Ryan Gray, a 17-year-old Lawrence youth whose lifelong struggle with a severe disability never dampened his love for the Kansas Jayhawks, died Wednesday at the Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
Ryan, who was born with a brain tumor, was adopted by the KU basketball team as its unofficial mascot during the 1987-88 NCAA championship season. In Kansas and even across the nation, he was recognized as one of the team's biggest fans.
His father, Dr. Captain Gray, said this morning that "the time between the diagnosis and his demise was one where he conquered his disability. In fact, he really never felt disabled. He lived 17 years, and certainly the last five or six were very happy ones for him."
Ryan had been hospitalized at the med center since undergoing neurosurgery in late August.
GRAY SAID Ryan's experiences with the Jayhawks gave him encouragement. Ryan traveled with the team to road games and attended many home games. During games, he held a Jayhawk musical keychain and called it a "hex machine."
"He had a lot of rich, varied experiences with the team," Gray said. "Certainly, Ryan benefited from the team, and shared in their triumphs."
Gray said his son also was able to give back something important to team members and coaches. He said Ryan was able to let them see there was "something more than simply winning basketball games.''
"It was a two-way street," Gray said. "I'm certain, even to this day, that what they gave to each other was mutual."
KU athletic director Bob Frederick said Ryan will be missed by many on campus.
"EVERYONE in the athletic department is saddened by the death of Ryan Gray. His involvement with the basketball team and his presence in Allen Fieldhouse was a source of inspiration and great joy for all of us. Our collective hearts go out to this wonderful family."
Gray said there was a special connection between his son and former KU basketball coach Larry Brown, who now coaches the San Antonio Spurs. He said Brown and his former Jayhawk assistant coach R.C. Buford visited Ryan in the hospital just last week.
During the Jayhawk's 1988 championship year, Gray said Ryan became known nationally. That exposure, which included a feature spot on CBS, earned him friends across the country, his father said.
"As we traveled across the country, people recognized Ryan," Gray said.
Gray said Ryan's disability did not affect his work as a student, and said his son was looking forward to his senior year of high school.
"He was on the honor roll his junior year at Lawrence High School. He had the smarts," Gray said.
GRAY ALSO said Ryan was aware of the care the Lawrence community felt toward him, even as he neared death. He said hundreds of cards and letters had come to Ryan in the hospital over the past few weeks.
"He certainly was aware of the love and support of the community and his friends in the community," Gray said. "For this, his parents are eternally grateful.
"Cards came from persons he didn't even known," he added. "Ryan had an ability to bring out the best in people."
Memorial services for Ryan will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence with Pastor Jonathan Knight officiating. Cremation is planned.
Born Dec. 15, 1972, in Grand Forks, N.D., Ryan and his family lived in Lawrence since July 1978 after moving here from Kansas City, Kan.
Ryan was a senior at Lawrence High School, a member of Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), a computer instructor for Independence, Inc., and an honorary member of the Traveling Jayhawks.
Survivors include his parents, Dr. Captain and Kitty Gray of the home; two sisters, Megan Gray and Margot Gray of the home; his paternal grandmother, Mary Gray, Valley City, N.D.; and his maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. David Lloyd, Valley City, N.D.
The family suggests memorials in Ryan's name to the Camp Hope/Kansas Chapter, an American Cancer Society camp for children with cancer, or to the Beach Center on Families and Disability at Kansas University.
Memorials may be sent in care of the Warren-McElwain Mortuary, Lawrence, which is in charge of arrangements.