AN SI STUDY OF TOP PROSPECTS OVER THE PAST SEVEN SEASONS REVEALED AN UNUSUALLY HIGH NUMBER OF TRANSFERS. FEW PLAYERS MOVED AROUND MORE THAN THE GRAHAM BROTHERS, WHO BETWEEN THEM HAVE PASSED THROUGH NINE HIGH SCHOOLS AND SIX COLLEGES. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
IT STARTED OUT as a study on transfer culture in men's college basketball, spurred by an NCAA report that a record 492 Division I players had changed schools following the 2011--12 season. I tracked the behavior of the last seven classes of top 100 recruits, and among those who stayed in college for at least two seasons, 34.3% didn't finish playing at the place they had started. You could consider this an epidemic (as many coaches do) or just a slightly higher rate than nonathletes. According to a 2012 National Clearinghouse Research Center study, 32.6% of full-time students transferred between 2006 and '11.
What's more curious about elite basketball prospects is how often they transfer before college. The number of top 100 players who attended multiple high (or prep) schools nearly doubled between Year 1 (2007) and Year 7 (2013) of the study, from 28 to 52. Not surprisingly, there was a correlation between high school and college transferring: A player who went to four or more high schools was twice as likely to switch colleges as a player who went to one.
There were heavy movers among the 700 players—99 attended three or more high schools, and 30 of those attended four or more—and I came upon the case of two brothers from Durham, N.C. Tyree Graham, 24, has been at four high schools and five colleges, and Torian, 20, has played for five high schools and one college. And they aren't done moving yet.
August 5, 2013
I wondered what their story, however atypical, would reveal about transferring overall. Why have the Brothers Graham done so much traveling?
THE SUN comes up on a Cadillac, an old white boat of a car, parked on Piedmont Avenue near the corner of Scout Drive, in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Durham, the Southside. Light filters through the windows onto two boys asleep in the backseat. It is the summer of 1997. Torian, 4, slumps against eight-year-old Tyree, who slumps against the rear door on the driver's side. Their mother, Crystal Green-Graham, had been in the front seat when they dozed off the night before. They awake around 8 a.m. to find she has disappeared.
To understand why the Grahams keep moving, you can't start with high school. You have to start with the emptiness of that morning, the contentment evident in a photograph taken six years earlier—and the slope in between. In the picture two-year-old Tyree is posing in the driver's seat of his Little Tikes Cozy Coupe. His smiling mother stands to his left, her hand resting on the car's yellow top. She is a warm, charismatic second-grade teacher at Durham's Lakewood Elementary.
This is how she looks before she is prescribed Percocet to manage pain following Torian's birth; before Percocet becomes a gateway to street drugs; before she leaves teaching and is divorced from Ed Graham; before she and the kids bounce from an apartment to a flophouse; before she teaches them to steal their food from a convenience store; before she does unspeakable things to get by. ("There are so many things you wish you hadn't seen, but you did," Tyree says. "People always ask me, 'How are you sane?' ")
"Uncles" come around. But even an eight-year-old can deduce that these white, Hispanic and black men are not uncles. Mom disappears with them and returns with money that, sometimes, goes toward rent. When it doesn't, there is eviction, a few motel rooms and finally the Cadillac his mother has acquired along the way. Tyree and Torian see fights and shootings on the streets at night and wonder who is watching over them. God, maybe; two Baptist churches loom over the neighborhood. After they get out of the car that morning, they don't see their mother for two months, and their father soon takes them in. But at times they can count only on each other. They will each get a tattoo, many years later, with the same words: BROTHER'S KEEPER.
THE FIRST TIME Tyree bolts from a high school is in 2005, early in his junior season as a point guard at Southern High, in Durham. HoopScoop has rated him the No. 3 player in his class in North Carolina and the No. 82 player in the nation, even though he is just six feet tall. His life is still not stable—after repeated arguments with his father, a cabinet maker, Tyree often crashes at the home of a coach and mentor, Ed Davis, while Torian stays with their dad. Tyree's best friend, Maurice Marley, sometimes stays there too; they met playing AAU together.
But on Nov. 27, Tyree gets a phone call, and another hole opens up in his life. Marley had gone off to play high school ball that season in Fayetteville, N.C., and a teammate there had invited him to tag along to a Thanksgiving party in Alabama. During the trip a pickup truck crashes head-on into their car, and both boys are killed along with two women.
Tyree is distraught. After playing well in a Christmastime tournament, he stops showing up at practice and at class.
In the year and a half that follows, Tyree moves from Durham's Mount Zion Christian Academy to Hillside High, where he doesn't have the grades to play basketball. His D-I dream dwindles. The intervention of Len Lilly, a popular barber for North Carolina and Duke players who takes an interest in Tyree's plight, helps him get back on track. Lilly, who lost his mother to cancer when he was five, offers to train Tyree and then—because Tyree is still feuding with his father—lets him start staying at his apartment.
Tyree then has a run of success: He revives his grades and his recruitment by taking a prep year at Village Christian Academy in Fayetteville for the '07--08 season. He commits to play for the strictest coach who offers him a scholarship, Texas Tech's Bob Knight. "I'd been getting away with too many things because of my talent," Tyree says, "and I felt like Knight could be a father figure."
Tyree's relationship with his real father is impossibly complicated: Ed and his current wife, Lisa, played a major role in raising the boys, and Ed says, "They brought a lot of this [instability] on themselves. I gave them tough love, and they thought the world owed them things. They got sympathy and handouts from people by saying their father wasn't around and sometimes telling people [I] was dead."
Tyree laughs at this—he calls Ed the most unreliable person he's ever met and says, "I honestly think he believes he was a good father." Tyree believes Ed wanted to let the boys go into social services after their mother disappeared in 1997 and took custody only after being talked into it by his then girlfriend. Ed has a different version of that story, saying that he had been living with his aunt at a boardinghouse, which wasn't suitable for the kids. When Ed moved in with his girlfriend, Tyree and Torian went with him.
Before Tyree leaves for Lubbock and Texas Tech, in the summer of 2008, he asks Lilly to promise to watch over Torian, who's now a 5'11" freshman shooting guard at Hillside and shows the potential to be an even better player than Tyree. Lilly agrees, eventually becoming Torian's legal guardian.
Knight had resigned from Texas Tech the previous February, and his son Pat takes over. Tyree still honors his national letter of intent and cracks the Red Raiders' rotation as a freshman, averaging 14.3 minutes over the first 13 games—until he gets a call from his maternal grandmother in January 2009, informing him that Crystal needs to have open-heart surgery.
"That," he says, "is when immature Tyree comes back out." Rather than take emergency leave, he withdraws from school to return home. Once his mom recovers, he takes classes at Harcum (Pa.) College, then moves to Brunswick (N.C.) Community College for the 2009--10 season. During that span he commits to Binghamton, then watches as six players are dismissed from the team for violations of university policy; commits to UAB, only to have Wes Flanigan, the assistant who recruited him by talking about "building a relationship," leave for Nebraska; and finally settles on Rutgers, where a former assistant from his D.C. Assault AAU program, David Cox, has joined new coach Mike Rice's staff.
But upon arriving at Rutgers and taking a physical in the summer of 2010, Graham learns that the left-knee pain he has gutted through for several months is more serious than he thought. He has a torn ACL and will have to have surgery and miss the '10--11 season. Tyree's luck gets only worse from there: While rehabbing the ACL in April 2011, he ruptures his right Achilles. That costs him the '11--12 season too.
BACK IN DURHAM, Torian passes on an opportunity to transfer to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, the nation's most prestigious basketball prep school, for the 2010--11 season. Lilly and Tyree, knowing Oak Hill's rep for getting elite prospects qualified for college, both want Torian to go. "That could have been the best decision of my life," Torian says, "but I wasn't mature enough to leave home."
Still a top 30 recruit nationally, he opts for Raleigh's Word of God Academy, where his friend John Wall flourished before heading to Kentucky, but a strong junior season is tainted by Torian's departure from school following an altercation with a teammate. He finishes that year at PACE Academy in Carrboro, N.C., and in May 2011 makes his first commitment to N.C. State, only to back away from it in August around the time his mother's health rapidly declines: Crystal decides, after years battling heart problems and pain and addiction, to enter a hospice, have her pacemaker removed and let the Lord take her away.
"I remember getting that call at Rutgers, and I'm like, seriously?" says Tyree. "This is after my basketball dream is in shambles, and now I'm hearing that my mom is about to be gone? It's like, God, I know you love me, and I know you're testing me, but why am I going through so much right now?"
Crystal spends nine nights in a hospice on Roxboro Road. Tyree and Torian stay with her, alternating between a cot and the floor. There is something soothing about this vigil, even though they know how it will end. "It was time," Torian says. "I was tired of her having to struggle." It is the first time since the Cadillac that they know they can fall asleep within an arm's reach of her and still wake up next to her in the morning.
Torian struggles at his next destination, Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, while trying to cope with his mother's death. He commits to N.C. State again in December, this time in a video posted on YouTube—only to decommit the same day, after Tyree and Lilly persuade him to spend more time on the decision. Torian leaves ACD in January by mutual agreement with its coach, Rex Morgan, and finishes up at Christian Faith Center Academy in Creedmoor, N.C., but five stops in four years has his transcripts in such shambles that he fails to qualify academically for Division I.
The silver lining of Tyree's injuries at Rutgers is that he has time to focus on academics, and he graduates with a 3.3 GPA and a degree in labor and employment relations. At his graduation ceremony in May 2012 he feels his mom's presence—a degree was the one thing she asked for in the hospice.
Tyree could no longer play at Rutgers, because he signed a medical-hardship waiver (relinquishing his athletic scholarship), so he takes a graduate year at UNC-Wilmington, where he shows flashes of his old self, scoring 18 points on five threes against Towson in January. But his play is not consistent, and he falls out of the Seahawks' rotation, failing to appear in their final eight games.
Will Torian, who is now 6'5", have more success than his brother did at the D-I level? If the younger Graham, who averaged 7.2 points last season, can graduate from Chipola next spring, he'll be facing what should be his final college choice. The right call could set him up to earn money professionally; the wrong one could derail his basketball career for good. Lilly plans to monitor Torian's choice as closely as possible, to find the best fit. "I told Torian, O.K., you tried it your way and you jumped around, but we have to really study it this time.... Because we have no room for any more mistakes."
Tyree packs up and leaves Wilmington shortly after the season ends, declining to finish the school year. He returns to Durham and works enough basketball camps to start making payments on his first car, a used black Lexus, in which he's now giving a tour of the Southside. He stops outside Lakewood Elementary, to show the spot where he and his father used to pick up his mother after school in the early 1990s, and after pulling away, he says, "I don't know if I'm ever going to get married."
You wouldn't want to try to do things differently?
"I'd just be so scared of ... if it didn't work out, and my kids had to deal with what I have to deal with. She was a teacher. You wouldn't think my mom would end up the way she did."
What if she hadn't? What if he and his father had gotten along?
There is no way to know, so instead he tells the story of his friend Greg Little, a running back and wide receiver who took the opposite road. Little went to one high school, Durham Hillside, committed to one college, North Carolina, and was drafted in the second round by the Browns in 2011.
"Greg's dad was everywhere," Tyree says. "Games. Practices. Scrimmages. Meetings. I didn't realize why that mattered at 14 or 15. I thought it would be O.K. for me to not have parents around. But then you see how hard you've made your own road, and you're like, A lot of this could have been avoided. I could have been at Duke. Coach K was recruiting me. And [UNC assistant] Steve Robinson. And [Wake Forest coach] Skip Prosser, rest in peace. And then to end up in these situations, it's like, Wow."
But let's play one more what-if game: What if Tyree had stuck with just one college program? From the beginning of the 2005--06 season through Sunday there have been 384 head-coaching changes in D-I. The seven schools Tyree has seriously considered offers from since he was a junior at Southern High—N.C. State, Texas Tech, South Carolina, Binghamton, UAB, Rutgers and UNC-Wilmington—have had 25 head coaches during that same time period, with each school making at least two changes. There's no doubt Tyree took the hard road, but instability and upheaval were unavoidable, no matter what choices he made.
The NCAA granted Tyree a sixth (and final) year of eligibility because of the injuries he sustained while at Rutgers. After recalibrating his dreams so many times, he is simply hoping to find a Division II or NAIA school at which he can experience something like he did in that prep year at Village Christian: a healthy, successful and stable season. He's searching for one rich memory, fixed in one place and time, that he can hold on to forever. Is that too much to ask? "Because I don't feel like I can say yet," he laments, "that I truly played college basketball."
"We really have to study it this time," says Lilly of Torian's next move. "Because we have no room for any more mistakes."
Playing at more than one high school makes a top 100 recruit much more likely to transfer during his college career. The more high schools he attends, the higher the rate of transferring.