Devin Gray’s heart was strong and purposeful on the night of April 24, 1996.
It was Game 5 of the CBA Finals in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Gray was a rookie forward with the Skyforce trying to help Sioux Falls lock up its first-ever league championship.
The Force led the best-of-seven series 3-1 but were locked in a tight battle at the War Memorial Coliseum in front of a hostile crowd of 4,377.
Trailing 117-116 in the final moments, most rookies would have been happy to let someone else – such as veteran teammates Henry James or Reggie Fox – have the ball with the game on the line.
But when the 6-foot-7 Gray saw an opening on the right wing, he knew what to do. Using his patented baseline move, he glided past his defender and swished a leaning 8-footer at the buzzer to lift Sioux Falls to a historic triumph.
I was in Fort Wayne that night and recall the pandemonium that followed. This was during the heyday of the Skyforce’s CBA era, making it much different from the scene when they won the title in Rockford nine years later.
Coach Mo McHone did his best Jim Valvano impersonation, running around looking for someone to hug, while Gray soaked up the moment that he hoped would be the precursor to a long and fruitful pro career.
In South Dakota, at least, his fate-filled drive to the basket in Fort Wayne would forever be known as The Shot.
“If I had to draw the play up, I’d do it the same way,” the Baltimore native told me that night after donning his championship shirt and cap. “I was looking to get the rock and go to the hole, and I figured I’d either make it or get fouled. They didn’t call the foul, so I’m glad it went in. I was lying on the court when it did.”
It was impossible not to consider The Shot, and Gray’s role in Skyforce history, when the former Clemson standout died over the weekend of a heart attack in Atlanta at age 41.
He had talked openly with me during his time in Sioux Falls about his heart issues, which included a heart attack during his junior year at Clemson that affected his college career and lowered his draft status.
“My artery got closed down for an hour and a half, and the blood wasn’t getting to my heart,” Gray said of that 1994 incident. “My heart shut down and I felt pain, and they told me I was having a heart attack.
“I came back the next year and didn’t take as many classes, so I didn’t get to finish the year out. Because of that, people didn’t see me.”
Gray didn’t even make a splash in the CBA draft, mainly because of concerns that he was too small to play power forward and not athletic enough for the perimeter.
But McHone took him in the seventh round and turned him into a core player on a championship team, averaging 13.5 points and 5.2 rebounds that 1995-96 season.
Playing in the ACC against national powers Duke and North Carolina had made Gray more seasoned than most rookies, and he had an easy air about him that helped him fit in quickly.
He became a fan favorite as well, receiving a hero’s welcome along with his teammates after returning from Fort Wayne with the Jay Ramsdell Trophy in hand.
This was back when the Skyforce averaged 5,000 fans a game, and Gray appreciated the community support even as he looked to a higher level to reach his goals.
In 1996-97, he returned to Sioux Falls as a member of one of the most talent-laden teams in league history, averaging 19.3 points a game and playing in the All-Star Game.
That Skyforce squad would go on to finish 47-9 during the regular season, but Gray only lasted 27 games before being called up to the NBA by Sacramento.
He spent the rest of his career bouncing between the CBA and short stints in the NBA and overseas, still making his way to the basket but never quite reaching his dream.
Life after basketball proved difficult for some Skyforce stars, with Victor Page getting entangled in the gun violence of Washington D.C. and Henry James going to prison for drug dealing in his hometown of Fort Wayne.
But Gray seemed ready to start a new chapter, with friends saying he had moved to Atlanta to start a job as a nightclub manager. On the day he died, he was doing the thing he loved most, playing basketball with friends.
In Sioux Falls, of course, he will always be known as the guy who delivered a long-awaited title with a buzzer-beating shot for the ages, showing the heart of a champion.