Jan. 18, 2002
By Ken Kleppel
Like father like son.
Well, sort of.
An architect by trade, Steve Graves maintains extensive ties to his alma mater University of Kentucky. The elder Graves designed Rick Pitino’s house, in addition to Tubby Smith’s weight facilities, offices and lockerroom at Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum.
Today, son David serves as a different type of architect.
After leaving the state of Kentucky in the fall of 1998 for Notre Dame, and notching three standout seasons under the Golden Dome, Graves has helped establish the foundation of the Irish basketball program.
But while his work is neither Victorian nor Classical Roman in style, a certain Graves-ian touch defines the 2001-02 Irish.
“He works hard,” says senior and fellow captain Ryan Humphrey.
“He has high expectations for himself. From what he expects of himself, you feel obligated to go out there and do it too. He was here at the beginning. He’s been through the ups and downs, and he is just happy to see that he is going out while we’re on the rise.”
But in talking of Graves’ role in the program’s recent surge, the casual fan will remember the deadly three-point shooter with a flair for the dramatic and the mainstream media will point to one memorable buzzer beater.
Then a sophomore, Graves nailed a jumper as time expired to beat fourth-ranked Ohio State on Nov. 16, 1999, in Columbus, Ohio.
But the win did more than just send the Irish to the second round of the pre-season National Invitation Tournament. Instead, the squad celebrated the fruition of a year’s efforts from a trio of sophomores, along with the emergence of a sharp-shooting freshman.
But an unselfish Graves would quickly point out that it was teammate Harold Swanagan who set the pick to create his scoring opportunity against the Buckeyes.
“I take pride in playing well, and I go out and try to play as well as I can,” says Graves.
“But, there is more than just scoring on the basketball court. The leading scorer is mostly just the guy who has the easiest shots because of his teammates getting him the ball or setting a pick. It is simply a team game. I’ve always been taught to be a team player and I continue to do that.”
While Graves may serve as a team player, he doubles as an effective recruiter. Just after signing his letter of intent to play for Notre Dame, Graves performed a recruiting pitch to close high school friend Swanagan.
“David called me one day and said, ‘We need a player like you here to come in and play and help us rebuild the program,'” says Swanagan, who played summer basketball with Graves while the two grew up just towns apart. And, together, they did just that.
Graves’ immediate insertion into the starting lineup as a freshman, and impact both on and off the court, closely paralleled the development of rising stars Troy Murphy and Swanagan.
While Murphy emerged into an All-America and National Basketball Association lottery pick, Swanagan and Graves mastered key roles. Add a dash of Matt Carroll, and a pinch of Ryan Humphrey, as well as the emergence of future stars and role players, and you have all the ingredients for success.
“It seems like I’ve been here for 15 years,” says Graves.
“So many people have come through the program and it seems like only Harold and I have stayed. It is nice to see the program grow and mature. That is something I like to be a part of.”
Before the arrival of the Class of 2002, the Irish won just 35 percent of its BIG EAST contests. Beginning with a Dec. 8, 1998, victory at Providence, the class of 2002 now wins at close to a 70 percent clip. The Irish also advanced to the NIT Finals for the first time since 1992, and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1989.
And, most importantly, on the south end of the Joyce Center, a BIG EAST West Division championship banner hangs permanently in rafters.
“Coming with Troy and Harold was terrific because we were part of winning something for the first time in the history of the program,” says Graves.
“You could hang your hat on that and say, ‘We were the first to do it.'” Perhaps more than anyone, Graves exemplifies the squad’s mark of steady improvement.
“Individually, I have accomplished more than I ever would have imagined,” says Graves, who has played in all 113 career games and started 97 times.
“I’ve improved every year and that is the most satisfying thing to me. You see a lot of college players who reach a plateau, but I got better.”
As a freshman, Graves started 28 of 30 games and logged over 800 minutes of playing time. His 370 points scored qualified him for fourth-best all-time among Notre Dame freshmen, behind only Troy Murphy, Adrian Dantley and David Rivers -with all three enjoying careers in the NBA. He also recorded more points as a freshman than former Irish standouts and NBA competitors LaPhonso Ellis, Kelly Tripucka, Pat Garrity and Austin Carr.
In 1999-2000, Graves established the program’s single-season, three-point field-goal mark with 83 baskets from behind the arc. Along with Murphy, Graves was the only Irish player to average double figures by scoring 13.2 points per game as a sophomore. He sunk game-winner buzzer beaters at Ohio State and Seton Hall, where he connected on a fall-away jump shot with 0.3 seconds left to lift the Irish to a narrow two-point victory in a key BIG EAST February road contest.
As a junior, Graves became the 41st basketball player in school history to score 1,000 career points on Dec. 21, 2000, against Vermont. He came up with a crucial deflection and steal in the final seconds against Boston College on Feb. 21, 2000, to help preserve the home win. Against Xavier in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Graves was a perfect 7 for 7 from the field, scoring 20 points in the Irish victory.
“I just want to be the best player I can be,” says Graves.
“The thing about basketball is that you can always improve and there is always something you can do better. I work hard at it. I spend a lot of time working on my game. Hopefully, that has shown as the game and the season progresses.”
His senior season is no exception.
Graves earned all-tournament recognition in the Hawaii Pacific Thanksgiving Classic, averaging 15 points and connecting on nine three-point field goals over the three-game span. His first basket at Syracuse on Jan. 14 put Graves ahead of LaPhonso Ellis and into the top 10 on the all-time Notre Dame career-scoring list with 1,511 points scored.
Graves is currently second on the all-time career list for three-point field-goals made, three-point field-goals attempted and steals. A strong finish to his senior season will likely catapult Graves to the top of each category.
Graves is also fourth in career starts, and will tie Ken Barlow for third with a start against Georgetown on Monday. His 288 career assists are good for ninth all-time among Irish cagers.
And once again, the late-game threat struck at Pittsburgh in January. Graves hit two three pointers in the final two minutes, including the go-ahead score with 54 seconds remaining, to lift the Irish to a 56-53 win and its first victory over a ranked opponent this season.
But at the heart of each statistic is a greater goal for the future.
“I want to keep playing as long as I can, but I want to get into coaching,” says Graves, who may soon find his niche in professional basketball.
“I love being around young people. Of course you always have to keep your doors open for things to come through, but right now that is kind of my blueprint.”
Nothing less is expected of Graves, who boasts extensive ties to college basketball’s dynasties. Products, both past and present, of legendary programs shape his basketball persona and work ethic.
Graves is flourishing under the tutelage of Irish head coach Mike Brey, and consequently the influence of the rich Duke basketball tradition. Brey won two national championships while an assistant coach at Duke for nine seasons.
“Coach Brey is terrific,” says Graves.
“He is a great ambassador of the University, not just the basketball program. He is a classy individual and somebody the University is blessed to have as one of its leaders. He has been influential to me in so many ways.”
But for Graves, the ties to his home state run deepest.
Last January’s contest against Kentucky at Rupp Arena provided a fitting homecoming for Graves, who lives just blocks away from the arena and has played state tournament games in the venue.
“It is one of the Mecca’s of college basketball,” Graves said.
“A lot of history, great players and coaches have come through the Kentucky program. It was fun to go there and play in front of the home crowd. Unfortunately, the outcome didn’t turn out as I would have liked. But this year, it’s nice to come to my new home and have them come here and see what they’ve got.” Both of Graves’ parents, Steve and Barbara, are Kentucky graduates and long-time season ticket holders.
Graves also remains close friends with several Kentucky players and engages in pick-up competition with the Wildcats while home from school on breaks. Graves even traveled twice to the Final Four to see Kentucky claim college basketball’s crown in 1996 and 1998, while attending nearby Lexington Catholic High School.
“They are good guys and they are an example of their coach,” says Graves. “Tubby is a class guy. He understands the game and runs a great program. He has been really kind to me and my family.”
But imagine living down the street from Smith, or having Pitino as your neighbor. A childhood hero became much more to Graves than a personality on television, as Pitino would often shoot backyard hoops with an adolescent Graves and give him some pointers along the way.
“He’s been very influential in my basketball career, probably more so than he would ever imagine. He is one of those guys that when you’re 12 years old, and he comes outside to work with you, it is awesome. If he gives you some drills to work on, then you automatically do it. He is always a class guy and has carried himself in a first-class manner.”
Perhaps someday onlookers will say the same of Graves.
His teammates already say it.
“He is the biggest leader, along with Swanagan and Humphrey, and that’s why he is a captain of the team,” says sophomore guard Torrian Jones.
“As a guard, he talks to me and gives me ways to better myself and help out the team.”
“I’m somebody they can learn from,” responds Graves.
“My experience and the fact they can relate is part of being a leader. It is a connection that people have as coaches, and I definitely have that with this group.” Carroll believes confidence is the key for Graves.
“When he sees something he is not afraid to say it,” says Carroll.
“When something is wrong, he is going to bring it up. When someone does something wrong, he is going to yell at you. But when something is right, he is going to speak up also. That is the type of person he is, and that’s what makes him a good captain. I think David is assertive.”
“I just go out and play with passion and heart,” says Graves.
“In many ways, I have been very influential in this program. When you’re the leader of the team, you have to play well.”
The foundation of the basketball program is clearly established. And so is Graves’ future.