Teammates are used to people confusing them for siblings—but for Kingston locals and Gaels forwards Jesse and Tanner Graham, the assumption isn’t unfounded. Now in their fifth year as teammates at Queen’s, the towering duo wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re best friends … not many people can say that with as much confidence as me and Tanner can,” Jesse, two years his brother’s senior, told The Journal. “Even though we’re very different, we’re very similar.”
Despite the age difference, the two brothers dominated Kingston’s high-school circuit together at La Salle Secondary School and joined the Gaels at the same time in 2014-15. Jesse is listed at 6’6”, while Tanner stands at 6’7”. Together, they cast an imposing shadow in any frontcourt.
While Tanner found success more quickly than Jesse—the former earned All-Rookie honours in his first season—the Grahams have carved out their own niches since they joined Queen’s. Jesse has become hyper efficient in the paint for the Gaels and currently leads the OUA in field goal percentage (70.6 per cent), while Tanner has grown into a reliable scorer, premier rebounder, and shot-blocker. Last season, he was second in OUA in rebounds per game (10.4) and first in blocks (3.2).
The degree to which basketball is a family affair for the Grahams extends well past the brothers. Their mother, Karen, played on the Canadian National team and used to coach Jesse and Tanner at La Salle; their sisters, Evelyn and Gilene, have both played basketball. Their older brother Dale even works the clock at Gaels games.
Basketball and family may as well be synonymous when it comes to the Graham household—it makes sense how naturally their decision to sign with Queen’s came.
“Me and Jesse were only being heavily recruited by Queen’s and [McMaster], so that’s [what] the decision came down to,” Tanner said. “We went to a basketball game to watch them play each other, and it was actually Mac who invited us to the game [in Kingston].”
That game was when they realized where they wanted to play collegiate basketball.
“At this point Queen’s hadn’t made a formal pitch,” Jesse said. “And while we were watching the game, we realized that we were cheering for Queen’s while Mac was recruiting us.”
“That was a pretty good indicator that we both wanted to come to Queen’s.”
The Graham brothers joined Queen’s when the men’s basketball program was just getting over their reputation as an OUA basement-dweller. Two years before, the team had gone 2-20.
In the last week of October this year, the Gaels were nationally-ranked (10) for the first time in over a decade. While this might raise expectations for the team, the Grahams think otherwise.
“A top 10 ranking is great, but we have bigger aspirations,” Jesse said of the current Gaels team.
Tanner concurred, adding, “[The ranking] didn’t change things at all. We still want to make it to the OUA Final Four, we still want to get to Nationals.”
In their final year in high school, the duo put together a deep run at OFSAA, ultimately losing in the quarterfinal. But in their senior year at Queen’s, the brothers aren’t feeling pressure to make a deep run with the Gaels—and any pressure they do feel is entirely self-motivated.
“For myself,” Jesse said, “I wouldn’t want to look back and think, ‘I didn’t do it.’”
The OUA is the best conference for men’s basketball in U Sports, and this year is no different. The Gaels are up against stiff competition, and according to Tanner, they’re going to have to push each other and their teammates if they want to succeed.
“Growing up, it was very competitive … Jesse was bigger than me, more athletic,” Tanner said. “But eventually we became more equal, and then we got more encouraging [towards each other].”
“We’ve always pushed each other, since before I could even remember” Jesse added. “But being in fifth year, it’s funny … When you go to an opposing gym, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s the last time I get to play here.’ It adds a different layer. There’s always that idea that you’d get to come back, but now there’s some finality to it.”
No matter how the season ends, the Grahams won’t be sour.
“The friendships and experiences I’ve had are what I’ll cherish most. I hope my teammates will remember me as a friend and someone who always had their back,” Jesse said about his time with the program. “For fans and supporters, I hope people will remember me as a person of high character, a good leader, a competitor, and a guy with some pretty good footwork in the post.”
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