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Former Pitt star Gray settles into new NBA role

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Aaron Gray is a familiar name for most Pittsburgh basketball fans. The 7’0”, 270-pound center led the '07 Panthers to an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance and was one of the most prolific big men to play for coach Jamie Dixon.

What fans may not know about, however, is Gray’s journey after he left the steel city.

Gray was the 49th overall pick by the Chicago Bulls in the 2007 NBA Draft. He spent three seasons in Chicago and went on to play for the New Orleans Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons for seven NBA seasons, averaging 3.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game over his 318-game career, making 87 stars along the way.

“There’s a big jump going from high school to college, and then even a bigger jump going from college to the NBA,” Gray said.  “The great part about the NBA is that you just kind of get thrown into the fire. My first year up in Chicago, we had media day, practice and then our first preseason game. The great part was that you didn’t even have time to freak out.”

Gray had established a solid career for himself as a reserve post player during his first seven years in the league, landing him a brand new two year contract in Detroit in 2014. But during that year, all of a sudden, Gray nearly lost it all.

“A blood clot from my leg traveled up to my heart,” Gray said. “It was one of those things where it caused a basically full-blown heart attack.”

Gray said he initially felt discomfort following a voluntary workout with the Pistons in late August and kept experiencing pain a few days afterward. At that point, he and his wife decided to get it checked out.

“It was funny because I was going to try to go to sleep because I was feeling like crap,” Gray said. “And I told my wife, I said, ‘If I still feel bad in the morning, I’ll go to the hospital.’

“It was finally like 11:00 that night and there was no way I was going to go to sleep, so we just got up and went to the hospital.”

The doctors initially thought the issue was a pulmonary embolism, according to Gray. Instead, the concern was the levels of troponin within Gray’s heart. Troponin is a protein that is released when the heart is under stress. 

“I ended up going to three hospitals,” Gray said, “and all the tests said everything was coming back perfectly fine, but these troponin levels are skyrocketing.”

A frustrated Gray made a trip to one last hospital, where things went in a different direction.

“They literally wheel me out of the ambulance and, within about 45 seconds, I’m like no clothes on, operating table, signing a form that basically says, ‘Hey man, if you don’t survive, it’s not our fault,’” Gray said.

There was 98 percent blockage around Gray’s heart, doctors discovered. 

“They said if I hadn’t been in as good of shape, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” Gray said.

In the weeks and months following the successful operation, Gray maintained hope he would be able to play in the NBA again. However, doctors told him his dream might be too risky given his condition.

“I thought I was going to be cleared to play again,” Gray said. “Finally, the last test came back and they said, ‘Look, everything is healthy. You can play in your church leagues or pickup leagues, but the accumulation of work it would take for the grind of an NBA season would be too much.’ So they kind of shut me down.”

Hearing the doctors’ news, especially after spending a year and a half rehabilitating the injury, was tough on Gray.

“It was one of those things that you didn’t believe it was over for the first year,” he said. “I had goals, I was training, I had a purpose everyday when I woke up in the morning. I just never believed it was going to be over.”

Gray’s future was murky. But the Pistons had a solution.

First off, the team was forced to waive Gray since he could not return to action. However, they still allowed him to use the team facilities and interact with other members of the squad. 

After a while, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy decided to call Gray into his office and propose an idea to him: he wanted Gray to become a coach.

“I thought he was just going to talk to me and stuff,” Gray said. “But he said, ‘Look, we’d love you to be around. We think there’s a lot of value in your experience and we’d love for you to pass that experience onto our guys.’”

Gray said Van Gundy offered him a type of “internship role” for the 2015-16 season. He was a Pistons assistant coach during home games, but also assisted with the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons’ Development League affiliate, during the parent team's time on the road.

For this upcoming season, Gray has been promoted to be a full-time Pistons assistant coach, and he’ll travel with the team for all of its games.

“I spent the summer working with Andre Drummond with an assistant coach of mine, Malik Allen, who has really helped mentor me,” Gray said. “Just really kind of settling in to an assistant coaching position.”

Van Gundy has been impressed with what he’s seen out of Gray’s coaching ability, both with the Pistons and the Drive.

“Aaron’s an outstanding young coach,” Van Gundy said. “He is a very good teacher and has a great relationship with our players. They respect him and listen to him not only because of his recent playing background, but because he knows the game and they know he can help them. He’s a valuable part of our staff.”

Although his playing career didn’t end as he would have liked, Gray said he has been rejuvenated by his new job.

“Now I have another purpose,” Gray said. “I wake up in the morning and I have obligations and priorities on top of just being a family man. It’s really been good.”

For a lot of young student-athletes, sports are essentially a hobby. They represent an activity to boost a college résumé or a tool to stay active. But for many young athletes, sports mean much more.
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