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Finding a life after sports is real success

He is an object lesson to every boy who ever picked up a basketball and dreamed that it would change his life.

He is a flesh-and-blood reminder of what can happen -- if you are smart -- when the bright lights fade and the crowds melt away.

The roadside is strewn with great athletes, a lot of them inner-city kids, who ended up broken and busted. They never asked the inevitable question: What next?

The lights were never brighter and the crowds were never bigger for a homegrown sports hero than they were a quarter-century ago for Ray Hall. He will be inducted tonight into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. But his athletic achievements, as impressive as they are, are to my mind not what is most admirable about the man.

Dubbed "Sugar Ray" as a teenager, Hall was rated among the country's top 25 high school basketball players. He was wooed by coaching icons from Syracuse's Jim Boeheim to the late Jim Valvano of North Carolina State. The community push to keep him home included taped messages from politicians, a plea from the mayor and persuasion from broadcasting motormouth Dick Vitale.

An inner-city kid from a solid family, Hall took on the challenge of lifting Canisius College -- still recovering from NCAA probation -- back to respectability. His rejection of greener pastures was validation for a community on the cusp of losing Bethlehem Steel and the Courier-Express.

His status as savior brought more pressure than any 18-year-old should have to handle. It did not help that the 6-foot-4 Hall -- glib and good-looking -- possessed not an ounce of humility. Brash and bold, his attitude alienated more folks than it attracted. It was like trying to warm up to an ice cube.

I came to The News as a sportswriter during Hall's freshman year. I watched him morph into the player who led Canisius back to daylight. He later followed the usual path of not-quite-NBA talent, playing internationally in outposts from Paraguay to the Philippines.

At a glance, Hall seemed like a prime candidate to be seduced by the headlines, deceived by the acclaim and left stranded on the rocks when Reality hit. Yet, when an auto accident at 32 ended his pro career, Hall -- unlike many guys who follow the basketball dream -- was ready.

This is the best part: Beneath his flashy shell was a bright, buttoned-down, milk-and-cookies homebody who understood that the party would someday stop. When I met Hall -- still trim at 46 -- for lunch Monday, he wore a cut-sharp gray suit, designer tie and blazing white shirt that screamed Success.

"That was always the question -- when the cheers end, where do you go? Who do you turn to?" he said. "It starts and ends with that person in the mirror."

Hall never got anywhere near humble. But those close to him saw the bedrock beneath the bluster. His parents pounded the academics-first mantra. He graduated from Canisius a semester early. Time and again on his basketball travels, he saw once-great players who lost their way because the game was all they knew.

"No matter how good of an athlete you are, you are just one injury away from losing it all," he said. "But if you take care of things academically, you are prepared until you leave this earth."

For the past 14 years, he has been in a computer sales job at Ingram Micro. He married his college sweetheart. They have three kids and a nice house in the suburbs. He figured out early what others learn too late: Athletics is part of a journey, not the destination. Use the sport, or the sport will use you.

Congratulations, Ray, you made it. In more ways than one.


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