The Curious Case of Steven Gray, Part One
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” –Muhammad Ali
Mark Few’s life in Spokane, in media cliche Cliff’s Notes: He lives in a beautiful cabin on a great piece of land with a spectacular view a few minutes’ drive away from campus and he fishes a lot (sometimes right outside his office!) and he likes his life, thank you very much, and he’s forever refusing to move up the coaching ladder for a better job somewhere else. For the most part, the Mark Few Story is pretty banal (at least after how often it’s retold), but the fact that he refuses to move on is intriguing and makes him the ultimate paradox amongst college coaches. He’s the guy who said no to big-name schools and their million-dollar paychecks and yes to a comfortable life in a place he likes. The rest of college basketball coaches are seemingly always using their current job as a springboard to their next one, but Few’s had exactly one head coaching job, even though he easily could have had any number of others. Unlike his colleagues, he’s stayed. After all, he’s seen friends in the business leave for greener pastures and end up failing and miserable. Why give up what he’s got for something he doesn’t want? So, yeah, Mark Few knows a thing or two about bucking conventional wisdom and doing things his own way, for his own reasons. Which is why the way he talks about Steven Gray is so mystifying.
For the uninitiated, Steven Gray is the senior shooting guard on whom Gonzaga is expected to lean heavily this season. His pro potential is still up for debate, but right now, he’s got a great mix of size, strength, and tricky speed that makes him one of the best college players in the country. Like Mark Few, he is also different from most of his peers. In addition to playing basketball, he acts in school performances and spent part of this past summer in Zambia in the Gonzaga-in-Zambezi program. The latter, which brought him and other Gonzaga students to live with families in the southern African country and teach, compelled Gray to write on the program’s blog that it was “the first time I have really felt like we as people are one family.” Other college athletes have done similar work over their summers (Tim Tebow most prominantly), but Gray’s writing gives us an insight into what makes him unique. The blog piece reads like the work of a college kid who saw the world for the first time and came away profoundly affected, and with a broader view of where and how he fits and ready to explore some more. Fitting for someone who says with no irony that “there’s a lot more to life than basketball.” In a world where many college basketball players use their schools solely as a pit stop on the way to the NBA, Gray’s desire to first get all he can from his college experience indeed makes him a great paradox in his own right. It’s not all about basketball for him, and for this radical belief, his paradox of a head coach should be standing and applauding. Except he’s not.
No, Mark Few doesn’t think too highly of Steven Gray’s non-basketball activities. Last season, Few said Gray’s outside interests meant he was “infatuated with the hippie movement,” and when asked the other day if Gray is entirely focused on basketball he said, “I don’t know.” (As if “focus” can be measured like a head coach’s win percentage.) The fact that he’s being hypocritical (not to mention obnoxious and historically inaccurate–there was no “hippie movement” and the 60s were most definitely not an “overrated time in our evolution”) is clearly lost on Few. For him, staying in Spokane because his life is way better there than in the allegedly greener other pastures is an easy choice, but for looking at his life in non-basketball terms (and thus refusing to be a meatheaded robotic gym rat), Steven Gray is just plain lazy (or at least a hippie, which is simply a code word for lazy). As far as Mark Few is concerned, Gray’s sole purpose at Gonzaga is to work as hard as possible to win basketball games.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Few’s stance is ridiculous. He expects his players to go to class (see: Kong, Bol), but whether or not they learn anything there is irrelevant and if they’re actually inspired to change while there, it’s unacceptable. His priorities are all out of whack, and as the highest profile employee at a university that currently calls its students to “be inspired,” he should know better. Unfortunately, I don’t think many Zag fans really care. After the anti-hippie rant ran in the Kitsap Sun last year, I tweeted my disgust, but found that nobody else even mentioned Few’s comments, let alone found them at least inappropriate. Likewise, when someone posted the link to the Sun’s most recent “I don’t know” article on GUBoards, the ensuing discussion ranged from acceptance of Gray’s acting (as long as he performed on the court, of course) to, incredibly, a celebration of Mark Few’s ability to use the media to motivate his players. Nothing even resembling a criticism of Few’s actions let alone a real, honest assessment of what it means that one of Gonzaga’s best players is on record saying he doesn’t want to be known as just a basketball player.
As a group, we’ve been so flooded with fluffy human interest stories over the years that we might as well be watching a Disney movie: Derek Raivio shoots jumpers in the gym at three in the morning; Dan Dickau’s got a Trailblazers’ dancer for a girlfriend; Ronny Turiaf speaks infinity languages; David Pendergraft hunts rattlesnakes. These all contribute to a cheesy legend that’s completely taken over how we speak about the Zags and gives us an even cheesier way to differentiate the program from the rest. In the meantime, though, we haven’t figured out what to do with someone who sees basketball for the stupidly nonimportant thing that it is. We haven’t figured out whether or not we think it’s OK for Steven Gray to say, “You know what? I like basketball just fine, and I know I’m really good at it, but I’m not willing to let it consume me. I’m not willing to be just a basketball player.” What Zag fans need to realize is that by not challenging Mark Few in this situation, they are saying they accept his ridiculous argument, and thus give it credence. The fact that we stood by and let Few make fun of Steven Gray is as much an indictment of us as a fan base as it is of him.
You see, there are those out there who believe completely that Gonzaga is a special place and has a special basketball team. They invent terms like “Zag Material” to describe a player who they think fits into that special mold, and write off everyone else. That view is childish and idealistic, but not entirely impossible. But for the Gonzaga program to be as truly special as some believe it is, and for Zag Material to be anything but a message board construction, we need players like Steven Gray. We need him to remind us that college sports are played by college students, not mercenaries. We need him to remind us that there is much more to life than basketball. Above all, we need him to remind us why we ourselves went to Gonzaga in the first place, and why we continue to support it and think it’s someplace special, someplace that both attracts and produces Zag Material. And I know this much: If Steven Gray ain’t Zag Material, ain’t nobody Zag Material.