March 3, 2009
By Anna Oleson-Wheeler, Cal Athletic Media Relations
Editor's note: The following feature appears in the winter 2009 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.
A local girl's basketball player who dominates in games against boys and has dreams of law school and nonprofit work. The No. 1 public university in the country with a high-achieving athletics program.
The two seem destined to be a perfect match, but when Alexis Gray-Lawson received her first recruiting letter from the Golden Bears at age 12, a future at the University of California was not a given.
Gray-Lawson, now a redshirt-junior, shrugged off Cal's initial interest because she was so young. Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Kentucky, Texas, Stanford and a variety of other Pac-10 Conference schools all eventually recruited the up-and-coming guard, but in the end, Cal turned out to be the perfect choice for her.
And soon after her arrival on campus, Gray-Lawson became a key reason the Bears have shot toward the top of the women's basketball world.
Gray-Lawson was raised in an athletic family in Oakland with parents who played sports and a plethora of older male cousins to test her basketball skills against. She even played on a few boys' teams, which is how she met future teammate Devanei Hampton, who also honed her game in the boys' league.
Eventually, Gray-Lawson and Hampton joined the East Bay Xplosion, an AAU girls' squad that became the first in Northern California to win a national 14-and-under championship. A few years later, the pair reached the pinnacle of success again, leading Oakland Tech High School to two state titles, and they decided they would choose a college together.
Growing up so close to Berkeley, Gray-Lawson had regularly attended Cal women's basketball games, and she still notes that former Bears Courtney Johnson and Kenya Corley were two of her early role models. As a Bay Area native, Cal certainly was appealing.
"All my friends were coming to Cal, I would be close to home so I could go see my mom and dad anytime I wanted, it's the No. 1 public school in the nation," Gray-Lawson said. "I knew I would be receiving a great education, and I could help turn the program around. There was nothing that was missing. It just fit."
Gray-Lawson made a smooth transition to college in 2005-06, ranking second on the team in scoring (14.6 ppg, 9th in the Pac-10), as well as first in assists (2.7 apg) and three-pointers Oakland Tech High grads Devanei Hampton (left) and Alexis Gray-Lawson have helped (42) and three-point percentage (38.9%). As a result, the conference coaches voted her Pac-10 Freshman of the Year - the first Bear woman to claim the honor. She was also chosen a Freshman All-American by the Women's Basketball News Service.
"Lexi is a power guard," Cal head coach Joanne Boyle said. "She had a little bit of everything in her game her freshman year. She was all about power, so it was really hard to knock her off the ball. She has great mid-range range, she has a great three-point shot, and she can get to the basket. In any scenario, she was doing a little bit of that her freshman year."
Gray-Lawson's sophomore season looked to be an improvement from her freshman campaign, starting when she posted 22 points and six rebounds to lead Cal to a 71-56 season-opening win over Saint Mary's.
But everything came to a sudden halt in the second half of a road game at Kansas on Dec. 10, 2006, when Gray-Lawson suffered a season-ending ACL injury to her right knee following a made layup. After spending 15 years playing basketball year-round, the period between her fall and her physical rehabilitation was one of her most difficult times of her life.
"It was like I had lost a part of me," Gray-Lawson "I've been seeing remembered. "I had lost my basketball sense, and I didn't know how to get it back. I wasn't about basketball and I wasn't about my team, so it was a constant struggle for me, day in and day out. But I decided that when I came back the next year, I wanted to come back 100 percent and smarter, wiser and stronger in everything."
Gray-Lawson built upon all of her skills, and when she returned to the court in 2007-08, she led the Pac10 in three-point shooting and was named second-team all-conference. She also helped Cal to it best possible year in program history - 27-7 overall, 15-3 in the Pac-10 - and an appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"The knee injury set her back, but you're now seeing what she brought to the table as a freshman," Boyle said. "She had to physically come back from the knee injury, mentally trust the knee again, and recover from spending a year off the court and getting the rhythm back. This year, I feel like she has really turned the corner for improving her game."
In addition to bringing the Bears up from the bottom of the Pac-10 to the top 10 in the country, Gray-Lawson has also made a difference in the community. During the same year in which she hurt her knee, she and teammate Shantrell Sneed started the Dream Program, which is designed to mentor and encourage high school students from the Bay Area. Following graduation and a possible professional career, she anticipates taking her life in a nonprofit direction, working with an organization similar to the Dream Program.
"Everybody used to look up to Gary Payton, but I wanted to give them a black woman to look up to," Gray-Lawson noted. "Here Devanei and I are, from Oakland, so finally young ladies have something to look up to. If they can do it, we can do it too."
Before she gets too far ahead of herself, Gray-Lawson has her eyes set on a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
"I've been seeing Cal in my sleep," Gray-Lawson said. "I really feel like the gate is open for us - all we have to do is walk through and grab the key. Anything is possible this year for everybody."
Gray-Lawson has been a big part of two of Cal's most significant wins this year. She scored 25 points and grabbed nine boards in a 66-52 triumph over then-No. 3 Rutgers in November, then poured in a career-best 37 points in a 57-54 win over then-No. 9 Stanford in January.
"Alexis had a great game," Boyle said of the Stanford performance. "Alexis is capable of having games like this day in and day out. Lexi stepped up and had the kind of game that we really needed her to have. She can do this every night."
Just like she dominated the boys in her youth days, Gray-Lawson has shown she can do the same against some of the top women's teams in the country. Her effort has signaled her emergence as one of the nation's top players, which has in turn keyed Cal's arrival among the best of the best in college basketball.