Graves guns for his old favorite team
By LAURA ROMPF
When the men's basketball team travels to Lexington, Kentucky, on Jan. 14, 2001 to take on the University of Kentucky, it will be an important match for the entire Notre Dame team. But for David Graves, who will be playing five minutes from where he grew up, the bittersweet homecoming will be one of the biggest games of his career.
A Neighbor's Influence
Ten-year-old David Graves stood on his concrete driveway staring up at a basketball hoop. When it became dark, a small light on top of the garage helped Graves focus on the wooden backboard. Several large pine trees lined the side of the makeshift court, so if Graves would miss a shot, the ball would hit the trees and bounce back on the court.
"They rebounded for me," Graves said with a smile. "But if ball didn't hit the trees, there was a big hill I would have to chase the ball down."
Graves said the court was far from perfect: the light barely cut through the darkness and the wooden backboard eventually started to rot. But it made do, especially on nights when his neighbor would visit.
Former University of Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino lived next door to Graves for nearly two years while his new house was being built in Lexington. He would often stop over to help Graves with his shot, dribbling and other skills.
"Of all the U.K. players and coaches I watched growing up, I admire coach Pitino the most," Graves said. "He was always there when I'd go out in the backyard, and to a young kid, that was awesome."
Having a close relationship with Pitino intensified Graves's dream of playing basketball for the University of Kentucky.
"Basketball is life in Kentucky. You're born to bleed blue. I did dream of playing at U.K. when I was growing up," he said. "The idea was always there. Being close to the Pitino family, I was always around the program."
A Change in the Dream
Six years after those backyard nights, Graves sat in an airplane headed home from New Jersey. He was returning from a trip northeast to cheer on Kentucky in the 1996 Final Four. Pitino's rebuilding of the U.K. program was complete. When he arrived, Kentucky was on NCAA probation, and now he had led them to No. 1 in the country. Kentucky fans were finally satisfied when the 1996 championship banner hung in Rupp Arena along side the numerous others.
At the same time, Graves's high school career was taking off. He was starting at Lexington Catholic High School as a sophomore and people were already speculating that he would play for U.K. Less than two years later the questions around Graves' college career were answered — but not like many speculated.
Graves sat on another airplane headed home from San Antonio where he watched Kentucky win the 1998 Final Four. It was his senior year of high school and Graves had just made a tough decision.
He was recruited heavily by a school 550 miles away from his childhood hometown and U.K. Unlike Kentucky, Notre Dame had offered a scholarship and Graves decided he couldn't turn down the opportunity to play for the Irish and get a top-notch education.
Pitino had left U.K. for the Boston Celtics and new head coach Orlando "Tubby" Smith told Graves he could walk on at U.K. Smith said Graves had a chance at earning a scholarship if another player didn't commit.
"I did dream about going to U.K., but as I got older and more mature, the dream changed," Graves said. "I think I'm at the pinnacle of where I need to be. Growing up as a Catholic kid and going to a Catholic high school, this is the perfect place to be."
This season, three years after his decision to attend Notre Dame, Graves headed home where he helped the Irish upset Cincinnati in the John Wooden Classic. That same night, U.K. lost to unranked Penn State at home, giving Kentucky their worst start in decades, a 1-3 record.
Graves is currently Notre Dame's second leading scorer behind All-American forward Troy Murphy. He has started at Notre Dame since freshman year, and is only a few points away from the 1,000 point career mark. Graves has been an integral part in rebuilding the Notre Dame basketball program. When he came to South Bend, the Irish were unranked, but in the latest poll, Notre Dame is No. 10.
"I would make the same choices again. I like being part of this rebuilding process. If I went to UK, I'd have been part of history, but here we're making history," Graves said.
"If we go to the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight, it's great. At U.K., that's taken for granted. Even if we make it to the NCAA it's an accomplishment, and I know we will. I think we'll go very far, and that means we've made history."
So who says you can't go home again? On Jan. 14, 2001, Graves and company will head to Lexington, Kentucky, to take on U.K. in Rupp Arena. Graves said despite Kentucky's recent slump, he knows they will be hyped for the game against Notre Dame.
"Just like Cincinnati, it is a statement game. Kentucky has a lot of talent, a great coach, and a great tradition," Graves said. "In the past decade they've gone to the Final Four, won conference championships and national championships, and we haven't even been to the NCAA. So this game will help us prove the critics and prove to everyone that we come into every game to play and to win."
Living five minutes from Rupp Arena, Graves knows how outrageous Kentucky basketball fans will be.
"There are no pro sports in Lexington, so there is nothing to draw attention away form U.K. basketball. It's an important part of the state, and the fans are crazy about it," he said. "I'm very excited to go home and play."
But Graves said the homecoming will be bittersweet. For every columnist that praises him, there are still those who complain.
"Every time I go home, people say, `You should be playing for UK' and then there are the critics who say I'm not good enough to play at UK. But it'll be great to have my high school coach and all my high school friends there."
While his former neighbor may not attend the Kentucky/Notre Dame game, Graves said he knows Pitino will be watching. Although Graves never played for coach Pitino at Kentucky, he hasn't given up the dream to play in the pros for the legendary coach in the future.
"I will always be grateful to him for what he taught me, and if things go well, I hopefully could play with him someday," Graves said. "I always wanted to play for him. He's a great person and a great coach."
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, December 5, 2000