by Michael Bradley
What it must be like to drain shot after shot. To put up 59 points in a game. Or 68. Seventy-five. To feel the ball leave the fingertips and know that it will settle smoothly into the twine so far away. Most of us will never know. But Travis Grant does. Trouble is, he won’t talk about it all that much. Won’t take us to that state of mind where the basket seems bigger than a hot tub, and tossing the ball into it is as easy as drawing a deep breath while in a sound sleep.
“My teammates were responsible for it,” the man dubbed “The Machine” says. “They had to sacrifice a lot for me.”
What’s the fun in that?
“Points didn’t mean that much to me,” he says.
Now, that’s saying something. For all of his points—a collegiate-record 4,045 of them—The Machine cares most about one number: three. That’s how many NAIA national championships his Kentucky State teams won in a row. It wasn’t just the Travis Grant Experience in Frankfort. This was an ensemble. And winning it all was all there was.
And you don’t believe that, do you? How can a guy average 33.4 ppg over four years and tell you it was all about the team? It’s hard to blame the doubters. After all, basketball history is filled with gunners who wanted theirs first. And second. The team mattered little, if at all. Grant swears that wasn’t the case, and three titles support his argument.
“Coach [Lucias Mitchell] made sure we played as a team,” Grant says. “I didn’t think about how many points I scored. That’s not what the team was about. We were a team. I was fortunate that I shot a better percentage than the other guys, and they passed me the ball.”
At no time was that more evident than during Grant’s final game for the Thorobreds, the 1972 NAIA championship final against Wisconsin-Eau Claire. KSU had won the previous two titles, but the losses of stalwarts Elmore Smith—the third overall pick in the ’71 NBA Draft—and William Graham had pushed Kentucky State from the favorite’s spot in the 32-team, six-day tournament. Grant’s bunch was seeded third overall, and 29-1 Eau Claire was expected to win it all. Even after Grant set a tourney record that still stands by scoring 60 in an opening-round, 118-68 win over Minot State, the Thorobreds were underdogs. Eau Claire coach Ken Anderson made that clear after his team won its second-round game by saying how tough it was for his Blugolds (a combo of the school’s colors) to focus, when Stephen F. Austin loomed in the title game three days later.
Anderson is a legend at Eau Claire, and the school named the court for him a couple years back, but that statement was a bad idea. Kentucky State dumped SFA in the semis, and in the championship game, Grant’s 39 and 8 propelled the Thorobreds to a 71-62 win and their third straight title.
“All of the championships were big, but Coach Mitchell said the third was most satisfying because we lost three starters from the team my junior year, the best team I played on at Kentucky State,” Grant says. “We had good size and quickness, and we could have competed with any team in the country.”
It wouldn’t have mattered if the Thorobreds had lost four starters, the team manager and the mascot. They would have still been tough with Grant. In addition to his status as college basketball’s all-time leading scorer, he holds numerous NAIA tourney records, including most points in a tournament (213 in ’72) and highest career average in NAIA tournament games (34.5 ppg). But the most impressive thing about his four years in Frankfort is that he shot 64 percent from the field. And we’re not talking about some lane-bound giant who shot nothing but two-footers. Grant had range. Serious range. And he made way more than he missed.
“He was the guy who could shoot it from anywhere on the floor,” Graham says. “He could hit them from way behind the three-point line, from mid-range, and he scored quite a few points driving to the basket.
“There were games where he could have scored 100 if we gave him the ball enough.”
At a time where sixth graders wear $150 sneakers and have personal trainers, it’s tough to imagine the most prolific shooting stroke in college basketball history was honed by shooting into a five-gallon bucket. But if you were poor—and black—in 1960s Alabama, you didn’t have too many hoop options. Even the rich white kids had their problems finding good facilities, because Bear Bryant and football ruled the Yellowhammer State then, and basketball was something you played when there weren’t enough kids around to get on to the gridiron.
“It wasn’t always with a basketball,” Grant says. “Sometimes, it was a tennis ball or a rubber ball or anything I had. I developed a good shooting stroke. I think it was a gift from God.”
When Grant wasn’t shooting, he would watch some of the older kids ball on a dirt court. Some of them earned a shot at college ball, but few of them lasted the full four years. “They would go away for maybe a year and then come back,” he says. As Grant became more and more successful at Barbour County HS in Clayton, AL, he received offers from junior colleges and Historically Black Colleges and chose Kentucky State. Mitchell, who had been at Alabama State when Grant was a senior, convinced him to head north. He almost didn’t make it.
Grant’s first airplane ride was on his trip to Kentucky at the start of the school year. Over Nashville, there was engine trouble, and the plane had to land prematurely. “I didn’t want to get back on it,” Grant says. He did, though, and return to Alabama until spring break. The Thorobreds practiced “seven days a week and twice on weekends,” and Grant moved quickly from reserve to first team. “He scored 30-plus points coming off the bench in a game, and he started after that,” Graham says. After one game, in which Grant scored 32, a KSU student shouted, “That’s a human machine.” From that point on, Grant had a new nickname.
The Thorobreds pressed fullcourt and didn’t have more than “one or two set plays,” according to Graham.
They ran a motion offense, and the goal was simple: get the ball to Grant. Others shot, but none could match his production. He scored from everywhere, and he was almost impossible to stop. Grant scored 26.6 ppg as a freshman, and KSU trampled several opponents, often topping 100 points, sometimes reaching 120 and 130.
“He had such a comfortable jump shot,” says Smith, who spent eight years in the NBA and is now a restaurateur and businessman. “Watching Travis helped me develop my jump shot.”
By the time Grant’s sophomore season dawned, Kentucky State was a national force, and Grant was all but unstoppable. He averaged 35.4 ppg and converted 70 percent of his shots. One memorable back-to-back performance still stands as the collegiate standard for pure, undistilled scoring destruction. On Feb. 18, 1970, Grant scored 75 (on 35-50 shooting) in a 141-93 rout of Northwood Institute. Nine days later, he put up 59 in a 159-79 demolition of Franklin College. The 134-point, two-game binge remains the highest tandem total ever.
“He could hit it from anywhere,” Graham says. “You look at the guys who are shooting in the NBA now, and Travis was doing that back in the day. He was 6-8, and he could get the shot off fast, like Dan Marino used to pass. He would catch it, and it would be gone.”
But Grant wasn’t some hot dog playing to the crowd and trying his best to score as many as possible. First off, Mitchell wouldn’t allow that. Any Thorobred who was a minute late for practice was in trouble. Mess up in school, and things got worse. “We were afraid to miss a class,” says Grant, who graduated with a degree in health and physical education and later earned a pair of Master’s.
More important was Grant’s makeup. Most bigs are unabashed egomaniacs. In order to justify their high shot totals, they had to live as if the basketball was their property and that teammates were merely borrowing it. Grant wasn’t like that. He shot because it was his job.
“He was very quiet and very humble, the most humble guy you would want to meet,” Graham says. “If he scored one point or he scored 50, he was the same guy. It was amazing.”
Smith agrees. “He never talked about himself,” he says. “He had confidence in his ability, and that helped all of us. It was a pleasure to give him the ball.”
The ’70-71 team was KSU’s best. Not only was Grant putting up 31.2 ppg, but Smith was rebounding and swatting away shots in the middle, Graham was pounding the boards and rivals were helpless. The Thorobreds tore through most of the opposition and whipped every rival in the NAIA tournament by double figures. The 102-82 win over George “Iceman” Gervin’s Eastern Michigan squad was a fitting end to a tremendous season.
The team was a thresher. Its scrimmages were more competitive than most games, and coterie of professional scouts and personnel executives attended workouts religiously. “It was like you auditioned for the NBA in practice,” Graham says.
It wasn’t just the fact that Kentucky State bum-rushed the NAIA rabble. In the offseason, the Thorobreds would head over to Lexington for a little pickup action with the University of Kentucky, which was still reticent about adding African-American players to the roster. The games were spirited, but there was no doubt—at least among the KSU contingent—who had the better team.
“We would do very well,” Graham says. “We had some players.”
Grant is less diplomatic: “The games were not close.”
After ’71, when Smith (drafted No. 3 overall to the Buffalo Braves, early ancestors of the L.A. Clippers), Graham and another starter left Frankfort, the Kentucky State run was expected to end. At least that’s what Eau Claire’s Anderson thought. Boy, was he wrong. It didn’t matter who was gone, because Grant was still there. He averaged 39.5 ppg and shot 62 percent. His 1,304 points were the third highest all time in college history. On Feb. 28, 1972, Gervin came to town with his EMU team that had won 18 in a row. Grant busted the Iceman’s crew apart with 68 in a 121-76 win. As usual, it wasn’t about the stats for Grant. It was about the wins, and after leading the Thorobreds to their third straight title, his job was complete.
“A lot of people scored points,” he says. “Not a lot of people scored points and won.”
Grant’s Kentucky State career should have been a mere overture to an incandescent NBA tour. From the start, though, he was plagued by poor representation, shaky advice and bad luck. He was drafted 12th overall by the world champion L.A. Lakers, but he says other teams might have drafted him earlier had his agent not made some unreasonable demands. The Lakers were about the worst situation for Grant, since they had a stacked lineup and weren’t in need of an offensive Machine. Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Jim McMillian took care of that. Grant showed flashes of the talent that had made him so great at KSU, but in parts of two years with the Lakers, he played in only 36 games. His star turn came in ’74-75 with the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors, when he averaged 25.2 ppg. But that was short lived; injuries and the ABA’s demise ended his pro career.
“The good thing was that I had my education to fall back on,” Grant says. “Basketball was a vehicle to get me there. Education kept me there.”
Grant spent 30 years as a public school teacher, coach and administrator. He retired in 2010 and spends his time in Atlanta golfing, tending to his wife and two children (son Travis played at Florida A&M) and coaching a sixth-grade team at his church. Perhaps his happiest moments come when the members of the ’71 title team get together Memorial Day weekend to reminisce. “We have to find something for our wives to do, so they don’t have to hear the same stories over and over,” Smith says, laughing.
The players don’t mind. And no matter how legends grow over the years, it would be damn near impossible to overstate Travis Grant’s college career. He scored points and hit shots. But Grant would prefer we take his measure another way. He won.