This article is part 2 in a 3-part 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 accompany 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.
In the fall of 1995, Andre Ray arrived at the Virginia Tech campus, fresh off an impressive senior year at Harnett-Central High School in North Carolina, where he averaged 23 points and 16 rebounds a game, good enough to draw a scholarship from the NIT champion Virginia Tech Hokies. He landed with a splash, winning the Midnight Madness dunk contest before a crowd of 6,000 Hokie fans who were fired up to see five starters coming back for a team that would be nationally ranked to open the season.
The electricity had returned to Hokie basketball, and Ray was looking forward to being a part of the phenomenon that Tech basketball had become. During his recruitment, the Tech coaches had told him that they wanted him to back up Tech star Ace Custis, and that he might even get a chance to start at small forward or shooting guard, depending upon how well he did.
Those thoughts quickly came to a halt. Andre Ray learned the first thing about college recruiting: coaches don't tell prospective recruits everything. Ray knew about Tech's fabulous starting five: Custis, Shawn Smith, Travis Jackson, Shawn Good, and Damon Watlington. But he didn't know about the other players on the roster.
"When Tech recruited me, they didnít tell me they had Dave Jackson and Jim Jackson, or Keefe Mathews or Troy Manns or any of those guys," Ray recalled in a recent interview with HokieCentral. "When I came up here my freshman year, Iím seeing all these players, Jim, Dave, Shawn Good, Damon Watlington, and theyíre all seniors, and juniors, and they (the coaching staff) basically pulled me into the office and told me, 'We donít see much playing time for you because we have all these experienced players.' They were very deep, and they just didnít want me to waste a year."
Andre Ray had never heard the term "redshirt," but he heard it shortly after arriving at Tech. The coaches wanted him to sit out a year. "The coaches said, 'What I see for you is to sit out, and learn, and work on your academics, get stronger, and by your fifth year, youíll be in graduate school and will be in graduate classes.'
"At the time I was like, thatís BS, I'm not going to grad school, and I didnít believe in this redshirt stuff, so I was ticked off. I wasnít happy." The Tech coaches were asking a young man whose basketball career was just starting to ignite to take a year off, and for Andre Ray, like most 18-year-olds, a year was an eternity. Especially when he was being asked to essentially give up something that he love to do -- play basketball in front of a crowd.
As usual, Andre turned to his father, the man who had sculpted him into a basketball player, for guidance. "I called my father," Ray said, "and we had a long conversation about it. He said 'Listen, that could be the best thing for you to do right there.'"
Perhaps the elder Ray knew something that his son, with visions of playing in the NBA ("I thought playing in the NBA was a possibility. I believed strongly in my ability, and I looked at the NBA, and I thought hey, I can do what theyíre doing."), was too young to know: that most college players don't make it to the pros, and that a college scholarship is a great opportunity to get a free education.
So he steered his son in the right direction and urged him to be patient. But it was hard for Andre Ray, particularly during that freshman year, when the Hokies went 23-6 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in ten years.
"When I first came in my freshman year," Ray remembers, "and we were practicing in the back gym at Cassell, at times I was lighting Jim and Dave up, the guys that were in front of me. Even Ace came up to me and said, 'Dreí youíre just killiní those guys.'"
But he had to sit out. Even when the team went to Europe on a trip the summer after his freshman year, he could travel with them and practice, but he couldn't play.
Andre Ray didn't know it yet, but in that year, the momentum that he had built up in his senior year in high school was lost. Perhaps it was because he didnít play, but other factors entered into it, too. Back home in North Carolina, where his parents had always been the cornerstone of his life, there was trouble.
Andre's Parents Make a Decision
Before going on, there's something you need to know about the Ray family. They are devout Seventh-Day Adventists. It is their deeply held religious beliefs and their faith in God that has defined their family and guided them through their lives. And in the spring of 1996, it was those same beliefs that led Ray's mother and father to make a difficult decision that would forever alter the course of their lives, and their son's life.
One of the beliefs of the Seventh-Day Adventists is to hold the Sabbath sacred, and in their religion, they define the Sabbath as sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Among other things, that means not working during that time period.
Andre Ray's father worked at a tire plant in North Carolina, and the work paid well. "We were living the life," Andre recalls. "We had a four-bedroom house, nice cars, my parents bought me a Camaro. We were doing well."
The problem was, his parents worked the night shift, in direct violation of the Seventh-Day Adventist's belief in holding the Sabbath sacred (in part 1 of A Quiet Career, Andre spoke of his father coming home from work and getting him out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to work out).
This went on for years, but in the spring semester of Andre's redshirt freshman year, his parents made a difficult decision. As Andre tells the story, his father informed his employer that he would no longer be able to work the Friday night shift. He requested a different shift, but the request was denied.
He followed through on his decision and quit going to work on Fridays, and to make a long story short, he was fired. "My parents thought we might get some type of settlement out of it, but that never happened," Andre said.
And his parents fell on hard times and lost it all, including the house, the cars, and their lives as they knew them. It was a steep price to pay for their beliefs, but they paid it. And in an indirect way, Andre did, too.
They could no longer travel to see their son play, and for a boy whose parents had been the bedrock and foundation of his life, it shook him up.
"All through my high school career," Ray recalls, "my mom and dad were always there for me, always at my games, and I always played my best when my father was there. He was my biggest critic, and I loved to perform well in front of my father.
"Then I came here my freshman year, and I redshirted, and he and my mother still came to support me even though I wasnít playing. They were at every single game, and they always were like, 'We canít wait until you start playing,' and I was pumped up about it. I knew as long as my mom and dad were in the stands, I was going to play my best basketball no matter what."
But as his second year, his redshirt freshman year, dawned, and he finally started to get playing time, his parents were no longer in the stands. And when things got rough on the court, his father wasn't there to look to.
To look at his freshman year stats, you can't see the erosion in confidence that Andre Ray suffered. He played in 27 games, including starting four games, and averaged 9 minutes per game. He shot 45% from the field and 41% from beyond the three-point line, good numbers for a freshman. But he only averaged 2.6 points per game.
"I was really rusty, because I sat out a year, and things just didnít click for me," Andre remembers about a year that simply didn't go like he expected. "I would come into a game, and make a mistake here or there, maybe turn the ball over, and suddenly, I was coming straight out of the game after that one turnover.
"That started to take over my mind, that if I make one mistake in a game, then Iím coming out. So I started trying to play mistake free, which you canít do in basketball. That had a big effect on me, because I started telling myself that I couldnít shoot. I didnít want to drive, because I was afraid I was going to lose the ball and get taken out. I didnít want to make a fancy pass, because I didnít want to turn it over. And that kind of thinking is not good for a basketball player."
So he got conservative in his playing style. "Then I realized I needed to stick to the basics and do the things I need to do that were going to keep me on the floor, and that was play defense and rebound. I realized thatís the only thing I could do that would keep me on the floor. And thatís the only way I played then."
Coming off of an NCAA appearance, and with Ace Custis leading the team as a senior, the year didn't go very well for the Hokies. It was Coach Bill Foster's swan song, but hidden behind the applause and the farewell tour, which included a gift of a golf cart from the Tech athletic department, was a bad year for the team.
The Hokies fell to a losing record of 15-16 in their second year in the Atlantic 10 and didn't make postseason action. Having coached a talented group of seniors the previous year, perhaps Coach Foster's tolerance for the kind of mistakes Ray found himself making as a "rusty" freshman was low.
As a team, the Hokies struggled to score. They averaged just 62.4 points per game, the lowest scoring average for a Hokie men's basketball team since Virginia Tech started keeping the stat in 1956-57, and attendance started to slip. The two year joyride for Tech basketball was ending.
And unbeknownst to the Tech players, fans, and coaches, it was going to get worse. Much worse.
The Hussey Years
When Ace Custis and Bill Foster left after the 1996-1997 season, so did the last vestiges of the NIT and NCAA teams. Enter Bobby Hussey, who succeeded Foster and brought in a group of newcomers that included highly rated players Rolan Roberts, Kenny Harrell, and most notably, Jenis Grindstaff.
For Ray, it looked like a new beginning after a somewhat disappointing first two years. "When Coach Hussey took over, he assured me that I was going to be able to do the things I did in high school, and become the player I was in high school. But it ended up being the same way -- you make one mistake and youíre coming out of the game."
For Andre Ray, maybe, but not for players like Roberts and Grindstaff, both of whom made truckloads of freshman mistakes but stayed on the floor. Ray did not say so in his interview with HokieCentral, but it must have been difficult watching anointed favorites like Grindstaff make mistake after mistake, yet still play 36 minutes a game, while he, Ray, wasn't allowed to experiment as much on the court.
It didn't help that despite promises to the contrary, Tech continued to play a conservative, half-court style. "I felt like if we were more of a running team, it could have benefited me more," Ray says. "But even in the type of offense we had, if I had been allowed to play comfortably, and more relaxed, I could have played better in that style. I wasnít able to play relaxed without thinking so much about making mistakes, and it never helped me out at all."
Ray started 18 games that year, his redshirt-sophomore season, and averaged 18 minutes per game. He increased his rebounding average from 1.2 per game his freshman year to 4.3 per game his sophomore year, and he was starting to be known as a defensive specialist. But his scoring average was still low, just 3.4 points per game.
Despite encouraging performances by the team against ranked teams North Carolina and South Carolina early in the year, they tanked, going 10-17 that year. But the losses were attributed to youth, and the general perception was that the future was bright. Roberts and Grindstaff had three more years, and Tech was adding heralded recruit Dennis Mims to the mix.
Then disaster struck. Shortly after the season ended, Grindstaff unexpectedly announced his intentions to transfer out. And during the off season, Harrell fired a gun on campus and was summarily dismissed from the team and from Virginia Tech. Tech was suddenly woefully thin at guard.
As the next season started and the team kept losing, attendance continued to fall, interest in the team waned, and Hussey's conservative coaching style and gruff, non-fan-friendly demeanor started to rub people the wrong way.
The Hokies had a new athletic director, Jim Weaver, a no-nonsense man who had not hired Hussey and had no loyalty to him. The whispers about whether Hussey would be around for a third year started, and the future of the men's basketball team, which had once looked bright, started to take the appearance of a death watch.
That was Andre Ray's redshirt junior year, and the team limped to a 13-15 record. He started every game that year, and despite the fact that his playing time rose to 25 minutes a game, he still averaged just 3.7 points per game, and his rebounding average slipped to 3.9 per game. His conversion to a defensive and rebounding specialist was complete, and between that and the losing, he was an unhappy basketball player.
"There were plenty of times when I realized that my career wasnít going the way I thought it was going to go. Plenty of times," he remembers. "I felt like it was really hard, and at times I thought about transferring. But then I thought about the other side of the equation, where I was getting a good education, and a free education, and I knew that if basketball didnít work out, I would have my degree to fall back on."
Quite a change from the freshman who once called the thought of going to grad school "BS."
"Thatís when I would channel my energy into my academics," he says now. "If I would get upset, or if the coaches were yelling at me, or if I had a really bad game, I would come back and study. Thatís the only way I could let out steam was to study, cause I knew thatís where my life was headed, and it was something I could control."
On the court, the low point of his junior year came during the UVa game in late January. The Cavaliers, perceiving Ray as no threat on the offensive end, started the game out defensively by laying off of him and daring him to shoot. It was a strategy designed to focus their defensive efforts on Roberts, Mims, and Eddie Lucas, and make Ray beat them.
It worked -- for the Cavaliers. Ray, who normally didn't shoot much, took a majority of the Hokies' early shots, and missed nearly all of them. He went 2-10 from the field for the game, scored only 5 points, and fouled out in just 22 minutes of play. The Hokies fell behind early, played lethargically, and lost, 64-55 in a game that wasn't nearly that close. Hokie fans, the few who were paying attention anyway, grumbled.
There was only one more year left in a basketball career that was proving to be a disappointment to Andre Ray. But he would get one more shot at a new start, in the person of a new coach.
Next: Senior Year, and a Young Man Looks Ahead
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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