South Johnston basketball alum C.J. Ray takes a few moments to discuss progress gained during his collegiate journey.
The legendary stanzas of “Road Not Taken” almost perfectly depict the student-athlete journey of C.J. Ray.
A late bloomer who reshaped his body in high school and turned in football cleats for basketball shoes, Ray ultimately finished second on South Johnston’s all-time scoring list.
Even with a host of personal accolades as bait, the 2020 grad couldn’t catch the attention of local colleges and instead opted for the 1,500-mile trek to Frank Phillips College (FPC) in Borger, Texas.
Nearly two years later, Ray is on the move again– taking to social media this week to announce his commitment to play for The University of Minnesota Crookston this fall.
“I came here (FPC), put in lots of work– lots of pain, lots of nights, lots of long hours – and I was able to get an offer,” Ray said of joining the NCAA Division II program, during a recent phone interview with The Daily Record.
“Coming out of North Carolina, I would not expect to have been to Texas and go to Minnesota. That was never my mentality, but God works in different ways.”
The former two-time Record Player of the Year also took back-to-back top honors for the Greater Neuse Conference during his last prep seasons in Four Oaks. As a senior, he led the Trojans to a 22-5 mark and cemented his storied career with 1,503 points.
Still, Ray says the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) game was a big adjustment for him but allowed more room for growth.
“I feel like college level, compared to high school, is way different. They take time on their craft and I love doing that, so it really worked out for me,” he said.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound wing feels his basketball IQ has expanded and that on defense, he tirelessly worked on versatility and can comfortably guard positions one through five.
The success on and off the court produced an explosion of recruitment opportunities for the previously overlooked small-town hooper.
Ultimately, Ray says the decision to trade in warmer winters came down to loyalty and respect.
“They really believed in me. The (UMC) assistant coach text me after every game and he noticed every little thing I do to impact the game,” he said, noting that UMC was the first program to offer a full scholarship.
“There’s a lot of coaches that were interested but didn’t text me every day ... I definitely felt it was the best spot for me.”
Weighing other options closer to home, most notably the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Ray was also swayed by the realistic possibility of early playing time and had discussions with Golden Eagle coaches about a potential starting gig.
Though he’ll still be thousands of miles away, the beloved Johnston County native says his heart always belongs to those back home.
It’s a life-altering voyage Ray says came from adjusting his initial views of playing at the next level.
“Every high school athlete that actually knows basketball wants to Division I,” he said.
“But as I got older, as I watched basketball and heard about these (NJCAA and D-II) schools and how many people go from there and are actually successful, that really changed my point of view about it all.
Now as he scrolls through a cascade of congratulatory text messages and social media comments, his brave decisions are validated.
At the same time, Ray serves as a blueprint for local talent also hoping to take the road less traveled.
“I basically told them, ‘I really just stuck with it,’” he said.
“I had a lot of older people text and tell me how much I inspire them... It’s not for everybody, but I definitely have a lot of people back home that support my decision and look up to me.”
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or 910 230-2040.