Let’s get something straight — the story you are about to read has the framework of a Cinderella story. But Reshanda Gray is not a typical Cinderella. While she did come from a tough background, no one who knows her would ever describe her as malleable or weak. Reshanda Gray wanted to be great and pushed herself to be great, so she was great.
No magic required.
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of South Central Los Angeles — an area notorious for having some of the highest levels of crime in the city — Gray lived in an overlooked apartment on 81st Street.
Bland one- or two-story buildings marked the street as if they had been planted there haphazardly. In a neighborhood with rundown homes, there was no hiding from the reality of the world Gray was in. Prostitutes and gang members lined every corner, a sight as common as people walking their dogs down the typical suburban street. A church with faded stained glass windows served as the antithesis of everything revolving around it.
“I was just hanging with the wrong crowd, thinking it was OK for me to do wrong things.”
— Reshanda Gray
Gray’s mother and father slept in the living room of the small apartment, while Gray and her six siblings slept in the lone bedroom. They shared everything they had with each other, from clothes to space on the floor.
Some of Gray’s brothers spent time in a gang, often coming home late. Gray learned to fight from her three older brothers, something she credits as only making her tougher. But toughness wasn’t the only thing Gray learned from her brothers, as the city’s energy eventually started to steer her in the wrong direction.
“I was just hanging with the wrong crowd, thinking it was OK for me to do wrong things and just be defiant and talking back to adults and stuff like that,” Gray says. “I think it definitely had a big influence, because where I lived, not many people make it, and not many positive things happen, so I was quick to really get caught up in all the negative thinking going on in the community.”
To get through all the bad things surrounding her, Gray learned to take the best parts of every struggle and find happiness, no matter where it might come from. She knew nothing else. This was life. In her mind, nothing else could be expected from her because, unlike the people on TV, life was incredibly far from perfect.
Enter Tyrone Dinneen. Gray’s fairy godfather. Just without the bippity boppity boo.
When fate first brought the two together, Gray wanted no part of it. She first met Dinneen in middle school, when he was trying to recruit kids to join Arnold’s All-Stars, now called After-School All-Stars. The program is an after-school group that gives students somewhere to go after school and helps them with their homework.
“Some white guy came up to me, like, I don’t know you,” Gray says. “You know, where I come from, they don’t look like you. You have no business talking to me.”
So she threw the form away.
After Dinneen asked her repeatedly, Gray finally took the permission slip to her mom and asked her to sign it. She came to the program with her older brother, and after about a month, he got in so much trouble that he stopped coming. Gray got in her own share of trouble as she came into the program — a little “rough around the edges,” as Dinneen puts it.
On one occasion, Gray decided to steal some Nerds Rope that the program used to reward kids for good behavior. Even though she could have asked for the candy or just done what she was asked to do, she took the candy anyway.
Gray also talked back to people and made many of the supervisors and other kids mad — Dinneen most of all. Gray’s response to his anger was to laugh at him. As his face turned redder and redder, she would laugh at him even more, her enjoyment of the situation increasing.
After being in the program for about two years, her attitude shrunk, and the relationship between the two grew immensely. Gray and Dinneen became incredibly close, and she gained more responsibility in the program as a result, practically becoming an assistant.
“She helped collect attendance and bring me the keys,” Dinneen says. “It’s a big deal to bring somebody the keys because they are the keys to the school, and it’s not like you can have any kid running around with those.”
But Dinneen and After-School All Stars can be credited for introducing Gray to something even more valuable.
They got her the invitation to the ball.
“(Dinneen) was like, ‘Oh you should play,’ because my friends were playing,” Gray says. “And I’m like ‘No, I don’t want to play basketball. I don’t like basketball. I want to be a model.’ ”
The modeling career was put on hold, however, as she ended up joining a team at the after-school program for a March Madness-style tournament. With no skills or knowledge of basketball, all Gray had was her towering height. So she used it and was able to score by just putting the ball in the basket, although when she dribbled, the ball would bounce over her head.
Basketball only became really important to her when she learned in ninth grade that a talented player could get a scholarship that would pay for college. Although the chances of a Division I school recruiting from Washington Prep, her high school, were slim, she became one of the team’s star players by her junior year.
“Raw.” Coaches called her “raw.” Scouts called her “raw.” Recruiters called her “raw.” They said, “she could be something, but she’s got some work to do, she’s raw.”
Still, people saw her raw talent, and letters poured in from schools across the country. At times, there were so many interested schools that there were at least 10 recruiters at one game. Schools wanted Gray so much they even attended her high school volleyball games.
Halfway through her junior year, these letters started going to a new address.
Dinneen and his wife invited Gray to live with them full-time. As she had been a frequent visitor at their household ever since eighth grade, often staying there for three or four nights per week, a move to View Park seemed inevitable for a basketball star who needed to focus on her game. The idea of her daughter moving out was hard for Gray’s mother to accept, but when she was evicted from her apartment during Gray’s junior year, it became clear that staying with her mother was no longer what was best for her. Gray knew she was doing what was best for her family as well, as she was one less bird in the nest to feed.
Gray inherited a godfather, a godmother and a godsister going into her senior year. Her new family was there for her in every way: driving her to Orange County every weekend for tournaments, paying for her to take an SAT course and ensuring that she did her homework.
“The main thing that’s always drawn my family to her is that she is positive through every scenario. Even back in the day when things were the worst, she was always a happy kid,” Dinneen says. “She never used her problems as a crutch as why she was making certain decisions, which a lot of kids do who go down the wrong path. She never did that. Ever. She continues to not do that.”
“She never used her problems as a crutch as why she was making certain decisions, which a lot of kids do who go down the wrong path. She never did that. Ever. She continues to not do that.”
— Tyrone Dinneen
In Gray’s senior year of high school, she showed exactly why she deserved every one of those letters. She not only led her team to a Marine League Championship the year before but also was named a 2011 McDonald’s All American, the 2010 Los Angeles City Player of the Year and league MVP, and she played on the under-18 U.S. national team, winning a gold medal. She was ranked among the top 25 players in the country.
In the end, her college decision came down to the hometown favorite, USC, and Cal. USC was too close for a girl ready to spread her wings, so Gray donned the blue and gold as quickly as Cinderella popped on that sparkly blue dress.
Gray’s tenure at Cal is eerily similar to her experience playing basketball in high school — sitting on the sidelines her first two years, getting a larger role her junior year and then making it the Reshanda show her senior year.
Up until her junior year, Gray was a player who would come off the bench mid-game and make splash plays. It was in her junior year that she really came onto the college basketball scene. In a late-season game against Washington State, Gray scored 43 points in one game, going 17 for 20 from the field. 32 of those points came in the first half alone.
Her senior year has easily been the highlight of her college career, as she has proved how essential she is to the team’s success.
“Here is a kid who has had a 3.0 every semester for the last four or five semesters. I think she’s the poster child for everything that is right about intercollegiate athletics,” says Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “She’s going to graduate with a great GPA from Cal, and she’s going to be a top draft pick in the WNBA. What else can you say?”
Now the girl who didn’t want to even try basketball has been named the Pac-12 Player of the Year. She is a month away from the WNBA draft, where she is projected to go in the top five, and she’s only two months away from dancing her way onto the graduation stage for her diploma.
Asked which day she is more looking forward to, Gray thinks for a second. And then she gives a huge smile: “You want me to be honest?”
“Getting a degree from a wonderful institution, that’s really great,” Gray says. “Not only has it become something for me, I (also) proved a lot of people wrong in my journey, which is sweeter.”
Gray looks like she’ll have her storybook ending — her happily ever after — without needing a prince. But for this star, there is no “The End.” It’s just the beginning.
Alaina Getzenberg covers women’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]