Extraordinary basketball life: ESA job keeps former player close to game
The nickname was bestowed on Evric Gray by his fellow members of the EnergySolutions Arena event security staff, the ones who have come to know him as "Mr. NBA" in the past year since he started working Jazz games.
They might not know the full story, but they know this much for sure: The man in the maroon blazer checking bags at the arena's doors and patrolling its outdoor plazas has enjoyed as remarkable a basketball life as anybody on the court.
If the name sounds familiar, that's because it probably is. Gray was a member of UNLV's 1991 Final Four team and was on the floor at the end of one of college basketball's greatest upsets, when Duke ended the 34-0 Runnin' Rebels' perfect season.
Gray went on to play 14 professional seasons -- everywhere from the Continental Basketball Association's Fort Wayne (Ind.) Fury to Club Atletico Quilmes in Mar del Plata, Argentina -- including a five-game stint with the New Jersey Nets in December 1996.
Which makes it safe to say that Gray is the only member of arena security ever to have guarded Michael Jordan. As brief as his time was with the Nets, Gray happened to make his NBA debut against Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Fresh up from the CBA, Gray remembers Nets coach John Calipari sending him and Kerry Kittles into the game together, with instructions for Kittles to take Jordan and Gray to take Scottie Pippen.
"We get in the game and Kerry goes, 'You take Mike and I take Scottie,' " Gray said. "I'm like, 'Why?' He's like, 'I'm not ready to guard him.' I'm like, 'All right.' "
Jordan scored 32 points in the Bulls' 113-92 victory; Gray credits him with six in the eight minutes he guarded him.
Only seven days later, Gray was released by the Nets on the flight home after a game in Atlanta. Not surprisingly, Gray offers an assessment of NBA life that is seldom heard in looking back at his career.
"There weren't that many good memories because I was always looking over my shoulder," Gray said. "When you're the 12th man or 10th man, you never know. Somebody taps you on the shoulder, you could be gone."
"To be honest, at one point, I was like, 'If the Clippers offered me $250,000 and the team overseas offered me $300,000, I'm going overseas,'" Gray added. "I was pissed at the NBA, the politics and all that."
Gray moved to Utah a decade ago with his ex-wife, who was from the area. Their marriage ended, but the Southern California native opted to stay. With his playing career over, Gray began working at the arena about a year ago.
The 39-year-old also started Olympus Pro, a property management company -- "My business partner is 6-foot-9, so we tend to get the rent," Gray joked -- and serves as an assistant coach for the Murray High girls' basketball team.
As strange as it might sound for Gray to work at the arena after having played in the NBA, Murray coach Issac Beh said it's anything but, given his humble nature.
"A lot of guys would be like, 'I used to play in this arena, I'm not going to work at it,'" Beh said. "It's not like he's going to go and hide, he's too good to talk to people. He's just a genuine, good guy."
A former criminal justice major, Gray took the job with more than a paycheck in mind. He'd like to get into coaching -- really, just working out players before games -- and saw the chance to get his foot in the door.
"A lot of those [Jazz] coaches probably don't know that I even work security," Gray said.
Although he spends most games dealing with unruly fans -- Jazz/Lakers games are the worst, for the record -- Gray is able to catch some of the action. When he does, he watches with a trained eye.
"I just look at the little things people don't look at," he said. "I look at body language, I look at interactions with other players. I can tell who likes who and who doesn't like who, like the little cliques they've got. Every team's got their issues."
Runnin' with the Rebels
Almost two decades later, Gray remains best known from his time at UNLV. He redshirted during the 1990 championship season, but played alongside Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony on the 1991 team that seemed destined to make history.
The Rebels brought a 45-game winning streak into the Final Four against Duke, having crushed the Blue Devils 103-73 the year before in the championship game. Not only were they unbeaten, their average margin of victory that season had been 27 points.
Although he was a reserve, Gray was called on for the final 3:51 after Anthony fouled out. Down by five points in the last 21/2 minutes, Duke came back to tie the score 77-77 and had the ball with a chance to win with 30 seconds left.
As Thomas Hill drove from the left side, Gray stayed with him and contested Hill's bank attempt from the block. The shot missed, but Gray was called for a foul for bumping Christian Laettner in the lane as the two went up for the rebound.
Laettner stepped to the line with 12.7 seconds left and sank the two game-winning free throws. Years later, Gray's oldest daughter even wrote a school report (she got an A) on the Duke upset.
"She's like, 'Dad, why did you foul Christian Laettner?'" Gray said. "I'm like, 'I didn't foul him. It wasn't a foul. We both went up for the rebound. Watch the tape. They called the foul on me.' "
Gray played another two years at UNLV as Jerry Tarkanian's coaching era came to a close. He wasn't drafted by an NBA team and was leading the CBA in scoring (averaging 26.1 points) with Fort Wayne when the Nets signed him in 1996.
"It's like my agent said, 'You got called up to the wrong team," said Gray, who thought he was on the verge of signing with Houston. "You can't turn down a call-up."
The Nets lost all five games in which Gray played. They went on to finish 26-56 and used 23 players over the course of the season. Gray's best game proved to be his last.
He scored seven points in 18 minutes against the Hawks but was waived that night.
"We're at 35,000 feet in the air and [Calipari] said, 'I'm going to release you. I didn't know that you were going to have a good game,'" Gray said. "It was done before the game [had] started."
In hindsight, the only thing Gray wishes is that he'd been given another week. Those five games were his only official NBA action, though Gray did open the lockout-shortened 1999 season on the Washington Wizards' injured list.
Before that, he went to training camp with the Bulls in 1994 -- Gray even considered naming his second daughter Scottie after growing close to Pippen -- but was released. Two years later, he signed a partially guaranteed contract with the Phoenix Suns.
That deal was completed, of all places, in a bathroom at Salt Lake Community College. After Gray scored 20 points in the first half of a Rocky Mountain Revue game, the Suns' Bryan Colangelo decided to step in before word of Gray's play spread.
"He said, 'You're done, you can go home,' " Gray recalled. They agreed to contract terms on the spot, though Gray never played for the Suns, who released him after they took back four players from Houston in the Charles Barkley trade.
Reached by phone, Tarkanian called Gray a "real joy," adding of his career: "It's not easy to stick in the NBA. He's a good player and played a little while there. I thought he had a chance to stick, but it wasn't a lock."
Beating the bushes
Gray played for minor-league teams from coast to coast -- including the CBA's Hartford Hellcats and San Diego Wildcards -- and made stops in Italy, France, Croatia, Greece, Japan, Venezuela, the Philippines and Argentina, where he spent five seasons.
"If I knew what I know now, I would have stuck in the NBA," Gray said. "But I was learning. I was learning on the go and then I was going overseas, and overseas basketball is different. I kept coming back and forth and back and forth."
Gray went to one tryout with Miami thinking he had to make an impression with his defense. The Heat called back asking what happened to the scorer they'd heard about. Most frustrating to Gray was that he got labeled as a player who didn't love the game.
At one point, Gray's former agent, Warren LeGarie, even pleaded with him. "He's like, 'Fake it, fake it,' " Gray said. "I'm like, 'Dude, that's just not me.' ... I love the game. I just don't show no emotion."
If he didn't love basketball, Gray made a curious choice in signing up to work 41 Jazz games a year at the arena. Same thing with spending the last two years helping coach a high school girls' team.
Beh had been playing on weekends with Gray before he was hired by Murray. He thought about how to ask Gray if he was interested in being his assistant. "I just kind of threw it out jokingly," said Beh. Much to his surprise, Gray immediately agreed.
"I was just so happy I couldn't be shocked," Beh said. He described Gray as somebody the girls look up to and trust as well as an expert in player psychology. As for the NBA, "Evric doesn't say a whole lot about it, doesn't reference it," Beh said.
Gray also has played regularly in recent summers with Deron Williams, Paul Millsap and Ronnie Price. Among them, he is known not as "Mr. NBA" but rather "Old School."
"Some of those guys are kind of young," Gray said, "but then when they figure it out, it's like, 'Dude, you were on that UNLV team? That used to be my favorite team when I was in elementary school.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm that old now.' "
By all accounts, Gray still can hold his own. He played briefly with the now-defunct Utah Eagles of the CBA as well as the ABA's Salt Lake City Saints in his late 30s and said he recently turned down an overseas offer.
"He's just one of those guys that you just watch how he still has game and hope that when I'm done playing, I can still play as good as he can," Price said.
Williams added: "He's actually pretty good. He's not as athletic as he used to be, of course. I kind of joke with him because he was a two-guard and now he's like a four-man when he comes and plays with us. He can still score, still shoot it, knows how to play."
Williams had little idea Gray was an arena security guard until he showed up to work his charity dodgeball event this summer. "It's kind of ironic, but he's a great guy," Williams said. "He's doing what he has to do for him, to provide for his family. You've got to respect that."
There is only amazement the more Gray's co-workers learn about his past. Fred Scott, an event security supervisor, knew that Gray had played at UNLV and still was playing for weekend travel teams. The NBA, though, was news to him.
"Not bad," Scott said. "Not bad at all. We've just got to keep him in check now."
Evric Gray played anywhere and everywhere during a 14-year pro career:
NBA » New Jersey Nets (5 games, 2.6 ppg, 8.4 mpg)
CBA » Hartford Hellcats, Quad City Thunder, San Diego Wildcards, Fort Wayne Fury, Utah Eagles
USBL » Atlantic City Seagulls. ABA » Salt Lake City Saints
Overseas » Caserta (Italy), Olympiacos (Greece), Cholet Cedex Basket (France), Daiwa (Japan), Cibona Zagreb KK (Croatia), Olimpia Venado Tuerto, Gimnasia, Libertad Sunchales, Quilmes Mar del Plata (Argentina), Welcome Montevideo (Uruguay), Gaiteros de Zulia (Venezuela), Universidad Catolica Santiago (Chile).
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