You know how heavy and achy your body feels the morning after a day spent moving from one apartment to another or clearing land or something like that? That’s how Ray King has felt every day for the last few years. And the thing is, he chooses this. As awful as it is, it’s a far better pain than what he felt before, a good hurt that’s helped him survive.
Early on a Sunday morning in February, Ray moves from his bed to his knees. He thanks God for His help so far and he asks for a bit more help today. Then he stands and before he gets ready for the day, he reaches up to touch the red, size 16 LeBrons on his desk. As he dresses, he catches a faint whiff of bleach.
After breakfast, he leaves his mom’s house and drives 30 miles down I-40 to the McDougald-McLendon Gym at North Carolina Central University in Durham, a trip he makes almost every day. He’s a freshman at the school and a guard on its basketball team.
Ray’s grateful to be alive and to get to practice and perhaps he has more reason to be thankful than most people for that, but he’s still a 20-year-old kid. Even when every moment is a gift, no 20 year old wants to go to basketball practice at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. Today’s will probably be a tough one, too, because NCCU barely beat Florida A&M University last night and they should’ve won by 33, like the first time.
Ray also got to bed later than his teammates, not just because of his long drive home, but because he has to bathe in bleach every night. His immune system is horribly suppressed and when he lived on campus last semester, he kept getting staph infections. His doctor prescribed the special baths, NCCU couldn’t accommodate him, so he moved back home. Ray’s also fighting a cold, which for him is like the flu for a healthy person. He was up all night hacking, just trying to breathe.
Before practice, NCCU coach LeVelle Moton reviews film and then yells at his team for an hour. Then, during “Reflection Time,” he asks his players to talk about the game. The first guy mumbles something about not playing with enough energy and focus, and the next player says pretty much the same thing, and so does the one after that, and the one after that.
Then Moton calls on Ray.
“We just played soft,” says Ray. His voice is quiet, but there’s an edge, even anger, in his words that no one misses. “We were just taking things for granted.”
Silence. The guys drop their heads, unable to look their teammates in the eye.
“To hear that,” NCCU point guard Emmanuel Chapman will say later, “and to see the hurt and anger and disappointment on his face, it was terrible.”
Few freshmen can call out their team, particularly one who almost never plays, and Ray has only scored two points all season. But Ray isn’t like any other freshman, and not just because he’s done things that have made him sort of famous and friendly with LeBron James. Moton speaks next, preaching and sounding a little like Samuel L. Jackson: “This boy knows what it is to face your last 24 hours!” he says. “How would you feel if the last 24 hours had been your last 24 hours? Not good, I’d hope!”
There’s some more yelling, then it’s time to work. Ray keeps up during the drills and sprints even though his legs start burning within seconds and his lungs not long after that. Yet he only stops for water when he gets dizzy. That happens more often than usual today.
In one of their “toughness” drills, a player gets the ball under the basket and tries to score while two defenders hold big pads and push and smack him around.
Forward Ray Willis gets the ball. He and Ray are good friends, but the way he played against FAMU had frustrated the heck out of his freshman teammate, so now Ray King grabs a pad. Everyone on the team starts whooping and hollering; they want to see this. Nobody on the team hits people harder than Ray. He played football in his previous life, and he still craves contact. Willis has seven inches and 20 pounds on Ray, only 6’ and 200, but Ray wears him out, pushing him clear off the court several times. Willis makes only two layups in two minutes.
Then they scrimmage. Ray guards forward DavRon Williams, and even though Williams is 6’7, 220, Ray goes about even with Williams in rebounds, blocks him twice, rips the ball away from him twice, holds him to four points and scores twice himself.
“He’s a rock,” Williams says later. “Like a boulder. There’s no time off from that guy. Luckily, I normally get to play with him.”
They all feel lucky to play with Ray, the only teammate they’ve ever had with cancer—the only player they know of playing Division I basketball with cancer, for that matter—and because he balls so hard that they keep forgetting that he has it.
“Going as hard as he does, it pushes our starters and makes us as a team all that much better,” says Moton. “And he knows he’s probably not gonna play. You gotta talk about how mind-blowing, how selfless, that is. Because most kids who know they’re not gonna play, they don’t go that hard.”
Ray did play some this season, picking up a few garbage minutes here or there, same as most freshmen. He scored his only points of the season in December at Maryland Eastern Shore. Ray drove and missed a layup, ripped the rebound away from none other than his own teammate DavRon Williams, missed the putback, got the kick out, drove and finally made it on his third try. The way the team reacted on the bench, you would’ve thought he’d won them a championship. NCCU, however, lost in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tourney and missed making the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, with Ray on the team, the Eagles had their best Division I season ever, going 15-1 in the MEAC to finish in second place and 22-8 overall. That’s just their second winning season and their first with 20 wins since joining Division I in 2007. It’s exactly why his team listens when he speaks.
So, that’s the first part. Now, what was taken.
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