By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had just won another NBA championship, and Rick Ray couldn’t wait to talk with his co-workers about it.
So he walked into the actuary firm at which he was interning in Chicago the morning after the victory and said, “Did you guys watch that game?”
Ray’s co-workers had not watched that game. They had no idea what he was talking about.
“I knew right then and there, I’m done. I quit,” he said.
Thus began the coaching career of Rick Ray, who a week ago was hired as Mississippi State’s head men’s basketball coach.
After leaving the firm, Ray took a job teaching and coaching at a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, the town of his alma mater, Grand View College. After a 11/2 years of doing that, he caught on as a graduate assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II school.
Ray worked his way up the ladder, and it wasn’t an easy climb. He landed a job at Indiana State, and after seven years there was hired by Northern Illinois.
His big break came when Matt Painter hired Ray at Purdue in 2006, and then in 2010 he was named associate head coach at Clemson.
Even though he long ago left the field of mathematics, Ray still operates in a world of structured equations. There is little room for subjectivity, and any form of chaos is not tolerated – unless he can use it for a greater purpose.
Open Ray’s refrigerator, and you’ll find cans and bottles in perfect rows, all labels facing out. His sock drawer is arranged from light to dark.
“I’m probably OCD,” he said, referring to obsessive compulsive disorder.
When he was a child, Ray’s mother couldn’t iron his pants to his liking. She taught him how to iron, and from then on he did it himself. Cleaned his own room, too.
“I didn’t want her touching my room. I’ve always been that way. Everything has to be clean and immaculate,” Ray said.
His mother, Anita Walker, remembers that story. She calls her son a “perfectionist.”
Ray’s father, Robert Walker, said, “With him it’s either right or it’s wrong. There’s a right way, and the wrong way.”
Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Ray is the most organized person he’s ever had work for him. It’s served Ray well in his chosen profession, as preparation is a critical element of his approach.
“Guys are looking for an excuse not to respect you or not to like you,” he said, “so I think if you’re not well-prepared on your scouting report or on your drill, it gives those guys a chance to (say), ‘Ah, see, coach doesn’t know how to do this.”
Setting the order
Ray’s obsession with detail doesn’t necessarily color his coaching style, at least as far as the players go.
One might think his offensive philosophy would be one of rigid sets and play calls, but it’s not. He emphasizes transition scoring and employs a motion offense in the half court.
“I want to know all the information, but I don’t want to necessarily give our players all the information,” Ray said, “because I want those guys relying on principles and playing more so than out there worried about, ‘two’ means this for the opposing team, and things like that.”
He doesn’t want his players thinking too much. Ray does enough thinking for them.
He’s the one who sets the order. It’s why he gravitated toward math and earned a degree in applied mathematics and secondary education.
“It wasn’t more so I enjoyed math, I just enjoyed the fact that in math it was not subjective,” Ray said. “In English, if I walk by a white wall and I write about it: ‘I walked by the white wall.’ The teacher wants me to put, like, ‘I saw a cascading snow of’ – things like that. She wants a flowery exposition, and I’m like, I don’t see that, so I could be judged wrong for that.
“In math, I put down ‘two,’ it’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s absolute. So I don’t like all the subjectivity of other subjects. I like the fact that in math, it’s a finality thing, like the answer is 17.”
Ray was born in Compton, Calif., a place notorious for gangs and crime. At age 6, his father moved the family to Kansas City to get away from that scene, finding whatever work he could to support the family.
“My old man, he’s a scrapper,” Ray said. “In and out of employment, just trying to find a way to feed us. Not really a trade, just go work here – carpenter, painter, janitor, whatever it was.”
Even after the move, Ray attended inner-city schools for the next several years, until his parents decided their oldest child needed a change of scenery.
So in eighth grade, Ray was enrolled at the Sumner Academy of Arts and Science, a school for gifted students. One of its goals was to bring together students from different backgrounds.
“I wasn’t able to get a college education per se, but I wanted to make sure all of my children got one,” Robert Walker said. “Rick set the example for his other brother and sisters. He did that.”
The first time he went through the lunch line, Ray was shocked to see his classmates paying for their lunches. He laughed at the memory.
“Going through that experience and being around different people, that made me have a chance to be around different cultures.”
And that could be a reason why he so easily relates to players, no matter their background.
Ray, who’s 40 years old, manages to do that while still being himself. He doesn’t like “commercial rap,” preferring the underground sub-genre.
His musical tastes also include The Police and Stone Temple Pilots. His players don’t necessarily share in those tastes.
“I’m more of a Roots guy, and they’re listening to Waka Flocka, something like that,” Ray said.
He demands a lot of his players, but Ray also likes to joke around and encourages daily competition.
“I like to get guys mad, like a brother-brother rivalry,” he said. “I just want to do things to liven up practice. If it’s getting guys upset at each other and making them compete more or telling a joke about something, that’s really it.”
Ray has a brother, plus three sisters. He’s the oldest of them all, which means he was the first one to get a shot at making something of himself through education.
Once he earned that college degree – he was an All-American Scholar-Athlete – Ray began the natural career path that could lead him to being, say, an actuary scientist. But basketball called to him, and he much prefers this career.
“I’d be miserable. Just sitting there and crunching numbers, that wouldn’t be for me.”
When Ray made his career change, his parents fully supported him. Anita Walker wasn’t the least bit surprised by it, either.
“I knew he was going to be something in basketball, because when he was little he slept with his basketball,” she said. “Everybody else sleeps with teddy bears, he slept with that. He had his basketball.”