NBA twin brothers are literal high-fliers
On a grassy runway in south Florida, former Navy airman Joe Graham introduced his twin sons to the joy of flying.
Unsure how preschoolers Joey and Stephen would react to the speed and turbulence of the single-engine Cessna 172, he provided the boys with airsick bags in case their stomachs started to turn while soaring at altitude.
The twins were all smiles when the plane was flying straight and level, but their expressions changed and their eyes grew wide when their dad started banking left and right.
“Before I knew it, they were barfing everywhere except in the barf bags I had given them,” the elder Graham recalled.
Some 5-year-olds might have been scarred for life. Not Joey and Stephen. The nausea eventually subsided once they were back on the ground, but their enthusiasm for the wild blue yonder remained intact.
“We had a couple hours in the hot sun cleaning up the plane,” Joe Graham said. “I thought they would totally lose their love and affinity for flying, but somehow that stimulated their interest.”
The Graham twins, it seems, were destined to be high-fliers.
SOARING ON THE HARDWOOD
As an athletic teen-ager, Joe Graham dreamed of being a pro basketball player until he got cut from his high school team. At that point, he gave away all his gym equipment and pondered a career in aviation or chiropractics.
He opted to enlist in the Navy, and his passion for hoops and high-flying was inherited by his twin boys.
Inspired by trips to air shows and flights with his father, Joey Graham considered attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. That option disappeared once he surpassed the maximum height requirement (6-foot-5) for fitting into the cockpit of a fighter jet.
“I realized I couldn’t be military anymore,” he said. “It had to be civilian.”
The fallback plan worked out pretty well. Selected 16th overall by the Toronto Raptors in 2005 after two impressive years at Oklahoma State, Joey Graham is now serving as an understudy to Nuggets All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony.
Though Stephen went undrafted out of college, he was undaunted. When he made his debut with the Houston Rockets in 2005, he and Joey became the fourth set of twins to play together in the NBA.
“Older” brother Joey is the more accomplished basketball player, but good luck getting them to agree on who is the better pilot.
“It’s up in the air,” said Stephen, now playing for the Charlotte Bobcats. “He would say he is, I would say I am. I guess it’s a personal opinion of whoever’s flying with us.”
There’s not a lot of time to take flight during an NBA season, but the Graham twins made the most of their opportunities while putting in the required training hours at Oklahoma State.
After a tough practice or a difficult week in class, flying served as an escape from the demanding schedule of a student-athlete.
“The training and practice they had was very intense. It was their way of getting away from realities of the day,” Joe Graham said. “When you’re flying, you enter another world, a world of peace and tranquility. No cell phones. It puts you at ease. It takes always the stress and the strain of daily life.”
Joey and Stephen attained their private pilot’s license by the end of their junior year, giving them freedom to make spontaneous off-campus trips. One popular destination was Enrique’s Mexican Restaurant at the Ponca City airport about 30 miles north of Stillwater.
“Right when you land, you taxi to where you park and walk right into the restaurant,” Joey said.
Though too young to rent a car by traditional means, Joey and Stephen were assigned a vehicle upon landing at regional airports. The perks of their high-altitude skills weren’t lost on Oklahoma State co-eds.
“I had one request: They didn’t take girls up flying with them,” Joe Graham said. “Needless to say, I don’t think they listened to me.”
Joey says he only took one date up on a flight, adding that Stephen did it more frequently.
“It’s kind of romantic when you’re flying at night up there and I guess it makes the girls think that they’re exclusive,” Joey said. “(Dad) warned us.”
Just as Joey and Stephen were advised and inspired by their father, Joe Graham followed a trail blazed by the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military airmen trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1941-46.
Nearly 1,000 pilots received their commissions and pilot wings in Tuskegee, Ala., and went on to serve in World War II.
“Those guys mean the world,” Joe Graham said. “They are the trendsetters for most minority pilots because they paved the way for a lot of us that came after them. They are the true heroes and deserve all the recognition.
“We got an opportunity to go back and get to meet those guys and learn about the history. I was always privileged to be in their presence. It makes your heart flutter when you see those guys and what they’ve done.”
As part of Black History Month, the Nuggets recognized several Tuskegee Airmen during their game against Dallas on Feb. 9. Joey Graham watched as the airmen presented the American flag before the national anthem, and he hopes to spend more time with them in the future.
“They paved the way for me and many other African Americans to go out and pursue a career in aviation,” Joey said. “When somebody paved the way for you, it’s always good to pick their brain and figure out how they overcame obstacles and how they did things.”
FUTURE UP IN THE AIR
Still in the prime years of their basketball careers, the Graham brothers are already planning for life after the NBA. The grand goal is to start their own regional airline, perhaps Graham Air, and fly the planes themselves.
“We’ve been getting contacts here and there to try to get started with some type of charter line or trying to open up a hub and get our own planes,” Stephen said. “That’s something we’re definitely interested in for the future.”
The Grahams still need additional training and instrument ratings to fly multi-engine planes, but their current skills in smaller aircraft pass the discerning eye of their father. Joe Graham no longer claims bragging rights as the best pilot in the family.
“These guys have surpassed me in every aspect,” the elder Graham says proudly. “I got an opportunity to fly with them when they got their wings at Oklahoma State. They were safe. I took them through my series of tests to make sure they were proficient, and they passed with flying colors.”
“I guess it’s in the blood,” Stephen said. “ ‘Pops’ did it, so we had a knack for it.”
Even if it wasn’t immediately evident on that hot day in south Florida.