Cincinnati Enquirer’s Kevin Kelly reports:
Nobody guards Amber Gray on the basketball court as closely as “Henry” does. “Henry” is what the Xavier University forward calls the transparent face mask she wears “just to make sure I’m safe out there.” Doctors’ orders.
“If somebody walked into the gym right now and watched her play, all they would do is see the mask, and most people probably assume she’s recovering from a broken nose or something,” said her father, Carlton Gray. “Because of how she carries herself, and because of where she’s at, most people just don’t realize how serious it was and how far she’s come.”
A fixture in Xavier’s starting lineup this season, the 21 year old is returning to form on the basketball court after surviving a brush with mortality during the summer of 2009.
Gray suffered a stroke early that July and days later underwent brain surgery. The 12 1/2-hour procedure involved clipping the bleeding aneurysm that caused the stroke and taking an artery from her left forearm and using it to bypass the damaged blood vessel in her brain.
“She has made not only a remarkable but close to incredible recovery,” said Dr. Mario Zuccarello, the Mayfield Clinic neurosurgeon and chair of the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Neurosurgery who performed the delicate operation at University Hospital.
“She has been able to overcome physical difficulties that many times other patients cannot overcome. She’s taking full advantage of her physical fitness and is back pretty much to normal.”
Gray bears three scars from the procedure – one on her forearm, another in a natural crease on her neck and a third concealed behind her hairline – but pays them little mind. Her concern is helping the Musketeers win basketball games.
“That’s with any injury,” Gray said. “The second you go out there and play tentative, that’s when something happens. That’s when you end up getting hurt.
“It’s hard to explain because I’m out there like, I’m fine. What was there is gone. The problem that was there isn’t there anymore. So I’m like, ‘Well, let’s just play.’ ”
The former Lakota West star transferred from Tennessee after sitting out the 2009-10 season. Cleared by the NCAA and physicians, Gray returned to the court last season for the first time since her ordeal started with a seemingly routine shoulder surgery.
Through the Musketeers’ first 12 games this season, Gray is averaging 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and two assists in 26.8 minutes per game as a redshirt junior.
“It’s kind of funny to watch her get so frustrated right now because she wants to be better, she wants to do more and it’s a process,” Xavier head coach Amy Waugh said. “To be where she is already is phenomenal. But at the same time it’s not good enough for Amber. She continues to work and continues to improve day by day.”
Gray injured her left shoulder after her freshman season at Tennessee.
The Lady Volunteers were practicing after an early exit from the NCAA Tournament in 2009 when her shoulder popped out of its socket. Gray slipped it into place , but the damage was done. Efforts to heal it through rehabilitation were unsuccessful.
“It didn’t work out, but at the end of the day it kind of saved my life,” she said.
The rotator cuff surgery was a success. However, Gray’s condition quickly deteriorated in the recovery room of the Knoxville, Tenn., hospital. Her lungs filled with fluid and she was placed on a respirator.
When Gray was moved from intensive care into a private room, Tonya Carter sensed something still wasn’t right. Her daughter couldn’t move her left leg, and when she opened her eyes, they tracked outward.
“At one point she sat straight up and was screaming, ‘Mom, my head. My head.’ ” Carter said.
Tests revealed Gray had suffered a brain hemorrhage. A day or so later doctors diagnosed a hemorrhagic stroke. Gray then was flown to Cincinnati, where Zuccarello and his team found the brain aneurysm.
“When they talked about harvesting the artery from her arm, they were originally going to use her right arm because she’s right-handed,” Carter said. “She said, ‘Hold up! Hold up! Hold up! That’s my shootin’ arm. You have to do my left arm.’ And so they did.”
It has been a long and grueling road back. Gray was strong-willed even as a child, according to her mother.
“She always wanted to do well,” Carter said. “I would always tell her that she was bound for greatness. Even as a very young person, she was always so strong. Her dad and I talk about it all the time. We always knew she was strong.”
After the brain surgery, Carter said, Gray could not walk without assistance, or swallow, and her short-term memory was severely affected.
When she ambled out of the Drake Center in August 2009, her left arm was in a sling and her eyes were swollen. But she took the strides to the car two weeks ahead of schedule and with a smile on her face. Gray did her outpatient therapy at Cincinnati Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center.
During her recovery, Gray drew inspiration from her great-grandfather, the late Rev. Benjamin Hooks. Hooks was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and led the NAACP for several years. Gray honors him with a tattoo on her right wrist.
Four younger sisters also motivated her. To them, she is everything they want to be. Gray takes being a role model for them seriously.
“They’re my everything,” she said. “They were a huge part of me wanting to get back, and I hated them seeing me down like that.
“I never wanted them to be like, ‘Well, my bigger sister, the person I look up to, gave up on her dreams, so I’m going to do the same and I’ll be OK.’ I didn’t want them to see that. I didn’t want them to see me down for too long.”
Gray said she first picked up a basketball around age 4 and was about 10 when her father sensed she was serious about the game.
The stroke set the former Ohio Ms. Basketball and McDonald’s and Parade All-American back years.
“What she went through pretty much ravaged her body,” said Carlton Gray, who played in the NFL and helped coach his daughter’s high school and AAU teams. “She was trying to mentally go through workouts and do things that she last did when basically we should have been starting when she was a fourth- or fifth-grader. Just start with the basketball skill and work our way back up.”
He remembers doctors making Amber keep her heart rate under a certain level during her initial workouts. She would make one cut, catch the basketball, shoot after one or two dribbles and have to stop, he said.
“My love for the game, it never really went anywhere,” Gray said. “So as soon as I had the opportunity to get back on the court and actually started doing stuff, I was in the gym every day for two or three hours.
“It felt like I was back in high school all over again. Just training and getting ready for my freshman year in college because that’s the way it kind of felt.”
Gray returned to Knoxville during the 2009-10 school year, conditioning with the Lady Vols. She could have stayed on academic scholarship but without medical clearance to resume her basketball career. She appreciated the generous offer and the support from coach Pat Summitt and her teammates, but yearned to play again.
She looked at Miami University and the University of Cincinnati, but felt most at home at Xavier for reasons beyond basketball .
“My grandmother was a professor here. My mother graduated from here,” Gray said. “If I decide to stay in the Midwest when I’m done with school, in the business world they see Xavier and that’s a huge plus automatically. It’s a great academic school and it has a great basketball tradition.”
Carter said Zuccarello assured her it would take a catastrophic blow for anything to happen to Amber. The facemask was his one requirement. It’s worn to protect the left side of her face where the artery was replaced.
“At the very beginning, you (set) priorities,” Zuccarello said. “The number one priority is survive. Then the second priority is to have a good outcome, to physically be able to live independently. She passed number one and number two in glorious fashion. She started looking at a return to play competitively and after the first few months after she recovered physically very well, we said, ‘Well, I think you should be able to do it.’
“I really have a tremendous respect for Amber. She’s a fighter. She’s a great young lady, and everybody should be proud of her.”
Gray played sparingly, but without incident, in 22 games last season and went to work in the offseason. Waugh said Gray shed almost 30 pounds from her 6-foot-1 frame this past summer and often was spotted running the steep hill outside Cintas Center with teammates Ashley Wanninger and Jessica Pachko.
“I worry. It’s scary,” Waugh said. “Every time something happens or if somebody comes close to her head it concerns me. But at the same time I know and trust the doctors and the sports medicine staff. That’s a little comfort. I care about my players and would never want anything bad to happen to any of them.”
A communications student with a concentration on education, Gray wants to coach after she graduates. Carter believes her daughter would make a fine coach.
“I really just want her to be happy and to be able to live her dream,” Carter said. “And my biggest hope is for her not to live her life in fear. A lot of us are hesitant to take chances and we’re hesitant to really set high goals for ourselves out of fear. I told her, you have nothing to prove in life. So this is really all about you and really what you want to get out of life.”
After all she’s been through, it would be foolish to doubt Gray.
“To see that determination and fight and commitment is just a lesson that everybody can learn from,” Carlton Gray said.
Amber’s first goal was to walk down the street and no one know what happened to her. She has accomplished that. Her limp is gone. Her eyes are bright, memory and wit sharp. She’s living life on her terms.
“There was never one time where I started feeling sorry for myself or thought, ‘What happens if you don’t get back on the court? What happens if you don’t get back to school,’ ” she said. “I still to this day, I guess I take it for granted in a way that I am back on the court. Even having to wear the face mask, it’s second nature. I don’t think, ‘I have to wear this because of this.’ It’s just grab it, let’s go.”