July 18, 2020 

Reshanda Gray: From South Central Los Angeles to the WNBA

Gray's journey led her back to L.A.

South Central, Los Angeles used to be synonymous with championship-caliber high-school basketball. Packed gyms, pep bands and cheerleaders, reporters and cameras, college coaches, the entire fanfare.

1992 changed a lot of that. Following the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a liquor store owner, and the not guilty verdicts handed down to the Los Angeles Police Department officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, the city erupted into several days of social unrest that resulted in both damage and death.

It ended up setting off a gradual chain reaction.

The colleges and media stopped showing up. Families began moving from the area and a lot of the ones who stayed opted to send their children to schools in places like the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, suburban areas far from home.

By the time Reshanda Gray was coming through high school, the dominance of South Central basketball was nearly a thing of the past.

Gray attended Washington Prep High School, deep in the heart of South Central and actually had a bit of a late introduction to basketball, not picking up a ball until she was 13.

She initially wanted to play because it was something her friends were into. She recalls her early days of being told by her coaches to simply stand under the basket and throw the ball up near the rim since she was taller than the other girls.

“I was padding my stats before I even knew what that was,” Gray told The Next with a chuckle. “I was girly at the time, I wanted to be a model. I didn’t want to sweat, I didn’t want to do none of that.”

But as she continued playing, she started to enjoy it. She got better and eventually caught the eye of local high school coaches. Her home school was Fremont High School on the Eastside of South Central. But the head coach at Washington Prep had heard about her and wanted her to play for him. The rest, as they say, is history.

During her time at Washington Prep, Gray won Los Angeles City Player of the Year, Los Angeles City-Section Player of the Year, a league MVP, was named a McDonalds All-American in 2011, and was considered a top-10 prospect in the country by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. With her talent and accolades, one would think she would’ve been a prime target for college recruiting.

But there was one thing that stood in her way: the fact that she attended a public school in South Central.

“A lot of D1 schools stopped recruiting me because they felt like I didn’t have the grades because I went to a public high school,” Gray said. “You’re already working hard because you’re a great player, but you have to work twice as hard because you go to a public school that’s not great. You’ve got to work twice as hard to prove yourself. Everybody can’t go to a private school or a good school, everybody isn’t granted a permit.”

Gray ultimately got the last laugh. She earned a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley and in 2013, she helped the school reach its first-ever NCAA Final Four appearance.

During her senior year, she was named the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year. She went on to be drafted 16th overall by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2015 WNBA draft. She’s since enjoyed a rather solid professional basketball career that’s seen her spend time with the Lynx, the Atlanta Dream, the New York Liberty, and now her hometown Los Angeles Sparks.

She’s also had stops overseas in Italy, Hungary, and South Korea. Quite the resume for someone who wasn’t supposed to make it this far because of where she grew up.

Because of what she was able to accomplish, she believes she’s helped weaken the stereotype that high school basketball players aren’t good enough because they attend public high schools in inner-city Los Angeles. She knows she’s helped bring back some of that awareness that was present pre-1992.

“I can honestly say I put Washington Prep on the map, no one really knew who they were,” Gray said. “I had people coming to the hood, to the middle of South Central Los Angeles just to come see me play. I feel like that kind of made a change for my community, I kind of brought that hype. I feel like when I started to make noise, that’s when a lot of people started paying attention to the Carsons, the Narbonnes, the King/Drews, teams in our league that weren’t getting the exposure before.”

Now, six years into her professional career, Gray makes sure she takes care of her old neighborhood. She acts as a role model for other young girls in her community. She started her own non-profit organization, No Gray Areas, designed to help young women unlock their potential not just in athletics, but in everyday life.

She explains that the name for her non-profit originated from the ‘grey’ area you find yourself in when you’re stuck between making a hard decision. Should you do it or not? You’re struggling to make an important choice. She mentors the girls in her program and reassures them that even though she’s a WNBA player and older, she too still finds herself in that grey area sometimes.

The impetus for starting her own organization came from her godparents, whom she credits for helping guide her while she was in high school and giving her the motivation she needed to get through high school and eventually college. They ran a non-profit organization she participated in when she was a teenager and they even took her in to live with them for a period.

She recalls spending much of her youth selling candy and other things to help her mother pay the bills, and not being able to really focus much on school or on being a kid. When she started living with her godparents, it was the first time she felt she was able to be a ‘normal’ kid. She could focus solely on basketball and school.

Her story isn’t unique for kids growing up in inner-city LA, which is why she knew she wanted to give back to her neighborhood the same way her godparents did for her.

“I’m very hands-on in my community. Every chance I get, I go and try to speak to the kids, put on clinics, do Q&A’s, all of that. My community made me who I am and I will never forget that,” Gray said. “I tell my young girls all the time, I’m still evolving, I’m still growing with it too. My purpose is to help young girls grow academically, athletically, and socially because I believe all three are intertwined. If you don’t have social skills, how are you going to communicate with your teammates, your coaches, and your teachers? If you don’t have the grades, you can’t play basketball. If you have the grades, but you don’t work on your skills, you’re just going to be average like anyone else.”

While she knows that in recent years, the exposure for inner-city LA basketball has waned, and many young players may look to private schools in other areas of Los Angeles County, she believes that success can still be achieved by staying home and putting in the work.

One of the things she suggests is getting involved with AAU basketball. She played for the Cal Sparks organization, one of the top travel ball programs in the state of California for girls. It gave her the opportunity to showcase her talent on more of a national stage rather than just in her own neighborhood.

And for any kids in similar situations as herself when she was growing up, perhaps trying to juggle between school, basketball, and the environment, she has some words of advice for them. There are multiple parts to that. It’s a combination of both having the motivation and desire to succeed, but at the same time having people who believe in you and are willing to give you an opportunity.

She knows it’s possible to achieve success, no matter where you grow up. After all, she’s living proof of that.

“I just feel like all it takes is an equal opportunity or a chance. I go back and tell these young girls that I was in the same position as you. If I can do it, you can do it too,” Gray said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You just have to have a willing mindset and understand there will be obstacles and things in your way. You just got to maneuver around it and keep your eyes on the prize.”

Written by David Yapkowitz

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