NCAA Tournament

Memories of New Orleans linger for former Jayhawk Graves

He hasn’t been back since that night in April, nine years ago now.

Jeff Graves, at the time Kansas’ center, had the Superdome’s best view of Hakim Warrick’s block of Michael Lee’s potential game-tying three-pointer. That was the last time KU participated in a Final Four in New Orleans, and Graves hasn’t returned.

“Just the noise, the feeling, the goosebumps,” he said by telephone Friday from his native Lee’s Summit. And, yes, he remembers that other thing: KU lost, that Warrick block preserving Syracuse’s 81-78 victory.

“How’d I know that was coming?” he said, chuckling, after he was asked about that contest’s final seconds.

Graves was an unlikely foundation block of that Jayhawks team, the last one that longtime coach Roy Williams assembled before leaving for North Carolina. Stepping in for the injured Wayne Simien, Graves had 16 points and 16 rebounds in the championship game.

Maybe it was that itch that has continued pushing Graves into basketball. He’s 30 now, and injuries come with more frequency. He said he still plans to play someday in the NBA, and in his quest to prolong his career, he has played overseas and in developmental leagues. Last month, he signed with the Central Illinois Drive, a team in the minor-league Premier Basketball League, playing one game before leaving the team, said the team’s general manager, Bart Rogers.

“If I didn’t have the health problems that I had the last couple of years, I would be there already,” Graves said of the NBA. “I know for a fact I’ll be there.”

But reality, like a block in the final seconds, can be cruel. Graves has begun to embrace this, opening his mind to other business ventures. He said he occasionally does consulting and works at camps for young basketball players. He said he is trying to get into the health insurance business.

“Basketball is always going to be full-time,” he said, “but I’m not going to sell myself short and use basketball as an excuse for me not to excel.”

That, and he has Kori to think about. That’s his 3-year-old daughter. She was born long after that 2003 title game, but she’ll no doubt grow up hearing about it. That Jayhawks team, with Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, was a No. 2 seed and tore through the tournament, defeating top-seeded Arizona to reach the Final Four. Five of that team’s players would go on to play in the NBA. Graves wasn’t one of them, coming only as close as spending parts of two seasons with the NBA Development League’s Idaho Stampede.

KU probably wouldn’t have gone that far without Graves, a 6-foot-9 and 275-pound player who helped hold Warrick and Craig Forth to 12 total points. Graves has, in the past, indicated that his teammates didn’t play hard enough against the Orange. On Friday, he held back any blame.

“Shoot,” he said, “if there was a way to stop Gerry McNamara (from) shooting nine threes in the first half, that’s the only thing. What could we have done differently?”

Graves’ KU career began and ended dubiously. Not long after a car crash on Interstate 435 — he said the driver, a friend, fell asleep at the wheel — he reported overweight. A former junior-college All-American, he dropped the weight and was a reserve until Simien’s shoulder injury. Bill Self, who replaced Williams, suspended Graves indefinitely in December 2003 for irresponsibility and a lack of respect for the program.

His attempt at a pro career has occasionally been sidelined by other issues, mostly injuries. He said he has suffered two ACL tears.

“There were some obstacles that I hit,” he said.

Still, Graves said he will continue pursuing an NBA career until teams begin telling him he’s putting his health at risk. For now, he said, he figures there’s little harm in chasing his dream. He has played in Turkey, Croatia, Illinois and locations in between.

On Thursday afternoon, Graves was preparing to hit the road again. This time, he and a friend were headed to New Orleans, maybe driving through the night to arrive in time for tonight’s tipoff against Ohio State. He’s returning to watch the Jayhawks, maybe see if they can complete a job that fell short nearly a decade ago.

“The reunion,” he said.

Painful as that night in April was, he said he mostly enjoyed the experience. It’s a high he’s been trying to recapture in all these years since.

“It’s going to be like bittersweet,” he said of his visit. “… All the experience and all the accolades with KU, it’s priceless. I’ll never take back New Orleans.”