Every spring in the WNBA, training camp rosters list many players, all hopefull to get a chance to play. However, with only 12 teams each having 11 spots, those chances can be hard to come by. This is the story of one player who's journey to the WNBA was an uphill battle.
PHOENIX - Alexis Gray-Lawson is the resilient type, that tough girl next door neighbor that always earned respect from the guys on the court. Her ability to take a hit and keep going is what we admire about her career. Even as this story was about to go to print, we learned that Lawson had just been waived from the Phoenix Mercury late Friday night. But from where we sit, it's just another bump in the road that will only make her stronger.
Alexis' basketball career began in the 3rd grade on an all-boys team; a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“This coach just came up to me and was like, ‘You look like you can play,’" Gray-Lawson remembers. "My first game I was terrible; I lost the game for us and scored on the other basket. After that I just wanted to get better.”
Her lack of ability could have kept her out of the game, but she took the challenges she faced as motivation to become a better player. Playing with the boys was tough, but Gray-Lawson took the hits, and became accustomed to a more physical game that many girls her age shied away from.
“As I got older, I got more respect because I was tough. Most girls around my age, if they got hit by a boy, they’d be super upset. Me, I took it, ran with it and I enjoyed it. I think it just made me tough. Playin’ with guys helps you have a certain mentality.”
It would be her take-one-on-the-chin outlook that would carry her through some future challenges and eventually carry her far enough to nab her one of the coveted eleven roster spots for the two-time WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury.
However, her journey would be anything but easy.
Born in Oakland, California, Gray-Lawson grew up in quite a large family, which can prove to be challenging in and of itself.
“My brothers and sisters terrorized me, but we have so much fun together and we’re really close. ” Gray-Lawson recalls with a grin.
After a decorated senior year at Oakland Tech, which included earning all-state honors, two state titles, and being listed No. 5 by the NorCal Scouting Report, Gray-Lawson decided to take her talents to Cal (Berkley) which kept her close to home and close to family.
“For me, family is the most important thing in the world. To be closer to my family and to get a great education meant everything.” She said.
Her father also influenced her decision, making sure she knew all about Cal, even from a young age.
“The crazy part is I never thought I would ever go to Cal. My dad is a big Cal fan and my mom loves the school. So, every Saturday growing up, my dad would wake me up at 8:00 in the morning and we would walk the campus, every single Saturday.” Gray-Lawson said. “They were the first people to recruit me.”
Cal was not known for having a strong women’s basketball program, but Gray-Lawson came in her freshman year and helped turn things around under new head coach Joanne Boyle. Alexis was the first Cal player to be named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, averaging 14 points and just fewer than 3 assists per game. Just as her success was taking off, things came to a grinding halt when she tore her ACL nine games into her sophomore year.
“For me it was a big turning point in my life," recalls Gray-Lawson. "It made me realize I’m not invincible, basketball isn’t forever, and it can be taken away at any time.”
Once again, Gray-Lawson would turn the injury into motivation to come back even better. Her junior year she guided the Bears to the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Then her senior year the Golden Bears won the WNIT championship, Gray-Lawson earned MVP honors, and she ended her career as Cal's all-time three-point leader.
On the heels of her success, she was a third round pick in the 2012 WNBA draft by the Washington Mystics.
“That month was probably the craziest month of my life. I’m here, I’m in the championship, I got MVP. The next day I was at the final four. Two days later I was in Washington.” Gray-Lawson said.
The emotional high was soon met by dispare when Gray-Lawson was cut from the Mystics roster on the final day; a blow that nearly caused her to and throw in the towel on basketball.
“That was probably my lowest time. Honestly, I actually quit basketball.” Gray-Lawson states. “I was done, I wasn’t coming back.”
Fate would intervene, as Gray-Lawson got a call from Samsun, a pro team in Turkey offering her a roster spot. However, what seemed like a new beginning turned out to be another setback.
“It was this team in Turkey that wanted me to come.” She says. “I ended up going and ran into more trouble over there. I played terrible and I hurt my knee again.”
Gray-Lawson once again began reconsidering her future in basketball when she got a invitation to training camp from the Phoenix Mercury. Head Coach Corey Gaines remembered her skills from college, and decided to give her a chance.
Gray-Lawson had to rehab from a second knee injury before she was due to take the court in Phoenix. It was a second chance to make a roster in the WNBA, and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her.
“I come home, I have surgery and I went hard.” She said. “I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked.”
After a highly competitive training camp, Gray-Lawson fulfilled her goal when she was named to the final roster of the Phoenix Mercury for the 2011 season.
“When you’re around DT (Diana Taurasi) it’s hard not to be good. I tried to watch everything that she did, and it worked out for me.”
Now in her second season with Phoenix, Gray Lawson continues to bring the same grit and determination to the court that helped her succeed all throughout her career. Her game impressed fans, and her teammates alike, including Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner.
“She’s a hard worker. Great shooter. She does the hard work and brings a lot to the table.” Bonner commented. “She’ll come in and make a shot and get the team going. She’s an instant spark off the bench.”
Looking back on her career, Gray-Lawson admits she could have given up when things got rough. Not that anyone would have blamed her; she has always given nothing short of her best effort. However, she chose to let adversity and challenge spark her passion to succeed, and in doing so, nothing got in her way, or even slowed her down.
She is a testament to the athletes in the WNBA who fight for a roster spot every spring – some of the hardest working athletes in basketball. With the rosters in the league holding at eleven, athletes enter training camp already behind the eight ball, with no guarantees and no promises. Their only option is to work hard, and hope that their skills outshine any of their flaws.
So even now in the first 48 hours after being cut, we know Gray-Lawson is still working hard and soon the phone will ring again to take her to a new basketball destination.