Sometime this spring, the world of big-time college basketball recruiting and the country's oldest black Catholic school will come together.
Prominent college coaches such as Minnesota's Clem Haskins and Maryland's Gary Williams may well be making their way to St. Frances School in East Baltimore to bid for Devin Gray, a powerfully built 6-foot-6 center, who is the area's most sought-after player this year.
Already there are visits and daily letters from recruiters. This fall more than 170 colleges have sent letters to the little school, which was founded in 1828.
"This is all new for us," St. Frances president Sister Barbara said the other day. "We've kind of gone along very quietly doing what we have to do, not having the opportunity to talk about the success stories here. People haven't had a reason to stop at 501 East Chase."
But they do now.
There is Gray, a high-leaping left-hander with thunderous slam dunks, accurate line-drive jumpers and impressive shot-swatting ability.
To illustrate how unusual this is for St. Frances, consider that the school has no gym. St. Frances practices at Madison Recreation Center and plays its home games at the University of Baltimore's gym.
The courting of Gray is new to everyone at the school except coach William Wells, who has had some experience with recruiting. But in the four years since St. Frances began competing in the Catholic League,there has been nothing close to all the attention Gray is receiving.
"I've got a desk full of letters and two bags full of letters at home," Wells said.
Gray has put St. Frances on the map.
"From the [public relations] point of view, a lot of eyes have turned to us because of Devin and the basketball program," said Sister Barbara, who oversees 135 students. "I think that in general he has just put us in the limelight in a way that we weren't before. Because we are a small school, because we are an African-American school, because we are one block from the penitentiary and dead in the middle of the inner city, a lot of people look at that and say we can't be quality."
Gray is reluctant to take credit for bringing St. Frances out of anonymity.
"People say I brought all this attention, but I think St. Frances already had its own image as the oldest black Catholic school," he said.
Gray and St. Frances are a perfect match. St. Frances specializes in helping students who struggle academically, and Gray fits that mold.
"The school wants to offer a quality education, but we want to take the at-risk kids whose test scores may be a little lower than
at the average Catholic school," Sister Barbara said.
"Here I get that one-on-one concept with the teacher," said Gray, who has a 2.2 grade-point average. "Some people might call the school small and talk about us, but here at St. Frances we all care about each other."
Gray did not play basketball until he was in the eighth grade. His cousin, Zeke Marshall (The Sun's Player of the Year last year), encouraged him. Gray played at Bentalou Recreation Center, where he was recruited by Towson Catholic.
He had planned to attend Towson Catholic, but there was a delay in getting a scholarship, and his mother decided to send him to Mervo.
But Mervo was too crowded, and Gray did not want to go to Carver, which was the next option. A family friend who had attended St. Frances suggested he try that school.
"I didn't even know they had a basketball team," Gray said.
"Devin didn't come here to play basketball," said Sister Barbara. "He came here to get an education, and we saw another talent and tried to develop that in him. Devin was a gift to us, and hopefully we were a gift to him."
Wells, who teaches at St. Frances, still remembers the first time he saw Gray. He says he knew immediately that Gray had the potential to develop into a major Division I prospect.
"His first couple of days here, I passed the ball to him and it would hit him in the chest, but with his jumping ability, I realized he had great potential," said Wells. "He started working on a couple of things, and he just ame into his own."
St. Frances won the Catholic League junior varsity regular-season and tournament titles with a 21-0 record in 1988, Gray's freshman year. The next season, St. Frances played on the varsity level and managed a 3-17 record, but opponents knew the Panthers would be contenders the next season because they had everyone coming back and played every opponent tough.
Last season, St. Frances lived up to its billing, going 20-9 and winning the Catholic League tournament. St. Frances upset regular-season champion Towson Catholic in the tournament final. Gray averaged 23.9 points and 12.3 rebounds.
Gray's stock skyrocketed over the summer when he was named the East Coast's Best Kept Secret at Nike Camp in Princeton, N.J., and voted to the all-tournament team at the Sonny Hill Tournament in Philadelphia. Street & Smith's, Basketball Times and Eastern Basketball list him as the area's top recruit in their preseason issues.
This season, the Panthers are expected to contend for the league title and defend their tournament title.
Wells said he expects nothing less than 25 points a game from Gray, whose only drawback is an occasional lack of intensity.
"I told him he had to get 25 a game," said Wells. "There's no need for you to be in the top 100 in the country and be pussy-footing around. He's got to take control, ask for the ball and show leadership, or somewhere along the line, if you don't, someone will say he's overrated."