Graham warns about dangers of alcohol, drug abuse

May 12, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

WHEN HE SPEAKS, Ernie Graham takes you through a full range of emotions. His story starts out as a feel-good, the one about the poor boy who succeeds. Then it becomes riches to rags, about a young man who lost everything because of selfishness and drugs.

And now Graham is preparing the final chapter, the one about being a born-again Christian.

For almost seven years, he has been lecturing at college campuses and in Baltimore County public schools about drug and alcohol abuse. His stories are intense, and at times riveting.

"I want these kids to understand the importance of the first decision about drugs, and that I made the wrong one at age 12," said Graham, 42, a former basketball standout at Dunbar High and the University of Maryland.

"I used to be ashamed to tell these kids some of the things I have done, but they need to understand what God brought me out of.

"I looked up one day, and I was 35. I was a heroin addict, a crack addict. Police warrants were out for me. Drug dealers were looking for me. Everybody was sick and tired of me, and I was sick and tired of myself.

"I know I spent a million easy in drugs during my career. I'd cheat you out of anything, pawn it, sell it, whatever. Drug addiction has no boundaries. Ultimately, it's about taking a life, yours or someone else's."

But Graham is doing more than just lecturing. He is CEO and founder of a nonprofit group called Get The Message, which is having its second annual fund-raising dinner June 2 at Martin's West to raise money for Graham's life skills basketball camp at UMES in late July.

Former Maryland center Buck Williams will be there, along with NFL players Antonio Freeman and Tommy Polley. Former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman also will be in attendance. Graham is carrying enough clout these days, drawing contributions from Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Ravens minority owner Steve Bisciotti.

"He had a good prep and collegiate career," said Bob Wade, Graham's former coach at Dunbar. "He was very close to making it in the NBA with the [Philadelphia] 76ers. He got involved with the drug scene but has cleaned himself. It's great that he is articulating about his experiences to the kids, especially the athletes."

Graham was a special player who could score and handle the ball well for his size. He grew up on the corner of Greenmount and North avenues with four brothers and a sister. His first basketball rim was a trash can.

"Tough neighborhood," Graham said. "I can still remember the day Martin Luther King died. People were running through our yard. There were fires, and I can still see all those policemen, guardsmen and jeeps. My mother just kept crying."

But Graham survived. He led Lake Clifton to back-to-back Maryland Scholastic Association titles in 1974 and '75. He transferred to Dunbar for his senior season and won another MSA championship by averaging 27 points and 22 rebounds. Maryland liked him enough to give him a scholarship, and Graham still holds the single-game scoring record of 44 points in 25 minutes of play during a 1978 game.

But if there was one thing that was more constant than Graham's desire to score points, it was a desire to score on the drug scene. It followed him from the recreation leagues to the NBA and even into pro basketball in Europe.

"The 76ers knew I had a problem," said Graham, who also serves as a basketball analyst for Comcast SportsNet. "Everybody knew, it wasn't a secret. You see, it all starts out as fun, starts out casual. Then you do it in the middle of the week, then it becomes daily. It just kept getting worse.

"When I was 12 I didn't know about it [drug addiction]. Ever since that first day, it just got worse. It's like I was in the rain so long, I didn't get wet anymore. I was in a coma for 23 years."

The change came in 1995. That's when he decided he was no longer invincible and became more concerned about his family than himself. He went through drug rehabilitation.

Graham wants to leave behind more than just a legacy of scoring 44 points in a game. Since 1995, he estimates he has spoken to nearly 10,000 youngsters at various functions. He just opened offices in the Executive Park off Windsor Mill Road.

"I always thought I was some type of super human being, that I would never die," Graham said. "I didn't want to be remembered as just the guy who had a great chance and blew it. I gave my life to Christ a couple of times when I was using, it just didn't work that way. The change occurred when God thought I was really ready."

Graham's eventual goal is to build a facility complete with offices, classrooms, gyms and swimming pools. It's going to be a struggle, but nothing compared to the fight that he still fights.

"Some days, I just don't feel good," Graham said. "I have anxieties, feel depressed sometimes, or might have trouble communicating with people. I imagine it's what veterans feel like when they come back from a war. But I have a good wife [Karen] who should have been gone, but stayed, and two wonderful sons. That jersey that I broke the record in I kept in a plastic bag for 20 years. I couldn't open it because there was a lot of pain in that bag. No. 25 was a guy who was crucified and talked about like a dog.

"But when I opened it, nothing came out," Graham said. "I'm at peace with it, at peace with myself. I'm not going to ever be satisfied. That is a big word for me. God has me on a journey. Basketball was good for me, it kept me away from a lot of things that weren't good for me. But there is a story that needs to be told, and that's all I want, to tell about the dangers. No one needs to go through what I went through. No one."

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