Tray Woodall sits leaning forward on the beige loveseat fit for a bachelor pad, Xbox 360 controller in hand, his long fingers directing "GQTray1" around a wartime setting on the flat-screen TV in front of him.
The game is "Call of Duty," and the mission is to capture the flag before the other players who have joined him online can. These gamers do not know that GQTray1 is Woodall, Pitt's starting point guard who was recently named the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.
They show Woodall no mercy. GQTray1 is shot and killed 13 times in about a five-minute span, by players with names like "ElectricLizard7" and "Wasabi eG." Unlike many college basketball players, he simply is not all that good at video games.
As a boy in Brooklyn, the only system he'd ever played was an Atari. That was all his mother could provide, and it was such a Stone Age experience, Woodall rarely touched the controller. There was more excitement happening outside anyway, and he wasn't going to get the money to buy the latest sneakers or clothing styles by tapping that old joystick.
Now Woodall can give himself the things he desires most without moving a muscle. On Wednesday night, in the fifth-floor Washington Plaza Uptown apartment that he shares with teammate Dante Taylor, Woodall's iPhone is constantly buzzing. He shows a visitor a stream of text messages from friend Mike Hawthorne, who sends pictures of sneakers that have come into his store, Social Status. If Woodall likes them, Hawthorne will put them aside for him. Woodall estimates he owns about 80 pairs of sneakers, most of them the trendy Nike Air Jordans or Foamposites.
The "GQ" in Woodall's gaming handle is well-placed. He always tries to look fresh, he explains while wearing a pair of white Jordans, tan slim jeans, a jean jacket, a red watch and a flat-billed New York Giants cap.
"I don't want to meet somebody for the first time looking like a bum," says Woodall, a 22-year-old junior. "First impression is everything. I mean, I got her like that."
He points to his right, where his girlfriend, Pitt graduate student Melanie Wilmot, sits next to him. She laughs, because it's true. They were in a history class when Woodall was a freshman, and she saw the kid wearing a black North Face hooded sweatshirt. She had never seen a hoodie like that.
"It sounds superficial," Wilmot says, "but the first thing I noticed was his clothes, so I guess it did the job."
That day in class, Wilmot never would have known that Woodall sold drugs as a 12-year-old, or that his mother was addicted to the product he was peddling, or that it took two men in New Jersey with opposite worldviews to shake Woodall up and get him to a college campus.
Woodall was a sophomore at St. Anthony High in Jersey City, N.J., when his coach, Bob Hurley, planted a seed that has been growing inside the player's mind ever since.
"Just make sure that when people say your name, it's positive," Woodall says. "It's all about building a brand. I want my name to be a brand."
When the first of the month arrived, Tray Woodall and his older sister, Shataya, often would not see their mother for a couple weeks.
Theresa Ratliff had not been the same since the father of her children left them to raise another family in Brooklyn. Once her Electronic Benefit Transfer card had been restocked each month, she'd disappear back into her life of alcohol and drug addiction. That left 12-year-old Tray and 15-year-old Shataya, who had a 1-year-old daughter, Danajha, to take care of themselves.
In their Crown Heights neighborhood, they had one choice.
"Me and my sister had to sell drugs," Woodall says. "What other outlet did I have? I couldn't get a regular job. I was in fifth grade."
Tray had stopped going to school altogether -- except to eat the free lunches -- and he would be held back a year because of his excessive absences.
"He was on a path of destruction," Shataya says. "Going to juvenile, just a lot of bad things."
Tray was hanging out with older kids, and it was easy for him to fit in because he was already tall for his age. He was street smart, developing alternative revenue streams to go along with the drug money. Some days, he'd loiter at a gas station and approach strangers who were filling up their tanks to ask if he could do it for them.
The money left over from the food budget went toward sneakers and clothes that would make him popular with girls.
When Tray was 13, Ratliff decided to move her kids from Brooklyn closer to her family in Paterson, N.J. Tray and Shataya went right back to what they knew, this time on the other side of the Hudson River. In fact, they dug themselves into a deeper hole.
"Before, it was small stuff, nickel and dime bags," Shataya says. "In Jersey, we could sell more stuff for a bigger amount."
Tray Woodall had changed ZIP codes but not much else.
He was a sixth-grader with a love for style, a talent for basketball and a keen sense of how to survive on the street. The question was, had he already seen too much negative in his young life to ever harness the positive?
Tray Woodall's basketball skills placed him in the backseat of a car riding to an AAU tournament in Virginia Beach, Va. In the front seat was a man named George Fontan, and next to Tray in the back was George's son, Jio.
Woodall had recently joined Jio's Playaz Basketball Club team, and the two boys hit it off within a few hours in the car. When they returned to Paterson, Tray began spending nights at the Fontans' house. One night became two, two became four, four became a week, and soon, George had learned enough about Jio's new friend to see something all too familiar inside of Tray: himself.
Fontan was now 28 years old, but a half-life ago at age 14, his father had died. Fontan's mother couldn't control him, and he got involved with drugs and gangs. At 15, Fontan had Jio, and by 18, he was in jail for a 15-month sentence that separated him from his son.
"I remember seeing Tray," Fontan says, "and saying, 'Tray is at the point where he's either gonna focus real hard on something good or he's gonna focus real hard on something bad.' "
Fontan knew the signs: Tray entering their house with bruises on his face or tears in his eyes, the look of a boy in pain because his mother had given up on herself and her family. Fontan also recalled that Jio had given him a reason to straighten out his life, and with the temptations that still existed in Paterson, another impressionable boy in the house couldn't hurt his own recovery. Plus, Fontan simply liked Tray.
"Probably more than any other kids that would come around," Fontan says.
Within a few months of that car ride, Fontan had invited Tray to pack a bag and stay at his home permanently.
Tray and Jio became inseparable, playing so much basketball that there wasn't time to get into trouble.
In eighth grade, the boys would have to decide where to play high school basketball. George had Jio thinking hard about Hurley's renowned St. Anthony program, so Tray started reading up on Hurley. The veteran coach sounded connected and important, the kind of man who could lead him somewhere.
Woodall first came into contact with Hurley at an annual camp run for local coaches. Woodall caught Hurley's eye among all of the players in attendance because the boy had brought a pen and paper and was writing down everything Hurley said.
The next November, Hurley moved Woodall into the varsity starting lineup as a freshman -- a rarity at St. Anthony. Because of all that Woodall had been through, he was more mature, and Hurley was impressed that his experiences in Brooklyn and Paterson hadn't broken him.
"He never developed any of the characteristics of what the street usually does to young kids," Hurley says. "It hardens them, and they become stubborn when people talk to them. They have a hard time with authority because they haven't been nurtured. He managed to have relationships, handle criticism and work towards goals that I'm sure people said to him he wasn't going to attain."
Woodall's career was taking off, and he went about checking off all the boxes as quickly as possible. He committed to Pitt early in his junior year, which came as a relief to the men who combined to raise him: Fontan, the former drug dealer, and Hurley, the former probation officer.
When graduation came around, Woodall visited his mother's house in Paterson with one request. Years before, she had shown up to a basketball game drunk and walked onto the floor at the end of the first quarter, thinking the game was over. On graduation day, he wanted her to be sober.
Tray Woodall has to pinch himself sometimes.
No, life isn't perfect. Pitt is in the middle of its worst season in more than a decade, and the Panthers, after showing signs of life in winning four in a row, have now dropped three straight. There's a feeling around town that it all could have gone differently if Woodall hadn't missed seven weeks with an abdominal injury.
The 5-foot-11 point guard scored 24 at West Virginia and 29 against Villanova, garnering national attention and showing what the Panthers can be when he's at his best. But, more recently, his play has fallen off, and Pitt's surge has stalled along with him.
Woodall is not 100 percent, receiving treatment to ease the pain before each game because he understands how badly Pitt needs him. After all, the pressure of being "the guy" is what he wanted when he came here nearly four years ago. He had to take a redshirt year and then wait his turn behind Levance Fields first, but now Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has handed the Panthers over to Woodall.
"Coach Dixon always tells me, my teammates tell me, that this is my team," Woodall says.
That this season hasn't gone according to plan -- Pitt is 15-12, 4-10 in the Big East -- has been frustrating.
Still, all Woodall has to do is look around his apartment to know that his trajectory is still moving upward. He's got an attractive girlfriend to his right, a view of downtown to the left and a sneaker collection in his bedroom closet that could make a rapper green with envy.
How does he afford this life? Woodall says he gets a $5,000 Pell grant each year and, after scrounging for spare change at gas stations as a boy, he is well-versed at stretching a dollar.
He tries to keep his old life at a distance, but it's hard when he knows his mother is still in pain. He doesn't understand why she wouldn't want to change her life, now that her son is doing something better with his. Woodall is scheduled to graduate this spring with a sociology degree, and he'd like to play professional basketball for as long as he can before going into coaching.
"When I start making money," Woodall says, "I probably want her to come live with me."
He'd like to give his mother the same kind of stability that George Fontan's family gave him nearly a decade ago. But for now, Woodall will just keep honing his brand -- hopefully into something less superficial.
"Just being a good kid," he says, "a leader, somebody that's willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, period."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 19, 2012 5:00 AM