DURHAM, N.C. – If life is supposed to involve a journey taken along a certain path, Duke Blue Devils women’s basketball senior guard Chelsea Gray took quite a detour from the one she was on last Spring.
Cruising along as the team’s leader for the then 5th-ranked Blue Devils, Gray was having a ‘career year’ coming into the team’s 25th game of the season against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Feb. 17, 2013.
Gray was playing one of the best individual seasons in program history averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.6 steals per game.
After Duke had reached its second Elite Eight the year before, the team was poised to do the same and hoping to go much farther with Gray leading the way.
However, it all quickly came to an end for her on Duke’s home court at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Playing for a ball in the paint, she stepped awkwardly and fell down screaming in pain and clutching her right knee.
The gym fell silent while Gray’s painful reaction could be heard as the team’s training staff and head coach Joanne P. McCallie approached to help her.
After a time, she was able to get up with their help and left the game.
She didn’t return then, or for the remainder of the season as she had dislocated her kneecap after only playing 10 minutes.
The injury didn’t keep her down as she had surgery soon afterwards and began a rigorous recovery and rehabilitation process.
Instead of leading her team on the floor, she figured out a way to lead off of it every chance she could while sporting a heavily padded brace.
She became the team’s extra coach on the sideline during games and helped her teammates warm up beforehand.
She sat close to McCallie on the team bench as Duke continued its season to capture not only the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season title, but the conference tournament title as well.
Gray was still traveling along the path she was on before, being a part of her team’s success, but just not dropping the ball through the basket in doing so.
The Blue Devils had to become a different team without her.
As McCallie described it, “you can’t replace Chelsea Gray.”
While the Blue Devils moved on to eventually reach the Elite 8 again, the team’s hopes of getting to the Final Four were once again dashed as they lost the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The obvious question was echoed again – how far would Duke have been able to go if Gray was playing?
A hypothetical journey of the mind would never be able to answer that question. It was impossible to do, so it was time to move on.
As the summer arrived, Gray spent much of it continuing to rehab on campus and working to get stronger on and off the court in preparation for the upcoming season.
She was determined to get back to the playing level she was at prior to her injury.
The goal was always to be able help lead her team to get farther into the postseason and to contend for a national championship title.
However, would she be able to come back from such a major injury to do so?
Just before this school year began, the injury allowed her, or using a more accurate word, forced her to take a step back and get refocused.
She did so while visiting her family in California.
“I was able to smile and really take a step back,” Gray said.
“At that time there wasn’t much more rehab per se on my knee that I could do, so I was able to take that time away from campus and all the busy-ness and just be the girl in the family.”
Recovering from such a major injury from the time it happened up until preseason training began, she took that time to process it all.
As she was trying to get her playing career back on track, she continued to use the help and resources of those closest to her.
Obviously her Duke family was with her throughout it all while she was in Durham – McCallie and her coaching staff, her teammates, the medical and athletic training staff, and countless others.
She endured her own physical and mental healing to get stronger on a daily basis, and also drew from the much-needed support of those who have always been with her – her family – and in particular, her older brother Javon.
“I definitely had to get myself together and handle the mental piece of that first,” Gray said.
“Then I was able to really help with my team and everything. After I took a step back, I knew what I needed to do to help my team. My brother did an amazing job of really talkin’ to me, especially when I got the news. He was the first person I called.”
“This wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” she told her brother back then.
“I was just balling, in tears, and I just felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh, life is over.’ It’s the worst feeling ever”
“He really helped me with that.”
Though her brother, 10 years her senior, played more baseball than basketball, his influence as well as her parents, aunt and cousins all played a role to get her ready for the season.
In October, during the team’s preseason media day, Gray indicated that she was “definitely past half-court” in terms of how comfortable she was in measuring her full recovery.
“I’m definitely past half-court, in the three-point line area, sort of,” she said.
“I’m trying to get there.”
When the question was posed of how would she deal with the situation if she couldn’t or didn’t get back to the level she wanted or needed to get to, she said, “anything I’m able to do that helps the team… it’s the team before me.”
“We have this concept of ‘we before me’. That’s how we act.”
Fast-forwarding 10 games into the season, Gray and the 2nd-ranked Blue Devils are preparing to host the top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies on Tuesday.
It will be the biggest early-season indicator of how good the Blue Devils are as national championship contenders and whether Gray has truly regained her form in helping to lead the team in that direction.
A glance at Gray’s numbers answers the question succinctly.
She has played in every game for the Blue Devils while averaging 29.3 minutes of playing time per game versus the 30.3 minutes she played throughout last season up to the point of being injured.
After wrapping one’s mind around that, a look at Gray’s stats sheet will require a refocus and reread as well – 12.8 points, 8.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 3.2 steals per game.
Statistically she is putting up results comparable and better than those she left off with last February.
It is clear that Gray is an exceptional athlete in being able to make it back to this point, and playing to achieve such impressive results so quickly.
If she or anyone else for that matter was ever in doubt of what her future in basketball would hold – be it contending for a national championship or playing professionally when her college career was complete – the early indications are very strong that she has gotten herself back on track.
Though she took a painful and long route to return, Gray’s journey can continue and the steps she previously outlined to take are now back within sight.
As impressive at it has been watching her travel along the winding path she has taken so far, one can only wonder what more great things are still to come for her and this Duke team.