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Gryphons' Gray plays big game despite size

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Rocky Mount High’s Deonte Gray looks for a teammate to pass the ball to during their home game against Franklinton at Rocky Mount High School.

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By SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Saturday, January 27, 2018

There was a recreational league at the YMCA when Deonte Gray was in fifth grade. It was one of his first go-arounds with an organized basketball set up, having graduated from uneven courts and rims without backboards.

It also the first time playing against older kids. He was smaller than everyone, like he is now as a junior for Rocky Mount High. But he doesn’t think he’ll be six feet tall anymore like he did back then.

He isn’t scared now — he enters the paint and leaves with rebounds. He runs the Gryphons’ second unit with an authority and yells at seniors when he thinks they aren’t running a play right.

But in fifth grade, when he was trying to navigate a 5-on-5 game at the Y, he admits now he was scared, timid, not so sure of himself. His uncle, Earl Bowers, who passed away in 2016, was there, and he had a pep talk for Gray.

“He told me, he said, ‘You can’t be doing that, because you’re short. You’ve got to make a name for yourself. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,’” Gray said. “He gave me my confidence towards basketball. He is one of the reasons I am who I am.”

Since then, Gray swears, he hasn’t been scared once. This is a notion his teammates back up.

“He’s the little guy, but he’s got the biggest heart. That’s the main thing about him,” said senior Jamar Ellis, a fellow point guard. “He’s not afraid.”

He’s 5-foot-5, and, in his first season with the varsity team, has been the smallest player on the floor every time he’s stepped onto it. That was the case on Friday night against Franklinton, when the pingy point guard helped pick apart the Rams, tallying five steals, five assists, three points on two shots and zero turnovers.

He usually comes off the bench for the Gryphons and nothing — except, perhaps, his height — pops too much from the stat page, but Gray’s calming presence, confidence and attitude as a floor general has been one of the several reasons for Rocky Mount’s much-improved record from a year ago.

That could come as a surprise to some, but not to head coach Michael Gainey.

The two became familiar with each other the summer before Gray’s freshman year of high school, when Gainey took him to a camp at N.C. State.

“I guess that’s when he found out that I was good,” Gray said.

In front of his mother, Kesha, Gray went up against the usual taller people and showed well.

“I fell in love with him then,” Gainey said. “He was questioning himself a little, very slow on some things, but he got it together and when his mom came, he played so well, I told his mom she couldn’t leave, she had to come back to next day and watch him play.”

With that, the longtime coach was all in.

“Coach Gainey always talked about him before he came to Rocky Mount,” Ellis recalled, laughing. “He was a guy that keeps the tempo up. I was looking forward to that.”

Of course, he’s heard all of the comparisons. His grandfather used to remind Gray about Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb. Sometimes he gets Nate Robinson, though Robinson, points out Gray, was more of a scorer and he’s more of a passer.

He’s had the mentality his whole life; a fan of basketball, and really only basketball, since he was little, watching and observing point guards from yesteryear to today, with John Wall being his current favorite player.

“My objective is, I want to win. I try to make sure that everybody else gets what they need to get done,” Gray said. “For example, like, if he’s a better shooter than me, I’d rather give him the ball so he can shoot so that we can have a better chance to win the game, rather than ball hog and miss the shot.”

There was a moment earlier this season that resonated with Gainey, during a game against Southern Nash, where Gray ignited a game-clinching run by pulling down a rebound in the paint over three Firebirds players, all with at least half a foot on him.

He dished the ball to a teammate for a layup.

Gainey looked at the bench with an impressed look and simply asked his players, “How?”

That’s always been the question for Gray, as he realized his shortcoming as a player was going to be his height: how, not why. As in, how am I going to turn this into a good thing?

“I always kind of embraced it. When I was younger I always thought, ‘I’m going to grow, I’m going to be 6-foot.’ As I got older, I realized, I’m going to be short so I’ve got to embrace that,” he said. “I know, because I’m short, they think I have a disadvantage, so I’ve got to give it my all to get it done.”

At a recent Rocky Mount practice, the Gryphons coaching staff asked every player who think they have a shot at playing at the next level to raise their hands.

Some shot up, Gray’s stayed down.

“I said, ‘Son, obviously you don’t know much about Bogues or the other boy Spud Webb,” Gainey said, laughing.

Of course, Gray has heard those names. That’s what grandfathers are for.

“No matter how big you are, it’s what’s in your heart,” Gainey continued. “And he has that ability to play on the next level.”

As for Gray, a good student whose well-liked by his teachers, the idea of college basketball is on the backburner.

The Gryphons are 13-2 in his first varsity season, already with more wins than last season, when he was on junior varsity. There’s a playoff run to be had. But if the time comes, he’ll be ready.

“If somebody looks for me, I’ll take it. In this day and age -- I don’t really score very much. A lot of people won’t really look at me because I don’t score that much -- I don’t do what they want,” he said. “They’ll be like, ‘He can get assists, he can run the team.’ Then they’ll look at me and be like, ‘Aw man, he’s…...5-foot-5.’ If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, I’ll always have a backup.”

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