Michael Graham was feeling the heat and, this time, it wasn't being generated by a referee or a sportswriter or a certain 6-foot-10 coach. This time, Graham was being pressed, full court, by a University of the District of Columbia speech professor.
Graham enrolled at UDC last January after being declared academically ineligible to play basketball at Georgetown, where he'd helped the Hoyas win the 1984 NCAA championship. Surely you remember Michael Graham. Bald, glistening head. Menacing stare. Intimidating presence.
For the spring semester, Graham signed up for three courses: English, music appreciation and public speaking. If he passed these courses and four more in the fall, he was led to believe he would be eligible to play for the Firebirds in December. But now there was a problem. The spring term had ended, and Graham hadn't done enough work to earn a grade in Dr. Helen Martin-Trigona's public-speaking class.
So there Graham stood in a UDC classroom one morning last month, feeling the heat, trying to impress his Oxford-educated professor with a makeup speech.
His topic was Queen Elizabeth. Not Di's mother-in-law. The Queen E. The one who decided long ago that Britannia would rule the universe. "Michael gave a eulogy," Martin-Trigona recalled. "He talked about how Queen Elizabeth defeated the Spanish Armada and established Britannia on the seas and how she'd pulled up the bootstraps of the British people." The speech wasn't bad. But it wasn't the talk of the campus, either.
Graham had one makeup speech to go, and he would have to do better. Much better. His college basketball career depended upon it. For his finale, a "demonstration speech" in which he was expected to demonstrate what he was talking about, he chose a subject more dear to his heart.
Turning his 6-foot-9 1/2-inch, 220-pound body toward the blackboard, he picked up a piece of chalk and drew an outline of a basketball court. Then, squeezing a basketball between his hands, he explained the object of the game, the roles of the players and the artistry of shooting. "Finally, he turned around and said, 'And now I will demonstrate with the ball,' and he tossed it to me so I could see how heavy it is," Martin-Trigona remembered. "He said, 'This is the way you hold the ball. This is the way you curl your fingers. You've got to grip it like this.' "
The speech was a semester-saver, and Martin-Trigona didn't hesitate in telling Graham so. "Michael glowed," the professor recalled. "I said, 'Michael, you are very intelligent but you've never been given the opportunity to use your intelligence or to expand it or to discipline it. Don't let anybody tell you that you're dumb.' Michael smiled, gave me his hand, clasped my hand real tight and said, 'Thank you very much. Thanks a lot.' And then he stooped down and kissed me."
Graham received a C for the course. "I wanted to give him a B but he fell down on the Queen Elizabeth speech," Martin-Trigona said. No matter. A new era was dawning for Michael Graham. No longer did it matter that he had been declared persona non Hoya at Georgetown. Graham had found his way back to the proverbial comeback trail, and he was trying his damnedest, this time, not to get lost.
To bring you up to date: 21 months have passed since Georgetown's Hoyas gave Houston's Phi Slamma Jammas a right quick burial in the NCAA championship game. Twenty-one months, and Michael Graham, the freshman pallbearer, hasn't played a minute of college basketball since. Not a minute.
Graham is 22 years old, and his hoopological clock is ticking. His hopes of being eligible to play ball this season at UDC were crushed in October when he learned that he had not fulfilled the NCAA's residency requirements for transfer students. That means that Graham cannot resume his college basketball career until the start of next season, when he will be -- tick, tick -- 23 years old.
Wil Jones, the street-talking, chain-smoking UDC basketball coach, has visions of Graham leading his Firebirds to an NCAA Division II championship or two. Yes, said Jones, Graham really is that good. "Mike doesn't even need to practice what he does best," the coach said, grinning. "Mike just animalizes you. You don't have to practice to be an Attila the Hun."
Understand, Jones is talking about a player whose career collegiate scoring average is less than five points a game, a player whose career high (16 points) was against St. Leo, a player who has a reputation for disdaining discipline. Understand, too, that if Graham has nearly as much talent as he does mystique, the Red Line train to UDC may be standing room only on game nights next season.
Graham's mystique has been built largely on his on-court image (Attila the Hun describes it nicely), his extended absence from organized competition and his reluctance to share his thoughts with the news media and, in turn, the public. Graham spoke with a Washington Post reporter by phone for this story but refused to grant a more comprehensive, in-person interview. "But I'll tell you what," Graham said, "you just go ahead and write what you want about me, and then I'll look at the story and then, you know, if it's all right then we'll continue on another story. How about that? All right?"
Jones can only speculate on the reason for Graham's silence. "That might be due to his training 'cause John (Thompson) trained them not to talk to reporters," Jones said, referring to the Georgetown coach. Then again: "Mike's embarrassed by the stories that have been written about his academic problems." Even more likely: "Mike's just been advised by one of his gurus not to talk. Mike's got millions of gurus, you know."
The gurus came into his life early. For better or for worse, gurus are a fact of life for many star athletes, and those who have known Graham since his boyhood in Southwest Washington say his basketball career merely reflects the experiences and frustrations faced by other inner-city athletes. "Michael came from the same environment as any normal black kid who's coming up in an urban city, that's all," said UDC assistant coach William (Doc) Robinson, who met Graham while he was in junior high. "He's had no more or no less."
Graham certainly has had no more. He grew up in a split-family environment, living at times with his mother, at times with his father. He gained early acclaim as a strong-rebounding, left-handed-shooting basketball player at Jefferson Junior High. "By the eighth grade, Michael could dunk the ball and he was just head and shoulders above everybody," recalled Graham's junior high coach, Richard Bachman. "And that's when the high school coaches began pressing him."
Although Graham had been an "exceptionally good" student in the seventh and eighth grades, Bachman said, his priorities seemed to change as a ninth-grader. "I don't think he could handle all the attention and recruitment (by high school coaches) that he was getting," Bachman said. "He was kind of getting a big head about him."
Jefferson won the first six games of Graham's ninth-grade season -- and then he was gone. "At the end of the first semester, Michael just stopped coming to school," Bachman said. "I think he ended up with four or five Fs, and I told him, 'You can't play here at Jefferson with Fs.' "
Graham transferred to Hamilton Junior High but, said a friend, he had little time for schoolwork. "Michael's mother was receiving public assistance but she didn't have enough money to raise her family," the friend said. "So Michael took a job in a restaurant."
Graham was required to repeat the ninth grade when he enrolled at Spingarn High but he took an immediate liking to his junior varsity coach, Ernest Faulkner. "Mr. Faulkner was someone who Michael could come to with his problems," recalled a former high school teammate, Greg Stewart. "He was the kind of person that Michael really needed -- a friend, a good friend."
Unfortunately, Graham had a largely unfriendly relationship with his varsity coach, John Wood. "Michael didn't get along with Coach Wood because Michael didn't do things his way," said Stewart, who now plays for American University. Once, after Graham missed a practice during his senior year, Wood left him at home while his teammates traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to play in a holiday tournament. "After we'd returned from the tournament, Wood said to the team, 'We're going to wear these shirts that we got from South Carolina to show Michael what he missed,' " Stewart said. "And, to torment Mike, we all had to wear these shirts to practice that day."
Faulkner said that Graham deliberately missed the practice so he wouldn't have to make the trip. "He wanted to spend Christmas with his newly born son," Faulkner said. Michael Graham Jr. is now 3 years old and lives with his mother.
Wood, who still teaches at Spingarn but retired from coaching last year, told The Post that he would not discuss Graham's basketball career without the written permission of his principal or the D.C. superintendent of schools. "I want something in writing because I have to protect my own interests," Wood said, refusing to elaborate.
Spingarn Principal Clemmie Strayhorn told the Post he had "no problem whatsoever" with Wood or any Spingarn coach "talking to the press about ballplayers." That didn't satisfy Wood. "You probably don't understand the situation here in D.C. with Michael Graham," he said. "As his high school coach, I've just stayed out of the picture and I have my reasons for why. What these things involve, it's a very deep-seated thing."
At Spingarn, Graham established himself as one of the area's most fearsome high school athletes. Playing with a cleanly shaven "game head," he led his team to a two-year, 47-11 record, punishing opponents as though they were so many Visigoths. "He went after everything," said California-Berkeley assistant coach Sherman Dillard, who was a recruiter for Maryland at the time. "He was hungry out there. He blocked shots. He was mean, tough, aggressive -- sometimes too aggressive, which caused him to get into a couple of fights."
But Graham's on-court skirmishes paled next to his off-court responsibilities, which included fatherhood, a mother who was frequently ill (she died last year) and the possibility that he would not graduate from high school. "At one point, I never thought I'd get to college," Graham told The Post in a 1983 interview. "My high school coach told me it would be impossible unless I got a GED (general equivalency diploma) and went to a junior college."
Under normal circumstances, that might be so. But Graham was a brute-strong basketball player, and many schools, including Maryland and Georgetown, were in the market for just such a prize.
Maryland coaches watched him play at least 15 times that season, and in April, during the national letter-of-intent signing period, Dillard said he received a verbal commitment from Graham.
"But I wasn't convinced," Dillard said. "Michael kept telling us he was coming but that he didn't want to fill out the papers yet. He said he had to figure out some things. You know how some things don't add up? Well, this didn't add up."
Playing a hunch, a Maryland official phoned the Big East Conference office and learned that Graham already had been signed by a certain 6-foot-10 coach.
"John Thompson wields a big stick in the Washington area," Dillard said later.
Thompson, whose Hoyas had just been eliminated by Memphis State in the NCAA Midwest Regional, said he was convinced "beyond a doubt" that Graham could do the work necessary to earn a degree from academically rigorous Georgetown. "I made it very clear to him that I'm not going to put up with anybody who's not going to work to get an education," Thompson said. The signing raised more than a few eyebrows because, well, Georgetown is Georgetown.
At Thompson's direction, Graham enrolled in the university's summer Upward Bound program, where he passed courses in English and math and received his high school diploma. "This is a chance to straighten my life out," Graham said at summer's end. "In the past, I just didn't want to attend school, so people thought I was a problem child. I was a problem -- but only to myself." As an Upward Bound student, Graham took stock of his life. "I thought about guys in my neighborhood who stand around and talk about what they used to be," he said. "I don't want to be out on a corner five years from now telling some kid what I could have been."
Graham was a starter in only 17 of the Hoyas' 37 games during the 1983-84 season, but he gave Thompson the rebounding muscle that was needed to complement all-America Patrick Ewing's -- and then some. It was the then some that earned Graham the reputation of being -- let's not mince words here -- a dirty player. In the NCAA West Regional in Los Angeles alone, Graham was accused of shoving an elbow in the throat of a Nevada-Las Vegas player, belting an SMU player on the back of his neck and pushing Dayton guard Sedric Toney so hard that he fell to the floor. "There's such a thing as being a physical ballplayer, playing with aggressiveness," Toney said after the game, "but he comes to try to hurt you."
Graham said he did not intentionally try to hurt anyone. "We don't try to be intimidating," he said, speaking for Ewing and the rest of the Hoyas. "We just play good defense. We play the same way in practice. We beat each other to death. That's our style of play."
The style wasn't universally admired. "If Graham doesn't change his style, I'll write him off as a prospect," warned one veteran NBA scout. "He's a cheap-shot artist and a bully -- and great players don't have to be bullies." The Associated Press wrote of his "hit man" reputation, the New York Times of his "bad guy" image, and the Hoyas became known as the "Los Angeles Raiders of college basketball."
Graham scored 14 points and wrestled down seven rebounds in Georgetown's 84-75 triumph over Houston in the 1984 NCAA title game, and he joined Ewing on the Final Four all-tournament team. But as the spring semester ended, Thompson was no longer certain "beyond a doubt" that Graham was working diligently toward a degree.
On Aug. 30, Thompson announced that Graham would not be permitted to play during the 1984-85 season because he needed to "develop greater responsibility and eliminate inconsistencies in his approach to academics."
Graham remained on scholarship but became increasingly frustrated with Thompson's demands. "Mike told me, 'I really like Georgetown but they're getting on my nerves. Maybe I'll just have to leave,' " Stewart recalled. "As far as basketball, he said he loved it . . . But Mike told me he had to check in with an academic adviser. He had to go to study hall. He had to check in with Coach Thompson from time to time and tell him how he's doing. Mike wouldn't do that. (His attitude was) 'I'm here. I play ball. I go to class. I make you happy.' "
But Thompson wasn't happy, and today he no longer will talk publicly about Graham's tenure as a Hoya. But in an earlier interview with The Post's Michael Wilbon, the coach said, "Michael's biggest problem is academic motivation . . . He's definitely a bright person. But a person can only be counseled by so many people so many times. He's 21 years old. He's getting to the point now where there's not going to be anybody to talk to."
For now -- tick, tick -- there was still someone to talk to, and toward the end of the fall semester, Graham visited Kent B. Amos, a Xerox Corp. executive who was also chairman of the UDC Athletic Advisory Board and owner of SuperStar Enterprises Inc., a sports and entertainment management agency.
"Michael was getting ready to drop out of school, and it was unclear in his mind, as best I could determine, what he was going to do," Amos recalled. "I told him, 'You have an opportunity to get a college education, and you shouldn't walk away from that.' "
Graham walked away from Georgetown -- and into UDC. Amos, who has provided guidance and financial assistance to dozens of Washington-area athletes in recent years, says he played no role in Graham's selection of a school. Then why did Graham choose UDC? "I think it was because of the economics of it, to tell you the truth," Amos said. "There weren't a whole lot of places he could afford to go."
Graham was admitted to UDC last January on a nonscholarship, probationary basis because his grade-point average at Georgetown was lower than 2.0, according to the then-UDC athletic director, Sidney Hall.
Jones had his Attila and soon he would be conquering Gaul (or, at the very least, Mount St. Mary's and Norfolk State). But the fun couldn't begin until December, Graham was told, after he had satisfied the NCAA's two-semester residency requirement.
Graham took nine credit hours in the spring -- the maximum load allowed by UDC for a probationary student -- and 13 in the fall. What Graham and his coach apparently didn't realize was that under NCAA rules transfer students must sit out two consecutive full-time semesters before being eligible. Since 12 hours constitutes a full-time load at UDC, Graham's spring semester didn't count.
Graham wasn't officially notified of his eligibility status until October -- nine months after he had enrolled at UDC -- when he requested and received an explanation from Hall. Why hadn't he been notified earlier? Hall said he assumed Wil Jones had already told Graham that he'd be ineligible until the fall of 1986. But the coach hadn't, and in the weeks that followed, Jones and Hall feuded bitterly over the eligibility of Graham and other UDC basketball players. (Hall was relieved of his athletic directorship duties last month because, said a UDC official, "a change was needed.")
After learning he had lost yet another year of eligibility -- tick, tick -- Graham again contacted Amos, who had given up his position at UDC to devote more time to his sports and entertainment agency, which had been largely inactive since its incorporation in December 1982.
"He wanted to go to school to play basketball in the CBA (Continental Basketball Association) or Europe," Amos recalled. "He said, 'People have told me that I can make money in those two places.' I said, 'That's crazy. Do you know what you're talking about?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'You stay in school and let me get some information for you.' "
Amos had to be careful. Under NCAA rules, Graham could lose his eligibility if it was determined that he had hired an agent or agreed to terms with a pro club. But Amos said he was helping Graham as a friend, not as an agent.
First, Amos contacted the NBA and learned that Graham could not play in the league during the '85-86 season because he had not renounced his college eligibility prior to last summer's draft.
Next, he attempted to determine Graham's value in the CBA. In a series of phone conversations with Phil Jackson, coach of the Albany Patroons, Amos said he learned the league's "going rate" for players but insisted he never solicited or received any offers from the Patroons.
Au contraire, said Jackson. Not only did the Patroons make a formal bid for Graham, he said, they even mailed Amos a CBA contract, ready for Graham to sign.
"I had called Mr. Amos after I'd gotten a tip from someone who's involved in professional basketball," said Jackson, a forward with the New York Knicks from 1967 to 1978. "Mr. Amos opened the conversation by saying, 'I want you to know there's nothing financial that I hope to gain for this . . . This is just all for Michael, an opportunity for him to play.' He said that since Michael had sat out last year and had to sit out this year . . . and since he was not expecting to get a degree, anyway . . . that sitting out another full year was really a misuse of his talent."
Amos contacted at least one other CBA club, the Kansas City Sizzlers. Bill Ficke, the Sizzlers' coach, said his conversation with Amos went as follows:
Amos: "I'm trying to place Michael Graham. I like the kid. He's not going to be eligible so I'd like to get him playing somewhere."
Ficke: "Oh, that'd be great. I'd like to have him play for us."
Amos: "What would you pay him?"
Ficke: "Well, the most we pay is around $400 or $425 a week. We've got a salary limit."
Amos: "Well, let me see what I can do. I'll call some other teams and I'll let you know."
Asked about his call to Ficke, Amos told The Post, "I don't know what that's all about." However, when he was advised that Ficke had just confirmed their conversation, Amos said, "I talked to Bill Ficke but not about Michael."
Ficke said he never heard from Amos again. But Phil Jackson did, on Nov. 15. "He called back, saying he'd been offered a higher contract from another franchise," Jackson said. "We raised our offer to $475 . . . and Mr. Amos felt that was fair. He felt it was a workable situation . . . and he was going to recommend to Michael that these terms were the terms that were most beneficial to him." (Amos denied that he ever intended to recommend any CBA offer to Graham.)
Jackson immediately phoned the Patroons' office and arranged to fly Graham to Albany. But before Graham could even be contacted, an exuberant Patroons employe incorrectly told reporters that he had already signed a contract. "I never even knew about any offer," Graham said. "Four hundred and seventy five dollars a week? I mean, I can get a job and make that much."
Amos said he has no intention of becoming Graham's agent, even though he resigned from Xerox on Thursday to devote his full-time energies to SuperStar Enterprises. "I think Michael should stay in school," Amos said. " . . . He needs to prepare himself for what I call the bigger game of life."
Under NCAA Division II rules, Graham could play as many as three seasons at UDC. Although it's doubtful he'll be a Firebird through his 25th birthday, Graham said he has no immediate plans of turning pro. "My only plans now," he said, "are to go to school, play ball next season at UDC and take it one step at a time."
For now, Graham seems quite comfortable with the un-Georgetown environment at UDC, a commuter college with a very un-Georgetown coach.
"The only problem with Michael," Wil Jones said, "is that there have been so many people whispering in his ear. Washington is a funny town. Everybody in Washington thinks they know it all here. The agents, the coaches, the street people, everybody. And the kid has been bombarded by this."
"When you look at all that has happened to Michael, he's done extremely well," said Doc Robinson, the UDC assistant. "He's not crazy right now or locked up. He doesn't have a police record. So how bad can a kid be, coming out of his environment with all the temptations he's had? Michael's already beaten the odds. Now he has to continue to beat the odds."
One morning last month, Dr. Helen Martin-Trigona walked into the student lounge at UDC to find Graham standing behind a lectern, toying with the microphone.
"I sat in a chair facing Michael, a few rows below," the professor recalled. "I said, 'Michael, you ought to learn how to use that microphone because someday you might have to give a speech.' Michael started talking into it but I could barely hear him. I said, 'Michael, your voice is too dull. You have to project your voice.' Then he started talking louder and more distinctly and, as I sat there, I thought, 'Someday I'll bet Michael will be up there before a large audience, giving a speech and accepting cups and awards. Someday, I'll bet Michael Graham will be famous.' "