Garner High School basketball coach Eddie Gray says he’ll never forget the impact Dean Smith and other great coaches have had on his career as a teacher of the game.
Smith died earlier this month. He was 83 and would have turned 84 next week.
Gray has helped coach at summer youth basketball camps, including Smith’s since 1989.
Some of the lessons Gray learned and the information he gathered watching those coaches – especially Smith – still resonates with Gray today. It has helped him coach his team to another successful season this year.
The Trojans, ranked No. 1 in The News & Observer poll, finished 14-0 in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference. It was the second time in Gray’s 26 seasons that Garner has gone unbeaten in league play.
Gray, a 1970 graduate of Garner, also had an unbeaten conference season in 2010-11 when Garner started 26-0 before losing in the third round of the state tournament
But the lessons he learned from Smith go far beyond the X’s and O’s. They extend off the court.
“When (Smith) was recruiting Donald Williams – I took Donald to a basketball game –and one of the things I got to see was how he created this family atmosphere with his program,” Gray said.
Williams, who was one of the first players he would coach at the varsity level, would eventually go on to play for Smith at North Carolina Chapel Hill.
“He cared about his kids on and off the court,” Gray said. “So what I tried to do as a high school basketball coach is kind of emulate those things.”
Already a history teacher, Gray became head coach of the varsity basketball team in 1989. He was previously the junior varsity coach. As a coach he’d go to his players’ classes from time to time to check on their progress. He wanted to create a relationship with the faculty so that they could come to him with any problems they may have with the players and help fix them.
“Then as a history teacher I found out a lot of how he helped to promote civil rights in the ACC,” Gray said “His charitable work in his local Baptist church. He taught Sunday School classes. He helped to integrate the city of Chapel Hill. He did a lot of things that people didn’t know about. He taught a lot of people like me other things of what it means to be a teacher. Not just to coach a basketball game.
“I think he saw that basketball was an extension of the classroom and there were all kinds of life lessons that you can teach,” Gray continued. “And I adopted that philosophy and I give him a lot of the credit for that.”
The fiery, thick mustached coach with glasses, has been nothing short of successful throughout his career. Gray has won 447 games in his career. The Trojans finished the regular season (22-1) overall, their only loss to Millbrook High School.
Julius Barnes, the point guard who has played more games under Gray than any other player, said throughout his years, Gray has remained consistent in his coaching style and he preaches the same thing at every practice and every game.
“Playing hard, playing together, having fun and playing with heart,” Barnes, a senior, said.
Junior Nick Kuhns said the same.
“His style has not changed very much because he has been successful with it in the past but he adds in a few things each year,” Kuhns said.
Barnes said he’s learned a lot from Gray in his four years at Garner – things that extend beyond the court.
“Coach seems like more than a coach at times,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about life and history from him because he was also my history teacher. He is a good coach because he gives us all his 100 percent even if it’s yelling at us each day and he expects us to give our 100 percent back on the court and in the classroom.”