By Andrew Stark
There’s an adage that reminds folks that there are at least two sides to every story, and the tale of Independence boys basketball star Marcus Graves is a testament to that.
On one hand, he’s a fortunate teenager growing up among celebrity professional athletes. On the other hand, he’s a 16-year-old who simply wishes his father, former Carolina Panthers wide receivers coach Fred Graves, could witness him develop into a top-notch athlete and solid young man with a bright future.
Soon, Graves and his family’s polarizing worlds likely will meet somewhere in the middle. The question isn’t when they’ll collide – it’s on which extreme end of the country the family will call home.
Graves is carving out a name for himself with the Patriots, a squad that he helped become one of the state’s best this past season. While the Patriots ascend to new heights, colleges are beginning to notice Graves’ talent on the hardwood, something that’s sure to culminate in Graves following in the footsteps of his parents’ athletic success.
His mother, Independence volunteer assistant softball coach Michele Graves, is a former softball player at the University of Utah, where his father competed on the football team and led the Utes in receptions during his senior season. Fred has been a coach for 37 years, including 12 in the NFL. He’s worked with some of the league’s brightest stars during his career, which included the previous two seasons with the Panthers.
Star Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has attended Marcus’ Independence basketball games, as have receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and many other Panthers. But with all the star-studded encounters, there comes trying times.
In January, the Panthers fired Fred Graves, along with two other assistants. The Graves family has moved repeatedly during Fred’s career but figured Charlotte would be home at least until Marcus, currently a junior, graduated from Independence.
Fred signed a two-year deal with the Panthers during Graves’ sophomore season and received a one-year extension after his first season. But even though Carolina won its final four games with a receiving corps that was highly productive, Fred was let go after the 2012 campaign.
“Fred’s no better than anyone else,” said Michele. “But when you work in the NFL, it’s the kind of business where you have to pick yourself up quickly, and it’s not always fair. People think that it’s really cool, and honestly it is cool. But we’ve moved six times, and there’s that side of it, too.”
And now, with Marcus’ senior year on the horizon, he and his parents are facing their toughest move yet.
A WORLD APART
Fred now is in California after landing a new job as the San Diego Chargers’ receivers coach. He’s lived the past three months in a hotel three time zones away from his son, wife and sense of normalcy.
He missed most of Marcus’ basketball games this past season and isn’t looking forward to going through another year of not seeing his son play.
“You always want to watch your kid play,” Fred said during a phone interview from San Diego. “You miss that opportunity, and it’s something that you can never get back. With my job, sometimes even if I were in Charlotte I’d still miss some things. But being 3,000 miles from it, you miss everything.
“This is the hardest move ever,” Fred continued. “I want to support him and let him continue to have success, but when something like this comes up, you have to sit down and talk about it so you can do what’s best for the family. We’re a family, and we have to stay together as a family. Those times you never get back, and you try to make them up, but it’s really tough to do that. And, in reality, they’re gone forever.”
And, so goes the dilemma for the Graves family: Do Michele and Marcus stay in North Carolina while Fred tries to grow in his first season with the Chargers? Or do they move to California, where Marcus would have to spend his final year of high school with new classmates and teammates?
Marcus wants to stay in Charlotte to finish what he and his teammates started – turning a two-win team his sophomore season into one of the state’s best and most complete basketball teams with essentially the same roster.
“It’s like we’re five best friends,” Graves said of fellow rising seniors Tayon Gleaves, Workpeh Kofa, Deion Lane and Herbert Bowen, Jr.
“That’s the hardest thing for me. Charlotte has been a great city, and that’s all good. But I have the opportunity to maybe win a state championship with my best friends, and that’s the one thing I always think about. Basketball is the main reason I want to stay. We were 2-23 and went to 24-6 last season. We’ve been through everything together, and I want to finish what we’ve started.”
Michele understands her son’s point but is concerned about what spending another year away from Fred entails.
“It’s a hard decision for us,” Michele said. “Do we want to be apart and do all of that? I know what Marcus wants, but that would be hard. We can’t have two households and Fred is already out there.
“People have offered that Marcus can live with them. I think I could go back and forth, but then I think, ‘What if I’m in San Diego and something happens?’ It’s not someone else’s job to raise our child, and we want to all be together. I’ve looked at high schools (in San Diego) and have done the legwork. It’s just a tough decision.”
Michele is from Long Beach, Calif., and most of her family, including her 88- and 89-year-old parents, lives in the San Diego area. She said if it were just she and Fred, who’s originally from Los Angeles, the decision would be easy. But it’s a complicated matter coordinating the family on two different sides of the country.
“In the NFL or coaching in general, it’s easy to say, ‘Fire the coach,’” Michele said. “In this day and age, if you don’t turn things around in two years, it’s likely the coaches will be gone. I don’t think people understand just how much goes into it. It can tear a family apart, but it’s the nature of the business, and we knew going into it what was at stake. I just don’t think we thought we’d have to deal with it during Marcus’ senior season.
“We have to think of everything and weigh our options. We have a beautiful yellow lab, Champ, who Marcus adores that we got when he was nine pounds, and he’s 7 (years old) now. He has to go somewhere.
“The main thing is we’re happy that Marcus is in athletics and has made such great friends through sports and has had such success. And we’re thankful Fred has a job, and it’s been a great journey that we’ve had together. But this year has been so hard on us.”
Michele said the family will make a decision in the next week or so. The most-discussed option is to have her float between San Diego and the Charlotte area. But like all the scenarios, that would present its own challenges.
Independence basketball coach Preston Davis would prefer to keep Graves, who averaged 12.4 points, 4.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game while locking down the Patriots’ opponents’ best perimeter player on defense this past season.
“I can only imagine how tough of a decision it is,” Davis said. “I’ve always been one to put family first. It comes before sports, in my opinion. But with that said, we want Marcus back, obviously. If Marcus comes back, it makes us a strong contender to make a run for a state championship. It doesn’t make us the clear-cut favorite or anything, but you have to have the possibility that we could win it in the equation, and especially so with Marcus with us.”
Davis recently compiled a highlight reel of Graves that he sent to a number of college coaches. He said within days, a number of coaches called and inquired about the steady southpaw guard.
“He’s starting to get looks from colleges, and that’s an exciting time for him,” Michele said. “He’s worked hard to get that, and if we move, I think Marcus thinks they’ll lose track of him, which I don’t think will happen. That plays into (our decision), too.”
Davis said he’s determined to do everything he can to help Graves realize his dream of playing college basketball, whether or not he’s a Patriot next season. But he understands Graves’ fear of changing teams, especially between his junior and senior seasons, which is traditionally the most pivotal time for athletes to catch the attention of college recruiters.
“Whatever decision they make, me and the Independence community definitely support Marcus and his family,” Davis said. “Their son is going into his senior season, and he’s getting comfortable in a system and he’s finding his niche and it’s starting to pay off for him. The recruiting ball is just starting to roll.
“He does so many things for us and is a big part of what we do. You never know if you go somewhere new and the coaches may not know you or may not utilize you the same way that we do. You just never know the dynamics of going to a new situation, and I understand what Marcus is thinking on that end of it.”
The Graves family understands the pros and cons, and Michele said she’s agonizing over the decision, constantly updating her list of positives and negatives. And while Graves would love to spend his senior season in Patriots’ green and white, he said he’ll understand whatever his family decides.
“My mom’s my No. 1 fan, and she’s always at all of my games and (AAU) tournaments,” Graves said. “I know she supports my dad and is always sending him updates. I know my dad is doing what he loves to do, and he’s helping out our family by making money and providing for us.
“(Moving around) has gotten tougher as I got older, but we’re staying strong as a family. Knowing they have my best interests in mind makes it easier on me.”
Michele said she knows Fred has the family’s best intentions in mind, too.
“Fred isn’t being selfish – he’s just a dad that wants to see his son play sports and grow up around him,” Michele said.
“During the day I’m busy with work and getting ready for the (NFL) Draft and all of that,” Fred said. “But in the evenings and this weekend, I was sitting around doing nothing but missing them. You want to be with your family, and that’s tough. If I were in Atlanta and it was just a three- or four-hour car ride, that would be one thing, but being cross country is something else.”
Marcus said he’s excited about the prospect of playing basketball in college some day. But in his mind, he’s already laid out his perfect ending to things.
“I want to stay here, but it’s whatever is best for my family,” Graves said. “I want to play basketball on a good team.”
Graves paused before continuing and offering a smile.
“OK, really I want to be on this team with these guys and finish what we started. We’ve been through so much together, but playing our senior season together with a chance to be state champions with my best friends, that’s what I really want.”