Ray excels on court and in class

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Those who choose to chase their dreams sleep the least.

Brittany Ray knows that sleeplessness better than many. She is the captain of a Rutgers team coached by C. Vivian Stringer (no stranger to early practices that tend to run habitually late) and a biological sciences major with designs on medical school. So Ray knows the sting of an alarm that is set long after late-night comedians leave the airwaves and that starts ringing before the morning shows begin.

She is a basketball player. She wants to be a doctor. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but it's difficult for them to be anything but mutually monopolistic in vying for her attention.

Consider Ray's daily routine during the lazy days of summer two years ago. Wake up at 6:30 for weightlifting and conditioning. Attend an organic chemistry lecture from 9-11:30 a.m., followed by more organic chemistry from noon-3 p.m. Then squeeze in a tutoring session on the day's material before returning home to do the work necessary to be ready for the following day. And that was just summer, when neither basketball nor school was technically in full swing.

Maybe time waits for no man, but it's easy enough to imagine it jogging to keep up with Ray.

"When you want something, you're going to do it," Ray said of her workload. "And I want to be a doctor. I love school and I want to do well in school. So that's why I have the desire to just not be like everybody else -- to try and separate myself."

What Ray is doing is not unique. She's not the only student-athlete out there trying to balance sports in the present with aspirations to practice medicine in the future. She's not the only student, athlete or otherwise, balancing a schedule teetering on the edge of sadistic. But she is unique. That's true on the basketball court, from her distinctive gait to a shooting motion as smoothly jarring as Jim Furyk's golf swing. But if anything, those are merely manifestations.

It's safe to say a lot of people possess a desire to not be like everyone else, to stand out and stand apart. Perhaps fewer understand that has more to do with being who they are than who everyone else isn't. And if there's reason to celebrate Ray, it might have less to do with how much sleep she sacrifices than how well she understands the reasons she does so.

It takes many of us a lifetime to figure out who we are; it took Ray seven years.

The birth of a younger brother, an event she watched unfold as a 7-year-old after her mother went into labor at home, was by her own admission the spark that lit the fire fueling her interest in medicine. But more kids dream of being astronauts after watching a Space Shuttle launch than ever end up flying missions for NASA. And more kids dream of being doctors than ever end up preparing for the MCAT, as Ray is, let alone actually practicing medicine.

Growing up as Allan Ray's younger sister could have offered any number of perks and pitfalls. Four years his sister's elder, Allan was a star alongside Julius Hodge in high school and then as the sixth all-time leading scorer in Villanova history (after a stint with the Boston Celtics, he now plays professionally in Europe). What she took from it had little to do with fame or relative fortune, or even basketball in the strictest sense. Instead, it was what anyone has to come to terms with to translate childhood dreams into the meat grinder of a class like organic chemistry.

"I learned at an early age from my brother how much hard work you put in is going to pay off," Ray said. "He was always like the person in the background. There were always great guards coming out of New York City, and he was always the one that was in the shadows and stuff like that. My father told him, 'Continue to work hard and your time will come.'

"And I think from him, that instilled in me hard work and passion and desire just to make sure that -- if you want to do something, nobody can take that away from you. You have the utmost ability to do that. I just learned that from him -- watching him go through it, go to the gym all hours of the day, shooting, putting up shots, doing ballhandling drills and all that stuff. I learned that from basketball and translated it into my academics."

And so even as she starred on the court at St. Aquinas High School in the Bronx, averaging 28 points per game and a couple of assists shy of a triple-double as a senior, there were other passions competing for her attention. You'll find plenty of student-athletes (and plenty in the larger student population) willing to admit school isn't their favorite thing. It doesn't mean they don't put in the work or that the education is universally wasted on them.

You don't find quite as many who light up talking about a high-school physics teacher, Ms. Carlson, to a degree never seen in talking about their own basketball accomplishments.

"She would just be excited to teach a lesson in physics," Ray said. "She sparked ... enthusiasm in me. Like I wanted to come to school every day, I wanted to be in class, I wanted to be in that class every day. If you see somebody else passionate in what they do, I think that translates into you and translates into what you do.

"I think that's why we play so hard, because Coach Stringer is so passionate. I can relate that to coach Stringer, and just basketball in general, because she's so passionate about the game and she cares for the game so much."

Four years on, the balancing act is almost complete, capped by a 15.9 points-per-game scoring average and a 3.3 grade point average. As the captain of a basketball team with NCAA tournament aspirations, in no small part because of how she has carried the scoring load for a depleted roster, and as an aspiring medical school student, Ray has a résumé that already sets her apart.

"A lot of people say it's hard, but it's not impossible," Ray said. "It's not impossible."

In her case, it just meant being herself.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.