Ailene Voisin

UCD’s Darius Graham plans to make himself at home at Golden 1 Center

Darius Graham has had a basketball in his hands for as long as he can remember. Since he was 5 or 6? He would dribble in the driveway for hours, working on his left hand, trying to cup the ball in his right. He shot layups and jumpers and attempted the proper, fundamental passes.

Except when he didn’t, when he couldn’t resist.

Graham is a Sacramento kid, a product of his environment, so of course he wanted to be Jason Williams. On occasions when he thought his father wasn’t looking, the UC Davis point guard would wrap a pass around his back or try to sneak a dribble between his legs.

“I never saw Darius try that elbow pass, though,” said his father, Sebastian, laughing, referring to one of Williams’ signature plays. “But he just loved J-Will, loved that pizzazz. I would try to tell him, ‘You’ve got to work on your defense. Be a Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson.’ 

Fast forward 15 years. At 5:30 p.m. Monday,Graham, who was an exceptional student-athlete at Sacramento High School, will lead the Aggies onto the floor of his hometown Golden 1 Center. In his already eventful life, the tipoff against Sacramento State will mark the historic debut of college basketball in the new arena.

Goosebumps. Chills. Nerves. Graham laughs, nods and says he is working hard to control his emotions. Anticipating the “awe factor,” Aggies coach Jim Les took Graham and teammate Brynton Lemar on a tour of the facility in late September. The group chatted, posed for photos with Omri Casspi and Darren Collison and had a chance meeting with several former Kings.

“I was able to meet Bobby Jackson and Mike Bibby,” Graham said, still sounding more than a little impressed. “Greg Ostertag was there, too. I was like, man, these were guys I used to idolize. (And) Coach Les, him being one of the Kings’ greats. He was able to put that ball in the basket! I couldn’t wait to tell the guys what the arena looked like, and I told them to get ready.”

Graham is excited for other reasons. His grandparents flew in from Arkansas for the event. They had never seen him play as a collegian until Thursday night, when he scored 15 points in an 89-75 win over Holy Names at the Pavilion.

Because of his family’s strong community ties, he expects a few hundred friends and relatives to attend the first game of a doubleheader at Golden 1 Center that concludes with Cal against San Diego State.

Then there is the fact this is by far the most athletic Aggies team – and perhaps most talented – in the Les era. Don’t be deceived by first impressions. Chima Moneke, a long, springy community college transfer from Canberra, Australia, wears thick glasses that resemble swim goggles. Sophomore guard Siler Schneider tugs a thick white headband over his forehead to prevent his flowing red hair from tumbling down and burning his face. Freshman forward Mikey Henn is a 6-foot-8 version of massive Kings rookie George Papagiannis, right down to the long torso and thick hips.

But with the improved team speed and Graham pushing the pace – his dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail at the behest of his sister – the Aggies are off to a 3-1 start. The updated game plan consists of creating turnovers, controlling the boards, then streaking downcourt.

Graham lights up at the mere mention of the fast break. The muscular 5-10, 180-pound senior has a chance to finish his career as the Aggies’ all-time leader in assists and among the top five in scoring and steals. But he has never been about the numbers, except for his lofty GPA and the victory totals at the end of the season.

“This is it, right here,” he said. “I feel like we have all the firepower to make it happen. The way we can change course from defense to offense is incredible, and it plays to my tendencies. I love to run and get these guys the ball.”

Les, who is in his sixth season, still can’t believe Graham was so lightly recruited out of Sac High five years ago and dreads his inevitable departure. The two are so close, he says, they can finish each other’s sentences.

“His voice is my voice,” said Les, a very successful NBA journeyman in a former life. “Sometimes in a huddle, I’ll come and sit down and Darius is already saying what I was planning on saying. This is a guy who can lead, a guy you want to follow. In our win over Santa Clara (63-58 on Nov. 12), he only had a few points, two assists. But he makes the right pass – maybe it’s a hockey assist – and in the guts of the game, he makes an amazing drive, finish, and plays unbelievable defense.”

Can the undersize Graham play at the professional level? Les thinks he has a chance. He also is genuinely delighted that the player who will lead the Aggies onto the floor Monday is a local product who knows all about the Kings, the community and both the old and new arenas.

“The crazy thing for me,” Graham said, “is that one of my goals was to play at Sleep Train, what we then called Arco Arena. I loved when J-Will was here, when the Kings first got their swagger. I took it for granted how much fun it was to see the way they moved the ball, played together. I definitely was heartbroken when Robert Horry hit that shot. So to be able to play in the new arena? In the first college game?”

Grinning, he added, “The whole city of Sac has been hitting me up for tickets.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin