It came down to Ohio State or California for the Houston high schooler Al Grigsby in the early 1990s. To the great benefit of the Golden Bears and now countless Bay Area youngsters blessed by his tutelage, Grigsby chose to head west. The cheers and applause he received from fans in Harmon Gym remain highly valued memories, the relationships he established are on-going treasures and, of course because it is Al Grigsby, he continues to give back.
Now a director and coach of the men's program for the West Valley Basketball Club (San Jose, CA), the 6-foot-8 Grigsby is a prominent figure in the Cal basketball lore. He played in Berkeley from 1991 through 1997, battling through season-ending injuries and enduring a total of five surgeries that led to him being granted extra seasons of eligibility by the NCAA.
His freshman year saw him average 10.2 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. That was the starting point for his garnering fan loyalty based on his production, his proclivity for working hard and his nothing-will-keep-me-down attitude.
In fact, this mutual admiration relationship eventually culminated in Grigsby's number 4 being retired and hoisted into the upper reaches of Haas Pavilion.
"It's a special privilege," Grigsby commented, adding, "I take my kids to games there and they ask me questions about it." Also, Grigsby recently bumped into Cal senior Patrick Christopher at a restaurant, introduced himself and the Bears second-leading scorer and rebounder commented, "We were just talking about you, about looking up and seeing your jersey."
Grigsby's final season was a special one even though the team was expected to finish in the second division.
"My last season, we went to the Sweet 16," He recalled. "It was Coach [Ben] Braun's first year and our best player, Ed Gray, got hurt. I believe we had six seniors, we played defense and worked hard. Randy Duck was our outside shooter and Prentice McGruder the point guard. He was the tip of the spear for us. 6-foot-10 Michael Stewart was the anchor of our defense. [Longtime NFL Pro Bowler tight end] Tony Gonzales was also there. At 6-foot-6, he would have been a player in the NBA if he played year around. Sean Marks came off the bench for us. It was our best team because of us coming together."
After toppling favored Arizona, Cal opened with Princeton -- never a desired matchup -- in the inital round of the Big Dance and beat them by three, 55-52. Then the Golden Bears beat Villanova 75-68 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. North Carolina, the eventual national champion, finally stopped the Bears' run with a 63-57 victory.
Cal, the second-place finisher in the PAC-10 ended the season with a 23-9 record -- a fitting conclusion to the career of a blue-chip recruit filled with quite the number of unforeseen but never insurmountable obstacles.
Despite the multiple injuries and resulting surgeries, Grigsby persevered, rehabbed and returned.
"It never dawned on me to quit or feel sorry for myself," he explained. "It wasn't like my world ended. I wasn't devastated because I never saw basketball as an end all. I used it as a means to an end."
Continuing on, Grigsby offered, "I did my rehab at every practice and always tried to do more because I wanted to get back to my teammates. That was my goal."
Part of this countenance comes from his mother. "My mother was a strong woman who raised four kids and always put the family first."
This personal indefatigability is also why he wins hands down as the most inspirational basketballer for the Bears.
Another side of Grigsby's popularity is illuminated with this anecdote: "One year, Coach [Todd] Bozeman asked the players to let him know who they wanted to room with among the players on the team," Grigsby recalled.
Later on, Bozeman sought out Grigsby and said with mock exasperation, "Everyone wants to room with you."
Grigsby explained, "I'm easy to get along with, I'm low-key and nothing stresses me."
He also recalls that the world of basketball is -- at least in some ways' vastly different from his early years.
"Basketball has changed quite a bit since I was playing," he noted. "Growing up in Houston, basketball wasn't as popular as it is now. Football was the sport. But now, it's a lot easier to be seen, to get identified and recruited what with television, the internet and recruiting services."
Continuing on, he said "From a playing standpoint, there was a period of time where basketball got away from the fundamentals. Streetball/and1 have their place, I have no problem with them. You need bits of that but I say channel it and bring both because that will make you more dangerous as a player. People forget that Michael Jordan was one of the most fundamental players in the game and don't realize that LeBron James has good fundamentals."
Grigsby sees the importation of a number of European players, who can shoot, pass and dribble when they arrive, as a benefit and model for American youngsters.
He also remembers that people helped him as he was growing up and developing his game. There were pickup games at the University of Houston, plus games and workouts at the Fonde Center [a mecca for Houston basketballers].
"The older guys would look after the younger ones," he offered. "After playing, we would work out. When I got to high school, I didn't have a clue how to play but guys like Akeem Olajuwon, Rodney McCray and Major Jones taught me moves, how to use angles, footwork and how to assert myself."
Grigsby also has words of praise for his numerous coaches.
"Coach [Lou] Campanelli focused on the fundamentals of basketball and you didn't play if you didn't play the right way."
Plus, "Coach Bozeman taught me how to focus, always be ready and how to play with fire. From him, I learned how to fight through adversity on and off the court."
Even when he went abroad to play, Grigsby continued his hoops education. "My coach in Japan was a North Carolina disciple. I learned the high-low offense -- the North Carolina system -- and became a better post passer."
What's fascinating about his time out of the country is that the language barrier benefited him. "I learned to see the game better because of the language difference."
Coming full circle, Grigsby now instructs about basketball, including recruiting.
"The first thing we tell kids is don't go crazy over your first letter [from a college coach]," he offered. "It's nice but doesn't mean much."
Grigsby sees hoops as a lot like life.
"First comes fit," he advises, which is what's most important to the individual.
"Be honest with yourself because a lot of kids think they are better than they actually are. What's critical for you? If you are marginal and do go D-1, you may not play much. D-2 has good coaches, it's good competition and there are plenty of these players playing overseas."
He also advises prospects to ask themselves, "are you doing the things necessary to get better?"
Sometimes these methods work successfully, sometimes not. "We have lost players due to our honesty because some want immediate gratification and, with that attitude, you're not going to make it here."
He continued, "We have our own little corner of the world. It's not like New York or Miami or Los Angeles where talent is everywhere."
And it never will be simply based on demographics. But that's okay because Grigsby cares about the individual achieving success both within the framework of a team and also society. He is a living example.