A Quiet Career, Part 3
By Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 6/6/00
Click here for part 1
Click here for part 2


This article is the conclusion of 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.


Ray drives against UVa during his senior season.

On Monday, March 22nd, 1999, Jim Weaver summarily dismissed head basketball coach Bobby Hussey. That night, the Roanoke TV stations ran a quote from Andre Ray, who didn't hide his pleasure that changes were afoot.

The normally sedate Ray spoke in front of the TV cameras and talked about how he was looking forward to the change and a new day in Tech basketball. He seemed excited, and to the casual observer who knew Tech basketball and Andre Ray's personality, his demeanor spoke volumes. He seemed like a young man that had had a weight lifted from his shoulders.

Who could blame him? Many Tech basketball fans felt the same way. The team had floundered in Bobby Hussey's two seasons, attendance was plummeting, the team was boring to watch, and they hadn't posted a winning record for three years straight.

But Ray's muted enthusiasm at Bobby Hussey's firing was a little surprising, and a year later, he regrets it.

"(Hussey's firing) wasnít a surprise to me," he said in a recent HokieCentral interview, "because I knew that we hadnít been winning, and I had heard through the grapevine that a lot of Hokie Club members and Hokie fans were not happy with the style of play, with the coaches, and they were tired of them and wanted a change. We had the lowest attendance ever in Tech history, so it wasnít a surprise to me.

"But when it did happen, I felt a sense that a change was coming, that something good was coming for me personally. The comments that I made to the television and news reporters weren't anything personal against Coach Hussey, but I found out later that he took it that way. He felt that I was aiming it all toward him and making him look bad, but I didn't mean to make him look bad.

"I wish I had the opportunity to tell him, and explain to him that it wasnít about him personally, and I hope he can understand that. I just thought the change was good for me, and it was welcome. I really felt like it was something that was going to work for me. I finally felt like this change was going to give me a chance to be positive, that it would give me a chance to be the player I wanted to be."

Just two days after Hussey's firing, Ricky Stokes was hired. With a Wahoo at the helm, it was indeed a new day for Tech basketball, and a new chance for Andre Ray to impress his third head coach in four years. With one year left, and wanting more than anything just to enjoy himself, Ray threw himself back into basketball in the offseason.

"During that summer, I worked on everything that I have always worked on in the past," he recalls. "I became a better shooter, I was smarter, I knew more about the game, and I felt that I was going to able to shoot more, drive more, do all the things I always wanted to do."

His senior season got off to a slow start, though. He didn't play in Tech's exhibition game due to an injury, and then, in the season opener at William and Mary, he collided with a W&M player at the end of the first half. Ray lay on the floor for several minutes and was escorted off, bleeding from the forehead. He suffered a slight concussion, and the cut required five stitches to close.

Ray only played 8 scoreless minutes in a romp over UNC-Asheville a week later, but in Tech's third game of the season, on the road against East Tennessee State, he finally got in the groove, scoring a career-high 16 points in 30 minutes. He took the most shots of anyone on the team, and oddly enough, every one was a three-pointer, an unusual step out of character for him. He hit 4 of 9 three pointers and added 4 of 5 free throws.

"When we went to ETSU, I really lit it up. I was feeling it that game," Ray said. "That game let me know that hey, I can still do this. That game, I felt really good, and all the hard work I had put in the past two years, it was really coming together now."

There was only one problem. Ray may have had a good game, but the rest of the Tech team stunk up the joint. ETSU hammered the Hokies, 68-53. Take away Ray's stats, and the rest of the team went 14-39 from the field (including 2-12 from three point range) and a hair-raising 7 of 24 from the line.

Ray's offensive groove was short-lived. The next game, at home in Cassell Coliseum, he was once again asked to play the defensive stopper, guarding UNC-Charlotte's Jobey Thomas. Thomas was one of UNCC's top three-point shooter and one of their top scoring threats, but Ray shut him down, holding him to 7 points on 2-11 shooting. Thomas went a chilly 1-7 from three-point range, and Tech romped, 60-52.

But Ray himself only scored 3 points in 33 minutes, and he could already feel himself slipping back into his old role as non-scoring defensive stopper. Why not? He had lit it up at ETSU, and the team had gotten destroyed. Then he had done his defensive thing against UNCC, and the team had won easily. Playing the role of defender wasn't something he really wanted to do, but it seemed to work out best for the team.

His offensive backslide continued at VMI in the next game. Playing just 24 minutes, Ray took a conservative three shots, only making one. He went 0-2 from the free throw line and finished with just two points.

The next two games were a Hokie nightmare: consecutive home losses to Radford and Liberty. Tech was a struggling 4-3, and along with his teammates, Andre Ray tightened up.

"Then we come back home and play Liberty and Radford," Ray recalls, "and start to lose. And when we started losing I just got tight, and I said to myself that Iíve got to get back to doing the things that I know I can do. But slowly and surely, I fell right back into that defensive role again. Only at times did I have some offensive spark and good games offensively. But then Iíd get back into that comfortable role (of defense and rebounding) so I could continue to keep playing."

By now, Ray admitted, his lack of offensive confidence was strictly an internal matter, not a feeling that came from the coaches.

"It was most definitely a lingering effect from the earlier years of my career. The things I went through early in my career were damaging to my confidence as a player. Coach Stokes always encouraged me to shoot the ball when I was open, to not even think about it. He always encouraged me to do everything I could do.

"That spring when he came in (after being hired in March of 1999), I think I really impressed him. The things I did in preseason one-on-one drills and shooting drills, I had never been able to do in my life. There were times during workouts where I just couldnít miss, and at times no one could stop me. It was just like I was the best. But once the season started, slowly but surely, I just fell back into that old role."

The team struggled, running hot (in consecutive 80-point wins over Duquesne, GW, and Fordham) and cold (in an embarrassing 49-41 home loss to UMass). They wheezed to a winning record, the first time since 1995-1996, but still the fans stayed away from Cassell. Attendance averaged a mere two fans per game over the record low of the previous season.

At 16-15, the Hokies understandably didn't get a sniff from the NIT. And just like that, it was over. As a senior, Ray averaged a scant 5.0 points per game, despite logging 28 minutes per game. His reputation as a defensive specialist, long sealed amongst Hokie fans and coaches, was legitimized when he was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive First Team for the first time in his career. It was an honor he was proud of, but not what he envisioned when he arrived on campus in the fall of 1995.

Assessing the Outcome

"A friend of mine was very good acquaintances with the son of Chris Ferguson, a one-time Tech assistant. Ferguson just so happened to be one of the coaches involved with recruiting Andre Ray. Anyway, years ago, my friend went with coach Ferguson and his son to watch a high school game in North Carolina. My friend told me of this one player who stood out and was definitely a man among boys. He was dunking left and right, he was hitting three-pointers and fade away jump shots, and this kid's defense was like glue. My friend said it was one of the most dominating performances he's ever seen in high school. Any ideas who that basketball phenom was? You got it, none other than Andre Ray."

-- "The Pepsi Guy," HokieCentral.com "Voice of the Fan" columnist

"I was watching a practice back in 1995 with (former Tech player and broadcaster, and current Doctor of Statistics) Quinton Nottingham. He pointed to Andre Ray and said, 'See that kid? He'll be the next one to have his jersey up there.' He was pointing at the retired jerseys in Cassell Coliseum."

-- Richmond Times-Dispatch beat writer Mike Harris, who covered the Hokie men's basketball team back in 1995

"I just take pride in playing as hard as I can and leaving it all out there on the floor. I want to help the team win in whatever way possible. If that means I'm labeled a good defender and a defensive stopper, then I take a lot of pride in that."

-- Andre Ray, in the 1999-2000 Virginia Tech men's basketball media guide, when asked if he takes pride in being a defensive stopper

He had high hopes for himself, and so did those associated with the Tech men's basketball program. So, five years later, why did Andre Ray graduate with a career 3.7 points per game scoring average, with a reputation as a great defender, and little else to distinguish himself or his team?

It's easy to make sweeping generalizations in cases like this, and to put the blame all in one place, depending upon where your loyalties lie. If you like and admire Andre Ray, then it was the coaches fault that he didn't develop as a player. If you never thought much of Andre Ray as a player, then you probably picture him as a guy who had one good year in high school and let it go to his head. Perhaps you believe that Andre Ray is the only one who ever thought he had what it took, and the reality is, he simply didnít have the tools to make it big.

But as you can imagine, it's more complex than that. A number of things came together to make Andre Ray's career turn out to be a quiet one, much quieter than he or the coaches who recruited him expected.

I watched his entire career, and I always thought that if there was ever a fish out of water in Tech's slow-down playing style, it was Andre Ray. A gifted leaper with excellent quickness, he would have been much more suited to a running style of play, not the half-court style that he and his teammates were plagued with for his entire career.

Tech's current coach, Ricky Stokes, appears to be recruiting the types of players that will allow him to evolve the team into a more exciting, up-and-down type of team. But he is several years too late for Andre Ray to benefit from his promised up-tempo style.

Yet even Andre Ray admitted that it wasn't really the style of play, but what he perceived as the coaches' unwillingness to let him experiment and be aggressive on offense. Ray felt that when he did take a shot or drive to the basket, the coaches disapproved of it and let him know about it. There may be a grain of truth to this, and there may also be some truth to the opinion, mentioned earlier in this series, that some players had the green light, such as Jenis Grindstaff, but other players, such as Andre Ray, didn't.

During the interview, Ray spoke of the "politics" of basketball, and how he had turned sour on the game because of it. Perhaps that's what he meant.

But young players get yelled at all the time by their coaches, and a large percentage of them donít go into their shells and never come out again. They take the yelling as constructive criticism, work on their games, and improve. When he was yanked from the game as a young player, why did Ray change his playing style and go with the safe bets of defense and rebounding, when what he really wanted, like most basketball players, was to be a scorer?

Obviously, different players respond to things differently, and perhaps that was just the way Andre Ray responded. It's hard to evaluate, because, while he gave insights into his career in this interview, the relationship between a player and his coaches is a multi-faceted thing that develops over the course of many games and many practices. It's hard to say what led Ray to believe he couldn't experiment more offensively.

One thing is true: sports performance is just as much a mental exercise as it is a physical exercise. Once Andre Ray had lost his confidence, he started sliding down a slippery slope, and it never came back again, not for good. He fell into comfortable roles that were hard to get out of, no matter how much he wanted to.

Certainly, the fact that Tech was a losing team for most of his career didn't help. If the Hokies had strung together four straight 20-win seasons in Andre's career, perhaps he wouldnít speak with so much disappointment about how things worked out, and perhaps the part he played of a role player wouldn't have chafed so much. But when your team is losing year in and year out, and you don't feel that you're allowed to do the things that could help, there's going to be disappointment involved.

We can only speculate as to what type of basketball player Andre Ray might have developed into if things had worked out differently for him. What if he had responded differently to the coaches? What if Tech had been a running team? What if he hadn't redshirted? What if he had made a game-winning shot his freshman year that kick-started his career? What if his parents hadn't lost their jobs and been unable to come see him play? What if he hadn't had three coaches in four years?

We'll never know. But there is one thing that is not in doubt -- what kind of person Andre Ray grew into while he was at Virginia Tech. He faced a lot of adversity, but he never quit, and along the way, he learned a lot about himself as a person, and where his life is headed.

The True Measure of the Man

He arrived as an 18-year old boy, who once called the thought of going to grad school "BS." He is now a 22-year-old man, almost 23, who has an undergraduate degree in Housing, Interior Design, and Resource Management and is expected to complete his graduate degree in Urban Affairs this December.

And he has always been a credit to his university. After a hideous 49-41 home loss to Massachusetts last season, he was the only player to meet with the media after the game, and he answered their questions graciously.

After an equally hideous road loss to Duquesne late in the season that effectively knocked the Hokies out of the postseason picture, I approached him to ask him a few questions. It was the first time I had ever been in the Tech men's basketball locker room after a game, and I was six hours from home and clueless about what I was doing.

So I asked him a dumb question. "Andre, did you have the type of game today that you wanted to have?"

Uh, no, Will, he didn't. Check the box score: 18 minutes played, 3 points, 1 rebound.

He turned to me and very politely answered my dumb question. And despite his extreme disappointment in the 70-50 loss and in his own lack of playing time and scoring, he answered a few more dumb questions politely, as well. It was a gesture that I appreciated, being so far from home and so ignorant about what I was doing.

But that's the way Andre Ray is. He is mature beyond his years. He will tell you without hesitation that it comes from his deep religious faith and his belief in God and His teachings. Whatever the source, he is the type of person who carries himself with class and dignity at all times, and he's the type of person that you instantly like and root for, if you're ever lucky enough to meet him.

I had the good fortune to talk to him for two hours in early April of this year. We met in the food court at Squires and had sandwiches together for the first hour and talked about life: his beliefs, his parents, his academics, and his place in the world. Then we did the interview, which took another hour.

He called me by name, he never cursed, he spoke clearly and concisely, and I came away thinking to myself that the next time I see some punk kid with baggy pants, a nose ring, and sixteen tattoos, and he drives by with his car stereo blasting so loud that I can't even think, I'm going to pause and reflect about the day that I met Andre Ray and realized yes, there is hope in the world. The good kids like Andre Ray are out there. Sometimes, you just have to look a little harder to find them.

"Iíve been through so much, and no one can really understand everything Iíve been through," he said that day. "Right now, Iím just happy that itís over with. I havenít even picked up a basketball since the season ended. Brendan and Russ and all the other seniors have been over in McComas playing their hearts out, and I just have no desire to do it now.

"Iíve thought, if I could do it all over again, what would I do differently? The answer is, I wouldnít change anything, because this was a learning experience for me and itís taught me a lot about myself, most importantly, and about life. I wouldnít go back and do it over again, but I do think itís been a good learning experience for me, going through the good times and the bad times.

"When I leave from this place, I wonít miss the basketball. But I will miss the people that I met along the way. Jim Weaver, for example. Coach Marsh. Some of my professors that Iíve met. The people are what Iíll miss."

The Tech athletic department has approached him about an internship, but for now, Andre Ray wants to leave things wide open. He wants to put this all behind him, let it sit for a while, and figure it out. Basketball isn't in his future, but that's okay. He'll be just fine without it, because you see, he's got what it takes to make it in the world. He can't miss.

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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