September 29, 2011

Some of the Hornets biggest fans happen to work right across the street from the Hive. During the winter months when the NFL and NBA regular seasons overlap, its common to see numerous New Orleans Saints players watching from the New Orleans Arena seats, fervently supporting the citys professional basketball franchise.

Among the 50-plus members of the team, no player is more qualified to discuss the NBA and hoops than second-year tight end Jimmy Graham. The University of Miami product played four years of college basketball for the Hurricanes and ranks in the schools all-time top-10 list in career blocks and games played.

Officially listed by the Saints at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Graham is a serious basketball fan who attended countless NBA games during the 2010-11 season. While in New Orleans for the 10 NFL season, he went to several Hornets home games. Hes also a Miami Heat season ticket holder, which enabled him to get an up-close look at the Heats entire 2011 postseason run to the NBA Finals.

Graham recently sat down with after a Saints practice to discuss basketball which he calls his first love while a few of his football teammates listened intently nearby. Graham enjoyed the best game statistically of his two-year NFL career on Sunday in a 40-33 victory over the Texans. The 24-year-old hauled in four receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown. Given your background as a college basketball player at Miami, Im going to go ahead and say you must be the best basketball player on the Saints roster. Who is second-best?
Graham: Ive heard (Zach) Strief is pretty good. Everyone has been telling me that he could take me to the hoop but I know he cant. [smiles] Im sorry, but I was a defender in college. Thats what I did really well. I dont care how big you are. Also I keep hearing (Robert) Meachem is good, and he keeps challenging me to a game. Another one is Lance Moore.

But if I had to pick one guy? Probably Drew Brees. He tells me that he drives and dishes, or drives and throws alley oops. He keeps telling me that hes a (great distributor), and I can see that. I believe it. So besides Meacham, have any of your teammates challenged you to a one-on-one basketball game?
Graham: Everyone has challenged me. Everyone! Ive got probably 15 challenges on the board, and Im ready to take on all of them, one at a time. I kept telling everyone, Bring it. Im ready. Ive got my ankle braces, my (basketball) shoes. Im ready to go. But for some reason, when this offseason came, it was impossible to get in touch with anybody! [laughs]

I plan to get it together though and play them. Im going to make a little extra money on the side, just whupping up on everyone in this locker room. [laughs]

I would say the main culprit though, the guy who is always talking (trash) every day is (Adrian) Arrington, sitting right there. He thinks he can beat me at hoops and tries to pretend he can dunk on me. But look at him he weighs 172 pounds (Editors Note: Arrington is officially listed at 192 pounds) soaking wet. Im 265 pounds and 6-foot-7, with hops and a 41-inch vertical leap.

Arrington: [interjecting from three locker stalls away] Wait, what are you talking about? So what? I have a 40-inch vertical!

Graham: [in a mock serious tone to Arrington] Hey, this is MY article! I think youre going to like this next question. Who is the worst basketball player on the Saints?
Graham: All youve got to do to find that is go straight to our defense. Defensive players are actually the most athletic guys on the team, but the hand-eye coordination is just not there. [laughs] Its tough to pick just one guy, but after seeing him on the baseball field (during the teams charity softball game at Zephyr Field), I would have to go with Jonathan Vilma. Hes the most athletic person Ive ever met in my life, but I cannot see him doing things like dribbling the ball up (the court), passing, catching I just cant see it. And I definitely dont think he has a jumper. Twitter follower @GumbeauxGazette sent in the following interesting question for you. Given their similar backgrounds, did you get any tips from basketball-players-turned-NFL-tight-ends Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates?
Graham: Actually, right before I went to the NFL combine a year and a half ago, Gonzalez called me and told me that hed been following my career. We have a few mutual friends. He told me good luck and was talking to me about how a lot of basketball skills can translate to the football field. I was still new to football (having played only one year of it at Miami) so everyone was calling me a project. But Gonzalez said that if you work on your skills the right way and are taught the right way, it will help you become a better football player.

Some of the biggest things that carry over are shielding your defender with your body away from the ball and reaching out for it with your hands. When I came here to the Saints, all of my coaches always used some kind of basketball reference. They would scream, Jimmy, box him out! or stay low in your blocks! like you would to (prepare to leap in basketball).

AP Photo

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez With your experience in basketball, would you consider trying to play in the NBA when your football career ends?
Graham: [smiles] I actually had a bunch of tryouts for the NBA (after his basketball career at Miami) and some looks overseas. Im a tough, hard-nosed player, with a little bit of skill, who can jump really high. There were opportunities, but I just wanted to run through the smoke at the University of Miami (a pregame tradition for the Hurricanes football team), because thats just a big deal for an athlete to be able to do. But I think that for anyone who has ever played basketball before, you always have hoop dreams. You always think, what if? Did you have a chance last season to go to any Hornets games?
Graham: Yes, I went to a few. I love basketball. One game I remember really well was the Hornets game here against Miami. That was fun. Im a big basketball fan obviously, but its also so cool to see the community get excited when there is a big game, and see some of that Superdome crowd come over. Everyone has a great time. Our fans in New Orleans are not like other fans, who just sit there and hang out. Theyre into the game. Its like a mini-Mardi Gras there, so its definitely cool. Speaking of New Orleans fans, what has the experience of interacting with them been like for you?
Graham: Probably one of the most incredible things was last year, being a draft pick, I came in to the city to visit. I forget what restaurant it was, but one of the guys working there came up to me and said I just want to thank you for what youve done for the city. I thought to myself Really? I havent done anything. But (the restaurant worker) was talking about the Super Bowl victory (in February 2010) and what the team meant to New Orleans. For fans here, its much more than a game. They take the 12th-man concept very literally here, which helps us have such a great home winning percentage. I think they know how important it is for visiting teams to be drawn offsides, for example. When you come into the Dome, it is decibels above anywhere else. It is incredible to play in that atmosphere and to see everyone in their full (Saints) gear, seeing people with faces painted. It has a college feel to it, as far as passion for the team. Thats really cool to be a part of. Anything else you wanted to mention?
Graham: From now on, pretty much all of my touchdown celebrations are going to be dunks. Im going to bring it back to basketball. Im going to bring out the windmill last year I did a 360 vs. Atlanta and Im going to do a between-the-legs (dunk) but only if I can still do it. If Im going to do that one, its probably going to have to be at the beginning of the game, when Im still fresh. [laughs]

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