Taking a game-winning shot in the WNBA Finals didn’t faze Chelsea Gray.
Neither did assuming control of a legendary high school basketball program at age 14.
Gray, a former resident of Manteca who attended Brock Elliott School, played for St. Mary’s High in Stockton – a parochial powerhouse and an eight-time state champion.
In her first practice as a freshman, the East Bay native dazzled head coach Tom Gonsalves.
“She took over leadership for that team” immediately, Gonsalves said.
Eleven years later, the Los Angeles Sparks point guard Gray put up, and made, the winning shot in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday.
“What she did is the epitome of what she did her whole career,” Gonsalves said. “She is probably the greatest winner that I’ve ever coached.”
Said Gray: “I remember just stepping back and knocking it down. There was adrenaline running through me.”
That fearless state of mind has translated to Gray becoming a McDonald’s All-American in 2009-10, earning a scholarship to play for Duke University, and last autumn, claiming a starring role in the Sparks’ WNBA championship run.
Oh, and a spot on both the 2017 All-Star and All-WNBA second teams.
Gray, who battled knee injuries at Duke before being drafted by the Connecticut Sun in 2014, hit an apex this season. She averaged 14.8 points and 4.4 assists, not to mention a sublime 48 percent shooting clip from 3.
“I got a call from Lisa Borders, the president of the WNBA. She congratulated me on being named to the All-Star team,” Gray wrote in a story for The Players Tribune in July. “I told her thank you, and I’m pretty sure I sounded calm, but in my head I was kind of freaking out.”
Freaking out isn’t usually in Gray’s lexicon.
Gray has consistently played overseas in the WNBA offseason, as she’s competed in Spain, Israel, Serbia and Turkey and beyond. Instead of lamenting the need for WNBA players – who made an average salary of roughly $50,000 in 2017 compared to the NBA’s $6.2 million – to play year-round to make more money, she praised Borders and the experience of traveling.
She also lauded Borders for pushing the WNBA’s product to modern realms, like live-streaming games on Twitter.
“I think we’re on the way up. The president has tried to make changes,” Gray said of Borders, a fellow former Duke Blue Devil. “She brings (in) fans and people together to enjoy the game.”
Gray’s serious interest in basketball began early on, as she grew up with three brothers.
She played constantly in the yard with those brothers, Jovan, Steven and Sean, which molded her.
“It’s always good to play with guys growing up,” Gray said. “It brings out a different edge for them and for you.”
Gray helped St. Mary’s win back-to-back state championships in 2009-2010, and made a game-winner against Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco in a 2009 NorCal championship game.
“She’s got great basketball instincts,” Sparks coach Brian Agler told The Record newspaper in Stockton.
Gray is one of three McDonald’s All-Americans from St. Mary’s, including former WNBA and USC player Jacki Gemelos and former Cal player Afure Jemerigbe.
She was flourishing at Duke until late in the 2012-2013 season, when she dislocated her right kneecap in a regular-season game against Wake Forest.
“Everything changed on February 17, 2013,” Gray told Sports Illustrated. “I’ll never forget it.”
That took 11 months of recovery. And 16 games into her senior season, Gray fractured the very same kneecap that she took a near-year to nurse back to health.
Still, the Sun couldn’t pass on Gray’s potential, taking the 5-foot-11 guard with the 11th pick of the 2014 draft. Gray missed 2014 rehabbing her knee, but contributed quickly in 2015, the same year when she took part in a Spanish National League championship.
Being sidelined and forced to rehab and watch her teammates play gave Gray maturity and perspective.
“It’s a different type of mental” challenge, Gray said. “You get a lot of time to yourself.”
Gray shined as a role player right away for Connecticut, and was a revelation for the Sparks in their 2016 title chase. Suddenly, she’s among the WNBA’s elite alongside teammate and veteran Candace Parker.
None of that surprises her high school coach, who was introduced to Gray in watching a Bay Area AAU tournament when Gray was in the sixth grade.
Gray made a nifty behind-the-back pass to assist a teammate’s basket, a precocious move that raised Gonsalves’ eyebrows and expectations.
“I go, ‘Geez,’” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves met Agler randomly in the offseason, and the two chatted about the 24-year-old Gray.
“He said, ‘She’ll be an all-star next year,’” Gonsalves said.
Agler was spot on. And the all-star Gray and the Sparks are a win away from a second consecutive championship.