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Friday, October 23, 2009

The remarkable comeback of Amber Gray

By Michael D. Clark • • October 14, 2009

It was a shocking image last August for anyone who ever saw the former Ohio Basketball Player of The Year glide effortlessly about the court.

Amber Gray led the Lakota West High School girls' team historic run to the 2008 state championship game.

But there she was, this nationally recruited athlete who went on to play last fall for the famed University of Tennessee "Lady Vols," slowly limping out of Cincinnati's Drake Center with a closed eyelid, double vision and her arm in sling. She had barely survived a stroke.

Photos: Amber Gray's recovery
Photos: Amber Gray's basketball career

Her young and promising life had been threatened by a broken blood vessel in her brain a month earlier, forcing an emergency 12-hour operation and desperate measures to save her life.

And even when early physical therapy allowed the 19-year-old to walk gingerly away from her month-long stay at Drake, a return to normal life - much less college basketball - seemed a million steps beyond possibility.

But now there's a new image of Gray and it is miraculously merging with her past.

To the surprise of her doctors, Gray is back on the court.

A recent afternoon found Gray at her old Butler County high school gym, dribbling a basketball and shooting.

Most of all she was smiling.

"I've already shed tears of joy and tears of gratitude," she says with a satisfied grin after her quarter-speed shoot-around.

"I've been blessed with being alive and having a second chance at life," says the deeply religious Gray.

Faith binds her world and family and perseverance is in her genes.

Gray is a great-granddaughter of famed civil rights leader and former NAACP president Benjamin Hooks, who courageously marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the often dangerous 1960s battles for racial equality.

Hooks and Gray were always close but after her stroke, "Poppa" as she affectionately calls the famed Baptist minister, have grown even closer.

"I talk to him on the phone every day. He calls me his miracle child," she says chuckling.

She took strength from Hooks' lifetime of faith that fueled her own.

During the weeks after surgery, waiting for her vision to clear and her droopy eyelid to spring back, "I prayed every morning for weeks for my eye to open back up."

Eventually it did, as did her ability to walk and then jog.

Dr. Mark Goddard, rehabilitation specialist for Drake Center, marvels at Gray's recovery.

"She had a really, really bad brain aneurism with a lot of nerve pain in her brain and at first she couldn't open her eyes. But she kept saying from day one that she was going to play basketball again," says Goddard.

"Her motor strength and balance all improved dramatically in weeks. In most people it would have taken months," he says.

Gray lifts weights now in hopes of playing with her team again in 2010 and almost all her symptoms from the stroke have faded except for weakness in her left leg, which she estimates is at 75 percent and improving.

She is still a member of the Tennessee team as a medically red-shirted athlete for this basketball season and is still on athletic scholarship.

Soon she will return to the Knoxville campus to resume her classes part time before upping that to full-time classes in January.

When she does return to competitive basketball, Gray will initially have to wear protective headgear to protect the site of her brain injury, but doctors predict a full return to playing among the NCAA's college elite is possible.

Injury may have saved her

Gray injured her shoulder during a March practice at the University of Tennessee and scheduled surgery on July 2 in Knoxville.

Two hours after that surgery, Gray's blood pressure began to fluctuate and fluid filled her lungs. A brain aneurysm - unrelated to her rotator cuff injury - began to hemorrhage, causing a stroke.

Later, a medical helicopter took her to University Hospital in Cincinnati for surgery lasting more than 12 hours.

"I don't know if it was so much a miracle, but God has something planned for me and I haven't gone through it yet," Gray said at an August press conference prior to her release from the Drake Center.

She led Lakota West to within seconds of a state championship in 2008. She was recruited to play for the national powerhouse Lady Vols by legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt. Gray impressed Summitt enough last season that she broke into the playing rotation as a freshman.

Goddard attributes Gray's recovery to her youth, athleticism and faith.

"From a neurological standpoint she is making a full recovery. Youth is always helpful and it's amazing how young brains can recovery from this type of stroke. And athletes have a work ethic that is just incredible and to them nothing is insurmountable," explains Goddard.

"But her spirituality has been crucial. She is a faith-based person and so is her family and their support have been very crucial," he says.

Amber's father - former NFL player Carlton Gray - smiles as he watches her shoot baskets.

Without the shoulder injury and surgery, Amber's single, weakened brain blood vessel may have gone undiscovered and even ruptured under the exertion of playing college basketball, possibly killing her.

"We've always known our blessings come from God," says her father. "Whatever we have now is better than her being in a box in the ground."

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