No matter how much Clemson senior Devin Gray downplays what he calls the "little heart-attack problem I had," there are daily reminders. There are bottles of three different medications and an industrial-sized jar of aspirin next to his alarm clock. There is the presence of the man whom Gray refers to as "my guardian angel," Reno Wilson, the Tiger trainer who is on hand whenever Gray plays basketball or lifts weights. There is a defibrillator in the training room next to the court. And there are questions.
Are you crazy? Why take the chance? Remember Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis? Didn't you learn anything from their deaths?
Gray suffered his heart attack last April 4, the day of the NCAA championship game, during a strenuous workout at the Tigers' Littlejohn Coliseum. After the attack he listened to everyone's concerns, listened to everyone's advice. He even listened to some unscrupulous coaches who tried to convince him to transfer to their schools, telling him the year off that transferring athletes are required to take would be good for him.
Gray listened most carefully to his doctors, who explained that his condition was not like that of Gathers or Lewis. They had died of heart disease. Gray's heart attack occurred because of the excessive thickness of his blood, a condition called hypercoagulability, which can be controlled with blood thinners. His doctors told him that playing basketball would not put him at any additional risk.
Then Gray listened to his heart and made his decision. "I want to prove that if you get knocked down, you should get up and keep trying," he says.
After spending eight days in the hospital, Gray went home to Baltimore to rest for nearly three months. In July he returned to Clemson for summer school and six weeks of rehabilitation. He was cleared by his doctors to train with the Tigers in September; on the day before formal practices began in October, he signed a waiver that released Clemson from any liability for a heart-related injury.
"The first couple of days at practice some guys were walking on eggshells around him," says new Tiger coach Rick Barnes. But a month into practice, teammates were battling Gray under the boards, and he was diving into chairs along the sideline and sliding across the hardwood for loose balls. "We don't even think of him as someone who had a heart attack," says senior guard Bruce Martin.
Last season, as a third-team All-ACC forward, Gray distinguished himself as one of the best players in the conference, averaging 14.4 points and 6.0 rebounds. This season Gray is the only returning starter on the Tiger's callow roster, and at 6'6" and 230 pounds, he's the biggest player among the regulars. "I just hope that people don't get scared when I take a charge and hit the floor. I've taken all the precautions, I take my medicine," Gray says, as if reassuring himself.
Though he may try to make people think that his heart attack was no more serious than a bad case of heartburn, at rare moments he acknowledges his fear, saying softly, "It's hard not to think about it happening again."