Canzano: Road to the Final Four includes a son's smile and a mother's tears
Will Graves plays for Gonzaga.
PORTLAND — Mary Graves woke on Thursday morning in Eugene, fed the dogs, and pointed her black SUV toward Portland.
She made the two-hour drive alone, dropped in on her father at his home near NW 23rd Ave. and together they headed to Moda Center for Gonzaga’s opening-round NCAA Tournament game.
Lunch was a hot dog. The seats were in Section 122, a dozen or so rows directly behind the Zags’ bench. They watched No. 1-seed Gonzaga beat No. 16 Georgia State 93-72 and in the final 48 seconds it got especially interesting.
Walk-on guard Will Graves checked into the game.
We’re told March is made for Madness. We’re sold fairy tales and shining moments. But on Thursday I observed Mary as the horn sounded to end the game. She trained her eyes on her son and he scanned the crowd to locate her with the post-game scene cascading like confetti all around them.
They waved at each other.
She teared up.
“I wish we could have hugged,” mom said.
Will Graves was just 14 months old when the doctors noticed he wasn’t reaching his milestones. He hadn’t walked or crawled. He couldn’t sit up correctly.
“Hypotonia,” doctors said.
Will had low muscle tone. There would be years of physical therapy appointments. He’d eventually grow strong like his two older brothers, Max and Jack. The three boys would all gravitate toward the family business — basketball.
“Will and I were buddies during those early years,” his mom said. “We were like best friends doing physical therapy together. Maybe it’s because he’s the baby of the family but we had a blast while he grew up.”
Kelly Graves was 2,500 miles away when his son Will checked into the first-round NCAA Tournament game on Thursday. The University of Oregon women’s basketball team is a No. 5 seed in the women’s bracket and will play No. 12 Belmont on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.
Would Mary go on the road with the Ducks in the first round? Or head to Portland to support Gonzaga and her youngest son?
I asked the UO coach this week.
The answer came: “What do you think big guy?”
Will Graves wasn’t born in Spokane, Wash. but it’s where he spent the first 14 years of his life. His dad coached the Gonzaga women’s team and Will became fast friends with a group of boys that included Mark Few’s son.
“They’re great family friends,” Mary said, “and Will can still call on them for a family meal.”
Graves played basketball at South Eugene High. After that he attended Lane Community College. He’s 6-foot-5 and could have picked a small college — a place he could get ample minutes and more shots. But Will Graves wanted to play for what would become the top basketball team in America.
He wanted to be a ‘Zag.
“Gonzaga was all he ever wanted when he was little,” Mary said. “When Mark (Few) asked him to walk on he said, ‘Mom it’s my dream.’ He didn’t know where it would lead him but he had to try.
“This is meant to be.”
Graves averaged just two minutes a game this season. He took 10 total shots, nine of them threes. The records will show that he scored 11 points in the regular season. But if you’re looking at the box score to define Will Graves’ college basketball season, your eyes are aimed in the wrong direction.
He’s the first off the bench after a big shot by a teammate. He clapped, shouted and cheered from the sideline on Thursday. And when Few motioned for him to check into the game in that final minute Will Graves ripped off his warm-up and bounced toward the scorer’s table.
Said Will: “I wouldn’t trade my experiences here for anything.”
I asked Will this week if he could identify the traits he got from his parents. He called his mother “the rock of the family” and pointed to how much she cares for others. He said his dad taught him competition and the love of basketball.
“He introduced it to me at a very young age and I’ve been in love with it since I can remember,” said Will.
Over the years the Graves boys, along with their father, often played spirited pick-up games in the driveway. During the pandemic they worked together to film funny videos and practice trick shots.
Max, 26, works for a non-profit in Baltimore that uses soccer to bring joy and growth to children in the world. Jack, 25, is an assistant women’s basketball coach at Lane Community College. And there’s Will, 22, who is chasing a national title with his teammates this month.
“It’s just so fun to see them all so close,” Mary said.
Will is a senior with one year of college eligibility left. He plans to transfer after this season to a college where he’ll play more. He’s not sure where, yet.
“I have gotten so much better in my three years here going against NBA guys day in and day out,” he said.
On Thursday at Moda Center in that final minute of play Will checked in, touched the ball on one possession, dribbled a couple of times and made a single pass. The horn sounded. The game ended. Gonzaga advanced to the second round and he scanned the crowd looking for his mother and grandfather.
This tournament will crown a champion. Confetti will be shot out of cannons and nets will be cut down. Maybe it will be Gonzaga. Maybe some other team. But it’s not lost on me that the beauty of March Madness often comes in the best of forms.
A son’s smile.
A mother’s tears.
“I love my kids all the same,” Mary said, “but he’s my baby.”