SJSU’s easy rider: Nothing rattles laid-back star Graham
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News March 7, 2011
Read a related story about two-time WAC first team member Adrian Oliver.
By Mark Emmons
The night Justin Graham broke San Jose State’s career assists record, students rushed the Event Center floor and briefly carried him around the court. He kept the hero treatment in perspective.
“It was just my friends,” Graham said after the nationally televised overtime victory against New Mexico State on Feb. 23. “They wanted to get on TV.”
Later, as Graham said this, his skateboard was tucked under one arm. With shoulder-length locks and wispy facial hair, he looked more like a mellow surfer dude than a guy who is a very good, under-the-radar college basketball player.
Overshadowed by scoring-machine teammate Adrian Oliver, Graham heads into the Western Athletic Conference tournament averaging 14.8 points a game and will leave SJSU with his name all over the school record book. How far the Spartans (15-14) advance will depend on what might be arguably the best backcourt tandem in school history.
Still, the 6-foot-4 Graham mostly is known for one thing — his hair. Even when confined by a soccer-style hair band during games, the unruly mop touches his jersey.
And, predictably, the taunts on the road are endless. He has been called Jodie Foster, Justine and Sunshine, after a longhair character in the film “Remember the Titans.” In San Antonio earlier this season, he saw a heart-shaped cardboard placard featuring photos of himself and pop star Justin Bieber.
“They put Bieber’s hair on me, and it was like we were brothers,” said Graham, who grew up in the Central Valley town of Ripon. “That was the best one yet.”
Graham likes his look. But if you don’t, hey, he’s OK with that.
“Nothing really affects Justin,” said his mother, Shari Hernandez. “You can call him Sunshine. You can call him a girl. And it just doesn’t matter to him because he never gets upset.”
That breezy, free-spirit attitude is reflected in his favorite mode of transportation — the skateboard.
“You’ve got to let the guys be college students, too,” SJSU coach George Nessman said with an air of resignation.
Graham probably was destined to be a college basketball player. Both of his parents played at Cal State Stanislaus. (“I think my mom was better,” Graham said of Hernandez, a Cupertino High grad who was a four-year starter.)
Although he was 4 years old when they divorced, his parents directed both Graham and younger sister Jessica — now a player at the University of Idaho — toward the sport. And it was as a second-grader playing in a Saturday morning league that Graham first noticed another youngster.
“I was that boy who was running around and didn’t know what he was doing,” Graham said. “But this kid was amazing. I was thinking: ‘He’s better than all the third-graders.’ ”
That was the first time he encountered Oliver, a native of nearby Modesto.
As he got older, Graham began to grow out the buzz cut he had favored in his youth. But it wasn’t just a fashion statement.
He was diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin depigmentation condition, on his scalp. Faced with an increased risk of skin cancer if out in the sun unprotected, Graham took that as the green light to save money on haircuts.
“Now, he doesn’t have to keep it that long,” his mother said, laughing. “But there is a reason.”
Graham actually cut his hair short again before his junior year at SJSU, a look he called “weird.” But after going 15 months before getting another trim, the hair is back in full flourish — much like his game.
In addition to being the Spartans’ second-leading scorer, Graham is averaging 4.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals as well as shooting 43 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
His all-around game has blossomed after finally getting a full summer of work on the court and in the gym, landing him a spot on the Western Athletic Conference’s all-defensive team and honorable mention all-conference honors.
A lingering wrist injury — from basketball and not a skateboard fall, in case you were wondering — bothered him for two years. A pair of 2009 surgeries to repair a broken scaphoid bone meant he couldn’t pick up a ball the entire offseason before his junior year, and his play stagnated.
But today, a guard whom Nessman once chastised as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” for his erratic ballhandling tendencies is a calmer court presence and has the WAC’s second-best turnover-to-assist ratio as he has meshed with Oliver, a University of Washington transfer.
Off the court, Graham already has an undergraduate diploma in communication studies and is close to completing his master’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in sports management. But he has other career aspirations before using his degrees.
NBA scouts are a regular presence at Spartans games as they study Oliver and his 24.3 scoring average. But the athletic Graham has heard enough whispers to believe he might be able to get paid to play basketball, too — likely overseas. Anywhere that has “some good food” is a place he’s willing to go.
“How could I turn down an opportunity to play professional basketball and live in a foreign country?” Graham said. “Not many people get to have that experience.”
For now, he would like to stretch out his SJSU experience a little longer, even if it means taking more grief for his hair.
“There are some instances where you hear something that’s out of line,” he said of heckling from the stands. “But for the most part it’s all in good fun.”
He thought for a moment.
“I don’t think I look like Jodie Foster,” Graham added. “But maybe I do.”
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.