart. I've never been to a funeral that big in my life. God blessed me to raise a boy and make a man out of him.”
Maryland assistant coach Bino Ranson, who was two years behind Gray at St.Frances, still thinks about his longtime friend. His death will certainly be on Ranson's mind when he walks into Littlejohn Coliseum for today's game. Ranson was part of a group William Wells had taken to watch Gray's first game.
“He was just a great person,” Ranson said. “He would do anything for anybody. He didn't have an ego. What you saw is what you got. He was the same every day. He was a great friend of mine, and I miss him dearly.”
It has been especially difficult for Marshall. He and Gray had worked on a variety of business ventures over the years and were still extremely close, even though their lives were starting to move in different directions, both personally and geographically.
Now living outside Detroit, where he works for the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, Marshall still gets choked up talking about Gray.
“There's only been 10 or 12 days since he passed that I haven't cried,” he said.
Patricia Gray-Carter said she still runs into old friends who tell her, “I can't believe he's gone,” only to follow up with a happy memory of her son's life.
“The condolences and the different things people have said to me — I know he was a good man,” she said, “and that just makes it so much easier.”
Devin Gray vs. Maryland
Jan. 25, 1992: 6 points, 1 rebound in 20 minutes. Maryland won, 84-71.
Feb. 22, 1992: 9 points, 8 rebounds in 22 minutes. Clemson won, 82-70.
Mar. 12, 1992 (ACC tournament): 14 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists in 27 minutes. Maryland won, 81-75.
Jan. 26, 1993: 27 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals in 34 minutes. Clemson won, 82-72.
Feb. 27, 1993: 23 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists in 37 minutes. Clemson won, 81-73.
Jan. 26, 1994: 4 points, 2 rebounds in 20 minutes. Maryland won, 71-53.
Feb. 26, 1994: 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals in 27 minutes. Clemson won, 73-67.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun