Catching Up With Past Tiger Athletes - Johnny Gray

A series of features where the Tigers catchup with those who came before and what they have become after graduating from Pacific. Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger

by Zack Bayrouty

In his time as a point guard for the Pacific men’s basketball team, Johnny Gray grew accustomed to delivering in pressure situations.
These days, he’s still delivering in the clutch…delivering babies, emergency services and rescue efforts in his hometown of Inglewood, Calif.

Since 2011, Gray, who played at Pacific from 2004-06, has been serving as a firefighter and paramedic for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He embarked on his career after playing professionally in Europe and Africa following his two years at Pacific, two years that happened to be the best in the history of the school’s men’s basketball program. During Gray’s tenure as a Tiger, Pacific was ranked as high as #18 in the country, went a combined 51-12, and beat Pitt in the 2005 NCAA Tournament (Pacific’s last NCAA Tournament victory).

“Looking back (on being part of those teams), it was surreal,” said Gray. “I remember the hard practices, running the lines, the up-and-backs. We put in a lot of hard work, but looking back now I see why we put all that work in. To see our goals get accomplished throughout the season was just incredible.”

“There were no egos, people weren’t checking their stats after the game, no arguing…those were the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.”

It turns out being a part of those special Pacific teams would lay the perfect groundwork for Gray to transition into his career with the fire department.

“I’m still a part of a team, but instead of games I’m dealing with fires and serious medical issues. There’s still an audience watching, a lot of it ends up on TV…in many ways it’s very similar to sports.”

After graduating from Pacific, Gray played professionally in Germany for five months. After playing in Germany he played in Hungary, then to Africa to play in Angola, and finally to Estonia for two seasons where he concluded his playing career.

“My son was born and I called it quits,” said Gray. “When he was born I missed the first 5-8 months while I was away playing. I came back and he had a personality, he was smiling…I knew I couldn’t be gone 10 months out of the year. When you start a family you don’t want to be away that long.”

Gray, in his senior season at Pacific, was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer behind Christian Maraker, averaging 14.8 points per game while earning First-Team All-Best West honors. He now has three children with another due in February. His family schedule has limited the time he gets to play basketball, but occasionally he still gets to showcase his talents on the hardwood.

“I still get to play occasionally,” said Gray. “I played in the Arizona Police and Fire Olympics last year and we took the gold medal there. We have the World Games next year in LA, so I’m hoping to play there. We play 5-on-5, usually a bunch of guys who played in college. But as of right now I haven’t picked up a ball in at least eight months.”

When he was playing at Pacific for Bob Thomason, Gray at first had to learn to operate within the Pacific system. From there, he grew into a leader of one of the best college basketball teams in the nation.

“I knew what my role was going to end up being (by my senior year) and they transitioned me well into that leadership role along with Christian,” said Gray. “I thrived under the pressure of knowing that I had big shoes to fill with Miah (Davis) and David (Doubley) coming before me.”

Coach Thomason also had a tremendous feel for his team and his players.

“Coach T knew when to chastise you, when to uplift you, when to let you go or pull in the reins,” said Gray. “He trusted his senior leaders and he had an open door policy. If you needed to talk about anything or were having any trouble you could go talk to him. We were a great family.”

For now Gray is focused on developing his role with a different type of team, a role he was groomed for in his time as the point guard of the Pacific Tigers.

“I used most of my experiences from Pacific in my entire interview with the fire department,” said Gray. “I told them I’ve been in pressure situations, I’ve been a leader, I’ve been a part of a team. I can handle constructive criticism. If I fail I can get up and try to do better the next time. As a point guard you have to be a leader and as a firefighter you have to be a leader. If you’re down by two points and you have two free throws left at the end of a game on the road at Utah State, you have to go ahead and perform. Everything transitioned so perfectly for me and playing basketball at Pacific prepared me to be an integral part of a team. It doesn’t matter if I’m a leader, if I’m a follower…I’ll play my role because I’ve done it before.”

In his current line of work Gray plays many roles. In one recent 24-hour shift, he dealt with a brush fire, a serious traffic collision on the freeway, delivered a baby in a restroom at 2:30 am, and removed an iguana that had made its way six feet up a door and refused to come down.

“I was the low man on the totem pole for that one,” said Gray, laughing. “I’d never touched an iguana before but it had to be done.So there I was again with everybody watching, having to perform under pressure.”

“But that’s the excitement of this job,” he said. “When that bell goes off, you never know what’s going to come your way. Every day there’s something new. When I helped deliver that baby, I was there for that baby’s first experience and that family’s first experience with that baby. That’s special.”

Gray sees himself in this line of work until he’s ready to retire, whenever that day comes. He enjoys the challenges that each new day presents and especially enjoys being able to go out into the community and talk to kids about his profession. He also envisions himself moving up the ranks as he accumulates more years of service.

“I’d definitely like to be a chief someday,” said Gray. “Maybe not the chief of a whole department, but definitely a battalion chief.”

Whatever the team needs, Gray will be ready. It’s what point guards do.