Mike White | Tuesday, April 21, 4:45 p.m.
You get reminded of it from time to time, and today was another example of how someone can use sports to affect so many people.
Don Graham, the winningest coach in Pennsylvania high school boys' basketball history, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at age 83. He had an 801-436 record in 51 seasons as North Catholic's coach. Attending his viewing this afternoon showed how many people this man touched. Although he was also an athletic director and teacher, Graham impacted people mostly as a coach.
"We've had people come here who we don't know and didn't even know him personally," said Graham's daughter, Maureen Carroll. "One family said they came just because they knew about him. One family came and said they had a son who went to North Catholic, didn't play any sports, but just came because they knew he was a good man. It's just been amazing."
Graham won a lot of games in his time and obviously was an excellent coach, but the biggest thing Graham had was respect - from seemingly everyone. Often when someone dies people say "you won't find someone who had a bad word to say about him." It might be true with Graham. In the guestbook were signatures of North Catholic graduates from many decades in the past. There was a signature from a man who wrote "Oliver 1943." Graham also graduated from Oliver in 1943.
I remember watching Graham in his latter years of coaching, when he didn't seem to coach as much. Everyone still respected him, though, and he got out of coaching before he ended up a coach in name only.
I knew Don Graham since my days of playing basketball at St. Sebastian Grade School in the mid 1970s. Every year, at the end of the season, North Catholic would run a tournament that was simply known as the "TAA." I think it stood for Trojans Athletic Association, although I'm not sure of that. It was always a big event on North Catholic's "stage." They played on a court that was in an auditorium setting. I always remember how Graham would sit in this space above the court, almost like a little porch, looking over some possible future North Catholic players. It was a little intimidating.
My father coached at St. Sebastian and was a friend of Graham's. Many adults called Graham by his nickname, "Red." I called him "Mr. Graham." To this day, I called him "Mr. Graham." Even when dealing with him as a sports writer, I called him "Mr. Graham". To me, the guy deserved too much respect to call him "Don." And just for the record, did you know that Graham coached Kobe Bryant in the McDonald's All-American Game in the late 1990s?
For some reason, in the first few years after Graham retired, I would run into him often - at a game, or even at a mall. I always enjoyed the little chats we had, even if they were for only five or 10 minutes. My, how proud he was of his grandsons - Matt and Pat Carroll. He'd talk about them a lot. Matt now plays with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and Pat plays professionally overseas. Matt's mom said the Mavericks let her son fly in to attend tonight's viewing. The Mavericks are in a playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Matt lived in Wexford through eighth grade and attended St. Alphonsus. But because of his father's job, Matt and his family moved to the Philadelphia area before ninth grade. Don Graham would always joke with me how he could've won championships with Matt. He was probably right.
Graham coached over 1,000 high school games. He had many big wins. But one stands out in my mind - even though it wasn't a championship game. It showed how he could somehow find a way to win, no matter what he had to do. It was 1976 and Valley had a powerful team, led by high-scoring guard B.B. Flenory and strong center Benjie Pryor. This was one of North Catholic's first years in the WPIAL and Valley came to North Catholic's "stage" for a game. I still remember some of North Catholic's players - Jerry Koch and Kevin "From Heaven" Brennan. Brennan got that nickname as a kid and it stuck.
Graham's team played a slowdown and the Trojans upset Valley. The score was either in the high 20s or low 30s. That was a Don Graham classic.
Dick Black, who coached Mt. Lebanon from 1960-97, was at the viewing today. Maybe he said it best.
"They don't make them like [Graham] any more," Black said. "Guys like me had it easy, coaching at a suburban school. Someone like him, coaching at a Catholic school, it was a lot different. He had to do everything there.
"Don Graham and Norm Frey [former Peabody coach who died last summer]. Those were two of the best ever. Two of the best people, too."
Well put, Mr. Black.