SOUTH BURLINGTON – Young faces filled the only open doorway. When that real estate was gobbled up, others found space in the narrow windows to the shuttered entrances, all craning their necks for a look inside Bill Hammond Gym.
Between the bouncing ball, the chirping sneakers, the camera flashes and the thunderous rattle of the backboard, it was only a matter of time. An impromptu dunk session with the state’s most electrifying high school basketball player — perhaps its most promising college prospect in a generation, with 20-plus Division I programs tracking his progress — is bound to draw attention.
Two-handed, overhead rim-rockers. Windmills and reverse slams. Emphatic, one-handed tomahawk flushes. You name it.
Somehow, though, that wasn’t the most unexpected part of Monday afternoon for Rice junior Kendrick Gray. The 20-minute aerial display, executed with an ease rarely seen in Vermont, provided a natural outlet for his creativity and athleticism.
No, what happened next was the head-scratcher for the 16-year-old.
On his way out of the gym lobby, after changing from his uniform and flashy, metallic-silver Adidas sneakers (a not-for-retail model for players on the company’s premier sponsored AAU teams), another teenager, about a foot shorter, from a different school, approached Gray for an autograph. The boy peeled off his black baseball cap, flipped it over to expose the green bottom of the bill, and offered it up with a pen.
“Never met him in my life,” Gray said after he left his signature with a few flicks of the wrist. “It’s not usually kids that age that ask for autographs. It’s usually little kids.”
Like he has with so much over the last two eye-opening years, Gray took it in stride.
‘It was amazing, how he handled it.’
Here’s a hypothetical to try on for size:
You’re 15 years old. You’ve transferred to a new high school, moved to a new town, two hours from home. New friends, new teachers, new opportunities await.
Not only that, you’ve sprouted a few more inches and your seemingly boundless potential, something everyone assumes is there, starts to take shape. And your new basketball team? It’s a perennial powerhouse. Where your old school had zero state championship banners, your new one had recently claimed its 13th.
Then, just as your promising new chapter is about to start, you learn your dad has cancer.
How would you deal with that?
Kendrick Gray found a different way to wow those around him.
“It was amazing, how he handled it,” Rice coach Paul Pecor said. “He was as strong as any kid, or even any adult, I’ve ever seen go through something like that. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, to see what’s going on, and it just didn’t.”
Gray wanted to play. There wasn’t much to it. Not only was it his passion, it was his dad’s, too.
“My dad loved watching me play,” he said.
“The people that I would talk to every day, they would know I was definitely hit hard by it,” Gray said. “I tried to keep things to myself and just go on with it. Nobody would’ve gotten after me for saying, ‘Oh I can’t go to practice because my dad’s sick.'”
Born with cystinosis, a condition that causes crystal to build up in cells of various organs and tissues, according to the National Institutes of Health, Jarrett Gray had battled health issues long before he adopted Kendrick and his younger brother, Kaine, when the pair were toddlers.
The disease, which required a kidney transplant at age 12 from his older sister Dena, kept Jarrett Gray from playing basketball himself. It did not, however, keep him from exposing Kendrick to the game — so, like many kids his age in the Newport area, Kendrick picked up the sport with the Border Hoop youth basketball program.
He enjoyed hockey for a time, he said, but gravitated to basketball. Forty-point games in elementary school became dunks as an eighth-grader and a spot on the North Country varsity team as a freshman.
He wasn’t a star yet, but he stood out.
“I’ve got some family friends up in the Newport area so I had heard the stories about this kid with incredible athletic potential,” said Rice assistant coach Derek Trono. “He had the body and the athleticism but with all due respect and I always joke with him about it, he was as raw as raw could be.”
Yet the flashes of ability left such an impression that people around town began to suggest his family should think about transferring to another school that could maximize his potential, push him more as a student and a basketball player. The Grays looked into attending Rice, then on its way to the 2013 Division I state championship.
“They wanted him to be a part of the educational school of Rice,” Pecor said. “And the second piece was they wanted him to come somewhere where there’s success in basketball, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have that.”
“To be honest, on my end, I wasn’t thinking it was very serious because Newport’s two hours away,” Pecor said.
The timing, however, turned out to be more serious than anyone wanted to imagine. Shortly after finding an apartment that summer in South Burlington, less than half a mile from the Catholic school, doctors discovered Jarrett had advanced-stage melanoma.
“I remember the first time I saw him after he told me he had cancer, my family was in the hospital, my uncle brought me and my brother down and my cousin,” Kendrick recalled. “We were going to buy furniture for the condo and we stopped at the hospital and my dad was sitting on his bed trying to get up.
“He was in so much pain, you could see it. He had a heating pad around his back and stomach. I know when my dad was hurting and I could just tell he was not going to be around much longer.”
The move, to somewhere within minutes of the UVM Medical Center rather than hours, went from ambition to necessity.
“It was good to be here for his medical (needs) then, but really, when Jarrett was between 11 and 12 … I drove three days a week, starting in January, back and forth from Newport to Burlington” for dialysis treatment, said Pauline Gray, Kendrick’s grandmother. “It was not easy. I said if I ever had to do that again, I would come and take an apartment down here.”
Suddenly being the new kid in town wasn’t so daunting.
Basketball was a welcome — and needed — diversion for the newest member of the Green Knights.
“He definitely used basketball as an outlet, and I get that, too,” Pecor said. “I’m on the outlet side. He loves it. He loves this game. He loves playing this game. Trust me, as soon as things went south fast, he wanted to play and he was going to play. We were letting him play right away.”
Jarrett Gray, too, wanted nothing more than to be around the Rice team and see his oldest son thrive on the court, a chance he got during a preseason scrimmage against Mill River.
But two weeks later, on Dec. 20, 2013, with Rice scheduled to play Champlain Valley that night in its second game of the season, Trono received a call from Kendrick. His dad had died earlier that morning.
“I told him we wanted him to take the day, call us when you’re ready,” Trono said. “He said, ‘No way, I’m going to school, I’m going to play. This is what my dad would’ve wanted.'”
Pauline, who lives with Kendrick in South Burlington and has taken over as his guardian, left that much up to him.
“I gave him the choice,” she said. “To not go and to stay behind, not keep busy, I don’t see how anything would be accomplished that way. I think he thought it was the right thing to do.”
Gray finished the night with 19 points, propelling the Green Knights to a 74-39 rout.
At Jarrett’s funeral in Newport, Kendrick found a crowd of hundreds. Dozens made the trip from Rice, a fact that left a lasting impression with his family, Pauline Gray said.
“The basketball teams came, a lot of teachers came from (Rice). I was just shocked. It made me feel like Rice cares. It wasn’t just my teammates,” Kendrick said. “I can expect my teammates to come but for both basketball teams to come, teachers, a few other kids that I’m friends with … to get out of school and come is so nice. I can’t thank Rice enough for that.”
And two months later, it was Gray kicking off Rice’s championship-game romp with a breathtaking, back-door alley-oop for the first points of the contest.
“To see all that emotion in him and how happy he was, it was huge, and how happy his family was.” Pecor said. “You could see all the turmoil they had gone through that entire year and for him to have that success at that point was great. Even on our end, just to watch it, because if there was one family that deserved that, that was the family. It was a moving experience for us to watch and see that.”
Attention, exposure, opinions
‘I know what I can do and I don’t need people telling me stuff, going out of proportion.’
Fast forward to March 2015 and Kendrick Gray was back at Patrick Gym, adding to his highlight reel. Twenty-six points and 10 rebounds in the semifinals, 19 points in the title game, including a fastbreak jam to seal the win. Another Division I championship for Rice, the program’s third straight.
Gray is far enough removed from the days when he was a hidden gem in the Northeast Kingdom that it’s hard to believe that was ever the case. And it’s only been two years.
“Realistically, let’s be honest, he’s a once in a lifetime athletic talent for Vermont,” Trono said. “He goes to these AAU tournaments and people are shocked — ‘Who’s this kid from Vermont and where’d he come from?'”
His explosive physical tools — speed, agility and the coiled-spring leaping ability — have drawn comparisons with Burlington’s Tyrone Conley, a former hoops standout and two-time high jump state champion who went on to play at the University of New Hampshire. Only Gray, now 6-foot-6, is roughly four inches taller and continuing to add to the more refined parts of his game.
“He’s had a game this year where he’s hit five 3s to go along with that athleticism. That’s a pretty dangerous combination,” Pecor said.
As a junior, Gray upped his season averages to 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The true breakout games, nights such as when he hung 30-plus points on St. Johnsbury and Essex in the stretch run, increased. The one-two combination he formed with Ben Shungu, one of his best friends, made the Green Knights prohibitive favorites every night.
It was for good reason, too. Gray went on to win the coaches association’s player of the year award; Shungu was named Gatorade player of the year and the Free Press’ Mr. Basketball.
Doing so at Rice, the state’s true lightning-rod program, a contender year after year, only heaps on more attention and exposure — not that it lets up in the offseason.
As a member of the New England Playaz, an elite, Adidas-sponsored AAU outfit based in Massachusetts, Gray is in front of college coaches and competing against many of the nation’s top recruits the rest of the year. Mixtape videos on YouTube chronicle some of his above-the-rim exploits.
Schools that have expressed interest in him as a recruit aren’t limited to the America East, the backyard conference. The list also include teams from the ACC, Atlantic-10, SEC and Big East, according to Gray and the website verbalcommits.com.
For a kid with 3,500-plus Facebook friends, nearly 2,000 Twitter followers and another 2,700 followers on Instagram, that attention can quickly escalate or turn negative.
“I know what I can do and I don’t need people telling me stuff, going out of proportion. There will be people who come up to me like, ‘You’ll be the first person ever out of Vermont to go to the NBA,'” Gray said. “I don’t need to hear that.”
The feedback runs the gamut — from over-hyped flattery to snarky, baseless potshots — so he’s adopted a very grown-up approach.
“Peoples’ opinions … people are entitled to their opinions. I’m not going to say, ‘No, you’re not right.’ If that’s what they think, then that’s what they think,” Gray said. “It doesn’t bother me what people have to say negatively about me. I’m thankful when people compliment me and everything, I’m appreciative of it.
“But if people have negative stuff to say about me and Ben (Shungu), or just me or just Ben, then I don’t want to hear it. You can say it, I’ll hear about it, I’ll look at it, read it on Instagram and Twitter, but it’s not going to bug me. It doesn’t get to me. I have too much to worry about than someone’s opinion, someone that I’ll never see in my life, most likely.”
Instead, Gray focuses his energy where it’s needed, in the classroom and on the court.
Getting bent out of shape over a barbed tweet doesn’t help him keep up with his AAU teammates — players like the 6-foot-8 Tomas Murphy, a friend who happens to be one of the country’s highest-rated sophomores — or the who’s-who list of top recruits they’ll line up against in marquee tournaments across the country.
“People might think he’s entitled because of how good he is, the Twitter followers, the videos on YouTube, but people don’t realize that’s because he goes out there and works his tail off,” Trono said. “You always have to throw him out of the gym. You’re talking about a kid who’s put in the time and is seeing the benefits.”
Said Pecor: “He’s not the kid that’s got the ego walking through the door, ‘I already know I’m going to be playing in the ACC, Big Ten world.’ He knows he has to get better.”
The next step
‘Kids like him aren’t going to come around again.’
The potential is still as great as ever. A sadness remains as well. In a way, the two are entwined.
“To be honest, I play for my dad. That’s my strength that builds me up in games,” Gray said.
“At all my games when my dad was alive, there was one thing he’d yell and that would be: ‘Rebound, Kendrick!'” Gray said. “And, like, when I hear the word rebound in games, I think, ‘Rebound, Kendrick!’ If the shot’s not falling, have the game come to you.”
The game will be there. What’s coming next are some important decisions. None of them are easy.
College recruitment is bound to intensify this summer and into the fall. Where does he want to go? What does he want to study?
Prep schools across New England want Gray to play for their programs next year. Which is the best fit? Is that the right move to prepare for college?
“Being on these elite AAU teams, traveling all summer with the best kids in the country, you’re talking about a lot of people, a lot of prep schools, trying to pull him one way or another,” said Trono, who talks frequently with Gray each week. “It’s tough for him, to be honest. He’s trying to do what’s best for him and his family’s trying to do what’s best for him. But you’ve got to slice through what other people’s intentions are, too.”
Then there’s family. Kaine, who lives with an uncle when his brother and grandmother are in South Burlington, is a freshman at North Country and his older brother Marquel, adopted by a different family, is also not far away. And there’s Rice, where Gray has established friendships and matured more rapidly than he probably expected when he arrived two autumns ago.
Is he ready to leave?
“It makes it very tough,” Gray said.
Whatever he decides to do with his bounty of options, his family is dedicated to see him succeed.
“What we make of it is, this is why we’ve done all we have done. We would do it for any one of the boys, we invest in them. I don’t mean monetarily, but the time. If there’s potential there we’re going to try to go as far as we can go with it,” Pauline Gray said. “We plan to provide that opportunity for Kendrick, that’s it. Bottom line.”
The rest of Gray’s support base is right there with them.
“It’s not a situation where it’s hard to be positive, cheer for the kid,” Trono said. “You’re talking about a kid who’s respectful to us, respectful to the game, easy to root for and easy to coach.
“We’ve got to enjoy each and every day of him out there wearing No. 5 for us and flying through the air because kids like him aren’t going to come around again.”