Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with one of the state's most respected basketball coaches, South Mountain High School's George Wray. Wray, now entering his 13th year at South, has built a rock solid program under difficult circumstances. His efforts culminated in a trip to the 5A Final Four two seasons ago. Also serving as a special education math teacher, Wray is one of the fine people who dedicate their lives to teaching and coaching in our inner city schools. Coach Wray had some interesting insights into what it takes to be successful under challenging conditions.
Wray coached the boy's varsity at Seton High for two seasons before landing the South Mountain head job. "When I took over for (Clement) Chapman, oh……..the program was in disarray," said Wray. "It was like rats leaving a sinking ship. When Coach Chapman resigned and went to Chandler-Gilbert (CC), a lot of the kids just took off and went to other schools. So I was left with just the kids that were loyal to the program, and we started from scratch. We won one game our first year."
Wray credits the success of his program on building a foundation of quality human beings. Speaking of the players that went to America West Arena two seasons ago, Wray reflected, "What we did is we concentrated on good kids. There's a lot of good basketball players at South, but I wouldn't put them in the good kids category. They just didn't fit in to what we wanted as a program. We were looking for good kids, good athletes, good students…….and that group that went to AWA had at least eight kids with 3.0's (GPA) and better. They were just good kids." Andre' Mason, Jarred Jones, Duane Walker, Norberto Rojo, Butch Wade, Marcus Coleman, and Bilal Russell were the players who formed the core of that amazing team.
Asked about the challenges in inner city schools, Wray referenced a conversation he had with his own son who played basketball at Seton. Wray recalled telling his son, "You wouldn't believe the issues that I have to deal with. I mean, the kids on your basketball team at Seton have no clue as to what I have to deal with. I'm talkin' about kids that have to miss school because they have to baby sit. I'm talkin' about kids that can't afford their insurance so I buy school insurance for them. It just goes on and on and on. These kids come to South with so many issues just to begin with………basketball is like on the back burner. So you're a psychologist, a counselor, you're a surrogate father, you're a disciplinarian, the ethics teacher……..all rolled into one. And then basketball, finally, is like maybe sixth on the list."
What's Wray's biggest reward in coaching? "We try to tell the kids that if they come in and play through our program for the four years, if they do what we ask them to do grade wise, civic wise, that sort of thing, then at worst, we tell them they should be playing at a junior college somewhere. Like right now, we've got 7 to 8 kids playing college somewhere and Bilal (Russell) is at Howard University. To see kids actually make their grades, wanna go to college, go to college and still play basketball at the same time……..that's kinda rewarding."
Looking upon the coming season, Wray shares, "This South team is probably the most different team we've ever had. We're very small. We're going to run with four guards and a big man a lot. We've always had 6'8" kids, 6'6" kids, 6'5" kids. And this year we're talking about four guards 6' and smaller. And we have two legitimate big men, Ryan Coyle who is 6'5" and Dominic McCray who is probably 6'3." And from there, we're small. So those two are gonna have to board and play defense against the Thomas Huff's of the world. And it's gonna be hard. But on the other end, they're gonna have a tough time matching up with us because we are real fast. And the other thing that's really strange about this group is we can shoot. At South, historically, if we've had one or two shooters, we've been very happy. And this year, I have probably six kids that can shoot the three and I'm not gonna worry at all about them shootin' the three. Even my big men can shoot the ball."
To overcome the lack of height, Wray adds, "All five people are going to have to rebound. We're gonna trap. We'll full court. We're gonna shoot. I'm not much of a three point proponent. It's gonna be hard to sit there and watch them throw threes up. Typical game last year, if we shot ten threes, that was a lot. And I can easily see us shooting twenty a game this year………..I kinda got used to it this summer."
Delbert Freeman, Reggie Coyle, DeLonn Stevenson, and Bahaadar Russell will provide senior leadership and firepower at the guard position. Romero Hood, a sophomore, should see significant playing time too. Of Russell, Wray crows, "He has all the gifts that God could give you. He really is a talented kid. He has all the tools."
What would Wray change about Arizona high school basketball? "There's a big push right now to get away from the year-round sports. I know it's going around the circles, the AIA, the coaches. I really don't like the fact that kids have to specialize in one sport. And they almost feel like they have too. This is probably the first time in years where we've had a lot of our kids playing football. And in the past it's like they feel they have to work on their basketball to make it in the basketball program. So they don't play football for instance."
Speaking about off-season contact between players and coaches Wray added, "I would like to see maybe a two month period in the summertime. Play the summer league and that's it. Because, you've got a lot of coaches that are stuck in the middle. You've got coaches that are very greedy and do the club thing and the AAU, and that creates all kinds of problems. And then you've got coaches who feel like, jeez……if I don't play 30 or 40 games this summer I'm going to be behind the other coaches." Wray further points out there are some coaches who don't do anything at all in the summertime, complicating the issue of equality even more.
When I asked Coach Wray about club ball and its effects on the South program he stated that historically South kids can't afford club programs and so very few have ever participated. It's really been a non-issue for him.
Looking to the coming season, Wray singled out Camelback, Desert Vista, and Highland as potential title contenders amongst the teams he's seen. But Wray made it clear that by no means has he seen all the top teams. "Any given night, big strong teams can be beat by small quick teams like us, and on the other hand the next night, a big strong team might kill us inside and we don't shoot the ball well. It's gonna be an interesting year," promised Wray.
My few moments with Coach Wray were up. He'd answered all my questions. I've always been impressed with the South Mountain program, and am now even more so after speaking with the head coach.
Understandably, all teachers and coaches have a tough job in our schools today, even in the wealthy suburbs. But my hat's off to the men and women who roll up their sleeves and go to work everyday in conditions almost beyond belief. People like George Wray are hard to find, but very easy to put on a pedestal.
*** The South Mountain Jaguars tip off their season November 25th at the Mesa Mountain View Thanksgiving Tournament.