In baseball, they're called a "phenom". A player that comes out of nowhere, whose talent captures the nation's attention for an all too brief moment, and then disappears just as quickly. The classic baseball phenom? Detroit's Mark (The Bird) Fidrych.
In football? Think Timmy Smith, the Washington Redskins rookie who rushed for 204 yards in the Super Bowl, and disappeared from football a little more than a year later.
And there's a 43 year old father of six out there who knows what it's like, whose very name, 22 years removed from his last college game, is the subject of debate wherever basketball fans gather.
That name is Michael Graham.
All all-Met forward from Spingarn, Graham's fiery rebounding led the Green Wave to a 24-5 record in the 1982-83 D.C. Interhigh league. "He was the most dominant rebounder at Spingarn in my 11 years as head coach there," said former coach John Wood. Many recruiters had steered clear of Graham's academics at Spingarn, but after a season where Patrick Ewing was being beaten up by opposing centers (and even a few smaller players, notably St. John's guard Kevin Williams), coach John Thompson knew Ewing needed help at power forward. Thompson had not signed previous Spingarn players in the past, but decided to take a chance on Graham, going so far as to wait until Graham graduated high school two months late to add him to the team in the summer of 1983.
Graham's college statistics were not the stuff of legend: in his first 11 Big East games, Graham averaged 2.9 points and just over one rebound per game. Graham scored 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench in the season finale against Syracuse, but scored only one basket in the next two games, both of which were in the early rounds of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. The conference final, on March 9, 1984, began the Michael Graham legend.
He only played seven minutes in the game, failing to score a field goal. But down the stretch, with Patrick Ewing in foul trouble and Syracuse seeking to put the favored Hoyas away, Thompson saw how Graham had handled himself in the season finale with the Orangemen and placed him down low to protect Ewing from a fifth foul. Graham stepped it up defensively, bottling up Andre Hawkins and, in one memorable exchange, with the two tangled under the basket, Graham took a wild swing at him. Immediately ejected by one official, the referees conferred and issued a personal foul instead--other than the Manley finale, few plays still arouse such anger from Orange fans. Graham stayed in the game (ironically, it was his only foul of the game), but the Hoyas caught a second wind, got the game into overtime, and pulled away in a classic, 82-71.
The national spotlight fell squarely upon Graham, whose shaved head became a symbol of Georgetown's take-no-prisoners persona. By month's end, his 22 points and 11 rebounds in the NCAA Final Four won him All-Tournament honors. His 7 for 9 shooting against Houston helped the Hoyas while Patrick Ewing was in foul trouble, and Graham's late dunk sealed the game with just over two minutes remaining. The following week, it was Michael Graham, not Patrick Ewing or John Thompson, on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
A local celebrity of sorts after the season, Graham's inattention to final exams caught the ire of Coach Thompson, who took the unusual step of leaving him off the team in 1984-85. While NCAA-eligible to play, Graham waited a full year for another chance to rejoin the Hoyas in the summer of 1985. By the fall, the two parted ways, with Graham's transfer to the University of District of Columbia. After six months at UDC, while sitting out the season for NCAA transfer regulations, Graham declared for the NBA draft, where he was selected in the fourth round and making it to the final cut of the Seattle Supersonics' camp before being cut. A brief career followed with stops in Europe and South America, far from the spotlight he had once enjoyed.
Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl had a running search in his column for Graham's whereabouts over the years, much as if he was searching for a long lost star. When he finally located Graham in 2005, he found a man with a warm memory of those college days.
"I saw Reggie Williams a couple months ago, and he was like, 'Don't you know how many championships we could have won?'" Graham told Wahl. Given the 1984-85 Hoyas fell six points short of an undefeated season and a second title in 1985, there can be little doubt that had Graham played, that outcome was all but assured, not to mention the possibilities in 1986 and 1987.
Portrayed in the press to be a violent player, Graham never fouled out of a single game. It's the emergence of Graham and the Graham attitude in those final six games in of March, 1984 so many still remember, a fierce presence on the court, then moments later easily chatting with CBS' Gary Bender and the national TV cameras as if he had knew them all along.
Neither for his statistics nor the brevity of his time at the Hilltop, Graham's performance in the 1984 Final Four is worthy of recognition among Georgetown's greats. His play down the stretch in 1984 was vital to the securing of an NCAA national title at Georgetown.
And as he told Sports Illustrated in 2005, "I'm a Hoya for life."