The road home for Chelsea Gray

MANTECA, Calif. -- As the bus pulled off the freeway exit, Chelsea Gray was sitting at the edge of her seat. As it pulled into her neighborhood, she was moving nervously up and down the aisles.

Rounding the corner, Gray spotted more than a dozen members of her family standing on the front lawn with blue balloons and a large banner reading, "Go Duke."

They cheered and jumped up and down as the charter bus stopped and Gray hopped off, smiling broadly. The first hug was reserved for her mom, Vicky, who was thrilled to see her daughter at home for the first time since May.

"This is really special here," said her dad, James, while Chelsea greeted friends and relatives, jumped into her brother's arms and finally found her dad for a long hug.

Gray, the Blue Devils' senior point guard, got to experience her homecoming in her final collegiate season. Her second-ranked Duke team came west to play No. 9 Cal on Nov. 10 to open the season, the team flying in two days early to settle into a new time zone and allow Gray a chance to appreciate the comforts of home.

The day in Berkeley began with a late breakfast after an early-morning hotel arrival, the team's flight landing in San Francisco on Friday at 1 a.m.

By noon, the Blue Devils' traveling party of 25 was on the bus for the 90-minute ride into the San Joaquin Valley for an afternoon practice at Gray's old high school, St. Mary's in Stockton.

Classes were just letting out when the Blue Devils arrived, traffic backing up and students streaming through the halls.

The sign on the gym door read, "Closed Practice. Do Not Enter," and behind the doors were the unmistakable sounds of squeaking shoes and bouncing basketballs.

The St. Mary's girls' team sat in the bleachers, a school official reminding them not to take photos with their phones. NCAA compliance rules prevented the Duke players and coaches from talking with any of high school players. But they could watch and learn.

"We have a pretty young team this year, and I think they think we are pretty hard on them sometimes, so it's good for them to watch this, to see how intense this is," St. Mary's coach Tom Gonsalves said. "I think this is going to help us."

Gonsalves said it was a no-brainer when Gray asked if the Blue Devils could practice in the St. Mary's gym.

"Of course," Gonsalves said. "I love that kid. She's the best. Not just a great player, but a great kid."

Gonsalves coached Gray when she was the top high school player in the nation. Her McDonald's All American jersey hangs on the wall next to fellow St. Mary's standouts Jacki Gemelos and Afure Jemerigbe, Gray's close friend who now plays at Cal.

The Blue Devils opened their practice in a huddle, coach Joanne P. McCallie offering a "welcome home" to Gray, and practice finished two hours later with assistant coach Hernando Planells reminding the players that this is a "business trip."

"Welcome home, welcome home, that's fine -- we are here to win," Planells said.

McCallie said she had planned to give Gray a chance to return to Northern California since the moment she arrived at Duke. And she didn't feel like she needed to talk to Gray about tempering her excitement before the season opener.

"She understands we are here to take care of business," McCallie said.

Gray said she actually felt relaxed returning to her old high school gym with her Duke teammates. If anything, she was amazed at how long it had been since she played there.

"I was looking at all the kids and wondering, 'Did I ever look like that?'" Gray said. "It feels like it's been forever."

Gray wasn't the only Duke player coming home on this trip. Freshman Oderah Chidom went to high school in Oakland at Bishop O'Dowd. She would play her first collegiate game 10 minutes from home, which can bring its own source of stress.

"It's crazy the way it worked out," Chidom said. "What are the odds of that happening? I go across the country to school, but I come home for my first game."

The buses pulled out of St. Mary's a little after 4 p.m. for the 30-minute ride to Gray's home, but there was a Friday afternoon traffic jam on Interstate 5. Gray was texting with her father to give him progress reports.

Vicky Gray, along with her sister, her mother and some friends from church, had been cooking for this party for two days before the team's arrival.

"I have so much food," Vicky said. "We started on Wednesday. My sister came in from Texas. Some people came from church. Chelsea said, 'Mom, we can eat,' so I knew I needed to make a lot of food. I told Coach P. that if she brought the team here, I'd give her a feast."

All of her daughter's favorites: barbecued chicken, ribs, spaghetti and potato salad, the buffet set up in the garage, the space filled with round tables, chairs and blue table centerpieces.

Even Gray's dog, a 14-year-old black Lab named Blake, was sporting a Duke collar as he sat on a leather chair and watched the guests arrive.

The team filed into the Gray's house, the Duke men's game versus Davidson on the television. Many of her teammates made their way into the den, which was filled with Gray's basketball trophies, plaques, awards and photos.

"I'm trying to get all the Duke stuff in here," James Gray said. "I've redone it a few times already."

James said he plans to attend as many of his daughter's games as he can in her final season. Vicky is retired and already has the flights booked.

"It's the last hurrah," James said. "I'm not going to miss it."

Chelsea Gray smiled and looked relaxed. She said she was going to take her teammates upstairs to watch some television and hang out before the bus departed at about 7:30 to go back to Berkeley.

"I know I don't get to sleep in my own bed, but I'm happy to be home," Gray said. "And I'm going to have fun with it."