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Terps forward Jon Graham and his father Ernie have both learned from each other

Ernie and Jon Graham pose outside Tydings Hall on the campus of the University of Maryland on Tuesday afternoon.
Ernie and Jon Graham pose outside Tydings Hall on the campus of the University of Maryland on Tuesday afternoon. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun)

Jon Graham's transfer from Penn State to Maryland two years ago seemed to make sense on many levels.

It was a chance to play at the school he grew up cheering for, long after his father, Ernie, had left College Park as the single-game high scorer in men's basketball history.

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It was also an opportunity to wear the same jersey number as his father, one that hangs from the ceiling of Xfinity Center to honor the accomplishments that include Graham's 44-point game against North Carolina State in 1978.

"Maryland had always been a dream school for me," Graham said Monday.

But as Jon Graham prepares to play for the first time against his former team Wednesday night — including his former roommate, D.J. Newbill, the Big Ten's leading scorer — Ernie Graham said his son's decision had more to do about the present than the past.

Not surprisingly, it also had to do with Jon Graham thinking more about someone other than himself.

"At one time he was going to leave school and come home and work and take care of me," the elder Graham, 55, said Friday. "That's the kind of kid he is. ... I hope that one day I can be as strong as my son. My son has taught me more than I will ever teach him."

Jon Graham told his parents that he felt a responsibility to help his father though another difficult period of his life. Nearly 20 years after he kicked his addiction to drugs that likely cost him an NBA career, Ernie Graham's body had started breaking down.

Last April, Ernie Graham had full knee replacement. He still needs back surgery to repair discs that Graham said were damaged when he slipped on a wet spot during a workout with the Washingon Bullets after he successfully completed drug rehab in 1995. He said he also suffers from diabetes.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Monday that his decision to take the younger Graham onto the team was mostly done for his father.

"I did this for Ernie and what he did for this program, because he was sick," Turgeon said. "But that said, [assistant] coach Bino [Ranson] watched Jon grow up. He swore by him. He kept saying, 'You won't have a better kid. So I said, 'We can't lose.' He's been better than I expected. He's been a better kid and a better player."

Despite his medical problems, Ernie Graham and his wife, Karen, have never missed one of their son's games, regardless of how little he played. The same was true at Penn State, when the drives were a lot longer, the team was losing on a regular basis and Jon Graham wasn't playing that much — if at all.

"He'd obviously like to play more," Ernie Graham said of his son's role as a senior at Maryland, where he has been used mostly as a reserve forward and center. "He's accepted the role he plays with a lot of dignity. I admire him. I couldn't have done that. Trust me when I tell you."

'He's taught me everything'

Ernie Graham was a prolific scorer and prodigious rebounder in high school. After leading Lake Clifton to back-to-back city championships, Graham averaged 27 points and 22 rebounds as a senior at Dunbar, driving the Poets to their first city title under Bob Wade.

Graham now says he was an "arrogant" player who spent much of his four seasons at Maryland playing "under duress." It came from often being in the shadow of Albert King and Buck Williams, both of whom became first-round NBA draft picks the year Graham was chosen in the third-round by the Philadelphia 76ers.

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Jon Graham has only seen footage of his father's days at Maryland, where he left as the school's fourth-leading scorer with 1,607 points. (He now ranks 13th). Most of the younger Graham's image of his father came from what he watched growing up, a man fighting and conquering his demons.

Ernie Graham said he started smoking marijuana at age 13 in Baltimore and only got worse when he got to Maryland. As his eventual addiction to cocaine and heroin overshadowed his talent, Graham became a basketball vagabond who carved out a career in Europe before returning to Baltimore.

Two years after completing drug rehabilitation, Graham — who also has a 33-year-old son, Ernie Jr., from a previous relationship — started his "Get The Message" foundation to warn students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

Jon Graham recalled when his father came to talk to his class at Johnnycake Elementary School in Catonsville.

"Obviously when I was a kid, I really had no idea, but as I got older, when he started his 'Get to Message' program at different elementary schools, he kept telling me and and a bunch of kids his story," Jon Graham said.

"He's taught me everything outside the game, about the pitfalls of life. The life skills he taught me are invaluable, certain things about the people you hang out with, the friends you choose, about personal responsibility. I listened to that story year by year, and I learned something new every time."

'Always been a great kid'

While Jon Graham has benefited from the lessons of his father, Ernie said he has learned about persistence and patience from watching his son never lose his enthusiasm or work ethic while playing a limited role for the Terps the past two seasons. Jon, a two-time All-Metro selection during his time at Calvert Hall, is averaging 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.3 minutes per game.

As frustrated as Ernie Graham gets watching — often leaving his seat behind the basket to calm himself down before his son leaves his seat on the bench for the first time in a game — his son seems to be the ultimate team player for 17th-ranked Maryland (18-4, 6-3 Big Ten). Turgeon calls him "one of the most selfless kids that I've ever coached."

"He's the first one off the bench [during a timeout], the first one up clapping. He's incredible," Ernie Graham said. "He's helped me a lot to grow as an individual. Based on how he handles thing I'm able to handle things a little better."

As a tribute to his son's decision to come to Maryland, Ernie Graham made one of his own last fall. He would return to classes in College Park, where he left more than 30 credits short of his degree in 1981. He had tried once before, in 1998, but he now admits, "It was a lot trying to go back to school after a lot of years."

Having his son there with him this time might make it easier.

"This is not really about me as much as it is about Jonathan — Jon is a lot of the motivation for why I decided to go back," Ernie Graham said. "It's a lot to do with the relationship that he and I have. It would mean a lot to him if I was able to finish. He just feels real proud that I would be able to do that."

On his father's first day back at school last week, Jon Graham checked in to make sure Ernie was in attendance at an African-American studies class.

That didn't surprise Ernie. Even growing up, Jon has, according to his father, "always been the same way. He's always been a punctual person, he's always been the hardest person on himself, always pushed himself, always been respectful, always been a great kid."

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Much of that comes from Karen Graham, who has worked in the same job for the federal government for over 40 years.

'An unbelievable blessing'

Father and son chuckle when the differences in their personalities — and their games — are mentioned.

"That's an understatement," Jon Graham said.

"Not even close," Ernie Graham said.

Karen Graham said her strong Christian faith — one that was eventually adopted by her husband and son — has given her a better understanding of the relationship between them. It has also strengthened the entire family dynamic, she said.

"You never know how people are used as an open vessel to make changes in somebody else's life," she said. "Clearly he [Jon] has been a teacher for us, he's been a confidant, he's been an eye opener. I have been truly amazed to see the growth and maturity in our son and I often tell him how much he has grown and how much he has helped us grow as individual, as a couple and as parents."

Though he has never put up significant numbers like his father — he has never scored more than 10 points in a game — Jon Graham has helped at Maryland win games with his defense, rebounding and communication.

"I'm not going to be shooting a whole lot of jump shots," he said. "My role is what it is, but I'm enjoying it because I'm on a really good team right now, especially my final season. I'm not worried about personal accolades; I'm about winning games right now and us getting a [Big Ten] championshp.'

Graham said he has anticipated playing Penn State nearly since the day he arrived at Maryand.

Asked if it seems weird to be facing the Nittany Lions, Graham said, "To be honest, it is. It's guys who were my roommates. I still call them my good friends, and it's going to be great to see them again. It's going to be weird playing against them in an official game."

That Graham will be playing a contributing role is impressive in itself. Initially thought to be little more than another big body in practice, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward has worked harder than any of Turgeon's more highly recruited players.

"Every day is the same thing: He comes up, says hello, gives you and a handshake or a hug and goes to work," Turgeon said. "You never have to worry about Jon, on or off the court. He's been an unbelievable blessing to our program."

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