CHICAGO — Devonte’ Graham’s mother isn’t sure whether her son’s most recognizable trait was inherited or learned.
Of this, though, she is certain: The Kansas basketball superstar owes it all to his uncle.
“When you see Devonte’ and he’s always smilin’, I tell people my brother is the same way,” Dewanna King said. “Like, he could be in the worst situations and he’d be smilin’.”
Graham’s uncle, Darius McCullers, has been a consistent male fixture and role model for the senior guard who hasn’t had many in his life.
McCullers was there when his younger sister, at age 14, gave birth to Devonte’. He was around as Graham grew up in a household with three strong female figures in King, grandmother Doris and little sister Shamaria.
McCullers was there Tuesday as Graham and the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks (2-0) battled No. 7 Kentucky (2-0) at United Center, a date Graham pointed out has special significance for the family.
“It’s my uncle’s birthday,” Graham said, “so hopefully we can go ahead and get the win for him.”
Graham continued, expanding on the role his uncle has played in his life.
“We’re really close. I just call him Uncle D,” Graham said. “Mom and him are super tight, and you know how me and my mom are. They’re always together and coming to games … going over film of games on TV.
“I’m just happy to be able to play on his birthday and he can come out and watch me.”
McCullers, 41, has relished watching Graham develop from shy child into big man on campus for the Jayhawks.
Watching every game from afar — and, on occasions like Tuesday’s months-in-advance-planned trip, in person — McCullers has gotten a sense of how the once-unheralded prospect and former Appalachian State commit became, as Bill Self has said, “the most popular kid on campus.”
“I’ve never been to Lawrence, but I just know if everybody loves him like I do, then yeah,” McCullers said. “His attitude, the way he is — I mean, he’s just a lovable type of guy.”
That’s something McCullers learned early on.
One of the uncle’s most vivid memories of his nephew’s younger days came when Graham was playing Pop Warner football. A running back by trade, Graham was approached about a position change to a more prominent position.
“He didn’t want to play (quarterback). He wanted to give it up for the other guy,” McCullers said. “But I was like, ‘You know what? You’ve got to play it.’ And he took the bull by the horns and became a leader. He’s taken that leadership role.”
Graham at first wanted to switch to wide receiver, but as Darius recalled, that was never in play.
“He really didn’t have a choice,” he said with a laugh.
The first time McCullers realized his nephew had something special on the basketball court came in a neighborhood gym in Halifax, N.C., where Graham put on a show for all onlookers.
“You could just see it,” McCullers said. “He is just different, you know what I’m saying?”
It was in basketball that McCullers saw Graham channel his outgoing personality into an on-court persona, something that’s only continued at KU. He sees it when Graham makes a good move on a defender or when he knocks down a 3-pointer, finishing with an exaggerated facial expression, a gesture to the bench or by “doin’ his little dance,” McCullers said — though the reviews are mixed on that last part.
“He can work on it, but he’s all right,” McCullers said with a chuckle.
While the two never played one-on-one — “I couldn’t risk taking a loss,” said McCullers, an admittedly “mediocre” basketball player in his heyday — the uncle and King don’t hesitate to play the role of armchair point guard with the preseason Big 12 player of the year.
In fact, they don’t even wait for the game Graham is playing in to be finished.
“Man, listen: We be on the phone with him, before halftime we’re probably already in his inbox,” McCullers said. “Whether he’s looking at it or not, he’ll know by the end of the game.”
On off days, Graham and McCullers’ frequent FaceTime conversations typically revolve around non-basketball related matters — news from back home, how Graham’s sister is doing and general advice about life.
“When we talk, we don’t even really talk about basketball until we’re about to hang up, ’cause I know his mom, coaches, everybody (is) already in his ear,” McCullers said, “so I try to keep him focused on other stuff.”
McCullers said he wasn’t surprised to hear Graham intended to return for a senior season, a decision the sharpshooter made just two weeks after his junior year ended with him scoring three points on 0-for-7 shooting in an Elite Eight defeat to Oregon at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
The shot at history, McCullers argued, was too enticing.
“I think it was a great decision. It really was,” McCullers said. “He’s got an opportunity to leave his mark if he can do something a lot of kids in that situation ain’t never done before, you know?”
As for McCullers’ tight relationship with the now 37-year-old King, the older brother described her as his “sister-mom,” “manager” and “agent in life.” He’s always marveled at the strength King showed in raising his nephew as a teenager.
“Man, my sister, I don’t want to cuss, but that’s my girl,” McCullers said. “She’s the (expletive), you know what I’m saying? The way the family handles things, that’s the way she is, and I think he gets a lot of that from her. It’s crazy.”
Make no mistake, though: McCullers’ smile isn’t something that rubbed off on the whole family.
“That is not something I’m gonna do,” King said with a laugh. “You’re going to see me smiling, laughing, joking at the games, but I’m probably the serious one, the one that’s fussing everybody out.
“So no, he did not get that from me.”