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L.A. Sparks guard Chelsea Gray is confidently coming into her own

Two gruesome injuries couldn’t stop the WNBA player from becoming the best version of herself

Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray entered the 2018 season with renewed confidence.

Despite the Sparks’ stunning 85-76 loss in Game 5 of the 2017 WNBA Finals, Gray found herself having one of her best seasons in the league, averaging 14.8 points, 4.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game. Gray made waves and even became a trending topic after perfectly shooting the buzzer-beater that gave the Sparks their 85-84 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of last season’s Finals. Eight months later, in the season opener and Finals rematch against the Lynx, Gray was faced with a similar situation and boldly answered in a similar fashion. With 5.8 seconds remaining, Gray took it to the hole without hesitation and helped her team to a 77-76 revenge victory.

And that’s where the confidence is evident.

Gray was determined to step back onto the court with more concentration, vigor and passion for the game. A large part of that can be attributed to Gray being back in her home state of California and discovering a new appreciation for her arduous yet fulfilling journey that began long before the 25-year-old donned a Sparks uniform.

From an early age, Gray knew basketball was what she wanted to play, but she wasn’t quite sure the sport would be sustainable as a career choice. Although she chose basketball over soccer as a kid and remained true to the sport during high school, it wasn’t until Gray’s junior year at Duke University that she realized she’d like to take her talents to the next level.

That year, Gray played one of the best seasons in her collegiate career and one of the best individual seasons in Duke’s history, averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 steals. Feeling confident that she’d be able to help her team make it to the Final Four, her dreams came crashing down after she went for a rebound during a February 2013 game against Wake Forest. Fearing a torn ACL, Gray received the grim news that she had dislocated her right kneecap and would be sidelined for the rest of the year.

“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to go through,” Gray said. “I did get a little bit depressed about it. There were a couple of days I didn’t leave the house. I had gotten hurt before in high school. You sit out a couple months and you come back, but this was something totally different. We were doing so well that year. I felt good about the team, myself, everything. I wanted to get to the Final Four. I wanted to win a championship, be part of that. Not that I wasn’t part of that or didn’t feel we couldn’t get there, but it just wasn’t the same without me being out there. You learn a lot about yourself when you don’t have the one thing you love or you’ve constantly been doing for years at a time.”

With her determination and rehabilitation, there was a bright side to it all. Gray had one more year to get back into form, and she’d have the chance to put up even better numbers than her junior year. Gray began putting in the work necessary to be ready for the next season. Throughout the first 17 games of the season, Gray averaged 10.8 points, 7.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.9 steals. Things seemed promising until a nightmarish bout of déjà vu hit Gray again. Eleven months after dislocating her right kneecap, Gray suffered another injury during a game against Boston College. This time, a fractured right kneecap kept Gray off the court for the remainder of her senior season.

“Senior year, it was more devastating because I had already lost out on my junior year,” Gray said. “I said, ‘OK, I have my senior year to get it right and be able to play again.’ But after senior year, you’re done. There wasn’t another year for me to come back. There wasn’t another year that I could spend in college. It was different for me because I didn’t know what would come after that. I missed competing, I missed the team atmosphere, I missed a lot of those elements of the game that you kind of take for granted. Once you don’t have it, it’s like, ‘Dang, what am I going to do?’ Rehab is only an hour, but after that I was on my own.”

After rehabbing and training with therapists, Gray headed back to California to continue recovery and think about her future. Her next concern: the draft.

“I thought about where I could possibly go or where I could possibly be,” Gray said. “And then I got the call that I would be able to go to the draft. It was great, but I also heard that if you go to the draft it’s not a guarantee, so I still had some of those question marks.”

It didn’t take long before Gray was able to breathe a sigh of relief. There was a place for her after all, and the Connecticut Sun made it clear once they selected Gray as the 11th overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft. Still rehabbing, Gray sat out her first season with the Sun and traveled overseas during the offseason to play for Hapoel Rishon Le-Zion, a professional women’s basketball team in Israel. When Gray returned for the 2015-16 season, there were still adjustments to be made.

“The main thing basketballwise was getting my confidence back,” Gray said. “I wasn’t really hesitant on my leg or worried getting hit in the air. I kind of prepared for that before going overseas, but having that confidence was what I needed to work on.”

Although Gray played in all 34 games during the season, she averaged 6.9 points, 2.7 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game. Once the season ended, Gray headed back overseas to play for Spain’s Uni Girona, then Abdullah Gul in Turkey. It was WNBA draft time again, and an unexpected call from her agent would give Gray the spark she needed to regain her fleeting confidence.

“I was sitting in my room in Turkey and the draft was going on,” Gray said. “Allison [Galer] called me and she was like, ‘Would you ever want to be in [Los Angeles]?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that would be awesome. Being with Candace [Parker], being with Nneka [Ogwumike], being back in Cali. That’s amazing.’ She was like, ‘The trade just happened. You’re going to L.A.’ I started screaming. I didn’t really know it was an actual possibility. Then when it happened, I was really excited to be able to go back home.”

While overseas, Gray concentrated on becoming the best version of herself.

“I was back to playing and I was in good shape, but I knew I needed to be in even better shape,” Gray said. “I was going into a new team, new opportunity. I heard the coach was hard but he wanted the best for his players. I was trying to get ready as much as possible to be able to get to the program.”

Upon returning to the United States, Gray packed her things and headed back west before the start of the season. Gray fell right in line with the training and coaching philosophies of Sparks head coach Brian Agler and took advice from team veterans whom she’d only dreamed of playing with before the trade.

In her third season with the Sparks, Gray is still coming into her own. Bold, fierce and more confident than ever, Gray remains steadfast in her goals.

“I just know I want to be the best,” Gray said. “That’s an ongoing goal. My teammates and my coaches are preparing me for that, pushing me to be that and having confidence in me to have the ball. The ball is in my hands a lot of the time this year, so I’m making those decisions, watching films and listening to the vets that have been around to experience different things. To have that as a confidence booster and people constantly talking to you is great. You have Brian, who has won championships before, and we were part of that in 2016 together. To have that with you each and every time, it elevates your game.”

If fan voting is in her favor, Gray will be participating in her second WNBA All-Star Game on July 28 in Minneapolis.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.