FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — JeKael Gay has a piece of advice for young basketball recruits weighing their options.
“You should play basketball where you’re loved,” Gay says.
For Gay, it was that feeling that pushed him to commit to Fayetteville Tech when he was on the verge of graduation from Greene Central High School two years ago.
“I could tell that the coaches here wanted me to get better,” Gay says. “Not just in basketball, but in the classroom and as a person.”
Gay has no regrets about his decision. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-6 small forward is averaging 13.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line and 44 percent from behind the arc.
It’s a performance that’s helped propel the Trojans into their fourth straight Region 10 Tournament, which begins Saturday.
In the classroom, his hours of study hall and time spent in the Student Learning Center helped land him on the Dean’s List for the Fall 2020 semester and set him up to graduate with an associate degree in Business Administration.
Four-year colleges are taking notice, with Livingstone, Pfeiffer, N.C. Wesleyan and William Peace all making offers this season.
Gay’s gone so far as to credit his choice to attend a junior college with being a life-saving experience.
“JUCO basketball is going to save my life,” he tweeted in February.
That might be hyperbole. Gay’s parents — mother Kendra Shackleford, a nurse, and stepfather Marvette Shackleford, a special education teacher — preached the importance of education to JeKael and his siblings from a young age.
By his senior year, Gay was a solid A-B student and helped the Greene Central team reach the state 4-A championship game.
What is certain is that Gay’s two years at FTCC have left an indelible mark on the Ayden native.
“If I didn’t have basketball, even if I was at FTCC, I’d just be a regular student,” Gay says. “Playing basketball and being a student-athlete makes me feel valuable to the school.”
Trojans’ head coach Brian Hurd says Gay’s willingness to seek that value is what sets him apart from other student-athletes.
“JeKael has fallen in love with the process,” says Hurd, who’s coached the Trojans since the program’s start five years ago. “He takes pride in getting better, in being a better student and a better basketball player. And he’s starting to see the rewards from all that hard work.”
Hurd says Gay has been diligent in developing good habits toward improving, especially in the classroom, where both player and coach admit that JeKael faced a bit of a learning curve in adapting to being a college student.
“He was a good student, but that first semester here, his grades weren’t where he wanted them to be,” Hurd says. “Where JeKael surpasses some other players is the way he’s taken advantage of the resources in the Student Learning Center. He’s doubled his hours in study hall, and when he’s there, he treats it like it’s his job.”
To Gay, it is his job, with a career goal of getting recruiting to the next level, a lesson he learned back in high school.
“When you’re a sophomore in high school, you don’t really think about college,” Gay says. “But my GPA was kind of low and when I started playing basketball, my coaches told me no one was going to recruit me. So I had to buckle down, and that’s why I have the work ethic I have now in the classroom.”
That work ethic has made Gay and FTCC a perfect fit.
“People sleep on JUCO basketball,” he says. “But when you play at a community college, you go through a lot of adversity. You’re really in the trenches. You’ve got to work for everything, and it makes you hungry and really appreciate what you’ve got.”
Gay sees that hunger as the intangible that will set him apart to four-year college coaches.
“That’s what I really meant by saying JUCO basketball can save my life,” he says. “With the amount of work I put in in the classroom and the court, when I go to a four-year school, I’ll be ready to work there.”