TAMPA, Fla. — Kelly Graves has a wife and three sons.
And an unbreakable bond with hundreds of basketball daughters.
Oregon’s coach has been able to share in his first trip to the Final Four with just about all of them, which has made the Ducks’ journey from Pac-12 also-ran to national title contender even sweeter.
“Aside from spending the time with my family, the coolest part about this whole thing is how many of my former players have reached out to me in some form or fashion,” Graves said after Oregon’s practice Thursday at Amalie Arena. “Either by Twitter or text or phone call to say, ‘Hey coach, I’m happy for you, congratulations.’”
Graves’ voicemail is filled with messages from his former players at Big Bend Community College (1989-92), Saint Mary’s (1997-2000) and Gonzaga (2000-14).
“That means a lot,” Graves said. “They’re kind of taking this journey as well. It’s not just the Ducks, it’s a lot of people I’ve had a chance to coach over the years.”
The balancing act began when Graves was an assistant at Portland, where he met Mary Winter on a blind date in the early 1990s. Pilots athletic director Joel Etzel’s wife, Judy, had a conversation with the future Mary Graves about the challenges the couple would face.
Kelly and Mary Graves have been married since 1994.
“We’ve had an awesome marriage, and I think she’s been my best assistant coach that I’ve ever had,” Graves said. “I rely on her a lot. If I have player issues, I go to her a lot. She in particular spent a lot of time with this team this year. She’s texting back and forth with our players often.
“I know Sabrina (Ionescu) and her, they communicate almost every day in some form or fashion.”
Ionescu, the highest ranked recruit in program history, has more than lived up to the hype and is the biggest star at this year’s Final Four.
The two-time Associated Press first-team all-American chose Oregon over a list of established contenders during the recruiting process because of the relationship with Graves.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I always tell myself that every day, that I was blessed to be in the position to make one of the best decisions of my life by coming here,” Ionescu said. “That shows with the relationship that I have with the coaching staff here. I relied on that a lot because I thought that was super important.
“And it shows how we’ve been able to have a great relationship off the court and bring that on the court and trust each other and just love each other. It has helped us succeed at a really high level.”
Graves’ children have followed him into the family business. His oldest son, Max, coaches high school basketball in Arizona.
Jackson spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach for the Lane Community College women’s team. Graves’ youngest son, Will, was a freshman on the LCC men’s team this season.
“Balance for him is really important. It’s not always about winning, it’s about the relationships you build,” Jackson said of his dad while watching the Ducks’ practice on Thursday. “He understands that better than anybody. He’s always been great about balancing family and coaching, sometimes mixing the two.
“He knows how to make adjustments but he’ll ask us, throw us a bone every once in a while.”
The boys grew up in Spokane, where Graves was a local celebrity while leading the Zags to 10 consecutive West Coast Conference titles.
Max said he was the biggest proponent for a family move to Eugene when Oregon interviewed his dad for the job at the Final Four five years ago.
“It came down to the last day and he had not decided. Me and my mom weren’t sure what he was going to do,” Max said. “I was sitting in class and he texted me a picture of himself wearing an Oregon hat and an Oregon polo. No words.”
Max transferred from Santa Clara University to Oregon after his freshman season and spent a lot of time in the gym competing against Ionescu and the Ducks. He said Ruthy Hebard and Lydia Giomi used to get mad when he’d block one of their shots.
During the team’s first NCAA Tournament run two years ago, Max remembers trying to recreate the famous Jerry Stackhouse dunk at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He flew from Phoenix to the Portland Regional last weekend and was en route to the Final Four on Thursday night.
“It’s more emotional for me this year,” Max said. “I’m more invested. They were going to do this anyway, but to have been a part of their development was special. …
“Sunday was the greatest day of my life.”
A crowd of 11,538 witnessed Oregon’s 88-84 victory over top-seeded Mississippi State last Sunday at Moda Center to clinch the program’s first Final Four appearance.
Three of the fans caught the ear of university president Michael Schill.
“Have you heard them on the sidelines? They’re completely nuts,” Graves said of his sons. “They are great hecklers and they bring big-time game. Even our president was sitting behind them and he goes, ‘I really enjoyed being by your sons.’”
The Graves boys say there is a line that is never crossed when verbally sparring with the team dad is trying to beat.
“My brothers are awful to opposing teams. But it’s never personal, it’s just about how bad they are at basketball,” Max said. “I’m kind of the adult of the group … I could not believe how and they are, just non-stop.”
Colorado coach JR Payne played for Graves at St. Mary’s and was an assistant with him at Gonzaga. Their relationship dates back to her high school days in Vancouver, B.C., when the then-Portland assistant tried to recruit her.
“He is like a father to me. I love and adore him like no other,” Payne said at the Pac-12 media day event. “I’m just so lucky to have been coached by him, to have had an opportunity to coach with him. He’s just an incredible human being. I absolutely love him.”
Graves and his longtime assistant, Jodie Berry, had coffee with Payne on Thursday morning and “bounced some ideas” off their new Pac-12 peer.
“It’s nice to have that inner circle,” Berry said. “You feel like when you work for Kelly, you’ve created this circle of people that is really tight. I feel like the same is true of his players who have played with him before. … I think the thing that’s most amazing about Kelly is when he’s not on the court and it’s not about basketball he’s happy-go-lucky, fun and genuine.
“Then when the ball goes up and he’s on the court, he’s as competitive as anyone I’ve ever seen. His will to win and his preparation is huge. And he has kind of instilled that with everyone who has ever worked for him.”
ESPN reporter Holly Rowe has been a fixture at Oregon games during the program’s rise to prominence under Graves. She covered the Ducks’ historic 88-48 victory at Stanford on Feb 10, which was the worst defeat of legendary coach Tara VanDerveer’s three-decade career with the Cardinal.
“I was joking with him, ‘You are so pleasant and lovely, but I know inside of you there is this competitor,’” Rowe said of the media-friendly Graves. “He was on the scout team when we did their game against Stanford and his players were going against him. And he got his shots and he won.
“I said, ‘Oh, it’s in there. I see that fire.’ But he’s just so pleasant with how he demonstrates it.”
Ionescu recently made fun of Graves’ post skills during a news conference. The superstar and her coach have exchanged some memorable podium smack over the years.
“We didn’t do that a lot freshman year obviously. We didn’t know each other too well. But at this point we could cuss at each other, we could tell each other anything and there’s no hard feelings,” Ionescu said. “I think we both know where it’s coming from. It’s coming from a good place. I think we’ve realized that we’re a lot more alike than we thought. He’s super competitive as well, and also easy going, funny, relaxed off the court, and that’s how I am as well.”
Giomi was in an accident last year in which she suffered a broken jaw. The sophomore from Seattle wasn’t alone at the hospital.
“When I woke up, Kelly was actually sitting at the end of my bed. He and his wife Mary came to visit me,” Giomi said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of coaches that would have done that. He just cares about us, not as basketball players, but as people.”
Satou Sabally and her younger sister, Nyara, put their trust in Graves when they decided to relocate from Berlin to Eugene to play for the Ducks and attend Oregon.
“He’s like a father figure to a lot of us,” Sabally said. “He’s just a really great human being and he sees the things that we need right now. He’s a great head coach.”
Graves said the blended marriage between his personal life and his professional life hasn’t always been perfect.
“It’s tough. I tell all young coaches, if you put too much on one side or the other, the other side will suffer,” he said. “If I spend too much time being a husband and a father, then my coaching will suffer. If I spend too much time being a coach, then fatherhood and husbandry suffer. There’s I think a balance.”
Graves signed a long-term contract at Oregon that could be extended through the 2028-29 season. His better half won’t be surprised if he’s still coaching beyond the new deal.
"I let him alone and he always comes in and just starts talking," Mary said in a profile on the Gonzaga website about those rare nights when Graves’ teams lose. “He knows I'm just there to listen. The kids kind of go to bed. He vents and then it's over. I just let him talk and then it's over. …
“I think he'll coach until he dies. It's in his blood, loves it with all his heart, and I don't ever see him giving it up. He might be 80.”