Gray-Lawson's return helps point Cal in right direction

BERKELEY, Calif. -- It was a year ago -- Dec. 10, to be specific -- that Cal guard Alexis Gray-Lawson did the same thing she has done so many times. She drove to the basket. It just didn't end the way it always had. Trying to avoid a collision with a camera operator, she seemed to land strangely, then hit the floor.

It happened in my "backyard" -- when Cal was visiting Kansas. I've seen players go down because of ACL injuries too many times -- sheesh, one was too many -- and it made me blurt out every curse word stored in my brain. Everyone who follows women's basketball knows the feeling: In a flash, you see it all. What's happening, and what's going to happen.

Later, the Cal players would say they actually thought Gray-Lawson was not badly hurt. I can honestly say I was sure she was, which is why the curse words came.

Everybody hopes against those three awful letters. Cal did. But …

Then there's the trip home. The MRI. The "out for the season" press release. The tears, and then the brave face. The resolve. The pain and sheer tedium of months of rehab.

The progress. The redemptive feeling of being on the basketball court again and actually playing. But then, the fear. Will the knee hold up? That's what players think early on, no matter how hard they try not to. Can I be myself again? When?

For Gray-Lawson, the "when" was Sunday. Or at least, it was the start of "when." She had 16 points, 3 assists and 4 rebounds in No. 12 Cal's 67-59 victory over Vanderbilt at Haas Pavilion.

"Today was my most confident game yet -- getting to the basket, getting one-and-ones, doing it all. I kind of showed that I am back," Gray-Lawson said afterward. "I think my first game, I was so scared because I didn't know what to expect or how I was going to react. I played horrible.

"Second game came, and it was OK. Each game, I kind of built on it."

Then Cal assistant Kevin Morrison, who had been Gray-Lawson's AAU coach, reminded her of who she was. Often, after overcoming injury trauma, athletes really need that.

"He told me, 'Lex, what made you so good is you had that fire. You went for everything, no matter what the circumstance was. When you don't play like that, you don't bring anything to the team,'" Gray-Lawson said. "And I really thought about that and took it personally."

Of course she did. A kid who grew up in Oakland, Calif., with eight siblings, Gray-Lawson understands obligation and responsibility. She hopes to go to law school. Every day she's on Cal's campus, she looks around and knows there are so many people who never will get this chance.

Not being able to play much of last season, she started something called the "Dream Program" to help give advice to youngsters in her hometown. And she drew inspiration from her brother, Kameron Gray, who also dealt with a knee injury last season but went on to be MVP of the NAIA Division I Tournament for winner Oklahoma City University.

Coach Joanne Boyle watched Gray-Lawson fight the uncertainty demon in her head early on this season, knowing there was only so much she could say. Gray-Lawson had to win that battle herself. Boyle knew she would.

"When we were at Baylor [Nov. 25], she missed four or five layups," Boyle said of 7-1 Cal's only loss thus far. "You can tell a kid to let it go, but it has to happen in the framework of what they are dealing with. She has to find her way there. But I wanted her to know, 'You've got it, don't question yourself.'

"After she got hurt, every day it was like she was just getting it done. She always came into rehab with a smile and didn't go through the emotional roller-coaster that a lot of kids do. But now she has to get her game all the way back. And this was the first game where I saw in her face: 'Give me the ball. I've been here, I can do this.'"

As a team, Cal is trying to show that it is a program that consistently can get it done. It was big step when Boyle turned down her alma mater last spring. A longtime Duke assistant, Boyle was the school's first choice to replace Gail Goestenkors. But Boyle said no.

I joked with her Sunday that it was just as well; taking over for Goestenkors is kind of like following Elvis. But that wasn't why Boyle turned down the job.

She's happy at Cal. She believes the program can achieve great things. She doesn't look at Stanford down the road and think the shadow cast is just too great to overcome. Is it big? Good heavens, yes. But Cal is also an exceptional school, in a wonderfully eclectic and exciting community. And the Pac-10 is a league that needs more programs to really believe they can go shake the tree, so to speak.

Cal nabbed a top-notch Cardinal product, in fact, to help the building process. Former Stanford player and assistant Charmin Smith is in her first season at Berkeley, and immediately became a role model for Gray-Lawson.

And Cal is challenging itself with its nonconference schedule, too, which is something that will continue.

"You can't just play West Coast teams," Boyle said. "We want to bring East Coast basketball out here, and we'll go there, too. It's only going to help us."

(It goes without saying that Midwest and Southwest and Southeast, etc., basketball are all on Cal's radar, too.)

The Bears are not at full strength yet, as 2007 Pac-10 player of the year Devanei Hampton had arthroscopic surgery on her right knee on Nov. 9. There is some hope that she might return for Cal's game at Rutgers.

Which is on … Dec. 10, Gray-Lawson's "anniversary." Everyone at Cal was looking forward to having her back on the court with the outstanding post tandem of Hampton and Ashley Walker, the way it was when they were freshmen in 2006 and led the program to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1993.

The Bears have looked for silver linings. One of them is that Gray-Lawson, according to Cal, will get an additional season of eligibility and not "lose" her sophomore year. Another is the experience guards Natasha Vital and Lauren Greif got last season as freshmen when Gray-Lawson could not play. Another is the court time that sophomore post player Rama N'diaye is getting with Hampton out.

N'diaye is quite a story herself -- a 6-foot-5 native of Senegal who went to high school in Japan and was a diamond in the rough that Boyle spotted.

"I call her 'Ram-Star,' she goes and gets every rebound," Walker said, modesty preventing N'diaye from mentioning Walker gets plenty of boards, too. "And she's learning -- what is it? Her fourth language?"

The Bears hope all these parts come together, and everyone stays healthy, to improve on last season's 23-9 record.

Cal isn't just the big three of Gray-Lawson, Walker and Hampton -- but what the program becomes is especially a testament to those three "foundation" players.

"This group has been together two years, and they get it," Boyle said. "That first practice I walked in and said, 'We're different.' They came out and knew exactly what was supposed to go on, and it was like, 'This is what leadership is about.'"

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.