One of them grew up in Williamsburg, Va., a white child of relative privilege and the son of a world-famous musician. A clean-cut kid, he received his basketball tutelage from renowned Oak Hill Academy and played at a smaller college in North Carolina before making his way down to the bayou.
The other is a young black man who hails from Lake Charles, La., and has made many Lone Star locales his temporary basketball refuge over the past three years. From Houston to Lubbock to Odessa, the heavily tattooed player has run up and down courts in Texas making his way back to the Pelican State.
Now this oddest of basketball couples – Keith Hornsby and Josh Gray – is being thrown into the mix at LSU, part of an experiment hastily designed but nonetheless instrumental to the Tigers’ success in 2014-15.
And, despite the litany of differences between the two transfers, LSU’s projected starting backcourt is proving it has the type of instant chemistry to keep Johnny Jones’ on-court experiment afloat.
“From the moment I met him we kinda had a mutual respect and a mutual friendship. It’s like we’re automatic friends,” Hornsby told TSD recently. “Some of that definitely relates to on the court, and even though we’ve only played with each other just a little bit, we already have good chemistry. A lot of that comes from both our games coming together smoothly.”
Gray views things in a similar light. The junior college scoring machine from a season ago feels Hornsby provides an ideal counterpart for the way he operates on the floor.
“He’s a dead-on, catch-and-shoot guy. His percentages are high, he barely misses,” explained Gray. “And my game, I can break down a defender, get in the lane and get pretty much wherever I want on the court. People have to help out, and once they help out I can kick it out to him and he’ll knock it down. That’s how we complement each other.”
Of course part of that connection the two are forging inside the gym begins on the outside.
“It’s crazy. Keith and I stay in the same apartment complex, so we spend a lot of time together trying to figure out how we can play off each other and get better and become leaders of this team,” Gray continued. “So we’ve bonded trying to figure out each other’s mindset. We’re going to be okay. We’ve got the chemistry down and we’re playing every day together.”
Perhaps the biggest unifying theme the two have in common is hunger. Gray’s had a winding road to get to LSU, where previous coach Trent Johnson did not recruit him out of high school, while Hornsby spent the previous year of his life as strictly a practice player, sitting out a year following his transfer from UNC-Asheville.
“The practices, they were my games last year. It was all I had,” Hornsby recalled. “I just had to take advantage of them to the fullest, and I’m pretty sure I did that. Sometimes it was obviously very frustrating, not being able to travel with the team and having to sit out home games. But due to the fact that I did do very well in those practices, it gives me high hopes coming into this season.”
As for Gray the drive to better his hoops situation has turned him into a gym rat. “I don’t really watch TV or do any of that social (stuff). I live in the gym,” said Gray. “I don’t really have time to do any of that. I barely have time to go eat when everyone wants to go eat. If I’m not getting my rest or in the gym, I’m sleeping. I don’t really do all that regular stuff average teenagers do.”
Now that they’re both on campus and pointing downhill at their maiden voyage in TigerTown, Gray and Hornsby are doing something almost inconceivable for players who didn’t suit up for LSU a season ago – becoming leaders.
Hornsby began planting seeds to that end last year while Gray feels it comes with the territory of the position he plays.
“One thing about that [becoming a leader] is I may not be the oldest guy on the team, but I’m definitely up there,” Hornsby said with a smile. “I also did very well in practice last year, so I definitely demand respect as far as just a presence on the court. And I’m somebody who people can feel free to talk to, I’m approachable. All that combined I feel like with the new guys they can look up to me in those aspects. I’ll always be there for them, and I’m always somebody they can come to if they have issues.”
Said Gray: “That’s a point guard’s job, to figure out how each other think and play. If you understand how a guy thinks and plays, you can relate to him in a different kind of manner and he’ll listen because he knows that I know him.”
Individually the two have taken strides to improve their skillsets and approaches in recent months, playing together at a Houston-based camp hosted by John Lucas earlier this summer. For Hornsby it was a chance to measure himself against some of the best perimeter players in America.
“As far as my game goes, the confidence level is where that (camp) really helped me out,” Hornsby said. “I played against several good NBA guards and some of the top college guards in the nation, and I did very well against them.
“My weight partner was actually Austin Rivers. Then (I played against) the Harrison twins, Rasheed Sulaimon from Duke, C.J. Fair, Tim Frazier and honestly I could keep going down the list. It was amazing.”
The bigger challenge for Gray, who averaged 34.7 points last season, is shifting gears from his time in Odessa, when he was asked to bear the brunt of the scoring load. He acknowledges things at LSU, which returns forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, stand to be different from a point guard’s perspective.
“That’s what my JuCo coach needed me to do. Coach Jones may not need me to do that,” stated Gray. “We haven’t really sat down and talked about what he needs or expects from me. I know he probably expects different things, but we haven’t had that personal conversation yet or team meeting to identify each other’s roles. But whatever my role is, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Jones, the man who wears the whistle, isn’t surprised his newly minted perimeter tandem has taken to one another so quickly. In fact he hinted that Hornsby was instrumental in recruiting Gray, selling him on the vision of playing together.
“I think that says a lot about the program when you think about the family atmosphere and how these guys care about each other,” Jones explained. “They do a great job recruiting each other, and when those kind of things happen, good things can happen for your team. I think we have a team of guys with selflessness. They look forward to playing together.”
In the modern age of college basketball, when a revolving door is the only kind left on the front of most gyms, the window to connect and jell is just shorter. Gray and Hornsby, both veterans of the transfer process, know that better than most and aren’t taking anything for granted during this crucial offseason.
The duo, also connected by jersey numbers (Hornsby will wear No. 4 and Gray No. 5), wants to get it right, especially given the fact that the talent assembled this season may not all be around for 2015-16.
“A lot of experience has gone, but the talent level that we have now is actually pretty amazing to me from what I’ve seen so far, whether it be in the weight room or on the court,” concluded Hornsby. “It’s all about what happens when the time comes.”
Singing a similar tune, Gray said, “This is a more talented team than any team I’ve played with my whole life. We have great people coming back, great incoming freshmen. If we all come together and glue together and buy into what Coach Jones has, we can go far. We can make some noise out here.”
Before the noise, though, must come harmony, and two players with vastly different backgrounds and physical appearances have been in the lab working on that for the past few months.