Gray matters

Young fan born with brain tumor willed Jayhawks to 1988 NCAA title

Lawrence resident Kitty Gray is pictured on the playground of Hillcrest School named after her son, Ryan Gray, who died in 1990 of a brain tumor. Ryan was adopted as the unofficial mascot of the 1988 Kansas University national championship basketball team.

Lawrence resident Kitty Gray is pictured on the playground of Hillcrest School named after her son, Ryan Gray, who died in 1990 of a brain tumor. Ryan was adopted as the unofficial mascot of the 1988 Kansas University national championship basketball team.

1986 parade

Archive footage from the downtown parade thrown for the 1986 Final Four Jayhawks team.


A memorial to Ryan Gray is posted on the west edge of the playground at Hillcrest School, 1045 Hilltop Drive.


Journal-World File Photo

Ryan Gray celebrates during the 1988 parade for the Kansas University championship basketball team. At left is John Robic, who is currently an assistant coach for John Calipari at Memphis.

"Good ones do for themselves. Great ones do for others."
- inscription at the Ryan Gray Playground for All Children

The accomplishments of the 1988 Kansas University basketball team ensured names such as Danny Manning and Larry Brown were placed into the annals of Jayhawks lore.

But another name became just as synonymous with that national championship team to the people of Lawrence.

Ryan Gray was a 15-year-old Lawrence resident who developed into the unofficial mascot of the '88 team.

He was born with an inoperable brain tumor. Though the illness never affected Ryan's mental capabilities, it took a toll on him physically. By the sixth grade, he was permanently confined to a wheelchair.

But that restriction didn't stop Ryan, the son of Dr. Captain and Kitty Gray of Lawrence, from becoming a crucial member of the KU squad.

"I remember how privileged we felt," says Kitty Gray. "What a unique opportunity. I don't know any other kid or other family, other than the coach's children, who had the opportunity Ryan had."

The relationship began when Jayhawks coach Larry Brown was driving home from work and spotted Ryan playing outdoors in his electric cart. Brown stopped to talk to the youngster, eventually asking if he would like to become a ballboy for the '84-'85 season.

"We thought that was just an amazing gesture," Gray recalls. "We called Larry and said, 'You realize that Ryan is handicapped and he can't catch balls.' Without missing a beat, Larry said, 'Well, he's got a basket on that cart. He can drive towels and put the ball in the basket of his cart.'"

Key to victory

Despite having never played basketball himself, Ryan soon became fan No. 1. From that point on, he (and his father) gained nearly unlimited access to the team.

"He would ride buses with us. He would go to practices with us. He would go on trips with us. He was a part of our team," says Danny Manning, former Jayhawks forward and current assistant coach.

"Whenever you look at someone in a trying situation or circumstance who is always the most outgoing person in the room, that rubs off. It is contagious."

Similarly, Ryan adopted some tendencies of the team, such as its various superstitions. He had earlier picked up a key chain that played the KU fight song, and this grew to be his lucky totem.

During KU's run during the 1986 Final Four in Dallas, which Ryan attended, he accidentally dropped and broke the key chain. KU was beaten by Duke.

"To this day, wherever he is, he blamed himself for that loss," Gray says.

"But after Dallas, that superstition (of Ryan being a good luck charm) grew and grew with Larry and a lot of coaches," Gray recalls. "Ryan developed this following. People started asking, 'Who is that kid at the end of the bench?'"

His replacement key chain began working even better for everybody involved.

Two seasons later, Ryan had become a known commodity in the sports world. He was interviewed by CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz, in addition to being the subject of dozens of features dedicated to the superfan.

"I remember the compassion that everyone showed for him, the way everyone helped him and went out of their way to talk to him and make him know he was a part of the team and an important person," says Bill Pope, team manager for the '88 Jayhawks and currently a scout for the Detroit Pistons of the NBA.

When KU beat Oklahoma in 1988 to win the NCAA Championship in Kansas City, Mo., Gray was there clutching that key chain with all his strength.

Playground legacy

Ryan's own luck ran out soon after the championship season.

He died in 1990 at the age of 17 after having just started his senior year at Lawrence High School.

But his legacy wasn't destined to be confined to memories.

In 1993, the Ryan Gray Playground for All Children opened at Hillcrest School, 1045 Hilltop Drive. The site is the city's first and only wheelchair-accessible playground.

A large photo of Ryan wearing a championship shirt signed by the team greets visitors at the park's west entrance. There are also benches and an archway there with Ryan's name incorporated into their design.

"The wonderful thing about the park, number one, is the surface; it's a rubbery safe surface for children," Gray says.

All the playground equipment is wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Other features include high-backed chairs for children who can't control their head movements.

A donor's brick walk is ensconced by six colored arches that represent the teams KU beat on its march to the championship.

The park was paid for by the community, but it is in need of constant repair. Gray says she still has people asking how they can buy a brick for the park. (She requests that interested donors give money to Hillcrest School.)

"I drive by the park 95 percent of the time when I go uptown or home," she admits. "I usually say, 'Hi, Ryan.'"

Recently, the park has inspired one more remarkable family connection.

Gray's daughter Margot had been dating a man named Tim Evans (both of Lawrence) for four years. He recently asked Gray and her husband permission in secret to marry Margot. Then he asked Margot's sister, Megan, for her blessing.

"Finally, Tim asked Margot to go on a picnic with him up to the park," Gray relates. "They went and walked under those arches where there's a path of bricks. He'd had a brick made and (installed) there that said, 'Margot, will you marry me?'

"He said it was the only way he could think to ask her brother's permission."

No complaints

The Gray family still keeps Ryan's charmed key chain.

In fact, it often accompanies them on journeys.

"Ryan loved to travel, and his dream was to go to Italy," Kitty Gray says. "We have this small leather suitcase that we feel is the best place to keep a part of his ashes. It's a carry-on that we have taken many places with us. In there are his lucky key chain, a small Hot Wheels Ferrari and his ring that Larry gave him."

Like all Jayhawks players and coaches in that miracle season, Ryan earned a 1988 championship ring.

In 2000, the family finally went to Italy, scattering parts of his ashes throughout the country in sites such as the Sistine Chapel and the Roman Colosseum.

"I think there were a lot of times when each of us might feel sorry for ourselves, whether we had lost a game, had a bad day at practice or in class," former team manager Pope remembers. "Ryan's presence taught each of us that we are all very lucky to have the physical abilities that he did not. Yet, no one I know ever saw Ryan without a smile on his face or heard him complain."

Pope says that spirit is why he named his own son after Ryan.

Team leader

Gray obviously wishes her boy could have witnessed the success achieved by the 2008 basketball team. But she also sees it as an opportunity for another person to benefit this time around.

"My immediate thought was how wonderful if something of this nature happened to somebody else with this 2008 team. Perhaps a senior citizen. Certainly, there is a need for something that would be a legacy for this team. There are so many fans that would be responsive," she says.

But Gray thinks it takes a special kind of person to generate that level of good will from the community.

"I think you have to be a leader," she says. "And Ryan was a silent leader - sure of himself, sure of his quest, sure of his dreams. He was a member of a dream team. He dreamed big."


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