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Archive for Saturday, March 30, 2002

A look back: ‘88 champs turned to teen for good luck

Fan born with inoperable brain tumor helped root Jayhawks on to NCAA title

March 30, 2002

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They spit in the Mississippi River and they punch out stuffed monkeys on their coach's back.

Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams and his Jayhawk basketball team have performed plenty of extracurricular activities hoping to generate good karma for victories in NCAA Tournament games.

But in 1988, KU coach Larry Brown and his Jayhawks got most all the luck they needed in their run to the national championship from a Lawrence teen-ager named Ryan Gray.

Gray, 15 in 1988, had a musical key chain that played the KU fight song and which he used to hex opposing teams.

"If there was voodoo to be had, he felt like it was in that chain," Gray's father, Captain Gray, said during a recent interview.

Striking up a friendship

Ryan was born with an inoperable brain tumor. Though it never affected his mind, by the mid-1980s he was unable to walk well. He moved about in an electric cart. Brown, who lived in the same neighborhood as Gray and his wife, Kitty, saw Ryan outside one day and struck up a conversation with the boy. The KU coach and the youngster became good friends.

From that moment on, Ryan and his father were given almost unlimited access to Brown and the team. They even traveled with the Jayhawks to road games and mixed with team members in the locker room after games and at practices.

Ryan's own luck ran out in 1990 when he died from the brain tumor that had continued to grow despite various treatments. But Ryan's last years were made special because of the affection shown him by Brown, the team and the KU athletics department, Gray said.

"We were just basically treated like royalty," said Gray, a doctor in internal medicine with practices in Overland Park and Lawrence. "He was somebody they reached out to. They really cared about him."

Dreams held in hand

At the games, Ryan would hold tightly the key chain's music box and point it at the opposing team, trying to induce the hex, Gray said.

There were actually two key chains, Gray said. In 1986, KU advanced to the Final Four in Dallas and played Duke in the semifinals. Ryan attended, and while holding the first chain, he dropped it and it broke. KU lost, reinforcing the boy's superstition, Gray said.

The second key chain got a workout in 1988 when KU won the NCAA championship against Oklahoma in the Final Four played in Kansas City, Mo.

"He was mesmerized and very happy," Gray recalled. "You'd think he had thrown the last bucket for the team. His smile was cherubic."

That Final Four also saw Ryan getting almost as much attention from the media at Kemper Arena as the team did. CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nance interviewed Ryan for a TV feature. Newspapers from around the country called the Grays.

"He was very patient and very demure," Gray said of his son. "He had a soft voice, and I think that's why people were attracted to him."

The Grays still have the lucky key chain, stored somewhere among numerous photographs, autographs and other KU memorabilia. A large framed photo of Ryan wearing a sweatshirt autographed by players hangs in a hallway near the Grays' bedroom. It also shows Ryan with a basketball Brown gave him after Brown earned his 100th KU victory.

Good old days

Ryan is still in the minds of the players who won the 1988 championship.

"He really did become like part of the team," said Chris Piper, a starter on the team who now does TV analysis for some college basketball games and owns Grandstand Sportswear and Glasswear, 2124 Del. "We expected him to be there. And he always had such a great smile on his face. Those were really good days."

Brown, now coaching the NBA's Philadelphia 76'ers, still stays in contact with the Grays. And the Grays still attend KU games at Allen Fieldhouse. After the games they often go down to the floor where Ryan was allowed to park his cart near the entry where the players come out onto the court, Gray said.

"That's where we go and take a moment to kind of stand and get back some of the memories and the charm of that time," Gray said.

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