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Sounds of Thunder: Jerami Grant brings back memories of a Sooner legacy

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The Thunder’s NBA bloodlines, part 2 : Jerami Grant

Sooner Football Rules the Land

In 1947, the University of Oklahoma promoted tenderfoot assistant Bud Wilkinson to the lofty mantle of Head Coach following Jim Tatum’s ephemeral stint. In the 40+ years prior to Wilkinson’s hiring, the OU football program was ambitious —including an unofficial National Championship awarded by the Billingsley Report in 1915. However, with Wilkinson at the helm, the program ascended to legendary status in short order.

Officially, Wilkinson’s Sooners won 3 National Championships: 1950, 1955, and 1956. The revered sideline General's powerhouse teams also collected “unofficial” National Championships in 1949, 1953, and 1957. However, the defining phenomenon of the Wilkinson era is a piece of Sooner lore known simply as “The Streak.”

Following a stalemate against the Pittsburgh Panthers in game three of the 1953 season, the Oklahoma Sooners would taste nothing but the sweet nectar of victory until November 16, 1957 — fifty years to the day when Oklahoma was formally recognized as an official member of the United States.

Many OU old-timers blame the streaks’ ending on the “Sport Illustrated Cover Jinx” ....

... but I think Coach Wilkinson’s words to his team throughout the streak are a bit more telling:

“No one will remember how many games you win. They will only remember the team that beats you.”

The team that upended OU that long past day in November? Notre Dame. The Irish beat the Sooners 7 - 0 to end the longest undefeated romp in Division I football history.

Wilkinson’s message wasn’t entirely prophetic, however. A record of forty-seven games unbeaten, untied, and almost 50 years later, unchallenged WILL be remembered. Bleacher Report’s Bryan Healey ranked it #7 in his list of 50 most unbeatable records in sports.

Only three teams have won 30 or more since. Texas won 30 from 1968 until 1970. The University of Miami won 34 straight from 2000 to 2002, and Southern Cal matched that from 2003 to 2005. Those winning streaks took three years to accumulate, but if you want to top Wilkinson’s Sooners you have to maintain perfection for four.

College football’s current longest winning streak is held by the reigning National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide at 12. That means a record that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next season has no hope of being broken until, as it stands today, sometime in January of 2019.

Think about that date for a moment... January of 2019. No eyebrows raised? Allow me the opportunity to elaborate.

At 12, the Crimson Tide need 36 successive victories to usurp the Sooners’ record. Here is what accomplishing that would entail. First, the Tide has to finish this season undefeated AND win another National Championship. If they get past that little hurdle that would put them at 18 wins with 30 to go.

Still seeking gravity? Okay, I’ll continue.

Alabama plays a 12-game season in arguably the best conference in the land. If all goes well, they then play in the SEC Championship game, and then need back-to-back wins against 2 of the top 4 teams in the country to win the national crown. Assuming they come out unscathed, that’s 15 games total.

Thirty divided by fifteen is two.

Does everyone see where the old professor is going with this? No...... no problem-o.

In order to top the Sooners, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide must arrive unscathed at the National Championship game sometime in January of 2019. Further, the arduous road to that date requires they maintain perfection in the SEC for 3 consecutive seasons, win 3 SEC championship games, beat 5 top 4 teams and win 2 National Championships.

Then, if Alabama can somehow traverse that grating minefield they would be subjected to a dizzying media frenzy leading into a game of such magnitude. The hype that led to Mark McGwire's breaking Roger Maris’ home-run record in 1998? Child’s play compared to the social and big-media blitz that would surround a National Championship game with a half-century record on the line.

THAT is how unbeatable this Sooners’ record is.

Needless to say, by the time I graced the world with my sweet presence in 1959, Oklahoma was the Land of College Football and OU reigned supreme.

Even in Wilkinson’s lean years and throughout the short tenures of Gomer Jones and Jim Mackenzie, Sooner football ruled. Then Chuck Fairbanks revitalized the program. Fairbanks introduced the wishbone offense, coached in the “Game of the Century” against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1971, and like clockwork the Sooners were on top again. It couldn’t get any better for Sooner fans, or so they thought. Then, “the King” arrived. Barry Switzer.

Possibly the most dynamic college football coach of all time. He was brash and flamboyant, outrageous and cocky, and most importantly, he won. He won BIG and did so with flare and no apologies. OU fans worshiped him.

Three official National Championships and four more of the recognized variety listed above. Nothing could topple the King or his kingdom, except of course, the King himself. The same freedoms he allowed his players that had endeared them to come to OU in the beginning betrayed him in the end.

A three-year probation with a two-year ban from TV started the ball rolling. Then, following on the very heels of the probation, in a short six-month period, a tragic rape and deadly shooting in the athletic dorm occurred. Other seedy events to further tarnish the once-pristine image of OU football included a robbery of Switzer's home by one of his athletes and another arrested for attempting to sell drugs to an undercover agent.

The barrage of scandal proved too much and on June 19, 1989 Switzer resigned. The King is dead, long live the King.

To fans the onslaught of offenses felt like a raging prairie fire on a gusty day. Just as one blaze would subside an even more volatile conflagration was on the verge of igniting. A besot OU Nation pined for a conciliating reprieve and found their soothing elixir in a very unlikely place, especially for a football school. Just a few miles south of Owen’s field stands Lloyd Noble Center, home of the University of Oklahoma men’s basketball team.

OU fans called it: “Billy Ball”

In my lifetime, before Billy Tubbs took over the men’s BB program in 1980, the Sooners made it to the NCAA tournament one time, 1979 under coach Dave Bliss. That was also the only year they won a conference title or a conference tournament. The Sooner basketball team was generally so void of talent that not even the great Alvin Adams of retired jersey Suns fame could get the Sooners into the NIT tourney.

How sad was OU men’s basketball? This sad:

This image is the entry in Wikipedia on the history of OU men’s basketball from 1908 - 1980.
Wikipedia

Don’t worry if the image is too small to read because there is nothing worth reading. From 1908 to 1980.... nada. I’ve garnered more information in an obituary than this and the reason is simple, the only meaningful thing about those 72 years was holding the losing records to 16.

Billy changed that. After one losing season, and the only year the Sooners failed to make the post season, he never again finished a campaign in the red or failed to reach a post season tournament while at OU.

Like Switzer, Billy Tubbs was not your everyday ho-hum, hum-drum personality. He had brass and sass, and admittedly sometimes, no class, and I loved him!

From day one, until the day Billy Tubbs hung up his OU coaching whistle, the Sooners ran. He brought a run-and-gun pro-type offense that played in-your-face man-to-man defense on the other end. This renegade style attracted precocious talent like moths to a flame. While other teams were playing old school, four-corner, zone defense..... BORING

Tubbs was selling something fresh and new, and most importantly, exciting! His program may not have had much tradition behind it, but Tubbs could offer a modern facility, an education from a well-known major university, and an on-court product unlike any other. Tubbs knew he had crafted an atomosphere that would attract professional scouts and it didn't take long for talented players to start listening.

Most notably, Mr. Wayman Tisdale. When Tubbs learned that music was Tisdale’s first love he offered to move Sunday practice from the morning to the evening so “Tis” could continue playing his bass at morning services at his father's church in Tulsa. This accommodation, coupled with transforming a floundering program into an NIT semi-finalist, convinced one of the nation’s most highly sought talents that Tubbs was no fluke and Tisdale signed a letter of intent with Oklahoma. Tisdale found Billy’s style, passion, and the proximity to home too much to ignore.

Tubbs was in business.

Tisdale stayed at OU for three-years prior to declaring for the NBA draft after leading the Sooners to a 1985 Elite-Eight appearance. However, his most important contribution was legitimizing Tubbs’ program.

Now Tubbs could walk into any living room in America with more than just himself to offer. Tisdale had started a tradition, and the invaluable NCAA tournament exposure that highlighted Tubbs’ coaching style suddenly lured a steady stream of NBA-caliber talent to OU.

First round talent like Mookie Blaylock, Stacy King, Ricky Grace, Darryll “Choo” Kennedy, and finally, Harvey Grant. The General.

That core took Tubbs all the way to the NCAA Finals, with the bulk of the praise going to Mookie Blaylock and Stacy King. Personally, my favorite player was Mr. Harvey Grant. He averaged 20.9 pts and 9.4 boards for the Sooners that season, but in my opinion, those numbers paled in comparison to the intangibles Grant brought to the floor each game.

Grant came to the Sooners by way of Clemson. He and twin brother Horace, of Michael Jordan and the Bulls fame, started their collegiate careers with the Tigers. However, Harvey, who was 20 lbs lighter than his brother, was first asked to red-shirt and then found himself lost in a coaching change:

"As soon as I got to Clemson, they talked about red-shirting me," said Harvey, who did sit out that first season. "I didn't like the idea. But then we switched head coaches, and I got lost in the shuffle, so I decided to leave."

As a result of the extra weight, the coaches at Clemson saw Horace as the tougher of the two brothers, a myth their High School coach, Arthur Daniels, is perfectly willing to dispel:

"I always thought Harvey was a little better than Horace, and more physical. When Harvey played inside, he was kind of mean. He was always a fierce competitor."

Daniels also pointed out in the same December 25th, 1990 Baltimore Sun article that people often mis-labeled Harvey as laid-back and lacking toughness. This may explain why despite the weight differential, and different jersey number, people often mistook him for Horace.

That’s Harvey..... NO! that’s Harvey

I can’t imagine why!

Personally, I never saw Horace until his playing days with the Bulls, so I was never guilty of comparing one brother to the other. Howbeit, being called by his twin’s name always bothered Harvey:

"All those stories comparing me and Horace used to bother me," said Harvey (who playing professionally in Washington when he made this comment and was averaging 17.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, almost doubling his previous season's modest statistics) "We have different styles. Horace is a great player in his own right. But now I have my own identity."

For me, that unique identity Harvey spoke of first revealed itself when he donned a Sooner uniform. After leaving Clemson, Grant transferred to Independence Junior College in Kansas where he earned All-America honors and received offers to continue his college career from Kansas and Oklahoma.

"I thought about going to Kansas, but they played a slowdown game, and Danny Manning was already the man there," Grant said. "Billy Tubbs' style at Oklahoma was more suited to my game, running up and down the floor and the fans going crazy."

Tubbs recognized the robust, competitive fire Grant’s High School coach spoke of. This trait was so prevalent that despite the fact that Grant was only 6’9” and 216 pounds, BasketballReference.com lists Grant at 195, Tubbs inserted him into his high-octane offense as a post-up center, and it was perfect.

The Sooners reached the Sweet Sixteen during Grant’s first season at OU and the NCAA Finals in the second. During these high-stakes affairs, the Sooners lost to Kansas in the Finals in 1988—the team Grant shunned to become a Sooner— a monumental contest that I refuse to talk much about to this day.

I attended the Sooners/Jayhawk game in Norman earlier that season, so I know exactly how and why the Sooners were the better team. Even to this day, I still cannot fathom why Billy Tubbs switched to a traditional half-court offense in the second half of the National Championship game.

I loved that team, possibly more than any team I have ever followed, and Harvey Grant was the reason.

We called him “the General”, an obvious reference to the Union forces commander and former president, Ulysses S. Grant, but it wasn’t just a nickname. It was his presence and leadership that defined him as the Sooner’s floor General.

As the great Mark Twain once said:

“It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.”

... and Grant didn’t back down from anyone and I adored him for that.

It’s been almost 29 years since that fateful night at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, but I’ve never forgotten. Harvey taught me to love basketball, my football obsession ended and my round-ball journey started with that team. I guess it is true when they say you never forget your first love. This is precisely why when Jerami Grant slammed home the rock against Los Angeles Friday night, exactly like his Dad used to, and then just pointed at his teammate and went back to work, just like his Dad used to, I’ll admit it, my throat got a little tight.

Jerami looks like his Dad, walks and moves around the court exactly like his Dad, talks like him, and if his Dad’s heart comes with the package, the Thunder have a tiger on their hands. If “the General’s” fervor resides in the chest of son Jerami, he will never quit and he will never stop working to improve his game.

The Grant family is a tight-knit bunch. By the time Harvey’s 11-year NBA career began winding down, he had four boys. Jerai, 27, the oldest, plays overseas. Three years later Jerian Grant was born and now plays with his Uncle Horace’s old team, the Chicago Bulls. Then Jerami followed two years later and, of course, plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Finally, the brood’s youngest, Jaelin, is following his Dad’s route and playing at Independence Community College in Kansas.

In a February 24, 2015 article, Harvey and two of his boys, Jerian and Jerami, talked with The Washington Post’s Rick Maese about their Dad’s years in the NBA and the special bonds the Grant family shares:

“Once you grow up around something for so long, you just kind of fall in love with it,” Jerami said. “That's what happened for me and my brothers. Obviously, we looked up to my dad as a father. But we also looked up to him as a basketball player.”

As determined to succeed in his role as a father as he was a basketball player, Harvey’s energetic pack of pint-sized gym rats accompanied him to work as much as possible. At these lively practices, the rowdy Grant boys became almost as recognizable as their be-goggled elder counterparts.

When the boys were young, Harvey embraced each opportunity to spend quality on-court time with his progeny, rebounding for them, and offering occasional tips on technique. After Grant retired and his then developing sons began showing promise, the old man got serious. Especially in their frequent one-on-one battles:

“Believe me, I didn’t let up. Not one bit,” Harvey said. “I knew there was going to come a day they were going to outplay me, so I had to get all my wins in early.”

Harvey made light of it in the article, but he also knew when he matched up with his boys he was giving them the tools necessary to live out their dreams.

“It’s not as simple as the genes”, their father said. “There’s a passion and work ethic — [now] They know what it takes to get there,”

All of Harvey’s boys starred at and graduated from DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, MD. A former teammate of Jerami and Jerian at DeMatha —and familiar name to Thunder fans— Victor Oladipo gave his views about what it was like growing up with the brothers Grant:

“Growing up with them was a surreal experience. They’re all so close.”

Close yes, Jerian shared this:

“We talk about ourselves as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There were four of them, and there are four of us,” he said. “Leonardo’s like the leader: That’s my oldest brother. Jerai says something, you gotta listen, gotta follow. Me: I’m Michelangelo, the clown. I joke around a lot, play games. Then Jerami is Raphael. He can be a hot head, has a temper, gets ticked off — just has a real fire inside of him. Jaelin is the youngest, but he holds things together. He’s got a bit of everybody’s best qualities, you know?”

But also competitive with one another:

“We were competitive with each other,” Jerian said, “but it was always good, always pushing each other.”

It may have been “always good” to Jerian, but the boys' mother, Beverly Grant, offered the Post a slightly different perspective on that competition question. According to Mom, “the boys would battle over whatever was placed in front of them” and remembers hours-long games of Monopoly ending heatedly and abruptly:

“Someone would be losing money and suddenly they’d take the board and flip it upside down,” she said. “It always seemed to end with all the money all over the floor.”

(As the oldest in a family of four boys, I can well imagine that Mom’s response to the results of the untimely game finish was not as serene as the telling of it was....)

However, in the Grant household, that voracious competitive spirit didn’t drive a wedge between the boys or the rest of the family. Quite the contrary. And when Jerian’s career at Notre Dame came to a crossroads he turned to his family. He had made a mistake. One he and the team were calling an “academic mistake” and after being suspended he was considering leaving school and declaring for the NBA draft along with his younger brother.

After his suspension the Irish finished the season on a 7 and 13 skid. Jerian averaged 19 pts and 6 assists per game that year and knew the NBA was interested, but worried how the stigma of the suspension would affect his spot in the draft. He needed advice he could trust:

“When you’re not playing ball anymore, a lot of people stop talking to you,” Jerian said. “Not family. They never leave you. I talked to them every day. They kept telling me, ‘Stay strong, We’re here for you no matter what.’ ”

After discussing his options with his folks, Jerian traveled to Syracuse where Jerami was close to declaring early for the NBA draft to get his advice, then to California to spend time with his uncle.

In the end, Jerian made the right choice. He went back to school, declared for the draft the following season, and was the first round draft choice of the New York Knicks.

I know this post is about Jerami Grant, but this segment about Jerian tells a great deal about where Jerami comes from and what he is all about.

(not to mention, as you will learn in a video posted later in this post, Jerami doesn’t say much)

When Jerami’s Mom comes to Oklahoma City to watch him play, don’t be surprised if you see her in a store around town buying groceries for her boy:

“When Harvey played, it was all different. You’re thinking, it’s a job,” Beverly said. “But now you realize: Jerami is still young, still needs guidance.”

Jerami was still a few weeks away from his 21st birthday when Beverly said that to the Post in 2015 and in the wake of being traded for the first time in his young career, I doubt those sentiments have changed much.

In fact, time and even distance has had only one effect on the Grants... it has made them closer. Maese described the current-day Grant family dynamic very well:

Years removed from the family indoor dunk contests, they still drift to the court whenever they’re together. It’s just not as often as they’d like. This summer, they were all in Washington area for about a month. They worked out at DeMatha each morning, grabbed lunch together and then would run in pickup games in the afternoon.

Time passed and they went their separate ways, reporting to the different locales basketball had taken them. Still, they’re on a group text message exchange every day and follow each other’s games on their phones or Internet.

“We’re even closer now," Jerian said, “even though we’re far apart.”

A few months after the article in the Post came out, Harvey and his boys were featured on a video on #EverydayDad

Families fill our lives with happiness and laughter
leaving us memories to treasure today
and forever after
-Author Unknown-

Harvey, having Jerami here feels like you’ve come home, man. Thank you for the memories and don’t worry... Rapheal is in a good place, we’ve got your J-boy’s back.