For Jaire Grayer and his boyhood friends, adolescence in Flint, Mich., meant being from the same city as Michigan State's "Flintstones," the local trio that propelled the Spartans to the 2000 NCAA basketball championship.
Idols rose not from distant cities but from local neighborhoods and schools.
The city had seen better days, before the nation's largest General Motors plant shut down and the economy tanked and the crime rate soared. But, as Grayer described last week, Flint is "a great city, too. It builds character, it builds toughness and all the characteristics you need to be strong in life."
In recent years, Flint suffered another major setback when a water crisis exposed many in the city of 100,000 to disease and lead poisoning.
Grayer, now a junior guard at George Mason, remembers crates of bottled water at his mother's house and the daily routine of boiling whatever discolored liquid flowed from the tap. He remembers traveling 20 minutes to the suburban home of his father, nine-year NBA player Jeff Grayer, to shower.
Problems began in 2014 when the city, for financial reasons, switched its water supply from Lake Huron via Detroit to the notoriously polluted Flint River.
"It went downhill from there," Jaire Grayer said. "Everybody would be talking about how bad it was. It was a bad situation."
A 2015 study revealed the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood almost doubled after the city switched water sources. Lawsuits were filed, a state of emergency called and a political firestorm raged.
"Jaire got to see firsthand from family members discussing issues and concerns," said Jeff Grayer, a Flint native. "He was really taken aback. He would say: 'Okay, are you really telling me I can't take a shower if I am over at my auntie's house or I can't go here or there and drink the water? Is this really happening?' We had some deep conversations about it."
Those experiences strengthened Jaire's bonds to his home town. And each of the past two springs, he has volunteered at the Fresh Flint Festival, a day of activities promoting fitness and healthy living in the wake of the water fiasco.
His father's mentoring program, Flint Athletes for Better Education, is a sponsor. Several former athletes with local ties have gotten involved, including Mateen Cleaves (one of Michigan State's "Flintstones") and ex-NFL wide receiver Andre Rison.
This year's event included Grayer's high school teammate, Miles Bridges, the Big Ten freshman of the year last season at Michigan State.
"Sports has always been the candy to make people feel good and feel good about themselves," Jeff Grayer said. "So when Jaire heard about the festival, he wanted to be a part of it."
Besides his community outreach, Jeff Grayer is project manager for a construction company hired to replace 18,000 corroded residential water pipes in Flint. The job will take three to five years.
To the younger Grayer, it was important to give back and set examples for children, just as elders had done for him growing up during rough times in Flint.
"The kids were having a great time, smiling and having fun and taking their minds off the things that kids in other areas don't have to worry about," he said. "I feel like it's a duty of mine to go back and help my city through this tough time.
"I have a small platform to help and, hopefully, if my career goes like the way I want it to, I can go back and help even further."
Grayer will enter his third season as a George Mason starter. The guard-oriented Patriots, who are picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10 and seem a year away from contending in the 14-team conference, will open Friday against Lafayette at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax before visiting No. 16 Louisville on Sunday.
With star guard Marquise Moore gone, Grayer will step into a featured role on a team without any scholarship seniors. Last season, he averaged 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds while making a team-high 59 three-pointers and improving his free throw accuracy to 83.3 from 53.6 as a freshman.
Moore wasn't just George Mason's leading scorer (16.9 points per game); despite being 6 feet 2, he led the Atlantic 10 in rebounding with 10.9 per game. The Patriots also lost their second-leading rebounder, Jalen Jenkins (6.1).
In five weeks of preseason workouts, the 6-5, 200-pound Grayer has led the team in rebounding at both the offensive and defensive ends.
Coach Dave Paulsen sees a player who has evolved both on and off the court, in part because of life experiences.
"Those two go hand in hand: You don't live and die with one jump shot you take, and the world doesn't revolve around you," Paulsen said. "His growth and maturity over two years has been fun to watch."
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