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NCAA title dreams diverted for Oregon coach Kelly Graves and son

Oregon coach Kelly Graves had hoped to cut down more nets this season. The Pac-12 champion Ducks were 31-2, the nation's No. 2-ranked team and among the favorites to win the NCAA title. Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Gin rummy is the game of choice when the sun sets and the cards come out in the Graves household these days. There's also cornhole in the backyard or video games in the den during this period of social distancing. And competition is what kept Oregon women's basketball coach Kelly Graves and his youngest son, Will, a reserve on the Gonzaga men's basketball team, playing cards deep into a recent night.

They didn't have the NCAA tournament. They still had the kitchen table.

"Sometimes, for us, it's not just about winning the hand," Kelly attempted to explain. "I know for me, I like to dominate."

Basketball is both the family business and their preferred competitive outlet. Basketball took Kelly and Mary Graves and their sons Max, Jackson and Will around the Pacific Northwest, from Saint Mary's to Portland to Gonzaga and finally to Oregon, where Kelly transformed a moribund program into a national championship contender. And basketball eventually took Will back to Gonzaga, where he walked on and made a home for himself as part of a team with similarly lofty aspirations.

Winning percentages and points per game are no longer the statistics of note in daily life. And the sobering statistics that replaced them make clear that any games lost as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are inconsequential. But within the confines of sports, the canceled NCAA basketball championships interrupted this story of father and son traveling parallel paths toward national titles. The Oregon women and Gonzaga men weren't just winning hands, so to speak. They were dominating.

When Kelly's team won the Pac-12 tournament on March 8 in Las Vegas and Will Graves' team won the West Coast Conference tournament in the same city two nights later, the family business was booming.

"We both won our conference regular-season and tournament championships," Kelly said. "We both finished 31-2. So not a bad year for the Graves household."

Yet instead of New Orleans on Sunday and Atlanta on Monday, sites and dates of the women's and men's NCAA championship games, respectively, Kelly, Will and the rest of the family will spend those days sequestered at their summer home near Bend, Oregon, across the mountain from the University of Oregon. Whatever joy or heartbreak awaited on the court will remain unknown. But the journey wasn't wasted on either of them.

A gregarious, genial giant much of the time, Kelly nevertheless chases success on the court with an intensity that turned Gonzaga into a Sweet 16 regular and convinced Sabrina Ionescu to believe in his vision for Oregon. But his unrelenting love of competition pushed his oldest son away from the sport at one point. He could shape Gonzaga or Oregon into what he wanted. For he and Will to end up so close to something so special this spring, he had to let his youngest son find his own way.

"You've got to push them a little bit [and also] let them live a little bit," Kelly said. "Maybe I was too much of one. I didn't think so, but everyone around me thought so."

What ends with Will finding a home on one of the best teams in basketball begins with Max Graves.

The oldest of Kelly and Mary's three sons, Max now works in player development for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. But while still a student at Oregon, Max was among the male practice players for the women's team. Except Max wasn't like the rest of his peers whose roles were to be seen but not heard.

"Oh yeah, Coach Graves gave lip and Max gave lip back," Oregon All-American forward Ruthy Hebard said with a laugh. "Which was funny to me because I was like, 'Oh he's talking back to Coach Graves!' But then I was like, 'Oh, wait, it's his dad.'

"They were both competitive, yell at each other sometimes. It was cute to see, honestly. Having that relationship with a parent is something people want to have."

But that wasn't the relationship they had the day Max told his dad he wasn't trying out for the basketball team during his junior year at Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Washington, when Kelly was still the women's coach at nearby Gonzaga University. Fast approaching 6-foot-8, Max had been part of a high school state championship team the previous season. Kelly was certain Max could play Division I if he applied himself the next two seasons.

"He just felt an enormous amount of pressure on his shoulders," Mary said of Max. "He wasn't ready to carry that."

As the family sat around the dinner table, Kelly said Max ought to get going to the tryouts taking place that evening. Max told his dad he no longer wanted to play basketball. He wanted to focus on baseball. He wasn't going to basketball tryouts.

And a standoff commenced.

"I still remember sitting there, the whole family," Kelly said, "Looking at my watch and looking at him, looking at my watch."

Max wouldn't change his mind. Kelly wouldn't relent. Mary recalled the tension in the room simmering to a point where both she and Will, then in middle school, were on the verge of tears.

"Max said he quit," Will said simply, "And my dad was pretty pissed off."

Instead of going to the tryout, Max packed a bag and went to spend the night with neighbors to give everyone time to cool off.

"At first, it was the worst thing in the world when he quit," Mary said. "Not for me -- I just felt sad for Max because I knew what a brave decision he made. And I felt sad for Kelly because he was just so devastated."

Kelly's dad, a teacher, stoked his love of the sport. Joe Graves was also an usher at University of Utah men's basketball games. Kelly would go with him, arriving hours before tip, watching players warm up and soaking it all in. He went with his dad to play pickup games at a local church. For all that, he recalled his dad was a hands-off basketball influence, supportive but far from hovering. Yet later immersed in basketball, his own young family's livelihood dependent on his success as a coach, Kelly at first struggled to turn off that switch.

"We're all just learning as parents, so this was a learning curve for Kelly," Mary said. "I think it would be for any coach who has a son who is gifted and chose not to play. I think Kelly has come out of it with so much more understanding and a better person, just like we all do when we have something that happens to us that doesn't feel right. You grow from it."

As Hebard's recollection indicates, it didn't take long for father and son to mend the relationship. Still, the experience with Max "spooked" Kelly, as he put it. Basketball remained the central pillar of family life -- from endless debates to pickup games with the boys on the lighted outdoor court at their home in Spokane. But with both Jackson and Will, Kelly tried to remain hands off when it came to coaching.

Tried.

Will was preparing to enter his sophomore year in high school when the family moved to Eugene in 2014. As it became clear that Will was serious about extending his playing career beyond South Eugene High School, well, old habits die hard.

"Oh, I was hands-on a little bit once he got to [high] school," Kelly admitted. "And that didn't go over very well, either."

He tried to keep his thoughts to himself. When that failed, he settled for keeping them nonverbal.

"I would see him in the stands [during games]," Will recalled. "He would be texting me during the game, saying like, 'Run the floor harder' and stuff like that. ... He's just a coach, he had to say something; he didn't want to yell. So after the game, I would get my phone, seeing like 10 texts, things to do better."

When Will returned home after the games, Kelly would ask if he saw the texts. No, Will would usually quip, he deleted them.

"He doesn't get bothered by Kelly," Mary said of Will. "If he doesn't want to hear it, he just blocks it out or leaves the room. It doesn't bug him."

"That was a memorable week. One of my best memories as a coach and a dad." Kelly Graves, on Oregon's Pac-12 tournament title on March 8, followed by the Gonzaga men's WCC title two days later

Ever the talent evaluator, Kelly thought Will, a guard growing into a 6-5 frame, could play a fairly prominent role for a Division II or Division III program. But Will wanted the competition of proving himself in Division I. And not just anywhere.

After a year at Lane Community College in Eugene, Kelly and Mary thought Will would transfer to Oregon, where men's basketball coach Dana Altman had indicated he could walk on. It made both basketball and financial sense, given the in-state tuition for the child of an employee. But after Will returned to Spokane last summer to work at a Gonzaga basketball camp, he told his parents that coach Mark Few had indicated he could trying walking on there.

"Growing up [in Spokane], I've always been super close with the coaching staff and former players," said Will, who played Little League baseball with Few's son, A.J. "I used to be that kid running around after games and stuff. I've always looked up to them. Being in that jersey now, it just means everything to me."

Letting Will chart his own course, Kelly advised going for a year and then taking stock of the situation. Maybe he would find he was good enough to stay. Maybe a lower-level D-I program was a better fit. At worst, the Gonzaga name would open a lot of doors if he found the environment too much and chose to transfer to a D-II program.

All practical advice. And all ultimately heeded about as much use as those in-game text messages. Early injuries this season left Gonzaga short of backcourt depth, and the coaches asked Will how he felt about ditching the redshirt, even if it didn't mean many minutes on court. He made his first appearance in the closing minutes of a blowout win against Texas A&M on Nov. 15. He hit a 3-pointer seconds later -- one of his four field goals during the season.

"To me, that meant he was all-in at Gonzaga, that was where he wanted to be," Kelly said of burning the redshirt season. "I think that was his dream school all along. He's been a late developer all along, which is why I still think he has a chance to do whatever."

And when Will took the court in the closing minutes of Gonzaga's win against Saint Mary's in the WCC tournament championship game, Kelly merely yelled for Will to shoot the ball.

"That was a memorable week," Kelly said, "One of my best memories as a coach and a dad."

Sports came to a screeching halt the day after Gonzaga won its WCC tournament title on March 10. By the end of that week, after first preparing to play in empty arenas, the NCAA canceled its tournaments entirely. Will and Max, who had flown to Spokane to see his brother and in anticipation of first- and second-round games there, drove to Eugene, where Jackson also joined the family.

For the better part of two straight days, Mary said, Kelly watched video of Oregon games from this season. He gave players the week off after the Pac-12 tournament, so he never even had a chance to address them in person as a complete group after the season's abrupt end.

He felt for Will, but he knew he now had two more seasons at Gonzaga. For Hebard, Ionescu and the rest of the Ducks who wouldn't return, there wouldn't be another chance.

"This was the year we had really looked to," Kelly said. "We had everything in place, we were playing great. I just feel for them. And as they win these awards, and Ruthy keeps getting named first-team All-Americans, it just makes it sadder. I know people across the country think we're a one-person team, but we're not. We have two first-team All-Americans and a second-team All-American. This was the year."

But as Kelly put it, moving on to the next thing is the lot of a coach.

"What Kelly does really well is move on," Mary said. "Where I'm still grieving, he's moved on."

It helps to have the family together. Even if it means when he retreats to bed in the evening after typically fending off all challengers in cards, Kelly hears the taunting and teasing still coming from Max, Jackson and Will playing basketball video games late into the night.

There wasn't a ladder to climb and a net to cut down, but a pack of cards and the kitchen table would do.