Coppin State senior forward Chance Graham is a killer on the basketball court, where she returned this season as the reigning MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and the league’s leading rebounder.
Long term, though, Graham has her eyes on actually bringing killers to court as a homicide detective when her playing days are done.
“I came [to Coppin] and wanted to be a nursing major, but that takes so much of your time, I had to pick something else,” the Upper Marlboro, Md., native said.
The demands and time constraints of college athletics forced Graham to find another major, and she took inspiration from her Coppin coach, DeWayne Burroughs, a former Baltimore County police officer and college criminal justice instructor.
“He has helped me out a lot,” she said. “I want to play basketball overseas for a few years and come home and get into [police work].”
Graham already has this “serve and protect” thing down. She often talks about working for her teammates, and there is no one better in the MEAC defending would-be trespassers to the basket. Few players take as much pride in rebounding and defending as the long-armed, 6-foot-1 Largo High School graduate.
“The more rebounds I get, the more it helps my team,” she said. “If I get a defensive rebound, the other team doesn’t get another opportunity to score. I just go after it. I always want to be the best, and I know that I’m the best rebounder in the conference.”
The evidence supports Graham’s statement. She entered the 2019-20 season fourth nationally among all active players in career rebounds and was poised to break Coppin’s career rebounding record (908). Already a 1,000-point scorer, she is well on her way to becoming the first Coppin player ever with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
“She’s just relentless on the boards,” Burroughs said. “She wants to score the ball. She wants to get better each and every day. It’s a coach’s dream to have an athlete like this every once in a while. She can do anything you need — score on the inside, score on the outside — and also she’s just a nice young lady to be around. She’s laughing, joking, having a good time with her teammates. She’s going to be successful, not just in basketball, but in life.”
The traits that make one a great rebounder and defender also translate to other areas of her life. Graham smiles at the notion of hustle and desire defining her on and off the court.
“I had to learn the right way on the court on my own, through hard work and that’s what I’m trying to tell my teammates,” she said. “We all have bad days, but you have to keep working.”
Graham traces her lunch-pail ethos back to summer league basketball in Largo, Md. A coach told her she wasn’t very good at ball-handling and to focus on other parts of the game.
So that’s what she did.
“I didn’t even know what to do then, but my coach just told me to go get the ball and when I did, not to let anyone take it from me,” Graham said. “So, me not being good at certain things, I had to find things I was good at.”
Tall for her age as an eighth-grader, Graham was first spotted by local coach Ayana Ball-Ward before one of Graham’s older sister’s games at Largo High. Ball-Ward suggested the then-cheerleader might consider giving fans something to cheer about rather than leading the cheers for others from the sideline. She hadn’t thought about making basketball her focus.
“I was like, ‘Ewwww,’ but she changed my perspective,” laughed Graham.
Graham is the youngest of four siblings, all successful, but she will be the first college graduate. She has also had the most success in athletics, though it didn’t come easily. During her senior season in high school, Graham was frustrated. Colleges showed interest, but she wasn’t pulling down the offers like a tenacious rebounder would like.
When Coppin came through, she signed, even though some suggested she wait until after her senior season. Again, a top rebounder knows what a ball in the hand is worth.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people waiting until March and I really didn’t have anything [from a school]. Or Coppin could have found someone else. My parents, [Erica and Alonzo Coston], were always there for me, and that helped.”
Ultimately, Graham had contact with Auburn, Georgia State and Middle Tennessee State, but no firm offers. Besides, by then she was set on soaring with the Eagles.
“I wasn’t a fan of teams hopping on at the end,” Graham said. “I wanted to stay loyal to Coppin.”
Coppin’s confidence was quickly rewarded. Graham started 23 games as a freshman, averaging 6.7 points and 8.6 rebounds and earning MEAC Rookie of the Year honors. The following season, she was 16th in the nation with 10.8 rebounds per game and earned second-team All-MEAC honors. Last year, she averaged 14.5 points and was tied for 11th nationally with 11.4 rebounds per game. She started all 30 games and logged 36.7 minutes per contest.
“I hate getting out of the game for a minute to get water, I hate that,” Graham said. “I hate sitting out practice.”
Graham said she’s in bed by 8:30 p.m. most nights. Basketball and classwork — she was recently inducted into an honor society at the school — keep her busy, and she is focused on larger, long-term goals.
Ultimately, Coppin State has been a great fit after giving Chance a chance.
“I have a genuine connection with a lot of my professors,” Graham said. “They work with me when we go out of town and let me come in for office hours whenever I need to.”
The Eagles, who haven’t had a winning season since 2014, were tabbed 10th in the 11-team MEAC preseason poll with the usual suspects (North Carolina A&T and Bethune Cookman) at the top, but Graham thinks Coppin will be better than advertised.
“I think we’ll be pretty solid, we’ve had our learning experiences,” she said. “When it comes down to it, no one really knows how good you can be except you. That’s why I work so hard.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Coppin State Athletics
Issue 259: November 2019
Originally published Nov. 15, 2019