Darius Graham sat in the middle of the front row, surrounded by teammates on a stage facing a massive television screen Sunday afternoon at The Graduate sports bar in Davis.
The Big West Conference tournament trophy, a sparkling gold basketball, was placed by his feet, and the championship net he helped cut down at the Honda Center in Anaheim after Saturday night’s championship game was in his hands.
Nearby, Graham’s father, Sebastian, captured the action with a camcorder. The emotion and significance of UC Davis’ first berth in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament – by virtue of topping UC Irvine – were documented for a family collection that dates back years.
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After the announcement of the Aggies’ opponent, Graham had a different focus. He quickly sought out his father to celebrate the moment, and the son can move pretty fast with a trophy clutched to his chest like a newborn.
Graham is the jet-quick, relentless defending guard for UCD, a champion for the underdog. He has gone from being lightly recruited out of Sacramento High School to the Aggies’ spirited 5-foot-10 anchor.
The Aggies will face North Carolina Central in a play-in game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, to determine the 16th seed in the Midwest Region. The winning team will face No. 1 seed Kansas in Tulsa, Okla.
Sebastian said he will head to the Midwest – and anywhere the Aggies might play.
“I’m ready,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of batteries and film.”
So is his son, who made sure to get a close-up view of the tournament bracket on the screen as it was unveiled because he had to see it to believe it.
“Oh, I wanted to make sure I got a good seat, because we’ll always remember this,” Graham said, all grins and nearly shaking from excitement. “And my dad has been with me the whole way. It’s been a long time coming.
“I told my dad before the season that this was going to be a special year. On Father’s Day, I wrote him a letter, telling him I was dedicating the season to him and I wanted to do as well as I could to honor him.”
Sebastian is honored.
Darius Graham has gone from being lightly recruited out of Sacramento High School to the Aggies’ spirited 5-foot-10 anchor.
A 1979 graduate of Grant High School who played defensive back at Utah, Sebastian said none of his athletic feats can match his son’s. The accolades include back-to-back Big West Conference “Hustle Player” awards.
“It is so much greater as a father to watch your son achieve great heights,” Sebastian said. “Just so proud. He was the shortest guy in high school, and I remember the last summer he played AAU ball, and we’re driving back from Long Beach. He got a call from (Aggies assistant coach) Kevin Nosek to tell us that coach Jim Les was interested in Darius. And it happened. Darius helped pioneer college basketball’s rise at UCD to new heights.”
Nosek remembered the call. He said Graham did not “wow” any college coaches as a high school player, though his relentless defense and passing on the fast break appealed to the Aggies.
Graham has a career scoring average of only 7.5 points at UC Davis, but he heads the Aggies’ defense. UC Davis beat UC Irvine 50-47 after losing to the Anteaters by 30 points the week before to take the Big West tournament title.
“Absolutely, Darius has been a ‘wow’ for us,” Nosek said. “He’s so genuine and humble, and he makes others feel (they can play) better around him. His hustle has been everything.”
Said Les of father and son: “They’re such special people. Everything that Darius embodies comes from Sebastian, and as a coach, we’re reaping those rewards.
“A lot of coaches get caught up in physical stature when recruiting – how high can he jump? I looked at Darius’ passion for the game, how hard he worked. He didn’t care about anything but winning, making his teammates better. I thought, ‘That’s the guy I want running our team.’ ”
Sebastian retired from the Department of Corrections so he could watch his son play. He has attended nearly every game – home and away – in recent years. And he’ll be there in Dayton, camcorder at the ready.
A lot of coaches get caught up in physical stature when recruiting – how high can he jump? I looked at Darius’ passion for the game, how hard he worked. He didn’t care about anything but winning, making his teammates better. I thought, ‘That’s the guy I want running our team.’
UC Davis coach Jim Les
And when Graham graduates in sociology and organizational studies, his father will be there capturing the moment again.
“You are who you are because of who you surround yourself with, and I feel very fortunate,” said Darius, who plans to work with youth, especially at-risk children. “All this blood, sweat and tears have paid off.”