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WCU Stories

Playing to Win

Justin Gray brings winning attitude to men’s basketball team

By Benny Smith

The art of winning is something that Western Carolina University head basketball coach Justin Gray learned as a child from an unsuspecting source — his grandmother.

At the age of 7, Gray came home to his mom and grandmother in his baseball uniform feeling defeated because his team had lost a game. After seeing a disappointed look on her grandson’s face, she asked him what was wrong.

“I was like ‘Aww, man, we lost,’ and then my mom said it was OK, ‘You can’t win them all. You will win next time,’” Gray explained.

Then his grandmother interjected with a different perspective.

With a stern look on her face, she looked directly at Gray and said, “Son, look — nowhere in the rule book does it say you can’t win all the time. You play to win every single time.”

It was a defining moment for Gray, even now, years later as a married man with three children of his own.

“That lesson stuck with me forever,” Gray recalled. “So, now every time I am out there, I am trying to win. That is just how I am wired.”

Gray’s winning track record and attitude are just what WCU was looking for when they announced in April that he was the university’s 19th head basketball coach.

A native of Charlotte, Gray played basketball at West Charlotte High School before concluding his prep career at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. Gray played collegiately at Wake Forest University, graduating in 2006 with a degree in communications.

“When people spoke about Justin Gray, they simply said, ‘He’s going to be a great head coach one day,’” said Alex Gary, WCU director of athletics. “The universal respect for him as a leader, mentor and a basketball mind provided me with no doubt in his ability to be successful here at Western Carolina University.”

“Son, look — nowhere in the rule book does it say you can’t win all the time. You play to win every single time.”

Gray comes to WCU after two winning seasons on Winthrop University’s basketball coaching staff under former head coach Pat Kelsey.

He previously served as the director of basketball services at Wake Forest. Gray also brings with him a successful 12-year professional basketball career overseas.

“I have always been an opportunistic person and when this door opened, I didn’t hesitate,” Gray said. “I wanted to be at Western Carolina University. WCU is ready for another run like 1996. That’s the ultimate goal, to compete for championships and help build young men with character while doing so.”

While on the staff at Winthrop, Gray helped guide the team to 47 victories, including a 24-10 mark in 2019-20 and a 23-2 campaign in 2020-21. Winthrop claimed the 2021 Big South tournament title and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. With Gray helping coordinate the offense, Winthrop led the Big South Conference with a 78.9 points per game average, a league-best 15 assists per game and 8.4 3-pointers made per contest.

A three-time All-ACC selection in his playing career at Wake Forest (2002-06), Gray left Winston-Salem as one of the program’s most prolific 3-point shooters. He scored 1,946 points over 120 games for the Demon Deacons, finishing his career ranked eighth in program history in scoring, averaging 16.2 points per game. Gray still ranks second on Wake’s career 3-pointers made chart.

“Winning to me means not only winning on the court, but winning at life,” said Gray, who is a first-generation college student. “I will tell my players that we will win games, but when you leave WCU, I want you to be in a position where you are winning at being a leader in your own community.”

Gray plans to build and solidify his team’s culture by keeping it simple and using what he describes as the foundational “ABCs.”

“A” is for academics. “Academics mean winning in the classroom,” he said. “I am going to do everything in my power so that they can one day walk across the stage to receive their degree.”

“B” is for basketball. “I will constantly remind my team that instead of saying you are going to do it, show me,” he said.

“C” is for character. “At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. A huge part of winning is having good people around you to develop character,” Gray said.

Gray himself knows about winning professionally overseas, as well.

During his 12-year professional career, Gray played for teams from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, Ukraine, China, Germany, France, Turkey, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Romania and Belarus. He also had a couple of stints in the NBA Summer League. Gray won three Belarusian League Championships and three Belarusian Cup Championships. He also guided teams to a Czech Republic League and Cup championship, as well as participating in the VTB United League All-Star Game in 2016.

He also competed in the Euroleague, EuroCup and FIBA Europe Cup, the highest level of European competitions.

“I have always been blessed,” Gray said. “I don’t know how or why, but things seem to always work out. I am just trying to build some consistency in an upward trajectory with the ultimate goal being to win a championship for WCU. I would not be here if I didn’t see it or believe it.” 

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