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Originally published December 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 19, 2008 at 6:52 PM

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Gonzaga's Steven Gray is purely one of best

Steven Gray was maybe 5 years old back then, fascinated with a basketball and a hoop. He'd ask his dad if he wanted to join him. Sure, Robert Gray would...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Connecticut vs. Gonzaga, KeyArena, 1 p.m., Ch. 7


Steven Gray was maybe 5 years old back then, fascinated with a basketball and a hoop. He'd ask his dad if he wanted to join him.

Sure, Robert Gray would say, but there was a catch. Even then, his son had to do it right.

"I'm like, 'No one else is doing this,' " Steven said good-naturedly last week on the Gonzaga campus. " 'I just want to be out here playing.' "

No deal, said Robert. They worked on form and the mechanics of shooting the ball — feet set, high release, snappy follow-through — and today Steven will tell you it was time well-spent. He's the best pure shooter on the eighth-ranked Gonzaga team that Saturday meets Connecticut in the Battle in Seattle at KeyArena.

"The program fits me so well," Gray said. "I'm enjoying every minute of being here."

It's fitting that the genealogy of Gray's jumper can be traced partly to the basketball-crazed state of Kentucky. Robert Gray was a high-school player in Cadiz, Ky., a 6-foot guard who says he had a 40-inch vertical jump.

He went into the Navy, which eventually brought him to Western Washington and the town of Chimacum, 15 minutes south of Port Townsend. He and his wife, Lorraina, had Steven and daughter Brittany, two years younger. He worked at a paper mill in Port Townsend, she for the port there.

By the time Steven was in middle school, and able to connect on jumpers several feet beyond the three-point line, it was apparent Chimacum wasn't big enough to hold the Grays.

"The first time I heard about him, he was a freshman and scored 52 points," said ex-Bainbridge High boys coach Scott Orness. "I figured he was going to be something special. I never would have dreamed he would end up playing for me."

The Grays looked for summer opportunities to challenge their kids and, Robert said, "We were doing so much of that, I felt — actually, I think we all did — that we were taking steps backward when we were participating in the school programs."

Meanwhile, down on Bainbridge, Orness had his own opinions on transfers.

"One of the things I really didn't like about the Metro League was the number of kids transferring," he said, recalling that when a buzz began to surround the Grays looking to transfer, "I had some of the parents saying, 'You've got to pursue this.' I wasn't even interested in that."

The Grays showed up on the doorstep anyway, partly, Robert says, because the schedule didn't dictate a home-and-away format for the boys and girls on the same nights. They wanted to be able to see both kids.

By the time Steven was a sophomore at Class 2A Chimacum, the Grays had already made the decision. But the day that Chimacum lost a third-sixth place game in the state tournament, Steven fell into his parents' arms and cried, knowing it was his last game in the town where he grew up.

He was hardly a secret on the floor. He'd been in a camp at Gonzaga, and committed to signing there even before the transfer to Bainbridge.

"I just fell in love with it right off the bat," said Gray.

He averaged 24 points as a junior and 19 his senior year, even as there were murmurs about the transfer.

"I caught some flak," said Robert Gray. "There are always going to be haters out there."

Says Orness, "What it came down to was, it was about the only option where the parents could keep their jobs in Port Townsend and [have the kids] go to a really good academic school and play high-level basketball."

The 6-foot-5 Gray was a hit at Gonzaga almost from the start, despite missing 10 games with a broken wrist. He started 19 times, and would have been the story of the Zags' NCAA first-round game against Davidson — he made seven threes in 12 tries — except that was the day the Wildcats' Stephen Curry began making the tournament his own personal launching pad.

"You can definitely pick up a lot of things," Gray said, referring to Curry, a national player-of-the-year candidate. "He changes speeds. You only see the end result, but being out there with him, you notice. He'll run down the court hard, he'll sit, walk, he'll jog a little bit. You relax that one second and he's gone, coming off a screen."

Gray dazzled by hitting 46 percent of his threes as a freshman. That has dropped to 31.6 this season, a number that looks like a complete anomaly.

"He's got to get his feet set a little quicker," said Orness.

The dip coincides with a new role coming off the bench, as the Zags have started Micah Downs. But that doesn't seem to bother Gray.

"The coaches have done a great job bringing in people who understand what it means to be a team," said Gray. "Wherever the road ends for us this year, I think the relationships we have on this team are going to make it more memorable than anything else."

As for Brittany, she's flourishing as a 5-11 senior at Bainbridge, having just set the school career scoring record to go with the rebounding mark she already owned. The Grays are divorced now, and it's Lorraina still making that long commute from Bainbridge Island to Port Townsend.

Brittany beat her brother with her own early commitment to Gonzaga, doing it before the end of her sophomore year.

"She's the earliest commitment I've ever had," said Gonzaga women's coach Kelly Graves. Projecting her as a collegian, he said, "She's probably out of position, undersized inside, but she can just 'stat out.' She can get 30 any time."

In other words, something like her brother.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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