Family Tradition

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Will Graves' first memory as a North Carolina fan dates back to Feb. 2, 1995, when Jerry Stackhouse drove baseline for an up-and-under slam dunk over Duke's Cherokee Parks and Eric Meek. Even at six years old, it was obvious that the Greensboro, N.C. native would be a Tar Heel for life.

Graves has never been shy admitting his rabid fandom of all things Carolina blue. Prior to the start of the season, the red-shirt junior told a horde of reporters at UNC's media day that he was still a fan more than he was a basketball player.

And that comment makes perfect sense considering his childhood. North Carolina basketball means so much to so many because of its binding powers; it's an automatic connection that cuts through the layers that makes a random person a stranger and tightens the bond of close family and friends.

Graves grew up watching Tar Heel basketball games surrounded by a dozen or more relatives, hooting and hollering at the television screen during that special two hours that often served as the highlight of the day.

And even though Graves is now wearing No. 13 and playing on the television screen instead of watching the game at home, that hasn't stopped his family from including him in their long-held rituals. He knows when he walks off the court that his voicemail will be flooded with sounds reminiscent of his childhood.

"It's tradition in our family just to get together, watch the games and just have fun," Graves said. "It's a great time to watch T.V. when Carolina is playing and it's a great time to be on the court when we're playing."

Graves earned N.C. AP Player of the Year honors as a high school senior after leading Greensboro (N.C.) Dudley to back-to-back state championships in '05 and '06. But he was a mere shadow in UNC's top-ranked recruiting class of '06 that was headlined by the likes of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Brandan Wright. Add that to the fact that the sharp-shooting wing stepped on campus carrying 279 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame, and the decision to red-shirt his freshman season was solidified.

And while buzz surrounding Graves' ability to shoot the ball slowly seeped through the Smith Center's walls, there were other issues that he to master before taking the court in a Tar Heel uniform. Head coach Roy Williams relayed the events of an early-season practice to sum up junior's inconsistencies during the ACC Operation Basketball media day this past October.

"So practice starts and he makes just a sensational play, in my opinion," Williams said. "[Some others] probably did not appreciate it as much as I did: ‘Atta boy, Will. That's what I want you to do. That's great.' And then three possessions later it's like he's out in an Eskimo village."

Graves carved nearly 40 pounds off his frame heading into the '08-'09 national championship season, and averaged 4.0 points, 2.6 rebounds and 11.2 minutes in the first 20 games before being suspended for the rest of the season for not maintaining, according to Williams, "the standards we expect of a Carolina basketball player."

The suspension was baffling, especially considering that Graves was a lifelong UNC fan living the dream of so many others. Williams came "very close" to kicking Graves out of the program, but the Hall of Famer had only done that once before in his career and ultimately regretted the decision.

Holding dearly to that second chance, Graves has fought through an offseason back injury that bulked him up to 254 pounds before the '09-'10 season started. The early part of the schedule wasn't especially kind to the effervescent junior, who connected on seven of his 25 field goal attempts while grabbing just seven rebounds during the three-game stretch of Kentucky, Presbyterian and Texas.

But Graves displayed a more rounded game in the Dec. 22 victory over Marshall, scoring 13 points and pulling down 10 rebounds after being removed from the starting lineup. A right ankle sprain suffered against Albany sidelined him for the loss at the College of Charleston, but Graves has emerged in the North Carolina's first three ACC contests, averaging 15.3 points and 5.7 rebounds with only two turnovers to his credit in 29.3 minutes per outing.

The highlight was undoubtedly his 24-point effort in Saturday's loss to Georgia Tech as the red-shirt junior led the Tar Heel comeback with 22 points and five 3-pointers in the second half.

"I told him that was a big-time shooting exhibition and that I was proud of him," Williams said. "And that it was about time."

After living in Williams' dog house for the better part of his first three years in Chapel Hill, Graves is finally doing the little things needed to excel at this level.

"I think the maturing process does come faster when you're more involved, when you're more of a contributing factor," Williams said. "… The more success you have, you're investing more. The more you participate, you're investing more."

It's no coincidence that Graves' recent emergence has come during a stretch where he's played the best defense of his career in Chapel Hill. The wing earned his first defensive player of the game award following UNC's victory over Virginia Tech on Jan. 10, and then proved the honor wasn't a fluke by winning it against three days later in the loss at Clemson.

"I'm trying to do the little things and it starts on the defensive end," said Graves, who has lost 13 pounds during the season. "Anything I can to ignite the crowd, ignite the team or ignite the game. That's what I'm trying to do."

The other aspect where Graves is beginning to shine through resides in the leadership department. He deferred to Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson on Tuesday, but his postgame interviews have recently taken a detour from his own personal game to the concerns of the team, with his words guiding the change.

Curious about what the Tar Heels need to do to plug the holes threatening to sink the '09-'10 season? Just ask Will Graves.

"It's just a matter of us wanting to beat someone instead of everyone else wanting to beat us," he said. "I just feel like we have to have that want-to to defend the tradition and defend what it is to be a Tar Heel basketball player."

Walk into the North Carolina locker room after any game, win or lose, and you're essentially guaranteed to hear Graves break out into laughter during the Q&A session. Some fans may take that as the junior possibly not caring enough about the struggles of this team, but that couldn't be any further from the truth.

The truth is that while Graves' playing career at North Carolina will end sometime next spring, he will once again have the opportunity to return home and rejoin his family's tradition of cheering for the Tar Heels on the big screen.

"I'm always going to be a Carolina fan at heart," Graves said. "I'm always going to bleed blue. Playing time is just a bonus. To walk out of that tunnel every game, look at the crowd, look in the rafters – I mean, everything is always a dream come true. That's why I want to give it my all every game."

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