Graham's Banner Of Redemption To Fly With Other Terps Greats
By Keith Mills
The jerseys hang from the rafters at the Comcast Center in College Park, a symbol of Maryland's enormous basketball tradition: Towson's Gene Shue; Tom McMillen; Len Elmore; John Lucas; Albert King; Buck Williams; Baltimore's Juan Dixon and Keith Booth -- and, soon, former Dunbar standout Ernie Graham.
"It's about legacy, my legacy" Graham said. "It's not about one basketball game, because records are made to be broken. This, you can't break. This is something that will stay up there forever and I am just very grateful."
Graham's No. 25 jersey will be raised Jan. 11, when Maryland plays Wake Forest. The honor is way past due. Graham not only still holds the single-game scoring record at Maryland with 44 points in 1978 against N.C. State, but he was also one of the Terps' most complete players ever. He's the 12th leading all-time scorer and was a strong rebounder, outstanding passer and solid defender.
Yet, as the years rolled by, Graham was shut out, boxed out by an athletic administration that was well aware of some of the mistakes he had made off the court, and apparently unaware of everything he had done since then to turn his life around.
Enter Kevin Anderson, who replaced Debbie Yow as the Terps' athletic director, and Frank Kelly, a former Maryland state senator, a member of the board of regents at the University of Maryland and a close friend of Graham's for the last 16 years.
"Sen. Kelly was very instrumental in making this happen," Graham said, "and Kevin Anderson has been the point guy in getting it done."
"That jersey belongs up there," said Kelly, who served in the Maryland legislature from 1979-90. "Single-game scoring record, great player, he had 44 points in just 25 minutes, before the 3-point line.
"I had tried a few other times and couldn't get it done. So I approached Kevin Anderson when he took over and now it's going to happen. I travel the state a lot and everybody knows what Ernie Graham meant to Maryland basketball."
The phone call came on a cold February afternoon in 1995.
"Keith Mills, Ernie Graham here. Was wondering if I could come on your show Sunday night. I'd like to share some things with the people of Baltimore."
The show was "Sunday Sports Extra," a weekly 30-minute look at local sports in the Baltimore area that I hosted at WMAR-TV Channel 2 at 11:30 p.m. every Sunday for 19 years.
Graham became one of the show's most open and honest guests, coming clean on a variety of issues -- including his fractured relationship with former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell and a drug addiction that slam-dunked his professional basketball career and left him searching for both a job and an identity.
Watching the show that night from their home in Towson were Kelly and his wife, Janet.
"I was really impressed by his honesty," Kelly said. "Frank (III, Kelly's son) brought him by the office a couple of days later. He'd been clean for about six months and I just saw something in Ernie. Now, he's like a fifth son to me."
"Sen. Kelly was watching and told his wife, 'I need to meet him,' " Graham said. "It was almost as if it was pre-destined. It changed the course of my life. Where would I be if I hadn't met Sen. Kelly? I can't say. I do know this. I owe a lot to him. Not just through his connections with people, but his leadership and guidance. He is a very wise man."
"We're thrilled for Ernie," Frank Kelly III said. "His son Jonathan and my son Frankie entered Calvert Hall together. They played a lot of basketball growing up together. My dad always said, 'Hey Ernie, life's a cinch by the inch, but it's hard by the yard.' "
Frank III and his three brothers -- Bryan, David and John -- run Kelly & Associates Insurance Group, which was founded by their father. All four went to Calvert Hall. Bryan and David played lacrosse and went on to play at North Carolina. Frank played lacrosse at Cornell, while John graduated from Washington College and was once a member of the U.S. cycling team.
Bryan is now coach of the Calvert Hall lacrosse team, with three of his nephews -- Patrick, Johnny and Stephen -- all members of his starting lineup and among the premier high school players in the country. Patrick, a senior, and Stephen, a junior, are both headed to North Carolina. Stephen is the only junior to make the U.S. Under-19 national lacrosse team, which will play next summer in Turku, Finland.
"It's a great friendship," Frank III said. "He [Graham] has three brothers; I have three brothers. We grew up in different situations, but in a lot of ways, we're a lot alike. It's been neat to meet Ernie's brothers and to see where and how he grew up, what he had to overcome, some of the successes he's had on and off the court, and some of the battles he's had on and off the court."
Graham began his high school basketball career at Lake Clifton, where he played on one of the finest local high school teams ever. He teamed with his older brother Kevin, Arnold "Clyde" Gaines, Robert Brown and Rodney "Pop" Wright to deliver coach Woody Williams the 1976 MSA A Conference championship.
One year later, he transferred to Dunbar, where he teamed with younger brother Brian and Calvin Maddox to help coach Bob Wade re-establish the Poets as the city's premier program.
A scoring machine, Graham was also fast, a deft passer and a strong rebounder, which made him a difficult matchup. He eventually followed Dunbar's Larry Gibson to Maryland. Despite having a sensational career at times, Graham left College Park in 1980, angry and bitter at Driesell.
He admitted to using drugs while playing at Maryland and, though he eventually signed with the Philadelphia 76ers, his addiction helped destroy what everyone thought would be an outstanding NBA career.
By the time Graham met Kelly in 1995, he was sober for the first time in years and determined to turn his life around.
And he did.
He and Kelly hit it off right away. Graham was honest with the former senator about both his drug use and fractured relationship with Driesell, which has since been mended. He eventually was accepted back into the Maryland basketball family by coach Gary Williams, who reached out to Graham in a variety of ways.
Graham was a regular at practices and games and when his son Jonathan became one of the area's top high school players, Williams and his staff showed interest in recruiting him. Jonathan eventually ended up at Penn State, although Graham continued his support of the Maryland program, while his relationship with Kelly and his family grew stronger.
"I was drinking alcohol 41 years ago," Kelly said, "so I knew what he was dealing with and I just wanted to be there with him."
Graham had just begun a community outreach program called Get The Message, in which he would go to area schools and address high school and middle school students about drugs and alcohol.
"I was a heroin addict, a crack addict," Graham once said. "Drug addiction has no boundaries."
Kelly helped cut a deal with the Baltimore County school system, but budget cuts forced the county to eventually eliminate the program. Again, Kelly stepped up, this time through his relationship with Cal and Billy Ripken, which has allowed Ernie to continue his motivational speaking at times through the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.
"Ernie has a great message for young people," Kelly said. "I'd like to see him in the locker room at Maryland talking to the young guys down there. He has a message they need to hear. It's not all about basketball."
"It's hard for people to battle addiction," Frank III said. "It's been a part of our family as well. My dad's been sober for 40 years. And my dad deserves a lot of credit. He's been a consistent mentor and has spoken the truth to Ernie. Sometimes hard truths, and maybe sometimes some things you don't want to hear.
"But Ernie came humbled and he listens. We've had a wonderful 15-year relationship. I give him a lot of credit. Ernie's very smart, both street smart and business smart. He's got a great mind. He owns some properties and his vision for some of his new projects in east Baltimore and the community where he grew up are really interesting and exciting."
Ernie is now 52 years old. His wife, Karen, is a long-time employee at the National Security Agency. His first son, Ernie Jr., is now 30 and living in the Baltimore area, while his younger son, Jonathan, is a redshirt freshman basketball player at Penn State.
Jonathan helped Calvert Hall win the Catholic League basketball championship two years ago at Loyola College. And, like his father, he is a member of the extended Kelly family.
"Sen. Kelly helped me be a better person and a better father," Graham said. "He's helped get my son into some of the best schools and is a person I have a tremendous amount of respect for."
Now Graham will have his jersey raised to the rafters at the Comcast Center, joining his Terrapin teammates, Buck Williams and King.
"This honor is for my grandchildren," said Graham, whose son Ernie Jr. has two youngsters. "For them, it's important to know their grandfather contributed in some way to the University of Maryland."
"The most important thing is he's got his priorities in order," Kelly said, "his faith and his family. He can now be an example. I live to see him in the locker room at Maryland talking to these kids now."
Issue 167: November 2011