Yeshimbra "Shimmy" Gray's increasingly successful career as a basketball coach has its roots not only in her love of the sport, but also in her desire to contribute to her community and to teach the values of honesty, hard work, fairness, and compassion that have guided her own life. Inspired by her mother's strength and integrity and driven by a desire to promote the highest ideals of teamwork, Gray strove as a coach not merely to win games but to motivate the young women on her teams to become responsible and cooperative citizens.
Yeshimbra Tane Gray was born on November 23, 1972, in a housing project in the industrial town of Flint, Michigan, where her mother, Bonnie Miller, worked on the General Motors assembly line. Gray's birth father had little to do with the family and died when she was four years old. When she was seven, she was adopted by her mother's new husband, Jack Gray. However, Bonnie Miller and Jack Gray separated after two years, and Shimmy and her two older brothers were mostly raised by their mother in a single-parent household. Miller worked hard, but always found the time to supervise her children, teaching them household skills and principles of honesty, hard work, and perseverance.
Started Shooting Hoops at Age Six
After getting a job at General Motors, Bonnie Miller bought a house for her family in a largely African American neighborhood of Flint. There Gray began to practice playing basketball on a driveway backboard with no rim. When she was six or seven, her mother gave her a miniature hoop of her own. Though no one else in the family was involved in athletics, Gray fell in love with basketball.
During the 1970s, Flint was home to the large automobile manufacturers General Motors and Buick, and most of the residents worked at one plant or the other. When workers went out on strike in an attempt to improve their wages or working conditions, they received no pay except for a small union strike allowance. Gray walked picket lines with her mother during the strikes and observed how everyone in the community contributed to help strikers make it through the difficult times. The kindness and support of her neighbors influenced how Gray came to define what a community ought to be.
However, Gray's own experiences of community were quite complex. Both while living in a government-funded housing project and later in while living in a residential neighborhood, Gray found herself in largely black communities. Bonnie Miller, however, was white, and her mixed-race daughter was frequently taunted by neighborhood children because of her white parent.
In 1980 after Gray's brothers had graduated from high school, she moved with her mother to an apartment in the suburban area of Flint Township. There she found herself in a very different position, as the only black student in her school. In Flint Township, the fact that Gray's mother was white seemed to make her white neighbors more comfortable, but Gray herself had a harder time fitting in. She was outgoing and friendly, however, and soon made friends even though she was painfully aware that her new friends had many racist attitudes.
When Gray was in the seventh grade, she joined her middle school basketball team. By eighth grade, she had decided that she would play basketball in college. Watching the women's national championship games, the only women's basketball on television during the 1980s, Gray became determined that she would play for one of the top teams. Bonnie Miller supported her daughter's ambition by making an agreement that Gray did not have to take an after-school job as long as she participated in sports.
Gray had a distinguished high school basketball career at Flint Township's Carman-Ainsworth High, earning places on the Detroit News All-State First Team and the Detroit Free Press Second Team. During her final season she averaged 19 points and 16 rebounds per game and set school records for rebounds and single game scoring that have stood into the 2000s. During the spring she ran track, where she was named team Most Valuable Player for three years and became the only Flint area girl to place in the state meet four years in a row.
Studied to Become a Police Officer
Upon her graduation from high school in 1990, Gray was recruited by almost a hundred different colleges. After much consideration, she decided to accept a full basketball scholarship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In college she continued to distinguish herself on the court. She was part of the starting team at Michigan for three years and became team captain when she was a senior.
Academically, Gray studied sociology and criminology, preparing to become a police officer. She decided on a career in law enforcement because she felt that some members of her family had chosen lives that often placed them in trouble with the law. Gray wanted a different life for herself, and she thought that police work offered her an opportunity to make a positive contribution to her community. Her family was not pleased with her choice because many of them had had unpleasant experiences with the police. Even her mother, as a white woman in relationships with African American men, had often been harassed by prejudiced white police officers in her neighborhood.
At a Glance …
Born Yeshimbra Tane Gray on November 23, 1972, in Flint, Michigan. Education: University of Michigan, BA, sociology, 1994.
Career: Ypsilanti, Michigan Police Department, officer, 1994–96; University of Michigan Police Department, 1996–97; Olivais Futbol Clube, basketball team member, 1998–99; Bellevue Community College, assistant coach, women's basketball, 1999–2000; University of Washington, assistant coach, women's basketball, 2000–03; University of Arizona, assistant coach, women's basketball, 2003–05; St. Louis University, head coach, women's basketball, 2005–.
Memberships: Black Coaches Association, Women's Basketball Coaches Association
Awards: Big 10 All-Star Summer Tour, 1993; University of Michigan, Senior Award, 1994; University of Michigan, Swish Club Award, 1994; University of Washington, Gertrude People's Award for dedication to the academic success of student athletes, 2001, City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation Award, for outstanding dedication to the youth of Seattle, 2002.
Addresses: Office—c/o Women's Basketball Program, St. Louis University, 3672 W. Pine Mall, St. Louis, Missouri 63108.
After her graduation from Michigan in 1994, Gray took a job with the Ypsilanti, Michigan, police department. She worked there for a year and a half, then took a job with the University of Michigan police force for six months. During the two years that she worked as a police officer, Gray found that she did not like the person she was becoming because of her job. Driving dangerous neighborhoods alone at night in her squad car, she felt that she was becoming hardened and suspicious of people. She saw many officers becoming unsympathetic and hostile to those they saw as criminals, and she did not want to participate in that behavior.
Returned to Basketball
Although Gray loved the excitement and activity of police work, and deeply enjoyed participating in community outreach programs, such as starting a Cub Scout troop in a local housing project, she found that too little of her job involved such aid to the community. Gray decided to change careers. She missed playing basketball, and she took an evening job as a factory supervisor so that she could begin to train again during the day.
Gray got a sports agent to help her find work playing basketball. Knowing that Gray considered herself a Christian, her agent suggested that she join an Athletes in Action tour so that team owners could see her play. Athletes in Action (AIA) was founded by David Hannah in 1966 as a Christian ministry, using the popularity of sports to spread Christianity. In 1998 Gray toured with AIA for six weeks, traveling throughout the United States to play against college teams. She returned to find a job offer from a women's professional basketball team in Portugal. European fans are enthusiastic about many sports, and women's professional teams often receive more support there than in the United States. The Olivais Futbol Clube had an immediate opening, and only days after returning from her tour with AIA, Gray was on a plane to Portugal.
For a year she played for the Portuguese team, living in the beautiful mountainside town of Coimbra. Each morning as she looked out her window at the picturesque view of the town, Gray recalled to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that she marveled at how far she had come from the factories of Flint. At the end of her first season in Portugal, Gray played another tour with AIA, this time in Europe. She received another job offer to play in Croatia, which she planned to accept, when the reactivation of an old injury changed her career plans forever.
Became a Coach
Before she could begin her new job with the Croatian women's team, Gray re-injured a knee that she had previously damaged in college. Her knee was too badly hurt for her to continue to play basketball professionally. However, she could coach, teaching other young women to excel at the sport she loved. A small community college in the Seattle area offered her a position as assistant coach, and in 1999 Gray became assistant women's basketball coach at Bellevue Community College (BCC).
After a year at BCC, Gray was offered the head coach position, but did not feel ready to take over responsibility for the team. She reluctantly took a job as a graduate student coach at a small college in Pennsylvania. On her way out of town, however, her car broke down. While waiting for repairs, she stopped to play an informal pick-up game of basketball at the University of Washington (UW). There she ran into June Daugherty, head coach of the university's women's basketball team. Gray knew Daugherty from summers of working at the Huskies basketball camp, and the coach respected Gray's abilities. Daugherty told Gray that her assistant coach had just quit and offered Gray the job. Delighted to stay in Seattle, Gray accepted and became assistant coach for the Huskies for three years.
During her career at the University of Washington, Gray demonstrated not only her skill at the sport of basketball but also her concern for the well-being of her team members and her consideration for the community as a whole. She gained a reputation as an enthusiastic, professional, and caring coach who treated her players fairly and equally. She improved game performance by instituting a humorous reward system, presenting tiny toy soldiers and army vehicles to team members who protected the "war zone" of the painted area under the net. She was also strongly supportive of her players' academic careers, becoming the team academic advisor, and winning in 2001 the university's Gertrude People's Award for dedication to the academic success of student athletes.
Taught Basketball and Community Responsibility
Gray's outreach to the community included starting free basketball clinics at community centers to bring quality coaching to low-income youth, who could not afford the expensive summer basketball camps run by the Huskies. Gray's role in setting up these clinics earned her a community service award from the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. Always happy when contributing to the community, Gray enjoyed participating in various other projects from volunteering at homeless shelters to visiting patients at Seattle's Children's Hospital.
In 2003 Gray advanced her career by taking a higher level assistant coach position at the University of Arizona. At Arizona she was given more coaching responsibility and more voice in team strategy and development, and recruiting new team members. Arizona's head coach Joan Bonvicini trained Gray in all aspects of running a team, as if she were preparing her for a future job as head coach, and Gray was anxious to learn it all.
Her chance to move into the head coach position came in 2005, when St. Louis University offered her the job as coach of their women's basketball team, the Billik-ens. This time, Gray felt ready for the challenge and accepted the position. Her years of work and dedication paid off, and she found the transition from assistant coach to head coach, or "from making suggestions to making decisions," to be surprisingly easy. As she has continued to work to improve the SLU team's performance, she has also maintained her focus on teaching skills and values that extend beyond the basketball court. Rather than becoming a coach who counts wins and losses, Gray has devoted her career to being a teacher of values, motivation, and leadership.
Jet, May 9, 2005, p. 49.
"Shimmy Gray: Profile." Washington Huskies. http://gohuskies.collegesports.com/sports/w-baskbl/mtt/gray_shimmy00.html (September 12, 2005).
"SLU Names Shimmy Gray Women's Basketball Coach." Atlantic 10 Conference. www.atlantic10.org/sports/wbball/release.asp?RELEASE_ID=1520 (September 12, 2005).
"UA Hoops: A Gray Matter." Arizona Daily Wildcat. http://wildcat.arizona.edu/papers/98/94/02_2.html (September 12, 2005).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Yeshimbra Gray on September 15, 2005.
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