When Will Graves was dismissed from the University of North Carolina basketball team in October 2010, he didn’t know what was next. Basketball was Graves’ whole life. He was named, "Mr. North Carolina Basketball" in 2006 and a short four years later, reality made him change his life.
Head coach Roy Williams said the 6-foot-6 Greensboro native failed to comply with team rules. Hoping to be a major contributor to the Tar Heels team that season, Graves admits he was disappointed in himself, and worse, that he disappointed those around him.
“I definitely felt like I let them down.” Graves said “I remember they were playing Kentucky in the Elite 8, would’ve been my senior year. It was a close game, they were only missing a spark; you know, the bad guy. It hurt me so much to see them go so far and to know I could’ve been a part of that and helped tremendously. That really hurt.”
Graves was determined to change his situation so he made the difficult choice to leave UNC.
“I tried to finish that semester but it felt weird being on campus, just having to be separated from the team,” Graves said. “I knew the only thing I could do was go pro. I had different colleges try to recruit me, but my main choices were to finish school at UNC or to go pro.”
Japan, Uruguay, Venezuela and Argentina, were the first stops for Graves after turning pro in February 2011. But in 2013, Graves injured his knee and again had to make a life decision.
He decided to return to school in Chapel Hill.
“I played professional basketball for two years and was presented with the opportunity to go back and finish my degree,” Graves said, “I want to thank coach Williams and the university for giving me that opportunity. The fact they gave me the opportunity was more important than people know.”
Williams also gave Graves a place to stay and a part-time gig as a video coordinator for the team. And just weeks before finishing his degree, he mis-stepped again.
A suspicious utility worker called police to the home Graves was renting on Dec. 6. Upon arrival, the officers were granted permission to enter the residence where they found marijuana. Graves was cited for misdemeanor possession.
Again, Graves was forced to move forward. Later in December 2013, he earned his degree in sociology.
“Growing up, my grandfather was a big-time Carolina fan,” he said. “My family, they are all Tar Heel fans. Just to be able to go to that school and graduate meant more to other people than just me.”
With a degree in hand and a healed knee, Graved returned to professional basketball. A third season in Argentina and one in Iceland were his next stops before signing a two-year contract with Maccabi Bazan Haifa of the Israeli Super League.
“I enjoy playing ball overseas, but it’s my ultimate goal to play for the NBA,” the 26-year-old Graves said. “Hopefully scouts are watching. I have to take responsibility for my actions off the court. I know there’s a lot with me. My story is different. I’m just praying hard to make it where I want to be.”
Coming off his best statistical season in Iceland in 2014, Graves has taken control of his career and is motivated to achieving his goals. He is dedicated to making his number one fan – his mother -- proud.
“She’s very important. I do it for my whole family, but there’s nothing like that mother-son bond,” Graves said.
Gloria Graves is Will’s constant motivation who has always been in his corner, recognizing his greatness when others didn’t.
“I can tell her love for me; she saw and respected my intelligence as a kid,” Graves said. “The way we operate is different, we are one. A team.”
Graves understands he’s made mistakes and recognizes the people he’s let down. He’s not looking to do that again. Graves said that he has assumed all responsibility and is working on becoming the ideal player teams want and need.
“I just want people to realize that even through my mistakes, I’m one determined individual and I will forever be resilient,” he said.
*Currently, Graves is signed to Keflavik, a team in Portugal. When he's not playing basketball, he raps under the name Willy G.