Syracuse’s Jerami Grant back in the friendly confines of Verizon Center

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

When I went to work with my dad, I got to stare at his collection of books about Renaissance literature. When my daughter comes to work with me, she gets to stare at people swearing at computers. When Jerami Grant went to work with his dad, he got to play video games with Gilbert Arenas.

The DeMatha product, now a freshman forward for Syracuse, returned to the D.C. area this week, and he received the same friends-and-family homecoming so many Washington products have enjoyed during recent NCAA tournaments. But for Grant, the trip is also a return to his childhood playground, the arena where he shagged rebounds and worked on his jumper and played pool with the playoff-bound Wizards.

Grant’s father Harvey, of course, was drafted by the Bullets and later traded back to D.C. in time for the 1997-1998 season and the opening of MCI Center. In the mid-2000s, he spent two seasons working for the team, and took turns bringing his four sons to the arena for practices and games.

Jerami and his brothers would bounce around the team’s practice court – the same room that’s currently hosting NCAA tournament news conferences. He remembers trying to guard Brendan Haywood; the center would dribble the ball in circles around him. He remembers one-on-one games with then-coach Eddie Jordan; “I couldn’t even score on him back then,” he said. And he remembers getting particular attention from younger players like Andray Blatche and Arenas, who would take him into the players lounge and rout the young Grant in NBA 2K.

“I always looked forward to my dad bringing me to work,” Grant said early Friday morning, just steps from that same players lounge. “No matter who it was, they was my heroes. Just coming in here, seeing somebody that’s living out my dream was just amazing. I looked up to all of them. [ellip]

“[Arenas] was one of the best players in the league, probably the best point guard in the league at the time, scoring-wise. Definitely just coming here and seeing him play was crazy.”

Grant also remembers proudly wearing an Arenas bronze-alternate jersey; he thought he bought it himself but his dad remembered it being a gift from Agent Zero. Either way, both men described their time together at Verizon Center – where Jerami also occasionally served as a ballboy – with great warmth.

“And what I really liked about it is they grew up around it, and they began to really, REALLY love the game,” Harvey Grant said on Friday. “It wasn’t me pushing something on them. Their love for the game just took over.”

Like most of today’s college stars, Jerami Grant isn’t a fanatic for any NBA team, but he still has Bullets and Wizards imprints. He remains close friends with Rod Strickland’s daughter. He’s met Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, former teammates of his father’s.

“I always root for my home team,” he said, and his dad – who still lives in Maryland – agreed.

“I’m a Bullet/Wizard for life,” Grant said. “I got drafted by them, and when I went to Portland and then came back, they opened their arms to me again. I worked for them for a couple years. And I’ll tell you what, no matter where I go in this city, people say ‘Harvey, we enjoyed you, you’re a class act.’ There’s a love from the fans and the people in D.C.”

Which is why Grant celebrated when the brackets were released and he realized Syracuse could be playing a regional semifinal in the arena he once called home. The elder Grant was in Dayton last weekend watching another son – Notre Dame junior guard Jerian Grant – but he was near the Verizon Center court on Thursday night, in a bright orange sweater he claimed brings good luck.

He visited with Ernie Grunfeld and other members of the Wizards’ front office, who marveled that the little boy they knew was now a 6-foot-8 young man. He posed for photos. He bit his nails.

“Any dad, I don’t care who it is, if they say they’re not nervous when they see their kid play, I think they’re lying,” Grant said. “I’m a nervous wreck every single time.”

Thursday, though, went well. His son had 4 points and 3 rebounds, also contributing a crucial block in the Orange’s win over Indiana. More importantly, Syracuse won and will play for a Final Four berth in the same building the Grants visited together so many times.

“Every time I came here, it was always a great experience,” Jerami said.

“This right here takes on a whole different emotion,” Harvey said. “I’ll tell you what, man, for me as a dad, with the years that I spent in that arena, now for one of my sons to come back and play and do well, and his team is doing well, I’m one of the happiest dads in America.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.
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