September 25, 2011

Steve Solloway: Graffam finally gets his due

He was given a blank sheet of paper, a fresh sandbox and a challenge. Build a college basketball program where none had existed. Create a buzz like nothing heard before.

Do it quickly. Success could bring new life to a college struggling to survive.

Jim Graffam found his own heaven. Six short years later he discovered a version of his own hell. His very first men's basketball team at Westbrook College went 13-13 in 1990. The next five had winning records. The last three earned trips to the NAIA national tournament.

There was no seventh team for the 1996-97 season. Fighting enrollment problems, Westbrook College merged with the University of New England, which had its own basketball program. After an interview he remembers as lasting five minutes, he became a head basketball coach without a job. He has spent much of the past 15 years in basketball's wilderness, moving from one small outpost to another, never really finding what he had atWestbrook College.

Friday night, he was one of four men and women inducted into the University of New England's Sports Hall of Fame. Bittersweet moment? No, said Graffam before flying east from his new home in Joplin, Mo., for the dinner. At 61 he's old enough to know that bitterness can stand in the way of satisfaction.

Jim Graffam isn't wired like you and me. Maybe that's why UNE had to move its dinner to a larger room this year. Typically, about 50 guests attend. This year, more than double that number wanted to attend, many to see a good man get the recognition that has eluded him for so long.

So many years have passed, today's high school players don't know the man or the story. Westbrook College had a campus on Stevens Avenue in Portland and an enrollment of about 300 women and eight men. Despite the generosity of the heirs of Joan Whitney Payson and the foundation formed around her extensive art collection -- works by Van Gogh were the centerpieces -- the college was struggling financially.

Enter Graffam, who was the baseball coach at St. Joseph's and an assistant to basketball coach Rick Simonds. Years before, he had learned coaching and teaching basketball from the legendary Art Dyer at Medomak Valley.

"I had the chance to do something," said Graffam. "It was a challenge, right down to the idea of interjecting a bunch of aggressive males (to a campus that was primarily female.) We were fortunate we got such good kids."

Overlooked kids who became giants as men. Paul Peterson was 6-foot-7, never played in high school, but a veteran of New York City playground hoop. He arrived on campus and soon discovered he had testicular cancer. How he overcame the diagnosis and went on to score more than 2,000 points and grab 1,800 rebounds became a symbol of what was happening under Graffam. Seven years later, Peterson was a firefighter arriving at the scene in lower Manhattan minutes after the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

Derek Vogel scored fewer than 400 points in his career at Greely High. He wasn't recruited until he met Graffam. Vogel left Westbrook College with the state scoring record: 3,050 points. He later got a tryout with the Minnesota Timberwolves and played pro basketball in Europe for years.

Bill Mitaritonna was another who didn't make his high school team but was found by Graffam playing in a summer tourney in New York. After two years at Westbrook, he transferred to St. John's University, closer to his home. Mitaritonna made the St. John's roster as a walk-on. Now he's a high school teacher and basketball coach on Long Island. A recent team played for a New York state title.

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