After a performance by Ed Gray that his Cal basketball teammates struggled to put into words, guard Anwar McQueen gave it his best shot.
“I thought the team stood around and watched,” McQueen said. “Today, that was a good thing.”
Ed Gray celebrates his 45th birthday today (Sept. 27), so it was more than half a lifetime ago — on Feb. 22, 1997 — when he assembled the most remarkable individual performance in program history.
On a Thursday night at Pullman, Washington, Gray broke Cal’s 25-year-old single-game scoring record with 48 points against Washington State.
The senior guard did it in just 25 minutes on the floor, missing time in the first half after getting into foul trouble, and sitting out the final 1 minute, 14 seconds after breaking his right foot.
Even then, Gray limped to the free throw line and converted two shots to tie the score before leaving the floor. The Cougars wound up winning 89-87 and Gray was done for the season.
But it did not turn out to be a crippling blow to the Bears, and Gray’s performance was memorable even without subplots.
Al Grigsby played alongside Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Shareef Abdur-Rahim during his six years at Cal. Even he said, “I haven’t seen anybody just put us on his back like that.”
It was the exclamation point on the highest-scoring season by a Cal player. Gray’s 24.8 average was second-best in the nation in 1996-97 and remains a school record.
The Bears’ season began in Maui, where they won twice in three games under new coach Ben Braun. Gray scored 20 points in 22 minutes in the opener, leading Cal to a 75-59 win over Iowa.
He then scored 32 points — all in the first 29 minutes — in a loss to Kansas, and he wound up averaging 25.3 points in three games on the island. I remember talking there with Jerry West, who told me, “He plays like an NBA player.”
Back home in Berkeley, Gray made the game-winning shot with 3.3 seconds left in the second overtime of an 89-88 win over Illinois.
Then he really started to heat up.
He had a school-record six 30-point games that year, including three in a row during an eight-game stretch where he averaged 29.3 points. Over his final 13 games, Gray provided the Bears more than 37 percent of their scoring.
Closing in on an NCAA tournament bid, the Bears got everything WSU had on Feb. 22 at Friel Court.
But Gray was a ruthless scoring machine. He accounted for 38 of Cal’s 46 second-half points, including 27 in a span of 6:44. He shot 14 for 26 from the field (the rest of the team was 11 for 35) and he made 16 of 17 free throws, including the final two.
Gray didn’t even know he’d broken John Coughran’s 1972 school record until leaving the hospital 90 minutes after the game ended.
“When you have a game like that,” he said, “you don’t really know what you’ve done.”
Gray’s scoring total remains tied for eighth all-time in conference history.
In the 23 years since, only two Pac-12 players have scored more points in a game: Arizona State’s Eddie House had 61 vs. Cal in 2000 and Stanford’s Casey Jacobsen scored 49 vs. ASU in 2002.
Gray was voted Pac-10 Player of the Year — the third Cal player in a span of four years to win it, following Kidd and Abdur-Rahim — and earned third-team All-America honors.
Surely the Bears’ season would go south after his injury, right?
Cal lost its next game, at Stanford, then beat Arizona State in the final game at old Harmon Gym, before knocking off Arizona at the Cow Palace.
The Bears then beat Princeton and Villanova in the NCAA tournament to reach the Sweet 16. Tony Gonzalez — the future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end — averaged 17.8 points over those four wins in his new role as a starter, and Randy Duck contributed 16.8 per game.
Cal’s season ended with a 63-57 loss to a Dean Smith-coached North Carolina team featuring Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.
Selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the 1997 NBA draft, Gray twice scored 20 points in a game his rookie season. He could not fulfill Jerry West’s vision and was out of the league after two year. But on one wild night in Pullman, Ed Gray put on a scoring display no Cal player has even equaled.
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo
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