Ask someone to name the top three basketball stars in the Big Eight and you'll get, " Danny Manning, Derrick Chievous and...and, uh...." Unless you're within a short tractor ride of Ames, Iowa, you're not likely to hear " Jeff Grayer." Indeed, Iowa State, for whom Grayer toils, is such a stranger to national TV that if you didn't see the 6'5" undersized forward in the Cyclone's upset of Michigan in the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, you may not have seen him at all.
"He's a great player and nobody knows it," says Kansas's Manning. "I love to watch him."
Last week, in a home victory over Arizona State, Grayer caught a pass in the lane with his back to the basket, taller defenders swatting him from all sides and a three-second violation about to be called. Suddenly Grayer exploded straight up, knocked two defenders to the floor, twisted 180 degrees and canned the short jumper. It happens almost every game with Grayer, who has a Houdini-like gift for escaping from tight places. "He's an incredibly quick jumper," says Cyclone coach Johnny Orr. "I've seen him rise up against everybody—seven-footers, Danny Manning. I don't care who—and they can't block his shot."
Seeing as how he doesn't need much room to do his thing, no one can quite figure why Grayer, whose hometown is Flint, Mich., chose the wide-open spaces of Iowa. But after laboring in rural obscurity for three seasons, Grayer may yet make a name for himself. Eight games into this, his senior season. Grayer has averaged 27.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Moreover, he has led the Cyclones to a 7-1 record, including an upset of then second-ranked (AP) Purdue in which Grayer had 14 rebounds and 29 points.
At the very least, he has built a fan club in the Big Eight. "He's one of my favorites, just a wonderful kid," says Kansas coach Larry Brown. "Every time I've seen him. he's played as hard as he possibly could. He's one of the best-kept secrets in the country."
Grayer can score from inside and outside, he brings the ball up against the press, he handles it like a point guard on the fast break—and he's a three-time all-Big Eight defensive pick. But it is Grayer's success in the paint against bigger players that most impresses opponents. "I enjoy the pushing and shoving, seeing which guy is stronger and can come up with the ball," says the otherwise mild-mannered Grayer. "As the game goes on. I know I'm going to get stronger and he's going to get weaker."
Grayer learned his inside moves on the basketball back streets of Flint, where he played against the likes of Iowa's Roy Marble, the Knicks' Trent Tucker and former Cyclone star Barry Stevens. It was the influence of Stevens that drew Grayer to the unlikely locale of Ames. "My first year here, I was just stunned," says Grayer. "The farm smells, the sky, the look of the country." But now? Heck, he's even begun wearing overalls on campus. As a reminder of home. Grayer wears a necklace with a Cadillac insignia, a gift from his mother. She is disabled by arthritis, and he has dedicated this season to her. "She raised me by herself," Grayer says, "and I think she did a great job."
Grayer still summers in Flint; he spent the last one working on his guard skills, figuring that his smallish stature precludes an NBA career as a forward. "I have no doubt Jeff can play guard in the pros," says Orr. "He's perfectly suited for that game—up and down the floor, up and down. And if they try to cover him with a guard, they'll have a bitch of a time." Orr smiles. "He just kills those guys."