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Family values doubly important for twins

Former Brandon stars Stevie and Joey Graham, now at Oklahoma State, grew up knowing performance is based on preparation.

BRIAN LANDMAN
Published April 2, 2004

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - If Joey and Stevie Graham were your usual basketball prodigies, their story would open in the driveway of their Land O'Lakes home.

That's where you would find them from the time they could walk, working on their jump shots and crossovers, hour after hour.

But there's nothing usual about the Grahams.

"Basketball was the last thing we picked up," said Joey, 21, a former Brandon High star who's a mainstay at forward for Oklahoma State, which meets Georgia Tech in the Final Four on Saturday.

Soccer was the first sports love for him, his fraternal twin brother and his older brother, Brian. And then football, track and swimming. But there also were academic interests and Bible studies. And musical instruments to master. And cooking. And hiking in the Appalachian Mountains. And ...

"That was the unique thing about us," said Stevie, 21, a junior reserve guard. "We were well rounded in the things we did."

Their father, Joseph, a former college player, didn't start working with his sons on their basketball skills until they were in middle school. A basket in the drive came a couple years later.

"I only got involved when they made a firm commitment to do something," he said.

After his sons did that, with any endeavor, there usually was no stopping them.

Joseph Graham, now in medical sales, was a product of the military and brought that brand of discipline and structure to his household. Each morning his children had to make their beds a certain way and meticulously put away their clothes.

"The thing I remember most was we had to fold our socks, and the ends of the socks had to make a smiley face," Joey said.

The boys also had a list of chores that included mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, cleaning the pool and painting the house when necessary. There was a specific way to do each, and a time period allotted for completion.

"We couldn't stand doing some of the things we had to do," Stevie said.

But if they didn't accomplish the appointed task, there was no going outside to play or no going to the movies or no other tangible reward to be enjoyed.

"That molded me into the person I am today," Joey said proudly.

So too with brother Brian, 22, who walked on this past season as a senior at USF and played well. If Brian did something, the twins were inspired to follow. They tried to at least equal his performance, all the while pushing one another to improve. But their sibling rivalry didn't turn nasty.

"We don't have jealousy," Brian said.

Unusual? Not for them.

* * *

A hush would come over the crowd and all eyes were on Joey, Stevie and Brian. They knew this. They knew this moment was the payoff for the grueling, sometimes frustrating hours of practice. It was time for them to play.

"It was a little embarrassing at first," Stevie said.

But you just didn't come over to the Graham's house without sitting through a music recital. Joey on the saxophone. Stevie on the trumpet. Brian on the clarinet.

It went beyond their father and mother Rose wanting their sons to face the pressure that comes with the spotlight (or the floor lamp). It had to do with understanding how preparation and performance were inextricably interwoven and that those lessons would serve them well in other facets of their life.

"I was real shy and it kind of helped me deal with my shyness," Joey said. "It got us out there performing in front of people. The nervousness and tension and anxiety kind of went away as we started doing that. We practiced so hard and we practiced so long, you have to put all that stuff together and just go out and perform."

He and his brothers became quite good at that.

Even on a stage larger than their living room.

Brian joined the marching band at Land O'Lakes High. The twins went out for their Pine View Middle School jazz band and for three years performed around the state.

"They were the most energetic and hardest workers and were right up there with the best players," recalled Patrick McDermott, the former band director at Pine View and now the director of the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel. "They were real active in sports, too, so we had to juggle their schedules. I remember we had a concert and one of the twins had to do it, instead of wearing a blue blazer and dark pants, in his basketball uniform."

* * *

Although gifted athletically, success at basketball, like everything else, came the old-fashioned way for the twins.

"You just knew they were going to come to practice every day, work hard and do whatever it took to become great players," Brandon coach Mark Hermann said. "Their work ethic is unbelievable."

After leading Brandon to the state title game as seniors, they wanted to go to the same college as close to home as possible. Florida, FSU and USF wanted Joey, but each had just one scholarship or no apparent need for two wing players.

Central Florida, however, offered them both scholarships.

Joey was a starter for the Knights almost immediately; Stevie earned a starting job as a sophomore.

But they longed for the big time - Central Florida hadn't made it to the NCAA Tournament since 1996 - and decided to leave after the 2001-02 season. Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, known for accepting transfers, gave the Grahams the chance to stay together at his tradition-rich program.

"The first thing that jumped out at me was their great athletic ability," Sutton said. "The other thing, once they got here, was the impression, what great kids they are. They're marvelous youngsters. They epitomize what one would look for in a student-athlete."

Polite, respectful and affable, they quickly blended in with their new teammates. They even cut their teammates' hair. For free. (Yes, something else they tried and mastered years ago.) They've become ambassadors for the university. They go to elementary and middle schools and speak to hundreds of children about goals and discipline and diligence. Both also have GPA's over 3.0, each majoring in aviation management. They want to be pilots, like their father was.

"My wife has a high demand academically, and in order to satisfy mom they've got to do well," Joseph said.

Studying began with the Bible. A devout family, the Grahams use Fridays for Bible studies. Even with the twins far away, they'd call home for lively, two- or three-hour discussions.

"It gets pretty intense sometimes, because we challenge (each other)," Joseph said, adding that the phone bills were outrageous before the advent of better price plans.

"If's fun and there's also the learning experience," Stevie said. "You can't misquote the Bible."

* * *

Getting to the Final Four has been the ultimate high for the Grahams. Yet there is a bittersweet element, the family admits.

Joey played his way into a starting role and is third on the team in scoring average (12.3) and rebounding (5.1). During the Cowboys' NCAA run he has emerged as a force, seemingly unflappable under pressure. He had a rim-rattling dunk against Memphis, one of the tournament's signature plays, and had 17 points and 11 rebounds and the winning assist on John Lucas' 3-pointer in the region final against St. Joseph's.

"Joey has just developed into an outstanding basketball player," Sutton said.

Stevie has come along more slowly, as he did at UCF. He averaged 2.8 points and 1.4 rebounds and has seen limited time down the stretch.

"It's not getting me down," he said. "I know next year when I come out, I'll be able to play a lot more minutes and make a major impact on the program."

Joey knows it has been hard for his twin, but he marvels at the way Stevie has remained upbeat and supportive from the bench. He credits his brother's presence with helping him advance. He is confident both will shine next season.

Not that there would be anything unusual about that.

Not for this most unusual pair.

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