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.

Go Zags.


4 Responses to “The Curious Case of Steven Gray, Part One”

  1. I agree that it is refreshing to see Gray so excited about life other than basketball. Not enough College Athletes recognize their ability to do positive things for their communities. #42 comes to mind. Sounds like Gray’s experience in Zambia was good for him, and I am proud for being open to the experience.

    Still, I don’t think criticism of Few is entirely warranted here. I’m a little too busy to read the links you provided, so its possible that I might be completely wrong about this, but are you sure that his criticism of Gray “not being focused on basketball” was a criticism of him doing good off the court? Are you sure that saying in effect, “I’m not positive that Gray is completely focused on basketball right now,” means, “I’m critical of the kid is helping out our community, local, national and international?”

    I found the hippie comment funny on a couple of levels, one of these levels being how imprecise the word “hippie” is. It could have meant that he didn’t like the way that he dressed or styled his hair. It could have meant that he was embracing a set of political opinions that Few didn’t agree with. Remember, Few got along with Adam Morrison who had awful hair and definitely had political opinions your average Spokanian would have a rough time swallowing. It could also have meant that he was smoking Marijuana, which Few would have every right to be concerned with, especially in Light of #42. Point is, I don’t know what he specifically meant by the comment, which is part of the reason it was stupid of him to say it.

    Few isn’t beyond criticism as a basketball coach, but neither is Gray as a Student-Athlete. If this was a multi choice math test I would pick “e) Not enough information to complete the problem.” Still maybe I’m wrong and there is enough info. I’m not too up to date on this stuff and have given up on the SpoDisney message board or Meehan’s blog.

    Anyway, Great to have you back, LaRev. Place looks great.

    Z (Bryan)

  2. First, I’ve got a major problem with the way Few “motivates” his players through the media. He’s done it for years and it drives me nuts, and it would drive me really nuts if I were one of his players. (Also, there’s the story about Morrison writing “Religion is the opiate of the masses” on the locker room whiteboard after Few suggested that the team go to church, so I’m not sure how well the two of them got along. If they did, then there might be more to this story here than I thought.) Second, for me the most important part about all of this is not that SG does community work (although that’s certainly important); it’s that he says he’s not willing to be known as just a basketball player. When Few effectively called him a hippie (which is, again, a code word), I didn’t see him as making fun of his community work, but rather as him making fun of Gray’s belief that there’s more to life than hoops. (As in, if you don’t give infinity percent to basketball, you’re lazy.) In that sense, he made fun of the value of college as a life-altering experience and people who pick Gonzaga specifically because they think it’s an environment wherein they can and will change.
    I’m willing to admit that Few gets taken out of context when he comes across like such a jerk in interviews, but here, he was way out of line no matter what the context was.

  3. Interesting post and one I largely agree with, though not sure I’d go so far as to call Few a flaming hypocrite. However, I have taken issue with the way Few has castigated Gray on the press. You’ll notice, however, that after this weekend’s games in which Gray was tremendous on the court, Few was his lead cheerleader. Who knows what motivates any of these guys. I will say it’s understandable that a coach who sees the great athletic potential in one of his players might assume that any time not spent honing that talent is wasted time. I don’t agree with that, because sports is as much about mental fortitude as it is muscle memory. For all Few knows, or should know, Steven’s lifestyle has made him a better man and a better player. And to your point, regardless of Steven’s skill and potential and his activities’ impact on them, GU and men like Few should care about turning out people, not hoops-playing robots.

    (My previous take on this at GUBoards:

  4. To me, Steven Gray, his lifestyle, and Mark Few are only at the periphery of this story. As I said in my column, we as Zag fans need to figure out what we expect from our student-athletes, and this Gray-Few-hippie situation, even though it’s a little old, is a perfect opportunity to do so.

    I do think it’s telling, though, that Few was Gray’s “lead cheerleader” while SG was playing well, but not during the offseason while he was making the most of his college experience.

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