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Ex-Albany hoops player Graves making most of chance at Middle Georgia Tech

Albany's Keith Graves (32) helped lead Turner Job Corps to the 2010 national title before signing with MGT. (Middle Georgia Tech/Special to The Herald)

Albany's Keith Graves (32) helped lead Turner Job Corps to the 2010 national title before signing with MGT. (Middle Georgia Tech/Special to The Herald)

WARNER ROBINS — Keith Graves understands that when the final buzzer sounds on his sophomore season as the starting point guard for Middle Georgia Tech, his basketball career will be over.

But it’s also when the rest of his life will begin.

“I’ve had two offers to (keep playing), but I’m not going to take them,” said Graves, 21, who took a unique path to earn his degree in early childhood development at MGT, graduating first from Life Christian Academy in Albany, then spending a year at Turner Job Corps before earning a tryout — and eventually a starting role — at Middle Georgia Tech in Warner Robins. “I want to start helping others. I’ve got a job offer from Byne (Christian in Albany) to teach and coach. I’m ready to get going on the rest of my life.”

Graves will be missed when he leaves Middle Georgia, where he was recruited by head coach and Albany State alum Bobby Brown two years ago. Brown said he heard about Graves leading Turner Job Corps to the 2010 Job Corps National Championship.

“About 90 percent of my players are kids just like Keith — lots of talent, but overlooked for whatever reason,” said Brown, who has plenty of ties to Albany — he graduated from ASU in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree, then went back and got his master’s in public administration a few years later, while his father has been driving from Warner Robins to Albany for more than 20 years to serves as the preacher at Oak Ridge Baptist Church. “I know a lot of folks down in Albany still, and some people kept telling me to come and check him out. So I did, and I liked what I saw, so I asked him to come up and try out.”

Graves, who stands 6-foot-2, blew Brown away during his tryout, not so much with his ability to score, but because of his knack for always finding the open man and his defense. Two years later, he leads MGT — which is currently the No. 1 team in NJCAA Division III’s Region XVII at 6-1 in conference play, as well as the reigning 2010-11 champs — in assists with five a game, while he averages close to 10 points a game. And, of course, Graves is Brown’s go-to man when he needs someone to take a charge.

“He’s our defensive specialist. In key situations, Keith will always be the guy to step up, get himself in position and take that charge for us and get us the ball back,” said Brown, who noted that MGT — being that it’s a NJCAA D-III school — doesn’t give scholarships, meaning Graves and all his teammates simply are playing for the love of the game while getting an education. “He’s a smart kid with a real, real high basketball IQ. He understands the flow of the game, and this year he’s been more of a scorer for us, knocking down the (3-pointer) very consistently.”

Success didn’t come easy at first for Graves, who watched helplessly from the bench the first half of his freshman season as MGT got off to a 1-11 start. But when Graves finally got a chance at a starting roll, he made the most of it: Middle Georgia finished the season winning 19 of its final 21 games and won the region title.

“It feels good to know I’ve helped this program (find success) because when I first came in I thought we were going to be pretty bad,” Graves said. “But we turned it around last year, and now we’re No. 1 in our conference this year. Like I said, it feels really good.”

Graves, who has a 3.8 GPA and is on pace for his second straight All-Academic Team nod, scored a career-high 21 points last season against Southern Crescent, then put up a season-high 15 against the same team earlier this year. It was in that game when Brown realized that Graves could also be counted on as a scorer.

“He hit four 3s — went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, if I remember correctly — and had seven or eight rebounds and five or six assists,” Brown recalled. “He’s done very, very well for us. We feel blessed to have him on our team.”

Graves is quiet and unassuming, which he understands now is one of the reasons he may have been overlooked after graduating from Life Christian, as well as when he was studying culinary arts the one year he attended — and starred on the basketball team — at Turner Job Corps.

“I just kind of keep to myself, unless I’m on the basketball court,” Graves said. “When I’m out there, I’m a completely different person. It’s all about the team, how we can help each other, stuff like that. That’s kind of how I approach life.”

Brown has seen that first-hand, calling Graves one of the team’s spiritual leaders.

“He doesn’t do a lot of preaching or anything like that, but I have seen him talk to a number of the younger guys about how to make the most of their chance — because we gave a lot of these guys a chance when no one else would,” Brown said. “Keith also does a lot of volunteering in his free time, whether it’s as a rec coach, or with the local AAU teams or even back home in Albany (where he did his internship at Byne).

“I know he’s had some schools look at him, but his heart is in coaching and teaching, and I think he’d be a great one.”

Graves hopes so. After all, he’s giving up a chance to play at the next level in order to make an impact on someone else’s life now, rather than later.

“It’s just what I want to do,” Graves said of his decision to begin working on a career after graduation, rather than pursue basketball. “I feel great about my choice.”

As does his coach.

“Keith’s a real good kid, and I see great things in him as long as he stays in the direction he’s headed,” Brown said. “He will be missed when he’s gone, but I know he’s going on to bigger and better things.”