Before Jimmy Graham developed into the best tight end in the NFL, he was a bruising big man on the University of Miami’s 2008 NCAA Tournament basketball team. After four years as a hooper with the Hurricanes, Graham switched to the gridiron and played well enough in one season to be a third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. Now, fresh off inking a four-year extension in NOLA, the All-Pro matchup nightmare is looking to build on a 2013 season that saw him rack up 86 catches, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. But make no mistake—basketball was Graham’s first love, and he was damn good.
SLAM: We heard you grew up reading SLAM. Is that true?
Jimmy Graham: All growing up, I was a big SLAM Magazine guy. I remember being in middle school and high school, before everyone had Twitter and Snapchat, so when someone got dunked on, you were waiting for SLAM to come out to see if it was going to be a poster. To me, that’s where that term “posterize” came from.
SLAM: Did you have dreams of being on the cover one day?
JG: My senior year, I was the No. 1 player in North Carolina, but I never got the cover. You’ve got to be the No. 1 or No. 2 guy in the nation. At the time, I had a big red ‘fro, so I don’t know if you guys wanted that on the cover. [Laughs]
SLAM: Do you have a favorite memory from your basketball career?
JG: My junior year, when we got into the NCAA Tournament. That was a big moment. We were all gathered on the couches, and then they announced that we were going to play St. Mary’s. I remember how big of a deal that was at the time. I’ll never forget sharing that with my teammates.
SLAM: Who was the best player you ever played with or against?
JG: I played against Greg Oden when I was in high school. When you see a guy who is 7-1 in high school, who literally doesn’t have to jump to dunk, it’s kind of ridiculous. I also played against Al Thornton in college. He was one of the more talented players that I ever played against, because he was so tall, so athletic and he just had a drive to win. He was a special player.
SLAM: How would you describe your basketball game?
JG: One of my favorite players is Birdman. That was me in college. I came in as a freshman and my coach came to me and said, “Hey, we need an enforcer.” And I was the most aggressive one, so I signed up for that and played that role for four years.
SLAM: Your signature touchdown celebration (before it was outlawed) was always to dunk the ball over the goalpost. Was that a nod to your basketball career?
JG: Yeah, that’s to make sure everyone doesn’t forget how all this started—on the basketball court. Every time I go up there and dunk the football, I’m imagining a rim, and me in my jersey. But it probably wouldn’t be No. 80.
SLAM: When did you realize that your basketball skills might make you a good NFL tight end?
JG: Right after my fourth year, I had a bunch of tryouts in the NBA and overseas. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. A couple years before that, the President of my school had joked that I should be playing football, because I was fouling out so much. I was laying the wood without pads. So [Miami football coach] Randy Shannon came to me and said, “We want you to be our tight end next year.” I thought about it, met with some people and eventually came to the decision to go back and run through the smoke.
SLAM: Besides you, who are the best basketball players on the Saints?
JG: Robert Meachem is really good. I think he had a bunch of scholarship offers and wanted to play both sports in college. Zach Strief, our right tackle, he’s like 6-9, 330 pounds—he is a technician with the ball. This guy is like Roy Hibbert in the post. He’s the Roy Hibbert of football. The first time I ever played basketball with [former Saints running back] Darren Sproles, he’s got the DRoses on, he’s got a DRose arm sleeve, the tights, matching socks—he was so geared up to play. But he definitely backed it up.
SLAM: Which NBA players or teams do you root for?
JG: John Wall. We were playing in college at the same time, and I remember him coming out. His explosion, he’s so quick. And I play in New Orleans, so I’m a big Pelicans fan. But my family’s got season tickets to the Heat.
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