Amber Gray Is Following in the Footsteps of Her Papa, Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Hooks

Not many people get a second chance after cheating death. Amber Gray did, and now she’s trying to leave the world better than she found it.

She grew up knowing her Papa was an important man. She wouldn’t find out exactly how important until later. Amber Gray knew Benjamin Hooks as her paternal great-grandfather, the man whose dinner table guests lingered for impassioned conversations about social issues, religion, and the importance of education. She was a toddler when he stepped down as executive director of the NAACP, a job he held for 15 years during some of the most challenging times for the national civil rights group.

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

Amber Gray knew Benjamin Hooks as her paternal great-grandfather, the man whose dinner table guests lingered for impassioned conversations about social issues, religion, and the importance of education. She was a toddler when he stepped down as executive director of the NAACP, a job he held for 15 years during some of the most challenging times for the national civil rights group.

Hooks marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and battled presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in the ’80s and ’90s over the federal government’s lack of effort fighting inner-city poverty. But to Gray, Hooks was the family patriarch who always asked if she was doing her best in school and if she was giving basketball her all. He told her to remember that all things are possible with God.

They were close, the famous lawyer/judge/preacher and his “miracle child.” That’s what he called her after Gray survived a brain aneurysm and stroke her freshman year at the University of Tennessee in 2009. The aneurysm was discovered during what was supposed to be routine surgery on her shoulder, which she hurt playing for the Lady Vols. She insisted from the minute she woke up after surgery that she would play again. First, she had to relearn to walk.

The last time Gray and her great-grandfather spoke, she was mostly recovered. But his health was declining. He told her, “Now it’s your turn.” She thought, My turn for what?

Almost 10 years after her Papa’s death, Gray is now 29 and playing professional basketball in France. She’s coaching and training young players and helps kids struggling to transition into adulthood without adult role models. She mentors two teenagers in foster care and launched a program to match other foster teens with mentors.

“I think I’m supposed to take the importance of education that was instilled in me and use it to bring others up,” Gray says. “[Hooks] fought for equality. I know that is exactly what I should be doing. I think I’m supposed to leave this world better than I found it.”

Gray was a star athlete at Lakota West High School and was named a McDonald’s All-American and Nike first-team All-American basketball player as well as All Ohio Player of the Year her senior year in 2007–2008. Name a high school kudo, and Gray earned it. She followed a dream to play for head coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee.

Amber Gray surrounded by her role models (left to right) Patricia Gray, Tonya Carter, Benjamin Hooks, and Frances Hooks.

Photograph courtesy of Amber Gray

In a practice session after her freshman season, though, Gray tore her labrum, the cartilage that reinforces the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint. She rested and rehabbed, but something still wasn’t right. Surgery became necessary.

Unexpectedly, Gray suffered a stroke during surgery, and doctors found a brain aneurysm that had to be repaired. Her family wanted her transferred from Knoxville to Cincinnati, but the logistics were complicated and the costs high. With financial help from Hooks and Summitt, Gray was flown in a medical jet to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Her surgery lasted more than 12 hours. Mario Zuccarello, M.D., an internationally known neurosurgeon, first had to restore blood flow to Gray’s brain by doing a bypass between the carotid artery at her neck and an artery inside her skull. He used an artery from Gray’s arm to bypass the damage, attaching it to her carotid and another healthy artery. He then clipped the aneurysm.

The doctor came out to the waiting room to speak to her parents and the room full of family and friends. “There’s still blood on him,” her mom, Tonya Carter, remembers. “All I can see is he’s covered in my child’s blood, and he’s saying her brain ‘exploded. It exploded.’”

Zuccarello explained that he didn’t know what condition their daughter would be in when she woke up, or how long that might take. They would just have to wait and see, he said. It took 47 minutes.

Her parents ran, holding hands—they hadn’t done that in years—from the waiting room to her bedside. They didn’t know what to expect. Gray couldn’t open her eyes, so she reached with a finger and pulled up one eyelid and said, “Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad.”

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

So began her months-long journey back to walking and basketball. After three weeks at UC, she transferred to the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care in Hartwell. It was a tough place to live for a young person who, just weeks before, was a star athlete at the top of her game. Gray stayed positive in part by trying to boost others. In a wheelchair, she rolled into other patient’s rooms, her mother says, and cajoled them to get up, get busy, and do their exercises.

“It’s easy to feel bad for yourself and count yourself out when you’re living in a place like Drake,” Gray says. “Don’t get me wrong, Drake is an awesome rehabilitation facility and their nurses, doctors, and therapists are among the best, if you ask me. But when I would roll down those hallways, it was easy to start questioning why you’re there: Why did this happen to me? Will I ever get back to playing ball again? So instead of focusing on the what-ifs, I focused on what I could control. That was having a good attitude and helping others as well.”

At first, Gray had to sit in a wheelchair and push herself down the hallway with her feet, heel to toe. She finally started lifting her legs over cones, and eventually graduated to a walker, then a cane.

Gray left Drake two weeks earlier than expected, which doctors attributed to her youth, athleticism, and determination. She walked out of the facility on her own, but with a belt around her waist that someone held onto in case she started to fall. Photos from that day appear to show her winking at the cameras, but she wasn’t winking—she still couldn’t open her left eye. And her eyes didn’t track together.

She reconnected with the physical therapist she’d used before when she had injuries, Marc Galloway, M.D., in Mason. He and his staff started rehabbing her shoulder, which had been put on the back burner after the stroke and aneurysm. They also continued strength and balancing work for her weakened legs.

Gray wore an eye patch because it bothered her, she says, to have her left eye “seeing in so many directions at the same time.” At the end of every session, they would work on her eye, with Gray opening it and following the therapist’s finger. One day, Gray woke up and the eye was back to normal. She texted her mom a photo.

“Being 19 years old and having grandparents and family members sit with you because you can’t be alone was frustrating,” she says. “Your teammates are at school working out for the upcoming season, and you have people around you just happy to see you eat solid foods.” Having a goal of returning to basketball helped her get through the days when she didn’t want to do any more therapy sessions. “I knew if I couldn’t at least get to a point where I could take care of myself, I’d never get back to Tennessee and playing again.”

Gray’s mom told everyone to keep their doubts about a return to basketball to themselves. “Because if this is what’s driving her, we’re not going to stop that,” recalls Carter.

“When Amber said she wanted to play again, it was very reasonable to have doubts because she was saying it so early in her recovery,” says her father, Carlton Gray, a former professional football player. “I mean, she still had a sling on her arm, she still had a patch covering her eye that hadn’t straightened yet. She still had a noticeable limp from the weakness in her leg. These were just the things I could see.”

Yet he felt he had no more important job than to be with her every step of the way and do whatever he could to help her return to the court. “If it wasn’t going to work out for her, I was determined to be there to see it so that we all could put our minds at rest if we ultimately had to say it was over,” says Carlton Gray. “The recovery really tested our patience because, early on, we were starting from scratch to where she was at an almost developmental stage again and not the athlete who was highly recruited by so many top colleges.”

When they first hit the gym together to start getting her strength and coordination back, Gray was playing at about the level she did when she was in fifth grade, her father says. She had to learn her body again, he says, and be honest about things that had changed. She could push herself only so much—not more than the heart-rate monitor she wore would allow. Once Gray passed a stress test and the monitor came off, they started to work harder.

Her mom believes recovering from the medical journey and fulfilling her dream of playing again gave an already confident Gray a different level of strength. “I think it gave her strength to say, ‘I’m going to be who I am,’” says Carter.

Tonya Carter and Carlton Gray were high school sweethearts in Forest Park. She had an academic scholarship to Ohio State, and he had a football scholarship at UCLA. They had just headed in different directions when Carter found out she was pregnant. She left OSU and returned to Cincinnati. Their parents were disappointed, she says, but were remarkably supportive.

Carlton Gray became an All-American player at UCLA and was drafted in the second round of the 1993 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks. He also played for Indianapolis, Kansas City, and the New York Giants before ending his career in 2001.

“I was raised by a single mom,” Gray says. “I will never say that I had to struggle. But my dad was gone, in college and then playing in the NFL. He was always in the picture, but it was my mom who raised me.” She doesn’t hold a grudge, like many would, against her dad for being absent. “Not at all,” she says. “Who wouldn’t go to the NFL if they had the chance?”

Carter finished her college education at home, first at the University of Cincinnati, then at Xavier University. At one point, when she was struggling financially, she went to the administration office to withdraw from school only to find that Hooks had paid her tuition. She is now vice president for human resources at Mercy Health. Carlton Gray is a football coach at Lakota West High School and helps his daughter run her training sessions and camps.

Gray wants to do well to make her parents proud, but also to be a role model for her four younger sisters: Chance Gray is a sophomore at Lakota West; Alanna Carter is finishing her senior year at Mason High School and is headed to the University of Akron next year on scholarship to play basketball; Sierra Herrera is a professional dancer; and Skylar Herrera plays soccer for Oregon State University. “They’re the reason why I can never quit,” Gray says. “That’s by far my best title, my best job: big sister. I take that as my biggest responsibility.”

She also hopes she’s living up to the legacy of Pat Summitt, who was the winningest coach in college basketball history when she retired in 2012. She’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and died four years later. Gray and her family remember Summitt not just as a fantastic coach, but as the friend who stayed by Gray’s bedside during her recovery and rehabilitation. Gray’s mother believes her daughter would have died were it not for Summitt’s support.

“Coach Summitt was more than just a basketball coach to us all,” Gray says. “She was a mom away from home, and she was a mentor and role model. She built a team of people who believed in not only preparing us for basketball games, but preparing us for life. That is the impact I want to have on the kids who I have the opportunity to work with, whether on the court or off.”

Gray would never play for Summitt again. After she recovered from her stroke and surgeries, her physicians cleared her to return to the court. But the University of Tennessee did not, a real blow. UT had been her dream school.

Gray briefly considered returning to the Knoxville campus to finish her degree without playing basketball. But after pushing herself so hard to become healthy again, she just couldn’t give up her dream of returning to the basketball court. Gray transferred to Xavier, which offered the added benefit of staying near her life-saving doctors and therapists for follow-up care.

Amber Gray transferred to Xavier University after recovering from her stroke, and played three seasons.

Photograph courtesy of Xavier University Athletics

Kevin McGuff, who was Xavier’s coach at the time, knew Gray from her time at Lakota West. But even though she had recovered, it was unknown whether she would ever play at the same level again. McGuff wanted her anyway.

“I knew I was adding a great person,” says McGuff, now the head women’s basketball coach at Ohio State University. “She’s a wonderful human being. It’s how she was raised. I just thought that if she could come back from what she did to get back to the court, I want her. It’s a tremendous story of perseverance. She was just absolutely relentless in getting herself back to that court. This is just who she is.”

Gray returned to the court with her skills mostly intact. Her first Musketeers team won the Atlantic 10 championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2010–2011. She led Xavier in scoring in her senior year, with 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and earned Big East All-Conference third team honors. She won the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Women’s Sports Association in 2012.

After graduating from Xavier in 2013 with a communications degree, Gray moved to Atlanta as director of operations for women’s basketball at Kennesaw State University. She then joined Wright State University in Dayton as administrative assistant to the women’s basketball team.

People kept asking her the same question: Why aren’t you still playing? She liked what she was doing, but she missed playing. So Gray and her family began interviewing agents, which in 2016 led to her joining a professional women’s league in France.

Gray returned there this summer to play for the same coach on a different team, Union Sportive La Glacerie. She’ll have a brief visit home at Christmas and return again to Europe through the spring.

In addition to her great-grandfather, Gray has a long line of strong women behind her: overcomers, educators, people who fought for change. Her great-grandmother, Frances Dancy Hooks, was an elementary school guidance counselor before she married Benjamin Hooks and worked as a civil rights activist alongside him. She helped organize Women in the NAACP, a revolutionary effort to boost leadership roles of women in the movement and in general. She cofounded The People Power Project, an advocacy group in Memphis for race relations and social justice.

“Of course, everyone knew my dad,” says Patricia Gray, the Hookses’ daughter and Gray’s grandmother. “But my mother was also very involved, very influential. So Amber is a product of all of this.”

Patricia Gray became a teacher too, both at the elementary level and in college, where she trained teachers how to teach kids to read. “You never know what a small child is going to be listening to,” she says. “But these are the kinds of people and conversations Amber has heard, all of this. She knows she was saved for a reason. Some people act on what they’ve learned, and others don’t.”

Amber Gray’s Where2Next Foundation works with Cincinnati youth on basketball and life skills.

Photograph courtesy of Amber Gray

Gray credits her mother and grandmother for raising her with everything she could possibly need, but also with a critical sense of “to whom much is given, much is expected.” She’s carrying on that education gene through basketball training sessions organized under her Where2Next Foundation. Gray’s overall goal remains to help teenagers find their “where to next,” believing that where they’re going is more significant than where they’ve been. One of her students, Reese Schwarz, was having some issues in school with confidence. Her mom, Brenda, says they appreciated Gray’s talent on the court but especially her message about being who you are, a strong woman.

Gray has developed a mentor relationship with DeAngel Davis, a young woman transitioning out of foster care and learning to live on her own. Gray has taken her to basketball games, of course, but also is working to help her plan for her future. Davis is interested in journalism, so Gray took her to visit a Cincinnati television station and has helped her think about where she might want to attend college.

Gray recently launched a mentoring program called This Is Me Project, so named because she wants adults to think about—and be—the kind of support they needed when they were teens. She’s matched her first few pairings and is excited to see how they work.

“Everybody has a story,” says Gray. “Everyone has gone through something. You can use it to motivate you, or you can let it hinder you. I can only grow from here.”

Her mom thinks Gray might be finished playing basketball after this season. She sees that her daughter tires more easily than she once did. Gray has come a long way after brain surgery, but still suffers some minor reactions, including her legs feeling heavy when she gets fatigued.

As Carter watches her daughter begin to develop her legacy, her way of following in Hooks’s footsteps, she says she’s prouder of her now than she’s ever been. “She’s just driven in a different way,” says Carter. “As a parent, you can’t ask for more.”

There was a time after the stroke and aneurysm that Carter would sit in the front row of her daughter’s speaking engagements to help her remember what she wanted to say, to feed her the lines of her speeches. It was difficult to watch her first-born struggle.

Carter admits that when Gray is home, she sometimes still checks on her when she’s asleep. “If anyone in this world deserves to live whatever life she wants,” she says, “Amber is it.”

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