Marquise Gray won't make eye contact with the ol' Stars and Stripes during a pre-game national anthem. He appears to be staring at the ceiling, but he's actually gazing a bit farther than that.
The Flint Beecher High senior power forward, who's rated the nation's No. 29 overall recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com, is paying his respects to his late father, Joseph Washington Jr., whom he lost this past fall when the debilitating effects of diabetes and arthritis finally caught up with his 54-year-old mentor.
It's a ritual Gray will regrettably perform for the remainder of his brilliant basketball career. Yet, at the same time it reminds him of an incalculable loss, it also helps him recognize how lucky he is to own the strength of character that comes from a rock-solid family support system — from his late dad to his taskmaster mom to his older brothers Quinton, 22, and Keenan, 20, who wore the same No. 33 jersey at Beecher before him.
"I took my father's death very hard, just like any person would," says Gray, who followed an All-State selection as a junior for the Class C state finalist Buccaneers with a remarkable senior campaign that saw him average 25 points and 17 rebounds per game. "My family's influence on me on the court and in life, well, I wouldn't get through it if it weren't so strong. My dad was so smart. My brothers keep me in line and give me advice. My mom (Rebecca) keeps me level-headed. When I do good, she always tells me I can do better. She always lets me know when I've done something wrong and when I've done something good. And I could never get a big head around her. When I'm wrong, I'm wrong. And even when I'm right, I'm somehow a little bit wrong."
Gray, who pronounces his first name "Mark-wheeze," is the youngest of six brothers, but coach Tony Holliday says his star doesn't have a trace of little brat in him. Fact is, what wows Beecher's second-year head coach the most about his Michigan State-bound blue-chipper is the maturity that's led to tremendous mental focus.
"His improvement from his junior season is what's most impressive," says Holliday, 46, a former Flint Northwestern High point guard. "He's always improving, and that's connected to attitude and maturity level. He's dedicated himself to doing his best both academically and athletically."
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gray concedes that his tough-to-please kin weren't the only factors in making him a guy who dots every "i" and crosses every "t." He needed to gather some wisdom of his own. He recalls his experience at the Nike Hoop Jamboree during the summer after his sophomore year as a milestone moment.
"Two years ago, I was just playing off of talent and not thinking," says Gray, who also averaged four blocks per game and shot 62 percent from the field as a junior to become the apple of Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo's eye. "That experience made me realize I'm not the only one who has talent and not the only one who can play. I'm stronger, smarter and quicker now because of that. Now I see how hard you have to work. If I can't be the greatest, I want to be one of the greatest."
So how does that burning desire manifest itself on the court these days? Coach Holliday suggests we look no further than the boxscore from a regular-season game against Muskegon Heights High earlier this year. "The type of numbers that prove he's such a well-rounded player," says Holliday. Try spectacularly well-rounded. In a seven-point win, Gray scorched the Tigers for 32 points, 18 rebounds, 10 blocks and eight assists, including a pair of 3-pointers.
It's easy to argue that the most meaningful numbers in a typical Gray stat line aren't even the kind listed above. When Gray decides to shoot, he hits. Especially in crunch time. He shot 11-of-17 from the field against Muskegon Heights, including 5-of-5 during a 17-point fourth quarter. And in last year's regional semifinal win over Pewamo-Westphalia, he hit 8-of-9 attempts from the floor.
"He's great at reading situations," says Holliday. "First off, it's tough to stop a 6-9 kid from getting the ball, but around the basket he does a good job of finishing. He's just very active around the basket. He's an excellent offensive rebounder and an absolutely instinctive defensive rebounder."
For his part, Gray makes an extra effort to remind himself his talents are multiple. And he's determined to hone every aspect of his ability.
"I don't just consider myself a post player," he says. "I can play any position you put me at on the court. I'm versatile. You don't have to score to be a threat. You can pass. You can play good defense. Is it hard to work hard all the time on your game? It's always hard. But you have to look past [the difficulty] when you don't feel like working. If you don't do it then, what happens when the game comes?"
In the end, Gray's unwavering resolve comes back to his family foundation. The people who love him the most have dispensed the tough love necessary to bring out his best.
"I give a lot of credit to my brothers for never taking it easy on me," he says. "When I was younger, I never played with players my age. I played with my older brothers and their friends, and I'd constantly try to outdo them. That keeps you hungry."
That's an outlook that would surely have Gray's dad smiling.
"My dad would always tell me to post stronger and to shoot more down there," says Gray. "He knew that at first I didn't have the confidence off the dribble in those situations. That advice continues to make me work harder. He never missed a chance to tell me how proud of me he was."