Is this it this time?
Sue Gray had mentally allowed herself to think that way in the fall of 2011. The wife of Norwalk head boys basketball coach Steve Gray had been diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time. Gray had put on a tough face with her first fight with cancer in 1997.
But not this time.
“The second diagnosis really took me down,” Gray said. “I just thought, this must be the time I'm going to die. I had a hard time accepting it. I cried a lot. I remember Steve asking me why I was crying so much, because the first time I was such a trooper. But I'd just sit in the house and cry.
“Our three girls were all away at school and moved out, so there was nothing to distract me.”
But at life's lowest point, Norwalk's run at Ohio history began to unfold.
Win after win, the Truckers gave Sue Gray something to cling to. They won 23 straight games before falling to Toledo Whitmer (40-32) in a Division I regional semifinal in the 2011-12 season. Last season, it was 24 straight wins before falling to Mansfield Senior (44-42) in a Div. I district semifinal.
This season, the Truckers opened with 14 straight wins, pushing themselves into the Ohio record book as their regular season winning streak reached 57 games, the ninth-longest in state history. With 13 straight wins after finally losing Jan. 29 at Ontario (63-61), Norwalk finds itself in the Final Four of the state championships for the first time ever.
The Truckers (27-1) face Dayton Thurgood Marshall (22-5) at 10:45 a.m. Thursday at Ohio State.
While watching her husband and his players rattle off 74 wins in 77 games, Gray doesn't mince words about it: Basketball saved her life.
The first battle
Gray first learned of her cancer in 1997, while Steve was five years into his tenure at Lexington.
And even then, basketball proved to be a major outlet.
“Jon Sanderson was a freshman on the team at Ohio State, and he was from Lexington,” she said. “My chemotherapy treatments were always in Columbus on Mondays and Wednesdays, and after, we'd hang around and go to an Ohio State game.
“Jim O'Brien was the coach, and he'd always go out of his way to ask how I was doing,” she added. “Just the excitement of going to Ohio State took away a lot of the negative going on in our personal lives with the cancer.”
When Sanderson was a sophomore, Ohio State made its memorable run to the Final Four in 1999, and the Grays got to go along for the ride.
At home, they waited a day to explain the situation to their three daughters, but even then, put on a game face through basketball season.
“We needed to process it, but we decided we didn't want anything to change. We didn't want the girls to be any more scared than they already would be when they found out. We just kept everything the same, even though we were both dragging, because it takes a lot out of you.
“But we still made sure we were at every event, every game together as a family,” she added. “It was always my escape from it.”
Nearly 14 years later, Gray was again given the devastating news. In October of 2011, cancer had returned.
The decision was made to step down and retire from her position as principal at the elementary school in Plymouth. All three girls, Elise (29), Kelsey (26) and Kailyn (21) were grown up and moved out, and Steve was getting ready to start coaching the upcoming basketball season.
But there was the key. Just a month later, basketball started. Then the Truckers went a perfect 20-0 in the regular season, and life was good again for the Gray family.
In fact, without it, Sue can only question what the outcome could have been.
“I think if it wasn't for basketball, I just don't think I would have … I just don't know,” she said. “It just took my mind away from it. It's what got me through. I don't think these kids know what they've done for me personally. How they helped me get through a really dark time.
“Every week there was something to be excited about and look forward to,” Gray added. “It's been everything to us. It was always the happy part, and what took my mind off of the fact that I've lost my hair. Or, oh my gosh, I really have cancer. Not that I didn't think about those awful things, but basketball was the escape from it during those rough times.”
Knitting the dream
Gray needed a hobby with her early retirement.
With the help of two friends, she turned to knitting. And it even got to the point where she became so hooked, she started knitting at basketball games while Steve scouted an opponent. It became a bit of a local sensation on Twitter, with several students and Norwalk community members retweeting her knitting sightings.
“I've always gone scouting with Steve when he goes by himself, just to kind of keep him company if it's a long drive or whatever,” she said. “And I truly don't care about the other teams if we're not playing, so I just sit there and knit. And I have to say, I've become addicted, I really have. But I told my friend who I'm knitting a baby blanket for, 'I think we're going to need a little more time.' This has set me back.”
What set her back was watching Norwalk's wild pair of regional wins. The Truckers survived an 87-81 overtime win vs. Vermillion in the semifinals, then held on for dear life in the final 35 seconds of a 54-53 win against Lima Bath to send the Truckers to state.
“I can't even … this last game did me in,” Gray said. “I think I was literally in shock, I was so overcome by emotion. I don't remember seeing either team get their trophies, and Jordan Johnson came up to me and was tapping me on the shoulder after the game. But I was turned around just staring at my daughter in disbelief. It meant the world to me that he came over and gave me a hug. But I told a friend of mine I'll need to see the game film and actually go back and watch those last two minutes, because I don't remember any of it.”
And while Gray misses the comfortable leads she's been accustomed to, she's just happy to be watching the Truckers play at all.
“Bless those boys, because they just play their hearts out every time they hit that floor,” she said. “And I think the one time they didn't this year was a real lesson for them against a very good opponent (Ontario). I look for them to do it again Thursday. I just have so much faith, and … they just don't know they are my everything, because of how they've helped me.”