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IT STARTED OUT as a study on transfer culture in men's college basketball, spurred by an NCAA report that a record 492 Division I players had changed schools following the 2011--12 season. I tracked the behavior of the last seven classes of top 100 recruits, and among those who stayed in college for at least two seasons, 34.3% didn't finish playing at the place they had started. You could consider this an epidemic (as many coaches do) or just a slightly higher rate than nonathletes. According to a 2012 National Clearinghouse Research Center study, 32.6% of full-time students transferred between 2006 and '11.
What's more curious about elite basketball prospects is how often they transfer before college. The number of top 100 players who attended multiple high (or prep) schools nearly doubled between Year 1 (2007) and Year 7 (2013) of the study, from 28 to 52. Not surprisingly, there was a correlation between high school and college transferring: A player who went to four or more high schools was twice as likely to switch colleges as a player who went to one.
There were heavy movers among the 700 players—99 attended three or more high schools, and 30 of those attended four or more—and I came upon the case of two brothers from Durham, N.C. Tyree Graham, 24, has been at four high schools and five colleges, and Torian, 20, has played for five high schools and one college. And they aren't done moving yet.
I wondered what their story, however atypical, would reveal about transferring overall. Why have the Brothers Graham done so much traveling?
THE SUN comes up on a Cadillac, an old white boat of a car, parked on Piedmont Avenue near the corner of Scout Drive, in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Durham, the Southside. Light filters through the windows onto two boys asleep in the backseat. It is the summer of 1997. Torian, 4, slumps against eight-year-old Tyree, who slumps against the rear door on the driver's side. Their mother, Crystal Green-Graham, had been in the front seat when they dozed off the night before. They awake around 8 a.m. to find she has disappeared.
To understand why the Grahams keep moving, you can't start with high school. You have to start with the emptiness of that morning, the contentment evident in a photograph taken six years earlier—and the slope in between. In the picture two-year-old Tyree is posing in the driver's seat of his Little Tikes Cozy Coupe. His smiling mother stands to his left, her hand resting on the car's yellow top. She is a warm, charismatic second-grade teacher at Durham's Lakewood Elementary.
This is how she looks before she is prescribed Percocet to manage pain following Torian's birth; before Percocet becomes a gateway to street drugs; before she leaves teaching and is divorced from Ed Graham; before she and the kids bounce from an apartment to a flophouse; before she teaches them to steal their food from a convenience store; before she does unspeakable things to get by. ("There are so many things you wish you hadn't seen, but you did," Tyree says. "People always ask me, 'How are you sane?' ")
"Uncles" come around. But even an eight-year-old can deduce that these white, Hispanic and black men are not uncles. Mom disappears with them and returns with money that, sometimes, goes toward rent. When it doesn't, there is eviction, a few motel rooms and finally the Cadillac his mother has acquired along the way. Tyree and Torian see fights and shootings on the streets at night and wonder who is watching over them. God, maybe; two Baptist churches loom over the neighborhood. After they get out of the car that morning, they don't see their mother for two months, and their father soon takes them in. But at times they can count only on each other. They will each get a tattoo, many years later, with the same words: BROTHER'S KEEPER.
THE FIRST TIME Tyree bolts from a high school is in 2005, early in his junior season as a point guard at Southern High, in Durham. HoopScoop has rated him the No. 3 player in his class in North Carolina and the No. 82 player in the nation, even though he is just six feet tall. His life is still not stable—after repeated arguments with his father, a cabinet maker, Tyree often crashes at the home of a coach and mentor, Ed Davis, while Torian stays with their dad. Tyree's best friend, Maurice Marley, sometimes stays there too; they met playing AAU together.
But on Nov. 27, Tyree gets a phone call, and another hole opens up in his life. Marley had gone off to play high school ball that season in Fayetteville, N.C., and a teammate there had invited him to tag along to a Thanksgiving party in Alabama. During the trip a pickup truck crashes head-on into their car, and both boys are killed along with two women.