Amile above the sprawling southern Great Plains, a pilot can soar toward the horizon and leave his troubles behind. On this gorgeous Saturday morning, Oklahoma State forward Joey Graham, the new owner of a private pilot?s license, is flying a single-prop Cessna 172 and pointing out to his passenger the campus and Gallagher-Iba Arena below. ?This is my release,? says Graham, who hours before had scored 20 points to lead the No. 4 Cowboys past Alabama-Birmingham 86?73. ?It?s just me and the plane and the open air. Whenever stuff builds up with coaches and classes I?ll go fly. You can reflect on things up here.?
With one hand on the controls and the town of Stillwater floating by, Graham explains the maneuvers he?s learned: stalls, speed turns, S-turns, touch-and-go landings. With the right wind conditions, he says, he can even make the plane go in reverse. As he continues talking, Graham suddenly cuts the Cessna hard to the left. His passenger?s eyes spin like lotto balls. ?Hey,? Graham says, glancing over, ?you don?t get airsick, do you??
when nba scouts watched Graham dazzle the crowd at the Michael Jordan Flight School in Santa Barbara, Calif., last summer, they couldn?t have known that the camp?s name had a double meaning for him. It was impressive enough that the slashing 6'7", 228-pound senior stamped himself as a potential breakout star this season--buzz that Graham had backed up through Sunday by scoring 18.1 points a game for the 7?0 Cowboys (including 16 in a 74?60 takedown of then No. 4 Syracuse on Dec. 7). But what really floored Graham?s fellow players in Santa Barbara was his postgame routine: For six hours a day Graham would hole up in his room and study for the FAA pilot?s exam. ?Guys would come in every once in a while and ask me what I was doing,? he says. ?I told them I was studying to be a pilot, and they couldn?t believe it. They were, like, You?ll never fly a plane.?
In fact, Joey isn?t the only Graham to excel in hoops and aerial loops. His twin brother, Stephen, the Cowboys? sixth man--and like Joey the holder of a degree in aviation management--also has a pilot?s license. The twins have merely followed the example of their father, Joe, who played basketball at Atlanta?s Clark College in the 1970s and became a Navy pilot, flying jets off aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Mexico. ?I had two loves when I was their age: basketball and flying. Now years later my kids have the same ones,? says Joe, who was nearly moved to tears when he was the twins? passenger for the first time last month on a flight from Oklahoma City to Stillwater. ?I couldn?t be more proud of them.?
?You listen to your sons talk to the control tower, and you think of them in a different light,? says their mother, Rose, who also was on board for that trip. ?The whole thing is just amazing to me.?
When Joey and Stephen decided to try for their licenses in June, their parents had to chuckle. Weren?t these the same boys who, after their queasy maiden voyage with Joe as five-year-olds, had vowed never to operate a plane? ?They puked in their barf bags, and then they dropped ?em,? recalls Joe. ?I was out there for hours cleaning up the plane.? But with encouragement from their academic adviser, Marilyn Middlebrook, the twins decided to go for it. ?Our parents always told us that we may not have basketball forever, so we should always have a second plan,? Joey says. ?Aviation is something I love, and I can fall back on it if basketball doesn?t pan out.?
There was one catch: Because of time constraints during the season, the Grahams had to complete their preparation, including 40 hours of flight training, between mid-June and the end of August. ?It takes the average student six months, if they?re lucky, to get a pilot?s license, and I?ve had some who take a year,? says Chad Larson, the Grahams? instructor at the Oklahoma State flight school. ?These guys did it in 21?2 months. It?s the fastest I?ve ever completed a student.? The Grahams nailed their written exams (each scored a 90, well above the necessary 70) and, in early September, passed their oral exams and all-or-nothing FAA check rides (think parallel-parking test times 50) on their first tries.
by now, of course, nothing about the Grahams surprises the Oklahoma State coaching staff. ?They have an incredible work ethic in everything they do, which is what makes them so special,? says head coach designate Sean Sutton. ?They want to be the best in all areas of life, whether it?s school, basketball or studying to be pilots.? Joey has thrived since moving from power forward to the wing this season because of his stunning combination of strength and speed. Over the past year he has improved his bench press from 365 pounds to 400 and his standing vertical leap from 291?2 inches to 321?2, at the same time gaining eight pounds and reducing his body fat from 5.3% to 4%. ?He?s the strongest player we?ve had in my four years here,? says strength and conditioning coach Murphy Grant. ?Heck, he?d be one of the strongest guys on the football team.?
Stephen is no slouch in the weight room or on the court--he also scored 16 points in the Syracuse win--but the coaches think Joey could be the school?s third wing player in six seasons to be a first-round NBA pick, following Desmond Mason (2000) and Tony Allen (?04). ?We talk to Joey all the time about Desmond and Tony,? says Sutton. ?Joey?s got more ability than both of those guys offensively, but if he wants to be a complete player in the NBA, he has to show he can play defense [at their level] too.? In that area, at least, Joey?s intensity remains a work in progress. The Graham brothers can?t help but laugh when recalling, in spot-on imitations of their gravel-voiced coach, Eddie Sutton, something he yelled during a practice last season: ?Joey, you?re playing like you?re from the suburbs. You?ve gotta play more ghetto!?
Fact is, the Grahams did grow up in the burbs, or more precisely in Land o? Lakes, Fla., outside Tampa. Along with their older brother, Brian, who finished his hoops career at South Florida last spring, Joey and Stephen were raised in a strict household in which dating was forbidden, even in high school. Their father, who went into sales after the Navy, is the more vocal of their parents, but Brian says their mother was the tougher one. ?Our dad worked a lot when we were little, so she was the one who taught us the most as kids about discipline and the Bible,? Brian says. The Grahams still hold regular Bible-study sessions over speakerphone with their sons in Stillwater.