Overland Park The signature cornrows still are intact.
The imposing physique is evident, too, as Jeff Graves leaves the locker room of the Johnson County Community College gym.
Graves is wearing a Los Angeles Lakers practice jersey and the uniform shorts of the Kansas City Knights -- symbols of where he is and where he wants to be.
Graves is not just a fan of the NBA. The former Kansas University forward, who had a tryout in 2004 with the Lakers in the NBA Pro-Am Summer League, possesses an NBA-type body at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds.
But the same doubts linger. Does he have the drive and motivation to make it to the NBA?
"I don't plan on being here very long," he said.
That's why Graves continues to showcase his skills, even if it's in front of only a few hundred fans in a small junior-college gym -- a facility barely bigger than most high school venues. While playing for the Knights, an American Basketball Association team, he hopes to be noticed.
The Knights have employed other former Jayhawks -- Nick Bradford, Rex Walters, Ryan Robertson and, most recently, Jeff Boschee. For Graves, the Knights are a natural fit because they play so close to his hometown of Lee's Summit, Mo.
"Once again, it's nice to play at home and have the support of your family and friends, and of course the KU fans have come down here and support me," Graves said.
Graves is thankful the Knights picked him up after he had surgery last summer on his right knee -- the same knee that bothered him in April as a member of the United States Basketball League's Kansas Cagerz.
After his summer surgery, Graves said he thought about other NBA tryouts but decided to call the Knights after his brother, Robbie, a former player at Missouri-Kansas City, decided to try out.
"My knee was back to where it was, but I don't think my game was where it needed to be," Jeff Graves said.
As a member of the Knights, Graves is playing under former UMKC coach Bob Sundvold.
Sundvold, a seasoned coach who has worked at Missouri, Central Missouri State, UMKC and Iowa State, has watched Graves play since his high school days in Lee's Summit, Mo.
"I think every guy that coached Jeff from the time he started playing has been that he has talent, not only a skill level with basketball but he's got athletic talent," Sundvold said. "He's an athlete. He can run. He can jump. He's got great hands. So part of the process for him is he has to combine everything."
"I think the hardest thing for Jeff Graves was if he had success it was hard for him to continue to build on success."
Sundvold said in back-to-back games, Graves posted 20 points and 11 rebounds then committed three fouls in first two minutes the next night.
"The thing I would like to see from Jeff is the further commitment into being a better professional basketball player," Sundvold said. "We practice two hours a day. He's now got seven to eight hours in that day. What's he going to do with it? Is he taking care of his body? Is he in the weight room? Is he doing things to help his game over and above what Bob Sundvold and the Knights are doing that practice? Because that's the key to being pro."
"If a guy's sitting here with the Kansas City Knights and he's in the ABA, saying this is the greatest thing, well, that's not a very good pro."
Sundvold has a favorite phrase when it comes to how big of a piece a particular player gets of the $120,000 salary-capped pie allotted to each ABA team: meritocracy -- simply put, the better you play, the more money you make.
"All of our guys are not making the same, but I have told them when they get to a point that when their numbers merit a raise we'll tear that contract up and start again," Sundvold said.
Since joining the Knights in November and receiving a rookie-level salary, Graves is on his third contract, putting him in the middle of the team's payroll.
"He came in one day early in the year and he wanted more money and I said, 'Jeff, when you show that you're going to be putting more time and commitment into this profession and that you also have results.'"
Soon thereafter Graves started averaging a double-double in scoring and rebounding. As of Wednesday, Graves was averaging 16.4 points and 10 rebounds a game.
"That's a motivation. I'm sure if college kids could come out and have a double-double every game and get a raise, people would be doing that," Graves said with a chuckle. "It's definitely a motivation to go out there and play for not only that but for yourself and your community and how you're going to perform at that next level."
Although he had his moments as a Jayhawk -- such as his inspired play in the 2003 NCAA Tournament when Kansas was without Wayne Simien -- he had run-ins with KU coach Roy Williams and successor Bill Self, missing games and playing time for tardiness.
Last spring with the Cagerz, Graves was fined for being a no-show at practice. Cagerz coach Francis Flax, among others, publicly questioned his heart and work ethic.
"I just put all that behind me, because in reality my family and friends and the people that really know, really know me," Graves said. "I think what was going on at KU, I think some of the media, some of the people were saying stuff about me didn't know me were and didn't know what was really going on. It was all talk."
Overweight after accident
Graves was involved in a serious car accident in the fall of 2002 after Williams wouldn't acknowledge him as an official member of the team because he reported overweight.
"I've heard people say that I'm lazy and all the stuff like that," he said, "but how can a guy who is 300 pounds lose 50 to 60 pounds (after the accident) and still be lazy? He's not lazy. I think that's smack in their own face for saying that about me... It wasn't a puny little concussion. I was out for a month."
Graves said he kept in touch with former KU teammates such as Keith Langford, Jeff Hawkins, Bryant Nash and Brett Olson. He recently attended the Kansas-Missouri game with Boschee on Jan. 31 in Allen Fieldhouse.
Robbie Graves remains in his brother's corner.
"He wants to prove them wrong," Robbie said. "He's looking to do everything he can to prove them wrong. Every time I see him, he's in the gym, so he's definitely committed."
The last player to make the jump from the Knights to the NBA was Paul Shirley, now with the Phoenix Suns. Shirley played for the Knights two years ago.
After receiving looks from the Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors, Jeff Graves is determined to become the next member of the Knights to make the NBA. He plans to contact every NBA summer league until he finds his name on a roster.)
"Even if I have to go state to state, you will see Jeff Graves in the NBA," he said.
He realizes he could go to Europe and play for pay -- Boschee currently plays in Iceland.
"All sorts of things are going through my mind, but right now I'm looking at that as Plan B," Graves said. "I plan on making it to the NBA. I'll ride it until the wheels fall off."