The close proximity of her doctors was the primary factor in why Gray opted to transfer to Xavier from Tennessee, and she is hopeful that that access will be a key factor in securing final medical clearance from the Musketeers to play basketball.
That clearance did not come from Tennessee in a decision announced July 20 that was not a complete surprise to Gray because of the way the Vols basketball program handled Emmanuel Negedu, but was still a disappointment because her dream was to wear orange and white again.
Still, Gray said she understood the decision – she was told personally by Dr. Rebecca Morgan, the team physician, and Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, before a release was sent to the media – and her initial reaction was to return to Knoxville on medical scholarship and complete her degree.
"The staff was concerned about my health and my well being and when they made that decision, I respected that decision," Gray said. "I continued to stay positive like I had throughout this whole thing. I asked questions about if I could stay there and continue to go to school, because we became a family at Tennessee.
"Those girls are my sisters so for a while I was willing to give up my dream of playing basketball again just so that I could stay there with my sisters because I knew how close we had become, and I knew they always had supported me and they knew what I had gone through."
But the desire to play basketball remained too powerful, so she explored options close to home – Xavier immediately topped the list – and met with Tennessee officials to obtain her transcripts and secure an unconditional release.
"It's funny that you called today, because I did just sign papers to go ahead and transfer back home to Xavier and hopefully get the opportunity to play here," Gray said in a phone interview Thursday evening.
"I am not ready to give up on my dream yet. My religion is something that is very big to me, and I feel like God didn't spare my life for me not to continue to play, so if the opportunity knocks on my door I am going to go ahead and open up that door and continue to fight and do the things I've been doing to get back on the court."
Gray's path has been very similar to that of Negedu, a 6'7 forward for the Vols who collapsed during a conditioning workout on Sept. 28, 2009, and went into cardiac arrest. He had to be revived by a member of the Tennessee medical staff before an ambulance arrived and later had a surgical procedure to implant an internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD) in his chest.
Negedu did not play during the 2009-10 season as he recuperated and then was not cleared to return to the court by Tennessee's medical staff. Negedu showed interest in Indiana, which also did not clear him, and then was medically released at New Mexico, where he enrolled this past June for summer classes.
Gray, a 6'1 forward and decorated high school All-American at Lakota West, played in 27 games as a true freshman in the 2008-09 season for the Lady Vols. After Tennessee exited in the first round of the NCAA tourney in 2009, the players returned to the practice court and in one of those April sessions, Gray injured her left shoulder. The injury did not heal adequately with rest and rehab so she entered a hospital in Knoxville in July of 2009 for an operation.
After the procedure, she suffered a stroke and it was then determined that she had a brain aneurysm – a disorder often called a silent killer because the victims aren't aware of it until a catastrophic, and usually fatal, incident occurs. Fortunately for Gray she was in a hospital already – she has said that loss to Ball State ultimately saved her life because it put Tennessee back on the court in a demanding session that otherwise would not have occurred in postseason – and life-saving measures began immediately.
Gray was transferred by medical jet to Cincinnati so that world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Mario Zuccarello of the Mayfield Clinic and the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute could perform the delicate procedure to clip the aneurysm, which doctors said was likely something she was born with and worsened slowly over time.
"I remember some things," Gray said last fall. "I think, in a way, it's better I don't remember everything. Even the doctors are saying it's better I don't remember everything. It wasn't an easy time."
Gray then underwent three weeks of extensive rehabilitation in August 2009 at the Drake Center in Ohio where she learned to walk again. She returned to her Knoxville apartment last October and then enrolled full-time at Tennessee last January.
When Tennessee announced the decision about Negedu last spring, Gray said it gave her considerable pause but she still held out hope.
"I tried to stay positive and maybe things would work out differently for me at the end of the day," Gray said.
Gray returned home to Ohio after the spring semester ended and has made motivational speeches at graduations and served as a counselor at basketball camps. She also has worked out every day on the basketball court to get in shape and hone her game. That summer-long effort led her to decide to play again.
"Every day when I am training I am envisioning getting back," Gray said. "When everything happened a year ago that was in my mind when I was learning how to walk again or using my shoulder or re-tracking my (left) eye, all of that was for so that hopefully one day I could fight for my dream and that is to play basketball."
When Tennessee's decision became official in July, Gray and her mother, Tonya Carter, and her father, Carlton Gray, took some time to consider all of her options. Gray later returned to Knoxville to get her belongings and also inquired about the process to transfer. The process was completed in a recent phone session with Head Coach Pat Summitt, Women's Athletics Director Joan Cronan and Todd Dooley, the assistant athletics director for compliance and operations.
"They were very professional," Gray said. "The first thing that Pat said was, ‘Amber, if there is anything I can do, you just let me know.' Todd was very helpful. Jenny and Dr. Morgan released my medical information. Everybody there was very supportive, and Joan was very supportive of the decision that I'm making, and doing whatever they could to help me.
"To me that was very important because one thing that people always ask me is, ‘How was Pat Summitt? How was the real Pat Summitt?' I am like, ‘If you ever meet her she's one of the nicest, most respectful people you will ever meet for the simple fact that she is always putting other people first and she is always willing to lend that helping hand.'
"There were no bad feelings. It was not a bad separation. It was nothing like that. It was far from it. They were all willing to lend a helping hand, and they were all very supportive. It was handled very well.
"It was a hard decision," added Gray, who initially thought she would convert to a medical (non-athletic) scholarship like Cait McMahan had to do because of balky knees and complete her degree work at Tennessee. "It would have been the same thing that Cait did and I would be able to stay on scholarship and finish school."
But then Gray considered her work with Moshak and Heather Mason, the Lady Vols' strength and conditioning coach, last winter and spring and her summer workouts at home.
"I've worked so hard since all of this happened to get back and play again and ultimately that was my goal," Gray said. "I do respect the staff and the coaches and the doctors and everything at Tennessee for the decision that they made, and I completely understand where they're coming from, but I am not ready to give up on my dream yet, and I am not ready to hang out my shoes. That is where my decision came from."
With the transfer papers inked and her high school and college transcripts now at Xavier, Gray intends to enroll for the fall semester – classes start Aug. 25 – and hopefully complete the process for final medical clearance and have the NCAA sign off on the transfer.
"They are comfortable with allowing me to play based on the tests I have done," Gray said. "The benefit of me coming back home is that my doctors are right around the corner. I think it makes Xavier a little more comfortable with clearing me to play."
Gray can also appeal to the NCAA for a hardship waiver as Negedu did and be allowed to play during the 2010-11 season. She has three years of eligibility remaining and would join a top-ranked team that came within a made layup of the Final Four in 2010 and returns Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, two players on the preseason Wade Trophy watch list.
Gray said her parents supported her decision but were understandably concerned, too.
"I think my parents are happy because I am happy," Gray said. "They see a major difference in my body and my physical shape and my mind and my mental toughness. Obviously in the back of their minds they will worry, but that's what parents do. They're happy as long as we're taking the right precautions and making sure everything is done the correct way, and they're supporting any decision that I make."
When Gray was a high school player in Ohio her goal was to be a Lady Vol. She called Summitt after Tennessee won the national title in Cleveland in 2007 and verbally committed.
"It was my dream to play at Tennessee, and I fulfilled it," Gray said.
Now, she plans to suit up for a new team but a part of her will be pulling for the Lady Vols.
"If we're not playing Tennessee, of course," Gray said. "Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol. I will never, ever regret my decision on going there. I will never take back anything that I've learned. I've learned how to push myself. I've seen myself at the lowest of my day and I've seen myself fight to get back to where I need to be at while I was on this long journey this past year.
"They were there to support me both current Lady Vols and past Lady Vols. That saying is right. Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol. My heart will always be there."
Gray also saluted the Lady Vol Nation as a whole.
"I thank them for all the support they have given me for two years and hopefully they'll see me in tournament time or something like that and they'll still give me the respect that they did when I was there," Gray said. "They are still like my family. They have been there through all that I went through and they supported me sending me the get-well cards.
"I want to thank all the fans for their support when I was down. Pat always said we have the greatest fans in the nation, and we really do. I will always have a huge, huge place in my heart for them."