Ernie Graham focused on reunion with son, not 'upsetting' legacy of Terps scoring record

Jon Graham, left, and Ernie Graham

Nearly four decades have passed since Ernie Graham, then a sophomore on the Maryland men's basketball team, broke the school's single-game scoring record with 44 points in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against North Carolina State at Cole Field House on Dec. 20, 1978.

Given the accomplishments of some of the players who have played for the Terps since — from Graham's teammate Albert King to Len Bias, Joe Smith to Juan Dixon, and Steve Francis to Greivis Vasquez — it's remarkable that the record still stands.


Given what Graham has endured — a drug addiction that derailed his professional career and nearly threatened his life, the physical problems that have compromised his mobility in recent years — it might be more surprising that the former Lake Clifton and Dunbar star is still standing, too.

"I always expected it to get broken," Graham, 56, said recently of the record, one of two Maryland single-game marks he broke that night, along with Gene Shue's mark of 16 field goals. "To be able to do that, to accomplish that, I'm very proud of it."


When Maryland (11-1) travels to Baltimore for the second straight season to face Charlotte at Royal Farms Arena on Tuesday, Graham and his son Jon, who played the last two years of his college career with the Terps after transferring from Penn State, will be the game's honorary captains.

For the elder Graham, the record is an afterthought to the reunion with his son, who is playing professionally in Spain.

"I get the privilege of walking out there with my son. It couldn't get any better than that," Graham said.

Still, the record remains a bittersweet part of the elder Graham's legacy, a reminder of a troubled relationship he had with former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell that continues to this day. It began when Graham played in the shadows of King and Buck Williams at Maryland.

Graham said Driesell also told him something the night he broke the record, something he doubts others who came close to breaking it heard from their respective coaches. (Bias and Vasquez have come the closest since, finishing with 41, in 1986 and 2010, respectively.)

"I bet none of them were told not to shoot the ball," Graham said.

He was referring to not only the night he broke Al Bunge's then-18-year-old record of 43 points, but also throughout a career in which Graham scored 1,607 points  at the time, the fourth most in school history, and now 13th.

Ernie and Jon Graham pose outside Tydings Hall on the campus of the University of Maryland on Tuesday afternoon.

According to Greg Manning, who came in the same year as King and Graham and left in 1981 as the school's fifth-leading scorer with 1,561 points, it was something Driesell said to all his players, including King, whose 2,058 points had broken John Lucas' record of 2,015.

Manning, who said he "thoroughly enjoyed playing alongside" Graham during their college careers, said he can't remember anything specific about that night against N.C. State, even the fact that he had what was then a career-high 25 points.


"In terms of Ernie being treated any differently than any of us, I would say we were all treated the same," Manning said last week. "Coach didn't treat Albert any different than he treated me or didn't treat Ernie any different than he treated Albert. We all got fussed at. We all were told at one time not to shoot."

In an interview last week, Driesell said the message he tried to convey to his players during a 17-year career at Maryland — as well as during the previous nine seasons he spent coaching at Davidson and his subsequent years at James Madison and Georgia State — was to take good shots.

Driesell said it was one of the biggest reasons his teams typically shot better than 50 percent from the field. Driesell coached the five top-shooting teams in Maryland history, including two on which Graham played, in 1979-80 (a school-record 55.1 percent) and 1980-81 (53.2).

To break the scoring record against the Wolfpack, Graham took 26 shots, made 18 and hit eight of 10 free throws.

"I didn't know about the record," Graham said. "I didn't plan on setting the record. Those things happen just by happenstance. I didn't even know it existed. It was just there. When I sat down [on the bench], I still didn't know what the people were cheering about."

Graham won't discuss specifically what was said after the game.


"I remember many different things," Graham said. "The thing that sticks in my mind the most was how Coach Driesell reacted after the game, what went on in the locker room. It's upsetting. I remember feeling discouraged because all I wanted to do was win the game."

Asked what he recalled from that night, Driesell said, "We won the game." The Terps did win, beating the No. 4 Wolfpack, 124-110.

While Graham led the team in scoring that season (16.6 points per game) and finished his career second to teammate Dutch Morley in steals (123, now tied for 19th) as well as third in assists behind Lucas and Brad Davis (346, now 16th), he was never named to any All-ACC teams.

Still, like King and Williams, Graham had his jersey honored. But given that he is not in the school's athletic Hall of Fame and that there is no picture of Graham on the Wall of Fame inside Xfinity Center, Graham said: "That's a lonely place to be for all these years."

Asked why he never left Maryland if he felt Driesell favored King and Williams, among others, Graham is resolute.

"I was a fighter," he said. "I thought I was better than some guys. I was tearing it up in practice. I'm from Baltimore, Maryland! We didn't think like that. You don't run from the battle; you take it to them. Where am I going to go? Maryland is my home! I'm home already. The people from other places needed to go home. I believe in me, man. Even after all the mess I've been through, I believe in me."


Graham is in the process of trying to write a book about his life and career.

The working title is "Case Closed."

"One you present your case, you rest," he said. "I say the case is closed because I want to be free. I want to be free from even the struggles I have now. I want to have peace in my life. I couldn't even watch NBA games for years because I hurt so much.

"The one thing I have is peace. I used to feel that I should be some places that I'm not and I don't feel that way anymore. I'm grateful for where I am because I see so much worse in other people's lives that I cannot in due respect be ungrateful for where God has put me at."

In large part, Graham found peace through watching his son Jon.

As frustrated as the older Graham became at times when his son wasn't playing much, he said he has the utmost respect for Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. It was Turgeon who suggested bringing the Grahams back to be honorary captains for the game in Baltimore on Tuesday.


"He helped me a whole lot to grow up in places that hurt me. That fight, it destroys you," Graham said of his son. "It's like when the cards are stacked and you think you can still win and you end up with the disappointment and the heartbreak is overwhelming. He didn't turn to drugs, he didn't turn to alcohol. Most importantly, he didn't turn on himself. I turned on myself."

Graham became a regular at Comcast Center when Jon transferred to Maryland as a junior, in large part to be closer to his parents. His father was struggling physically after undergoing knee replacement surgery in 2014, and later had back surgery in 2015.

Despite being the second-leading scorer in Calvert Hall history, behind Dixon, the younger Graham never developed much of an offensive game in college. His career high was 16 points against Penn State as a senior. He is now playing on a fourth-division team in Majorca, Spain.

In his limited role as a senior — averaging a little over 10 minutes and less than three points and three rebounds per game — the younger Graham played on Turgeon's first NCAA tournament team. Turgeon said the main reason he took the younger Graham was because of his father.

"It was the best thing I ever did," Turgeon said. "Jon changed how hard our team worked. His attitude was infectious. He's one of my all-time favorite players. Jon didn't care if he played 25 minutes or two minutes, he just wanted our team to win. That's really important to help change things around here. In the end, it was a blessing for me."