The Legend of the Freight Train...
Every morning, 16-year old Treveon Graham woke before sunrise. Got himself together in the darkness of his Bowie, MD home, and headed down to the closest MARC train station to start his commute. Fitting, given three years later he would become known as the Freight Train.
When he reached his stop Graham emerged from the train station, walked a few blocks and waited for a public bus. Paid his fare and rode a little further. Hopped off the bus and waited a little more, until the school bus arrived, which he again boarded to ride the final leg to St. Mary’s Ryken High School.
Day after day, this was Graham’s two-hour routine. And night after night—after a full set of classes and basketball practice concluded—he reversed that path along with his companion, homework. More times than not, sunset beat Graham home. that's too much to ask most kids, but Graham has always been uncommon.
Very few things ever beat Treveon Graham.
Former VCU assistant Mike Jones, now the head coach at UNC Greensboro, saw him first. The potential was easy to see—Graham could score. But when Jones started asking around, inquiring about this kid who was among the leading scorers in DCs prestigious Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, where historic high school teams like DeMatha, Gonzaga, and Archbishop Carroll compete, he became hooked. The more he learned the more he liked.
“He was a year younger than the other guys. He was always playing against older guys,” says Jones. “That takes a toughness and tenacity, especially in that league. And to make that trip to school plus lifting and working on his game but continuing to be a good student? That told me a lot about him. That told me a lot about his family and how he was raised. He didn’t complain. He’s played up his entire life.”
Fairly soon Mike Rhoades joined Jones on the trail.
“We liked him,” Rhoades deadpans. “I went up to a Hoop Group camp in Reading, PA. I went to the (skills) stations that morning. Most coaches wait to go to the games, but I followed Tre around the stations. Most kids are not going so hard in them but this kid was trying to make the team in every station. I watched him and I was sold. He was very young but it was obvious this guy going to be something else. I immediately got on the phone and said ‘Shaka you’ve gotta’ get up here and see him.’”
And that’s the story of how Graham, whose jersey will rise to the Siegel Center rafters on Saturday afternoon, ended up on Broad Street. Well, except for the one loose end, the legend of Shaka Smart’s recruiting strategy.
“I used to send him recruiting letters and I wrote ‘1953,’ the number of points Eric Maynor scored, and 'you’re going to break this record,'” says Smart, accurately recalling that number from 10 years in his rearview mirror. “Tre said as little as any recruit I’ve ever dealt with and he said later on he thought it was only a recruiting tactic, but when he committed and he came to VCU we kept talking about it. At some point he realized we were serious and felt that strongly about him.”
There’s just a little bit more to that story. One of the things Smart instituted when he was head coach was a sort of mentoring program. Each assistant coach was assigned a group of players that they worked closely with, making sure school and life was supported as well as basketball. Mike Morrell, on his very first day as VCUs new director of basketball operations, drew his assignment. (Morrell is now the head coach at UNC Asheville.)
“Tre, Bri (Briante Weber), and Jared (Guest) all showed up on campus same week Jamion and I were hired at VCU,” says Morrell, recalling his first day with Jamion Christian, now the head coach at George Washington. The memory is clear to Morrell. “The suites were being built in the Siegel Center so we were down on Broad Street, upstairs on the third floor. These three guys come in and we’re getting introduced and Shaka pulled me off to the side.”
Morrell’s voice rises and he’s on the verge of laughing as he finishes the story: “He tells me ‘they will tell you travel, scheduling, meals, and gear. That’s your job description. But this guy is your number one job.’ He said it twice followed by ‘and I’m going to hold you accountable to it.’ Obviously he scared me. But I also knew I had to get to know his family. Jonesy had recruited him but took the Radford job. This is where I can back up the Maynor story. He then tells me ‘Mike, he’s going to be the alltime leading scorer at VCU. He’s your number one job.’ As the Ops guy I could only do so much with basketball so I made sure I talked to his mom twice a week, helped organize his schedule, things like that.”
Nobody knows Treveon Graham like Trina Graham. Moms always know. Moms are strong, they are willing to face reality with grace and courage. Moms will talk about reality in absolutes, without the veneer that ultimately clouds that reality. Moms always see the big picture even when they don’t discuss it.
Trina Graham knew. She knew that her son was confident in his choice of a college 100 miles south down interstate 95 from their home. She had never heard of VCU before Smart and his staff began recruiting her son, but she became convinced by the words of her son.
“Tre was a very quiet kid,” she said on the night of Graham’s final game in the Siegel Center. “What really got Tre to pick VCU was because they made him feel at home and comfortable. He told me ‘if I’m going to be away from home I want to be comfortable.’ When he selected VCU a lot of people told him ‘why did you select VCU?’ but it was because he felt comfortable and what the coaches have done for the kids.”
They don’t hang jerseys for guys who make one of 16 shots, but that’s exactly how Graham’s career began. Smart was undaunted despite questions about Graham’s playing time. “I remember saying ‘hell no! He’s going to be great so we’ve got to stay with him.’” Graham next made all three shots and scored seven points in a win over Richmond. Then 15 points against UNCW and 18 points against UAB. The Freight Train was leaving the station.
The growth of Graham isn’t about offensive prowess. He’s always had that. He can score in so many different ways. Like most freshmen, though, he was not particularly interested in defense. The coaches went to work.
“I loved his approach, he was very coachable, even when you got on him hard he responded,” says Rhoades.
Graham carries gravitas. He always had it, even as a freshman. Smart recalls going to the Charleston MTE that first year. VCU didn’t play well, losing to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech before slipping past Western Kentucky in the dreaded seventh-place game. The team was getting onto the bus after the second loss and Smart was miserable. He was mad. The team? Well, let’s just say players get past losses far better than coaches. Smart, who at the time was in the camp of “if I’m miserable everybody is miserable,” felt the team was little too jovial for his liking. He blew up.
“So Treveon just kind of walked by me,” Smart says. “Now I was bald then and Treveon just kind of patted me on the head. Didn’t say a word and kept going. It was his way of saying ‘we’re gonna’ be all right.’ That’s just who he is. He’s very kind, and warm, and even at that point when he was 18 and didn’t communicate much, but there was never a question he was with us, with me.”
Graham was right. That VCU team went 26-4 the rest of the regular season and beat Wichita State in the NCAA tournament.
You probably don’t remember Treveon Graham’s performance in the 2012 CAA championship game that got them to the NCAA tourney. Darius Theus scored 16 points, dished out five assists, and had five steals. Troy Daniels hit four free throws in the final 19 seconds to preserve the 59-56 win. They were the heroes, rightfully, in the press room. But Graham, VCUs ever-improving freshman, scored 13 points that evening.
Ironically points were not his greatest contribution. Graham drew the defensive assignment on Drexel senior Samme Givens. Those of you who remember know Givens was as tough of a player as VCU has played against. Givens knew how to use every bit of his 6-5 frame, and was the Dragons’ second-leading scorer. Givens took 301 shots on the year. That night, guarded by Graham, Givens posted a meek 0-3 from the field and VCU won the championship.
“I said ‘Tre you’ve got to take away Samme Givens,’” Smart says. “And he did. To go where he was at the beginning of the year, a deer in the headlights, and to be in the place to guard the all-conference player in March? Just a testament to his dedication. I have pictures of him guarding Yiannis, Lebron, guys like that in the NBA. That’s a testament to Tre.”
“Better than the winning, he took care of business. Nothing got in the way of him winning in every way,” says Rhoades. “He listened to (Daniel) Roose. Listened to Sophia. He followed the plan. We asked him to work on his handle and he did it. No complaints. He never let things get in the way of his development in winning. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at it.”
Trina Graham was heartened. She saw it not through a coach’s eyes, but through a mother’s gaze. “Coach Smart had so much confidence in him, and they respected him so much. From his freshman to his sophomore year I saw a change in him,” she says. “What I’m saying is that he went from a boy to a man in the matter of one year, and he was still 18. Even talking to the other guys on the team I could see they all had respect for him and he was still one of the youngest. Even the seniors at the time had respect for him. That blew me away, to see that my little boy is now a man. As a mother to see that and hear that, that was really special to me. I thank coach Smart and the staff for that because they gave him confidence and believed in him.”
It seems to have been the perfect handoff, because every coach I spoke with thanked Trina and Tommy Graham for giving them a great kid. “There was zero questioning ever of anything. 100% in alignment of a great teammate from standpoint of being supportive of the guys around him,” says Smart. “His mom and dad are high character people. They are who they present themselves to be and are uncommon. That’s why Tre is uncommon.”
In possibly the funniest yet appropriate affirmation of Graham’s importance to the team and program, Morrell loves to tell the story of the team bus, headed to the airport to play St. Bonaventure in Graham’s senior year.
“We get on the bus and we’re getting ready to leave,” says Morrell. “Coach turns around and asks ‘is Tre on the bus? Is Tre on the bus?’ Now, Tre is on the bus but Mike Rhoades is running late. I tell Coach that, Tre is here but Rhoades is not. Coach says ‘we’re good to go, man. Doesn’t matter who else is here. We’ve got Tre. We’re good.’ Coach Smart always felt like if we had Tre, no matter what else was going on, we were going to be okay.”
In Graham’s senior season. A 13-3 VCU team is ranked in the top 25, playing a Rhode Island team that had it going under Danny Hurley. EC Mathews, Hasan Martin, and Jared Terrell were a tough bunch. It was a roadie for VCU and the environment was everything we love about college basketball.
Before the game the Rhode Island admin gave VCU guidelines. They outlined the rules if the fans stormed the court in case Rhody won. Then, during the game, a tight battle that lived up to expectations, an usher kept giving the guidelines to the VCU staff, in an effort to make sure everyone was safe. Graham, along with Weber, noticed.
“Tre and Bri were like, ‘that’s not happening.’,” says Smart. “Tre got hurt and we found out later how serious it was but we didn’t know the severity at the time.” Graham scored 26 points and led VCU to a rousing 65-60 win. VCU dominated the game’s final eight minutes, when Graham was playing on one foot. “That game is an example of just gritting his teeth and saying nah, I’m gonna’ do it,” says Smart.
The greatest personification of Graham came in the weeks following the Rhody game. VCU had lost Weber to his devastating ankle injury. Graham was still hobbling. The Rams went to Davidson and lost 82-55, their third straight loss and sat squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. Graham didn’t have much to say but he commandeered the locker room that night. VCU beat George Mason to end the regular season and then swept the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, earning the automatic bid and VCUs lone A-10 tournament title. In the semifinals Graham keyed a 43-8 run that carried VCU past, of course, Davidson.
“He carried us on one foot and we were heavy,” says Morrell. “When it was time to get in line Freight Train was at the front. We needed four days in Brooklyn and on one foot he tells the team hop on.”
There are numbers, and moments, in Graham’s career. The three-bomb to beat Virginia stands out but really it’s all the moments. In four seasons Graham played 140 games and ranks among VCU career leaders in points (2nd), free throws made (2nd), rebounds (6th), three-point field goals made (6th), field goals made (8th), and double-doubles (9th). VCU was 107-33 and went to four NCAA tournaments in his four years.
That’s the output. With Graham, it’s the inputs. He impacted everyone.
Torey Burston was a walk-on, teammate, and roommate of Graham. It’s worth noting the two shared an apartment with Doug Brooks and Briante Weber. That’s a sitcom waiting to happen.
Back to the story, Burston didn’t walk on until the semester break so he didn’t join the team until January. You can imagine once a team has been together since the summer, and years, they are tight. Now a walk on is inside the circle?
“Tre was awesome. He took me under his wing,” says Burston, who is now married, teaching, and coaching basketball at Trinity in Richmond. “He actually approached me and made sure I was one of the guys from the get-go. He took me places to eat, explained to me who Coach Smart was. Do this. Don’t do that. Do this on your own time. He was just somebody that was so selfless. It wasn’t just me. It was anyone. Whoever needed him, he was that guy. He became one of my best friends.”
Rob Brandenberg played alongside Graham for three years. “He’s Mr. Dependable. You knew he would be there for you,” says Brandenberg. “He was so solid. Made free throws. Finished his drives. He would score the quietest 26 points you’ve ever seen.”
But Brandenberg didn’t want to say much about Graham’s skills. “As great as he was he never overdid things. He was always about the team. That’s how great he was. He put up all those numbers and he was never once outside the team concept,” says Brandenberg. “When he spoke you knew it was real. You knew it came from a real place. He is one of the most loyal and caring people I’ve ever known. He always made sure everyone around him was good. That’s the type of person and player he was and it showed on the court.”
There’s a few seconds of silence in our conversation, when Brandenberg blurts out “substance.” Smart spontaneously says integrity. Rhoades says toughness. Jones says impressive. Morrell can’t get to one word: “I would be doing him a disservice if I tried to pick one thing. How’s this? He’s my favorite player not only that I coached, but that I’ve ever been around in my life.”
The other greatest personification of Graham comes from Burston. It’s his fondest memory of his friend. “The whole team got a Christmas per diem over the break. I don’t know if it was an NCAA walk-on rule or whatever but I didn’t get one,” says Burston. “They handed it out and Tre is looking around the room. He didn’t know why either but he didn’t like that. He pulled me aside and said ‘TB I’ll share mine with you.’ That’s always stuck with me.”
I started this not wanting to write about Treveon Graham, nor his career. We attended the games, we saw the performance. We checked the stats. Followed him through USA Basketball and into the NBA, where he’s spent five seasons and is working his back for another shot.
I wanted those who were with him every day to write about Graham. To uncork the impact Treveon Graham in the lives of those around him. People often point to specific statistics when justifying a jersey raising to the rafters but there’s something mythical about the Freight Train. I hoped to capture a little bit of that.
“He was a young, immature kid that first summer. He didn’t know anything,” says Smart. “He wasn’t embarrassed and he was open to everything. He was a young man open to wanting. He’s become a great young man, very serious and spiritually evolved.”
“He was the perfect player to be the best player on the most unselfish coaching staff I’ve ever been a part of,” says Morrell. “He was the perfect dude for that. He always showed appreciation. True appreciation.”
“He never had a bad word to say, he was never a bad teammate,” says Rhoades.
Every single one of us surrounds ourselves with mementos, pictures of the people and places that are meaningful to us.
Every single person I spoke with has a picture of Treveon Graham in their office, or close by. That’s the stuff of greatness.
Freight Train. Legend.