Gray leads Duke women's basketball despite misfortuneDuke milled about its usual practice routine Wednesday in preparation for an ACC matchup with Virginia, but the mood inside Cameron Indoor Stadium was a somber one.
Senior point guard Chelsea Gray pulls aside her protege, sophomore Alexis Jones, to give pointers after Jones rotated out of a drill. This scene has become the norm for the Blue Devils during the past two seasons as the two-time All-American has mentored her up-and-coming backcourt mate.
But Gray and Jones will never play together again at Duke. Gray fractured her right kneecap in the Blue Devils' win against Boston College Sunday, bringing her senior season to a premature end. She is set to undergo surgery Friday and faces a four-month rehabilitation process.
"She'll go down as one of the best passing guards in Duke history," said Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie as she fought back her emotions. "A creator, and someone who really understands the game. Immensely talented, and also a person who really has enormous character to deal with her incredible misfortune."
Losing Gray early is nothing new for the Blue Devils. She injured that same knee last February, sidelining her for the entire NCAA tournament and forcing Duke to reinvent itself just before postseason play. That injury did not stop Gray from being named Co-ACC Player of the Year after averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 steals per game on the season.
Gray rehabbed the entire summer to be ready to play in the Blue Devils' season-opener in 2013. Her scoring production dipped when she returned to the court, but Gray averaged a career-high 7.2 assists per game during her senior season.
She dreamed of being a part of Duke's NCAA tournament run this season, hoping to guide her team to its first Final Four in McCallie's tenure as coach and break the streak of four consecutive Elite Eight losses. Instead, Gray will once again watch from the sidelines—but this time there will be no next year as a Blue Devil.
"I felt like I was cheated out of something I worked so hard to get back to it," Gray said. "It was really painful for me to deal with for a while. It still hurts, and it will continue to hurt for a long time until I can get back out on the court."
Senior forward Haley Peters is the next player to rotate out of drills at practice. She walks up to Gray and puts her right arm around her injured point guard. Peters and classmate Tricia Liston held Gray as she cried in the locker room upon hearing the news of her injury. The trio has been through it all together in their four years at Duke, but Gray's injury has brought an abrupt ending to their time as teammates.
"As a basketball player, she's one of the best people who ever played here," Peters said. "She hasn't had the chance to finish off her last two years the way she's wanted to. A lot of it is on us now to leave a legacy for us as a team because Chelsea is the ultimate team-first kind of person."
Now sidelined, Gray will serve as a full-time mentor to her Duke teammates. McCallie even went as far to say that she really feels like she has added an extra member to her coaching staff.
"She can see things people can't see when she's on the court," Peters said of Gray. "She's one of the few people that is always in my ear, helping me see things on the court and giving me confidence. It's going to be a good thing for us to have her."
It does not take long to notice that Gray's upbeat personality is contagious. She is still the loudest one in the team huddle, and still the first person on the court to crack a smile.
As fate would have it, staying positive is the only way she can help her team battle through the most adversity it has faced this season. Gray's Duke career may be over, but her teammates now have something new to play for.
"She's had such a great career, and two injuries to cut short both of her last two seasons—it doesn't seem fair," Peters said. "The best way we can honor the fact that she doesn't get to be on the court with us is to be the best team we can possible be."