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The running joke between Bob Walsh and Antone Gray became a rite of spring.
Whenever Walshâs name was linked to prospective Division I menâs basketball head coaching jobs, he would receive a reminder from a player who never seemed to stray too far from the mentorâs mind. Gray first placed the bug in Walshâs ear during their point guard/coaching partnership at Rhode Island College. He continued to do so after his graduation in 2011.
âEven when Antone was a sophomore playing for me, he would say, âDonât leave me here, donât leave me here,â Walsh recalled.
How did Walsh respond to Grayâs friendly pleas, ones that eventually became an overture for an assistant coaching position at the University of Maine? Letâs just say Walsh would drop subtle hints that proved assuring to Gray that, yes, he would not be forgotten in the event that the former joined the Division I coaching ranks.
âI kind of knew that (Walsh) was going to take me. He always told me,â said Gray a 2007 graduate of St. Raphael Academy. âHeâs been awesome to me since my first day at RIC and one of the main reasons why I was able to obtain my degree.â
Walshâs words to Gray proved to be stronger than an oak tree when the latter was formally offered a job with the Black Bears. To set the scene, Gray was lying in bed when the ex-SRA all-state point guard received a text from his college coach that presented a great opportunity for the 25-year-old and confirmed all the congenial harping he gave Walsh through the years.
âI jumped up and starting smiling. I was so happy,â was the picture of euphoria that Gray painted. âI was always told that I had a gift for coaching and just continuing to hear that opened my eyes and made me realize that this is something I wanted to do.â
To say that Gray is making a huge leap up the coaching profession ladder is dead-on accurate. This past season saw him pilot Providence-based Juanita Sanchez to the Interscholastic League Division III boysâ basketball state championship. It was Grayâs first season as a varsity head coach after previously serving as the freshman coach at La Salle Academy and a volunteer assistant at Juanita Sanchez.
When Walsh undertook the process of rounding out his staff at Maine, he never once took Grayâs lack of college coaching experience into account. The hiring of Matt OâBrien and Zak Boisvert took care of that component by including two Black Bear assistants with time spent at the Division I level â OâBrien at Vermont and Boisvert with one-year stints at Iona and Farleigh Dickinson.
With the pair pledging their desire to come on board, Walsh was given the green light to target Gray without the worry of feathers getting ruffled.
âMy only concern was that I didnât want to hire the kid because I love him so much, but because he is one of the most naturally talented and intelligent basketball minds Iâve ever coached. Not only does he have the ability to see the game, but he also understands people and personalities,â said Walsh, who in May was handed the head-coaching keys to Maine after a wildly successful nine-year run at Rhode Island College. âItâs what made Antone a great player and leader and I think thatâs what is going to make him a great college coach.
âWith the experience I had with Matt and Zak, I wanted a talented, maybe less experienced guy who I thought could be really good, but also learn the ropes from (OâBrien and Boisvert) and wouldnât be stepping on their toes,â Walsh continued. âWith Antone, it had to be about the right fit. If the other guys at the top of the staff werenât as experienced at the Division I level, then Iâm not sure it would have fit properly.â
The incorporation of Gray comes at an important recruiting juncture for on the college basketball calendar. July features three five-day evaluation periods with the monthâs final one set for later this week. Gray joined Walsh and OâBrien in Pennsylvania during the first session before partaking in a solo mission in Atlanta this past weekend. After spending a few days regrouping in Orono, Maine he will head back out on the road, this time to Atlantic City.
âYouâre in the gym at eight in the morning to sometimes 10:30 or 11 at night. This is something that Iâve always wanted to do,â Gray said. âTo have the opportunity to evaluate talent and get paid to do it is a blessing.â
Walsh believes that Gray already possesses a strong knack when it comes to displaying a keen eye for talent. The reports Walsh has received from Gray back up such a claim with the onetime Providence College assistant noting they have contained the proper mix of statistical data and what Gray detects as the playerâs strengths and weaknesses.
In addition, Gray is also expected to lend a hand in day-to-day duties that include individual player workouts, academics, scouting and practice planning.
âI always want assistant coaches who are versatile, well-rounded and someday have the chance to become head coaches,â said Walsh. âI think I have three guys like that in Matt, Zak and Antone.â
In his capacity as a radio color commentator during the R.I. boysâ basketball divisional and state playoffs this past March, Walsh was positioned right next to the bench. As he watched Gray guide Juanita Sanchez to the Division III title, Walsh says that he learned something every time his future assistant diagramed a play in the huddle or called out instructions.
Thatâs heady praise considering Walsh has close to 20 years of college coaching experience under his belt.
âHis poise and composure as a young coach was just really impressive,â Walsh noted. âHe let his kids play and let them be themselves, but he also had them disciplined.â
Such traits and characteristics have helped Gray open the doors to an opportunity that sometimes requires a pinch on the arm just to make sure itâs real.
âI couldnât be happier,â Gray expressed with emphasis.
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