Early in the second half of the preseason NIT championship game last Friday night at Madison Square Garden, Arizona coach Lute Olson was frustrated with the inability of senior guard Salim Stoudamire to defend Wake Forest's Justin Gray. "Can you guard him?" Olson asked. "No, he can't," said Gray, who was standing nearby. Gray wasn't just trying to disrespect Stoudamire; he was only being honest. The junior guard scored 13 of his game-high 21 points in the second half to help the top-ranked Demon Deacons erase a 12-point deficit and beat the Wildcats 63--60.
Gray's performance earned him tournament MVP honors and was especially impressive considering he played with five stitches below his right eyebrow, the result of a gash he sustained when he was elbowed during the first half of Wake's 79--67 semifinal win over Providence two nights earlier. After getting sewn up in the locker room, Gray, who wore a mask for eight games after he broke his jaw during his freshman season, returned to score all 21 of his points against the Friars. Though he woke up the next two mornings with his eye swollen shut--"I looked like I had gone 12 rounds with Oscar De La Hoya," he said--Gray refused to sit out practice on Thursday and Friday. He then had to leave the Arizona game briefly in the first half when he got kicked above the same eye during a scramble for a loose ball. "If you're not going to be the best player out there, you have to try to be the toughest," Gray says.
Given the preseason hype surrounding Demon Deacons sophomore point guard Chris Paul, it's easy to forget that Gray was voted first team All-ACC last season after averaging 17.0 points. ( Paul was third team.) Gray, however, is used to being overshadowed. During his senior year at prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., he played alongside several coveted players, including Carmelo Anthony. But Gray didn't have to lead his team in scoring to impress Wake coach Skip Prosser. "The courage Justin displays is contagious," Prosser says. "[He] can will his teammates to wins."
Gray, who is from Charlotte, is close to Paul on and off the court. The two live together, go to church together and spend time at their family homes. "My mom calls him 'Yum-yum, eat 'em up,' because every time he's over at my house, he's in the fridge," says Paul, who grew up in Lewisville, N.C., about 13 miles from Wake's campus. Last summer their families went on a cruise to the Bahamas, and they were starters on the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the World Championship for Young Men qualifying tournament in Canada.
The only time things get testy between Gray and Paul is when they're on opposite teams in pickup games--they almost came to blows during one scrimmage this fall--but that competitiveness makes them formidable when they're on the same side. "We're all about winning," Gray says. "And it's not just me and Chris, it's our whole team. We don't care who gets the credit."
Even so, it's time Gray started getting his share.