There was no time for Anton Grady to feel bad for himself.
He could never wrap his mind around emotions like self-pity, anyway. And he wasn’t about to start that day in November, staring at the ceiling of a room in an Orlando, Fla., trauma hospital.
Forget that he was there because he’d almost been paralyzed during a basketball game. Forget that the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Wichita State senior’s professional basketball future was in doubt.
All Grady could think of, since the moment the doctors told him he would be able to walk again, was the how and the when.
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How would he get out of the hospital? How would he get back to Wichita? And most important, when would he get back on the court?
By the time his mother, Nicole Grady, and his aunt, Charlene Boykins, arrived the next morning from Cleveland, he’d already begun to form the simplest of plans to recover from the spinal concussion he suffered after he collided with Alabama player Dazon Ingram the previous day and was taken from the court, conscious, unable to move and strapped to a stretcher.
Get up. Walk out of the hospital. Get on a plane.
But first, he had to make a joke.
“Anton is so silly,” Nicole said. “No matter how bad things have been, his whole life, he’ll try to say something to make you laugh.”
This day would be no different.
“It’ll get better mama,” Grady said, his voice rising, sounding out the final syllables. “And I’m sure not gonna be paralyzed, because I’m about to be playing bas-ket-ball … you feel me?”
His positivity wasn’t unfounded. He knew he’d already survived much worse.
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Grady would not only get back on the court for Wichita State, he would thrive. After missing four games after his injury, he came back as a reserve and closed out the regular season by scoring in double digits in three of the last five games, including back-to-back 16 points against Loyola and 17 points against Illinois State on senior day at Koch Arena.
Named MVC player of the week after the win over the Redbirds, he got more good news earlier this week when he was named to the MVC All-Newcomer team and captain of the MVC All-Bench team. The MVC regular season-champion Shockers play in the MVC tournament quarterfinals at noon Friday at Scottrade Center.
When everything is clicking, you feel it. I think that’s how we feel right now, as a team. The vibe is great. The energy is great.”
-WSU forward Anton Grady
It was in St. Louis where Grady first began his comeback from the spinal concussion, starting with a light workout before WSU played Saint Louis on Dec. 5.
“I’m just having fun, just playing with passion and getting back to the things I do well,” said Grady, who averages 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds. “When everything is clicking, you feel it. I think that’s how we feel right now, as a team. The vibe is great. The energy is great.”
To his credit, it is now impossible to distinguish Grady, a fifth-year senior and one-year transfer from Cleveland State, from any teammate who has been here for years. He has formed such a bond with a trio of friends on the team — Rashard Kelly, Zach Brown and Bush Wamukota — to the point where there is a running joke in the locker room about the four of them.
“Rashard, Bush, Zach, me, in the locker room, that’s called ‘The Homeboys,’ ” Grady said, laughing. “We all just grew close to each other since we got here and created a brotherhood.”
He also has begun to carry the locker-room gravitas of the two players who helped recruit him to WSU — seniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet — at a crucial time of the season.
“He knows this, and I’ve told him this, but the most important thing he’s brought in the last three or four weeks is leadership,” VanVleet said. “Not taking a backseat to me or Ron and stepping up and being vocal, being another voice. I told him when he got here that it’s not a dictatorship, we do this by community and sometimes my voice isn’t good enough. Sometimes Ron’s voice isn’t good enough. So that’s why Evan speaks up sometimes. That’s why, sometimes, Anton speaks up.”
Now, Grady is on the verge of the big payoff he envisioned when he asked Cleveland State for his release last spring and zeroed in on WSU shortly after. Not only did coach Gregg Marshall reach out quickly (and with a depth of Grady knowledge already in hand), but Grady was already a fan of the Shockers.
“It was a couple of years ago and I watched a game where they played Northern Iowa at home,” said Grady, a two-time All-Horizon League pick. “I was like ‘Wow, this is a good style of basketball’ and you could see how hard they played and the passion that (Marshall) and the players had for the game. I followed them pretty closely after that. So when (Marshall) called me, he told me that they’d liked me in high school, but I was already committed early and I told him I was already familiar with his team.”
Cleveland State went 9-22 in Grady’s final season and he didn’t see the team doing much more than rebuilding the next season.
“I didn’t want to interrupt that process (at Cleveland State), and I also wanted one last college basketball experience,” Grady said. “So it was good for me to go on my way. It was difficult because home, for me, was just seven minutes from campus. My mom and dad were at almost every game, but this was something I needed to do.”
To get to WSU, he had to complete his bachelor’s degree. His first visit to Wichita was shortened to around 14 hours because he had to get back to school to complete a final film project for his degree. He’s now working toward a master’s degree in Sports Management at WSU. He met with the coaches and VanVleet one day. The next morning he met with Baker. By the time he left, he’d decided he wanted to be a Shocker.
“The worst part about recruits coming in, most of the time, is you feel like you have to pamper them,” VanVleet said. “That wasn’t the case here. He was about his business, very goal-oriented. I appreciated that.”
Now, the ultimate payoff awaits: a likely NCAA Tournament bid. The Shockers may have already locked up an at-large bid, but are taking the approach that they need to win a title in St. Louis — it would be only the second tournament championship since 1991 — to secure a spot. Grady can further his professional prospects — either here or overseas — with a strong postseason run.
“When I was able to walk again, I still thought about it a lot, I thought that God put me through that test for a reason,” Grady said. “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life to the point where now, I feel like I can always get through. I feel like I can always overcome. I told myself I was going to walk, and there was just no time for and no benefit of feeling bad for yourself. I’ve got too many people depending on me.
“I went through three knee surgeries at Cleveland State. I grew up in the roughest neighborhood in Cleveland. You wouldn’t have predicted me to make it out. But here I am.”
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The odds of getting out of the neighborhood Anton Grady grew up in are miniscule, and one need only look into Grady’s family history to understand how tough it really is and how much the odds are stacked.
“Around where Anton grew up, around East 93rd Street and Kinsman Road in Cleveland is a rough, rough place to grow up,” said Kevin Noch, Grady’s high school coach at Central Catholic. “Drugs, guns, violence, women selling themselves ... the streets eat you up there.”
Grady watched as the streets ate up his family, in order, until the streets finally came for him.
First, his father, Eric Cloud, who gave Grady his nickname of “Silk” when he was just days old.
“I would go to his crib and hold him and couldn’t believe how soft his skin was,” Cloud said. “He was ‘Silk’ from that day forward. My little ‘Silk’ man, that’s right.”
Cloud had a nasty reputation in the neighborhood and his actions ultimately landed him in jail and away from his family.
“At times, we lived in the cold, no power, no electricity,” Cloud said. “I had my demons, but right now I’m eight years clean. I don’t think there was a time, growing up, where my kids saw me without a 40 ounce or a glass of beer in my hand ... and I was on drugs, too. I wasn’t the man I could be ... it’s hard to talk about, but when you see your kids ain’t dressed properly and they don’t have the basic things they need, you realize how bad your decisions have hurt your family.”
Grady’s mother also dealt with her own demons and wasn’t part of the family by the time he was in junior high.
“It was just ... it was a rough time,” Nicole said. “God forgive me, but I wasn’t the mother I needed to be at that time. I wasn’t there for my children when they needed me. I had a lot of things I needed to deal with.”
Without both parents, Grady’s grandmother, Deborah Coleman, did the best she could to take care of the five children. Anton had two older brothers, Eric Jr. and Anthony, an older sister, Erica, and a younger sister, Brittany.
Anton began to slip through the cracks. By the eighth grade, he was a dropout. Older brother Eric Jr., now serving eight years in prison for felony assault, was incarcerated more often than not from the time he was 16. Anthony, once, told the police he was Anton after he was arrested.
“It was just normal in the neighborhood,” Anton Grady said. “I didn’t go to school for a whole year. I was just in the streets. Truant officers would come, police would come and you would just run.”
Then, Grady did something that would come to define him. As his love for basketball grew, he decided he wanted to be different. He wanted to go back to school. He wanted to be part of a team. He wanted a change.
“Something just hit me that I didn’t want to be like everybody else,” Grady said. “So I went back, did the eighth grade and played for the basketball team. Then I went to Central Catholic and started taking basketball and school really seriously.”
He also got two key figures in his corner — Noch, the Central Catholic coach who’d come from the same rough-and-tumble background as Grady, and cousin Earl Boykins, a longtime NBA guard who also went to Central Catholic. The two began to push Grady. When he bucked back, they just pushed harder. Having 5:30 a.m. practices helped.
I love this kid ... his story is truly amazing. I always have all of my kids watch his games, and I always tell his story. He shows that anything is possible. He’s that guy.”
-Former Central Catholic coach Kevin Noch
“He had to adjust,” Noch said. “He had no choice if he wanted to be part of my team.”
And that’s when things started to change — but not just for Grady. It was around this time that his mother and father started to come back into his life.
“I don’t think my dad missed a game,” Grady said. “Basketball ended up being the thing that brought us all back together.”
Grady grew from 6-4 as a freshman to 6-8 and helped Central Catholic win a state championship in 2009, made it to the state semifinals his senior year and was named the Ohio Division III co-player of the year after he averaged 21.1 points and 14.5 rebounds.
“I love this kid ... his story is truly amazing,” said Noch, who is now a mortgage banker and runs basketball camps in Charlotte, N.C. “I always have all of my kids watch his games, and I always tell his story. He shows that anything is possible. He’s that guy.”
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Nicole and Eric Sr. made it to Wichita for the first time last week, getting to Koch Arena for the last 10 minutes of the win over Illinois State after flight delays held them up out of Cleveland.
“I was so nervous,” Nicole said. “I missed his senior night in high school because I had to work and his teammates walked him out. I didn’t want to do that to him again.”
“My other sons always teased him about being in his books, but he was so dedicated. But he never cared what anybody thought, because he had goals and he knew what he wanted. Now, he’s someone that the young men in our neighborhood respect and look up to. Hopefully he will inspire some of them to be like him.”
Grady practiced Thursday with his teammates in St. Louis, running through drills ahead of Friday’s quarterfinal game. His future, once so uncertain, seems wide open now. It’s like anything is possible, for him or for WSU, which seems to be playing its best basketball at the right time.
“These guys are already winners,” Grady said. “And they have the mindset that they always want more, they always want to do better. They want to get to the Final Four.
“Was it difficult to get to this point? Sure. But sometimes that’s what makes it worth it.”