Ready for Takeoff

A high-flying forward and new pilot, Joey Graham is the breakout star for unbeaten Oklahoma State--and twin brother Stephen is his trusty wingman
December 20, 2004

Amile above the sprawling southern Great Plains, a pilot can soar toward the horizon and leave his troubles behind. On this gorgeous Saturday morning, Oklahoma State forward Joey Graham, the new owner of a private pilot’s license, is flying a single-prop Cessna 172 and pointing out to his passenger the campus and Gallagher-Iba Arena below. “This is my release,” says Graham, who hours before had scored 20 points to lead the No. 4 Cowboys past Alabama-Birmingham 86–73. “It’s just me and the plane and the open air. Whenever stuff builds up with coaches and classes I’ll go fly. You can reflect on things up here.”

With one hand on the controls and the town of Stillwater floating by, Graham explains the maneuvers he’s learned: stalls, speed turns, S-turns, touch-and-go landings. With the right wind conditions, he says, he can even make the plane go in reverse. As he continues talking, Graham suddenly cuts the Cessna hard to the left. His passenger’s eyes spin like lotto balls. “Hey,” Graham says, glancing over, “you don’t get airsick, do you?”

when nba scouts watched Graham dazzle the crowd at the Michael Jordan Flight School in Santa Barbara, Calif., last summer, they couldn’t have known that the camp’s name had a double meaning for him. It was impressive enough that the slashing 6'7", 228-pound senior stamped himself as a potential breakout star this season--buzz that Graham had backed up through Sunday by scoring 18.1 points a game for the 7–0 Cowboys (including 16 in a 74–60 takedown of then No. 4 Syracuse on Dec. 7). But what really floored Graham’s fellow players in Santa Barbara was his postgame routine: For six hours a day Graham would hole up in his room and study for the FAA pilot’s exam. “Guys would come in every once in a while and ask me what I was doing,” he says. “I told them I was studying to be a pilot, and they couldn’t believe it. They were, like, You’ll never fly a plane.”

In fact, Joey isn’t the only Graham to excel in hoops and aerial loops. His twin brother, Stephen, the Cowboys’ sixth man--and like Joey the holder of a degree in aviation management--also has a pilot’s license. The twins have merely followed the example of their father, Joe, who played basketball at Atlanta’s Clark College in the 1970s and became a Navy pilot, flying jets off aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Mexico. “I had two loves when I was their age: basketball and flying. Now years later my kids have the same ones,” says Joe, who was nearly moved to tears when he was the twins’ passenger for the first time last month on a flight from Oklahoma City to Stillwater. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

“You listen to your sons talk to the control tower, and you think of them in a different light,” says their mother, Rose, who also was on board for that trip. “The whole thing is just amazing to me.”

When Joey and Stephen decided to try for their licenses in June, their parents had to chuckle. Weren’t these the same boys who, after their queasy maiden voyage with Joe as five-year-olds, had vowed never to operate a plane? “They puked in their barf bags, and then they dropped ’em,” recalls Joe. “I was out there for hours cleaning up the plane.” But with encouragement from their academic adviser, Marilyn Middlebrook, the twins decided to go for it. “Our parents always told us that we may not have basketball forever, so we should always have a second plan,” Joey says. “Aviation is something I love, and I can fall back on it if basketball doesn’t pan out.”

There was one catch: Because of time constraints during the season, the Grahams had to complete their preparation, including 40 hours of flight training, between mid-June and the end of August. “It takes the average student six months, if they’re lucky, to get a pilot’s license, and I’ve had some who take a year,” says Chad Larson, the Grahams’ instructor at the Oklahoma State flight school. “These guys did it in 21⁄2 months. It’s the fastest I’ve ever completed a student.” The Grahams nailed their written exams (each scored a 90, well above the necessary 70) and, in early September, passed their oral exams and all-or-nothing FAA check rides (think parallel-parking test times 50) on their first tries.

by now, of course, nothing about the Grahams surprises the Oklahoma State coaching staff. “They have an incredible work ethic in everything they do, which is what makes them so special,” says head coach designate Sean Sutton. “They want to be the best in all areas of life, whether it’s school, basketball or studying to be pilots.” Joey has thrived since moving from power forward to the wing this season because of his stunning combination of strength and speed. Over the past year he has improved his bench press from 365 pounds to 400 and his standing vertical leap from 291⁄2 inches to 321⁄2, at the same time gaining eight pounds and reducing his body fat from 5.3% to 4%. “He’s the strongest player we’ve had in my four years here,” says strength and conditioning coach Murphy Grant. “Heck, he’d be one of the strongest guys on the football team.”

Stephen is no slouch in the weight room or on the court--he also scored 16 points in the Syracuse win--but the coaches think Joey could be the school’s third wing player in six seasons to be a first-round NBA pick, following Desmond Mason (2000) and Tony Allen (’04). “We talk to Joey all the time about Desmond and Tony,” says Sutton. “Joey’s got more ability than both of those guys offensively, but if he wants to be a complete player in the NBA, he has to show he can play defense [at their level] too.” In that area, at least, Joey’s intensity remains a work in progress. The Graham brothers can’t help but laugh when recalling, in spot-on imitations of their gravel-voiced coach, Eddie Sutton, something he yelled during a practice last season: “Joey, you’re playing like you’re from the suburbs. You’ve gotta play more ghetto!”

Fact is, the Grahams did grow up in the burbs, or more precisely in Land o’ Lakes, Fla., outside Tampa. Along with their older brother, Brian, who finished his hoops career at South Florida last spring, Joey and Stephen were raised in a strict household in which dating was forbidden, even in high school. Their father, who went into sales after the Navy, is the more vocal of their parents, but Brian says their mother was the tougher one. “Our dad worked a lot when we were little, so she was the one who taught us the most as kids about discipline and the Bible,” Brian says. The Grahams still hold regular Bible-study sessions over speakerphone with their sons in Stillwater.

The Grahams pushed their children to excel, exposing them to a range of activities and influences. Joey and Stephen embraced music, forming a jazz ensemble that beat 200 other middle school groups in a nationwide competition. (“We started off on drums, then took up piano,” says Joey, who finally settled on alto sax.) They also explored the outdoors, camping on the Appalachian Trail and playing wilderness survival games in which they’d have to find their way out of the woods with nothing but water and a compass. (“It was fun,” Joey says. “We had to eat the right berries and find our way back.”)

What’s more, the Grahams may be the nation’s only college hoops players whose favorite TV show is Emeril Live. “We watch it all the time,” says Joey, who was taught how to cook by his grandmother Estell Clausell and has perfected such specialties as golden mushroom chicken, sweet potato pie and his own barbecue sauce. “Our mom and dad always tried to make sure we had more going on than just basketball,” says Stephen. “They wanted us to experience as much as possible.” As Joey says, “I’ll try just about anything once: skydiving, bungee jumping, all that stuff.”

The same approach applied to sports. Early on, the Grahams experimented with everything from football to soccer to swimming. (“I thought we had some future Mark Spitzes,” says Joe.) By the time they got to Brandon (Fla.) High, though, they had settled on basketball, a journey that has taken them from one Pistol Pete (Maravich, whose camp they attended as ball-spinning 11-year-olds) to another (Oklahoma State’s hydrocephalic, gun-toting mascot). Together, Joey and Stephen reached the Florida Class 5A title game as seniors, spent two solid years at Central Florida (one of the few schools that would take them in a package deal) and, in 2002, transferred to Stillwater in hopes of greater exposure.

After playing supporting roles behind Allen and point guard John Lucas III in Oklahoma State’s Final Four run last season, the Grahams have joined Lucas as leaders on a team with eight seniors. Every Sunday the twins host a Bible study for teammates that often turns into a rap session. “We’ll sit in their living room and talk about life,” says Lucas. “That’s a big reason why we’re so close as a team.”

“They’re so honest and respectful,” says academic adviser Middlebrook, who wears a gift from the Graham brothers to every game--a necklace with a red heart that reads best second mom. “Joey’s just 10 minutes older, but he acts like the older brother. And Stevie has handled the hoopla around Joey with so much grace.”

“Being on the bench took a toll on me, but I was always rooting Joey on,” says Stephen, who after struggling at times last season was averaging 8.4 points at week’s end. “Now I feel like I’ve regained my confidence.” They may have had the typical sibling rivalries, but these days the twins are each other’s biggest supporter, sharing the same majors, class schedules and living quarters. Not long ago, Stephen gave Joey a framed poem called Brotherhood, which they hung on their living room wall:

He shares the same dreams and vision

Stands by you in the strongest

wind without fears

He is Brother

You can count on his friendship,

strength and loyalty

He believes his actions speak for

themselves

He is Friend.

With the gentle touch he uses for shooting free throws, Joey eases the Cessna down toward the runway. His landing is dead solid perfect--and nobody gets airsick.

There’s still more to learn, of course. Instead of getting master’s degrees, the Grahams are working on earning an instrument rating that would allow them to fly in bad weather, after which they hope to obtain their commercial licenses. Then it’s on to faster planes, jets and, after pro basketball, perhaps, jobs in the aviation management industry. “I don’t want to go all the way to commercial planes like Delta’s,” Joey says. “I just want to stay private, contract myself out, fly CEOs and big-time organizations from place to place in their Learjets.”

For now he’ll stick mainly to Stillwater-based passengers. Aside from persuading South African–born teammate Frans Steyn, a 7'2" Ernie Els look-alike, to squeeze into the cockpit for a ride, Graham hasn’t been able to get any other Cowboy to join him yet. It’s a reminder that the wounds from the tragic 2001 plane crash, which killed eight Cowboys players and support-staff members, remain deep. “Right now they’re still on edge, and I understand,” Joey says. “Maybe someday I can break that barrier with them.”

If he does, they may discover what the Grahams already know. For all the pain that air travel has dealt the Oklahoma State basketball program, it can also be a source of pure, exhilarating joy.

Double Dribbling

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT fans in Stillwater, Okla., did a double take when Oklahoma State’s Joey and Stephen Graham faced another pair of twins, Donell and Ronell Taylor of Alabama-Birmingham. The Grahams and Taylors are among four prominent sets of twins playing together in Division I. Yet another twosome, USC’s 6'4" sophomore guards Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart, was divided last month when Rodrick transferred to Kansas.

Derrick and Errick CRAVEN

USC

The 6'2" senior guards are often around the ball: Errick (left) was the Pac-10’s steals leader in each of the past three seasons and had 10 thefts in the Trojans’ first six games through Sunday. Derrick had chipped in with six of his own.

Caleb and Nick HOLMES

YALE

After leading Olathe (Kans.) South High to a state title as seniors, the 6'6" freshman swingmen are working their way into the Elis’ rotation. Their father, Mark, played professional ball in Iceland, Argentina and Norway.

Donell and Ronell TAYLOR

ALABAMA-

BIRMINGHAM

The senior starting backcourt is key to the Blazers’ up-tempo offense, with 6'6" Donell first on the team in scoring (16.2 points average) and 6'5" Ronell fourth (9.2). Donell was averaging 3.4 steals, tied for 11th in the nation.

“ Our parents told us we should always have a second plan,” says Joey. “ Aviation is something I can fall back on IF BASKETBALL DOESN’T PAN OUT.”

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes RUNWAY SUCCESS Since receiving his pilot’s license in September, Joey has honed his flying skills above Stillwater. COLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLAN UPWARD BOUND Joey’s ever-improving offensive skills were on display in last week’s 74–60 win over then No. 4 Syracuse. COLOR PHOTO FRATERNAL FLIERS Joey (14) has always been the more ballyhooed player, but now Stephen (top, left) has lifted his game as well. COLOR PHOTOBILL FRAKES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)