Super fan Nick Bray takes GSU passion to the next level

GSU junior joins the Panther Athletic Club as a way to show even more spirit

After painting his torso bright blue, camping out all night on Decatur Street, cheering on his feet nonstop through every Georgia State University basketball game and traveling to their away games, what more could 21-year-old student Nick Bray do to show his support for the Panthers?

“It was a maturing process,” he said of spending $100 to join the Panther Athletic Club, and become an official donor – an unusual step for any undergraduate at any university. “I’ve always wanted to give like this, ever since I was a little kid. This is just jumpstarting it a little earlier than I expected.”

Sharing his earnings from umpiring baseball games made sense to Bray because GSU sports – especially basketball – have given him a unique identity and special community. With the success of this year’s team and publicity around new coach Ron Hunter, Bray has also gotten attention from sports websites and local media as GSU’s “Super Fan.”

This week, Bray and other GSU donors to the PAC will take their spirit on the road, traveling to Richmond for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.  The Panthers play Friday March 2 at 8:30 pm in their first game of the single elimination tournament. The winner will qualify for the NCAA championship, aka “March Madness.”

“It’s great what he’s doing with students and young people here because this is an important step in building our alumni base,” said Jim Stark (B.B.A., 1966), one of several longtime GSU fans and donors who have befriended Bray. “What he and some of his friends have done is commendable.”

Bray chose GSU for the chance to help start new traditions because he had seen the difference one person can make for a sports program. He was voted most spirited senior at Northgate High School in Newnan, where the football team rarely won.

“I could still be part of the game this way,” he said.

On to GSU

In a couple of short basketball seasons, Bray has coached other fans on how to support the Panthers. First he modeled how to stay standing for an entire game. After this team won a school record 11 consecutive games earlier this season, Bray created a tent village outside the GSU Sports Arena.

While campuses like Duke are used to campouts, “Hunterville” – named after Coach Hunter – has faced competition for the public spotlight.

“This is not ‘Occupy Atlanta,’” said Bray, referring to the campsite protest a few blocks west in Woodruff Park. “No one had seen anything like this before, and it’s been so frustrating to have to tell people that we’re not protesting – we’re tailgating.”

Bray told his story as the first tent went up on a cold evening before the Feb. 11 game against Delaware. The temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. The weather fired up the stalwarts, who would pass the time on their laptops, playing Ping-Pong and corn hole. Maybe even sleeping a bit.

Freshman Elliot Blakes of Acworth, who had set up the first tent and settled in with his laptop, explained why he had attended almost every home game: “It’s the thrill of the basketball team and helping get the spirit up to support GSU athletics.”

The conversation was interrupted when a group of very tall men in GSU sweat suits approached – several of the Panther basketball team and their coach, who had just finished practice.

“This is a fine young man,” said Hunter, shaking Bray’s hand. Seniors Brandon McGee and Josh Micheaux hugged Bray and posed for a photo.

“This has been one of the greatest experiences of my entire life,” Bray said. “The basketball team is like a second family to me, but really the entire university is my second family.”

No matter what the outcome, always a takeaway

Bray says his love of sports began from a missed opportunity. He grew up in Arcadia, Fla., and loved baseball. Only 45 minutes separated him from six major league spring training sites. “I went to one game – that’s all I had growing up,” he said. “The more I played baseball, the more I appreciated the effort and hard work I could see in the major leagues. It’s like the way I can appreciate my mom’s big Christmas dinner after all the meals I’ve made in a microwave.”

His family taught him the importance of giving of himself to a greater purpose. His father is a mechanic at a car dealership; his mother and grandmother are nurses. “I’m not a nurse, and I’m not going to get dirty like my dad, but this is something I could best use my talents for, and it’s kind of cool,” he said of being a super fan. “I can’t give much money yet, but I know what I do helps.”

The Brays moved to Coweta County, an exurb south of Atlanta, where Bray found his niche as the diehard spectator for a losing team. The Northgate Vikings played in a 9,000-seat stadium but drew only a few hundred fans.

“I’ve never been a part of winning,” Bray said. “I enjoy competition. Even if the team is losing, there are always lessons you can take from the game.”

His ultimate fan moment – before GSU – came on senior night when he ran out of body paint and used spray paint instead.

“My doctor was not too happy with me,” he said. “I had to bathe in paint remover for a week, and there was still black paint going down the drain.”

Bray chose GSU because of its football team, which started in 2010. “I wanted a Division I university, and a new team meant I could help start new traditions,” he said, sounding like one of the early football recruits. “I could see where this could help me get an understanding of what happens in the athletics offices, and possibly open doors for me there.”

At his first GSU basketball game as a freshman, Bray learned that he could teach other fans. “I was the only one painted up, standing up and making any noise,” he said. “You can’t be afraid of getting embarrassed.”

When Hunter was hired, home games took on new energy. In his blue bow tie and red jersey, Bray leads cheers in the bleachers near the pep band. Diagonally across the court is Hunter, who paces the sideline, gestures and yells almost constantly, and often raises his arms to fire up the crowd.

“Nick Bray and his group in Hunterville have added a dimension to our fan base that was only seen during the ‘Lefty’ Driesell era of Panther basketball,” said Mike Holmes, associate director of GSU sports communications, who acts as a de facto advisor to this student spirit group.

“The students have helped give Georgia State a great home court advantage this season. Our players, coaches and staff get a smile on their faces each time we see them camping outside the Sports Arena and an even bigger smile when we see them in the student section.”

By traveling to several away games this season, Bray has gotten attention around the Colonial Athletic Association.

“Nick Bray drove seven hours from Atlanta to Richmond on his college student budget,” noted the blog CAAHoops, which promotes basketball teams in the conference. “Channel your Nick Bray this weekend.”

As the sports world turns its attention to the college basketball postseason, when games are often played at neutral sites across the country, Bray barely contains his passion for the Panthers. “Even if they play in Alaska, I will be there,” he said.

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424