By Jeremy Hartigan
Johnathan Gray '13 burst with pride when his mom called him with the good news: He was a member of the U.S. Virgin Islands national basketball team.
Two years ago, Gray, a junior guard for the Big Red men's basketball team, was just a team manager. Then he joined the varsity team as a player midway through his freshman year, developing from a practice player into an All-Ivy selection in 2012.
Now he heads into an offseason where he will compete against some of the world's best players at the 2012 FIBA Centrobasket Championship.
Gray will head to St. Croix in early June for a two-week training camp before competing in the June 18-24 championships in Puerto Rico. The Virgin Islands earned a spot at the tournament after winning gold at last season's Caribbean Championship.
The team qualified for the prestigious Americas Championship, where it has finished among the top six 11 times since 1965, including finishing as runner-up in 2006 (to Panama) and 2008 (to Puerto Rico). It placed ninth in 2010.
Gray's path from nearly unrecruited walk-on to standout Ivy League player has been unconventional. He received some interest from good schools, but none offered him a scholarship. "Particularly as Cornell had success and made the NCAA tournament, I thought it would be a good fit," Gray says. While he knew the Big Red had a great basketball program, he was also well aware of the value of a Cornell degree.
At Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Fla., Gray, a 6-foot-3 guard, was named second team all-state and was district player of the year after averaging better than 18 points and five rebounds per game in his final season. He directed his team to a district title as a senior captain. He wasn't unknown, but he was undervalued. So when Gray walked off the court for the final time in high school in the regional finals, there was uncertainty over whether his future would include basketball.
"The idea I might not play again certainly dawned on me, and I would have been OK, but I'm a positive guy and thought things would work out," he says.
After a visit to Ithaca and being admitted to Cornell, Gray decided to move north despite having been told that there wasn't room for him on the basketball roster.
He nevertheless made himself a fixture in Newman Arena. He helped out at practices, running the clock, passing out balls, playing a stationary defender during drills. Nothing was promised to him. Like other team managers, he occasionally joined the coaching staff during noontime basketball games when they didn't have enough players. Still, nothing.
"I got into an Ivy League school. Not many people can say that," Gray says. "I knew I needed to build a career outside of basketball, and my family has always been academics first. … I would have been fine if I had never gotten a shot."
But during the 2009-10 season, after a player transferred, Gray finally got the call he had been hoping for.
"Coach [Steve] Donahue called me right before winter break and told me that a spot had opened up. … They liked my athleticism and what I could bring to the team," Gray says. "I said 'absolutely.'"
The 2009-10 Big Red set an Ivy League record for wins (29) and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, the furthest any team from the Ancient Eight had advanced in more that 30 years. It finished the season ranked No. 17 nationally.
Gray had gone from manager to teammate. While he saw very little court action as a rookie, by his sophomore season Gray was able to shake the idea that he was a walk-on. He emerged as a key contributor, averaging 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds while playing 13.4 minutes per game.
In his junior year Gray earned honorable mention All-Ivy League honors after ranking sixth in the Ivy League in scoring in league games (12.3 points per game), while posting 8.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game overall. Gray hit for double figures in scoring 12 times with two 20-point games, including a career-high 29 points in a win over Yale and 20 points in a victory over Dartmouth.
The U.S. Virgin Islands team took notice.
"My aunt had some type of connection and had mentioned that I played college basketball," Gray says. "They are always looking for up-and-coming athletes who might be able to help their team, and I guess they started keeping up on my career."
Gray's mother was born in St. Thomas. Though he will set foot on the islands for the first time this summer, he feels as though he already knows the place.
"My mom always talked about wanting to go down there with me," Gray says. "Now basketball will finally give me the opportunity to see the place where my mom grew up."
Basketball brought him half way. He managed the rest with persistence and perseverance.