A Quiet Career
By Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 5/12/00


This article is part 1 in a series on the college career of former Tech basketball player Andre Ray. Shortly after the end of the 1999-2000 men's basketball season, I had the opportunity to meet with Andre and interview him in depth about the five years he spent on the basketball team at Virginia Tech. This article and the ones that follow it are the result of that interview and provide a rare detailed look at the life and times of a less-heralded college athlete than you normally read about.


Ray in a pensive
moment on court

Years from now, when Tech basketball fans reminisce about great Virginia Tech basketball players of the past, Andre Ray's name will not come up in the conversation. He is not Bimbo Coles, Dell Curry, Ace Custis, or Allan Bristow. He is not even Dale Solomon, Wayne Robinson, or Perry Young. His name appears nowhere in the Virginia Tech record books, either for individual game, season, or career accomplishments.

As a senior at Harnett-Central High School in North Carolina in 1994-1995, Andre Ray averaged 23 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 assists a game. He made 34 three-pointers and had three "20-20" games (20 points or more, 20 rebounds or more) as a senior, playing against 3A and 4A competition. He was all-conference and all-state, and he could score from anywhere. Blessed with cat-quick feet and great leaping ability, he was a phenomenal athlete. And to top it all off, he was the student body president and a North Carolina Scholar honoree.

In short, though not highly recruited, he was the total package. The Virginia Tech coaching staff agreed, and as a matter of fact, they thought so much of him that they sent assistant coach Chris Ferguson down to North Carolina between the semi-finals and finals of the 1995 NIT just to meet with Andre and recruit him. Like many of Tech's most heralded athletes, such as Ace Custis and Corey Moore, the Tech coaching staff thought they had found a diamond in the rough, a player who slipped in under the radar screen and would flourish and do great things in college.

But Andre Ray's career at Tech never panned out the way anyone thought it would. Over the years, he played in 111 games, starting 76, but he scored in double figures just seven times and never averaged more than 5 points a game in any season. He graduated with a career scoring average of just 3.7 points a game, and his biggest accomplishment was being named to the Atlantic-10 All-Defensive Team as a senior.

But if you think that Andre Ray is a failure, you couldn't be farther from the truth. The chronicle of his times at Virginia Tech is one of disappointment, regret, accomplishment, and personal growth and triumph, all at once. He came to Virginia Tech as a boy who could play basketball, but he leaves as a man who knows the value of education, perseverance, and his place in the world.

We've all heard about the Michael Vicks, Corey Moores, Bruce Smiths, and Ace Custis's of Virginia Tech. We know their stories. But role players like Andre Ray are mostly overlooked, and after a time, forgotten.

This is his story.

The Beginning: A Player Blossoms

Harnett County in central North Carolina is south of Raleigh and is home to over 80,000 residents and three high schools: Triton High, Western Harnett, and Harnett Central. As a freshman and a sophomore at Western Harnett High School, Andre Ray was already starting to stand out as an athlete.

In ninth grade, he played both football and basketball, and at the time, football was arguably his best sport. He played as a receiver and defensive end and recalls one game where he had six sacks from his defensive end position.

He was good enough as a ninth-grader that he received a letter from nearby North Carolina State University, inviting him to their football camp. The varsity coach at Western Harnett wanted him to move up and play varsity football for him, but Andre stayed at the JV level for his ninth-grade year.

It was to be his last year of football. Ray's father Andray intervened, and the senior Ray offered his son a choice that wasn't really a choice.

"My father used to play football at ECU," Andre remembers. "He went there on a partial scholarship, but unfortunately for him, he broke his knee his sophomore year right before the season started, so he had to quit. After my freshman year, my father told me I had to choose one or the other, football or basketball, and he said, 'I prefer that you choose basketball.' So I picked basketball and started concentrating on basketball."

The JV team Andre had played on as a freshman hadn't been very good, but his sophomore year, it was a different story. "We came back my sophomore year and we went 23-2. We were good," he recalls. "I averaged 13 or 14 points my sophomore year, and we won our conference championship. It was a lot of fun."

One of the highlights of his high school career came during his sophomore year.

"My sophomore year in high school, we went to a team camp at Furman, and (current NBA player) Kevin Garnett was there, I didnít know who he was at the time, and all my teammates were like, 'Thatís Kevin Garnett, and heís going to the NBA right out of high school!' We played against his team, and I guarded Kevin Garnett and I held him to 4 points, and he was averaging maybe 30 at the time. They had a dunk contest with some high class athletes, and I ended up winning the dunk contest there, too."

Ray and his teammates, a tight-knit group coming off their 23-2 season, had high hopes for their junior year. "We decided that going into my junior year, we were going to win our conference, win states, all those kinds of goals."

But Andre's father had other ideas. Having already pushed his son towards basketball, he began to get the feeling that young Andre might have a future in it. But there was one problem. At 6-2, Andre was the tallest player on his team, and the coach was playing him at center. The senior Ray felt that if his son was to take his game to the next level, to college, he would have to learn to play all positions on the court, not just the center position.

So he took the unusual step of building a new house in another school district, and as a junior, Andre Ray left Western Harnett High School and went to play for their county rival, Harnett Central. He remembers still being a "raw" player, and once again, he averaged 13 or 14 points a game, this time playing at the varsity level. But he got what he wanted, playing all positions but the point guard position as a junior.

Having already built a house the summer after his son's sophomore year, Andray Ray had a different project in mind for the summer after his son's junior year: he wanted to build a basketball player. The next thing young Andre knew, he was living in a basketball boot camp.

"The summer after my junior year was what really turned my basketball career around," he recalls. "My father started taking action. We lifted three days a week, and we went to the gym five days a week. We would do all types of drills, all types of shooting drills, defensive drills, just running and working my butt off.

"At the time, I was just like, 'This is really too hard. I don't know if I can do it.' But he just kept pushing me. We'd get home, and he'd make me run one or two miles a day, every day. He would come home from work (he worked the night shift) and wake me up at six o'clock in the morning, and he would say 'Get up, Lamont, you gotta go run. You gotta get in shape and get ready.' All that summer, that's all I did, from the time school was out in June until we went back in August.

"That summer, I started playing AAU basketball, I started playing in church leagues, everything, and my senior year was really when I turned it around. I played point guard, I played two guard, I played everything. I averaged 23 points and 16 rebounds, and it was just from the hard work of the previous summer."

Recruiting: Virginia Tech Comes Calling

Because he had flourished so late in his high school career, college recruiters for the most part weren't taking notice of Andre.

"The schools I was recruited by were the lower Division 1 schools like Radford, Richmond, Coastal Carolina, and Western Carolina. Even Billy Donovan at Marshall visited me at home. This was fall of 1994, my senior year, after I had finished playing AAU, but the season hadn't really started yet."

Andre isn't quite sure how Virginia Tech found out about him. He thinks they took notice of him in a summer AAU tournament and then followed him during his senior year. When he started scoring points in bunches, Tech moved quickly.

"Tech came in right at the end of my senior year," Ray remembers. "They came in that February and March and watched our state playoff game. Coach (Chris) Ferguson came in. We were playing Western Harnett, our rival school, the school that I left. I think I had 17 points in the first quarter. I was scorching hot, and I could not miss. I sat out the second quarter, and I think I finished the game with 36 points. Coach Ferguson came down after the game and let me know that he was there, and then he came into my high school the next day and spoke with me."

Ferguson returned later, leaving the Tech basketball team in New York between the semi-finals and finals of the 1995 NIT, just to visit Ray. "He said, 'We love what you're doing, and we want to offer you a full scholarship to Virginia Tech. We want you to be a vital part of our success. We want you to come in and back up Ace, or maybe start, depending upon how well you play. We think you can be a 2 (shooting guard) and a 3 (small forward) for us.'"

Both Andre Ray and his father didn't want him to go to a small school. They felt as if he could play "big-time" basketball at a bigger school like Tech, and with the Hokies coming off an NIT championship and squarely in the glow of the national spotlight, Virginia Tech seemed like the natural choice. He accepted Tech's scholarship offer and eagerly looked forward to suiting up with the likes of Ace Custis, Shawn Smith, and Damon Watlington.

"I had high expectations about coming into Virginia Tech, especially with the success the team had been having. They were pretty good and had a lot of publicity going for them. I felt like I was coming into a perfect situation because the players that were there were a little older, and I thought I could just play here and there for one year, and then really take off my sophomore year. I figured I could become the scorer I was in high school and do the same kinds of things I did in high school. That was my expectation."

He enrolled at Tech, and very early on, nothing happened to make him feel any differently. That fall, fresh off the NIT championship, the Hokies tipped off practice with a Midnight Madness session that was attended by just over 6,000 fans. And everyone who was there saw a true freshman named Andre Ray win the dunk contest. The kid had made a statement, winning the contest over the veteran point guard Shawn Good, one of the best leapers who has ever put on a Tech basketball uniform.

Things were going as well as Andre Ray could hope. But he would soon encounter an unexpected bump in the road, and later, his career would take a turn down the wrong path and would never be right again.

Next: An Unexpected Redshirt and Trouble at Home

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC, and he contributes a column when time permits.

          

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