Tennessee native Bashaara Graves intends to play at least one final season of basketball and then determine what comes next for the former Lady Vol from Clarksville who now makes her home in Atlanta.
“I am in a transitional state; semi-retirement is what I would describe it as,” Graves said in an interview with Knox TN Today. “I’m trying to figure out exactly where I want to do post-basketball, as well as still playing this year.”
Athletes Unlimited Pro Basketball, a women’s professional league in the United States, released on Tuesday the names of the players who would compete in 2024 from Feb. 29 to March 23. Graves was among the 40 players in the league, which includes former Tennessee teammates Isabelle Harrison, Meme Jackson and Te’a Cooper. Athletes Unlimited players also can shift into WNBA training camps in April, such as Harrison and former Lady Vol Rae Burrell.
Graves, who played at Tennessee from 2012-16, has carved out a professional career on the court in the WNBA and overseas with stops that included Korea, Israel, Greece and Italy. A star at Clarksville High School, she became the first female athlete at the school to have her jersey retired at a ceremony in 2016.
Graves had committed to Tennessee before Pat Summitt announced she had Alzheimer’s disease on Aug. 23, 2011, just three months before Graves was set to sign her scholarship papers. She kept her commitment, as did fellow incoming freshmen Andraya Carter and Jasmine Jones, and enrolled in the summer of 2012 to play for Holly Warlick after Summitt retired following the 2011-12 season.
Twelve years after stepping on Tennessee’s campus, Graves knows it’s time to consider life after basketball. She lives in Atlanta with her boyfriend, Chris Horton, who played at Austin-Peay, so the two have known each for years because of their ties to Clarksville.
Her options include graduate school, coaching at some level or teaching and working with children.
“I love working with kids, which is the craziest thing because when I was in college, I did not like working with kids. I’ve come a long way from that,” said Graves, who noted she became an aunt when she was a senior in college and her outlook on kids started to change.
In between overseas stints, Graves spent time over the summer in Washington, D.C., with City Gate, which helps at-risk youth and families impacted by poverty have access to resources and opportunities. Initially, she worked with the online program in 2000 because of the pandemic.
“They were trying to get kids in the D.C. public schools back on learning paths,” Graves said. “When they reached out to me and asked me about it, I definitely wanted to take part in that.
“I worked with them during the summer and then a year later I came back and did it in person for a summer program with educational pieces in it. When I got hurt, I was there during the school year. They go into the schools and partner with teachers and do one-on-one tutoring during school hours. That’s what I was doing.”
Graves injured her knee while playing in San Giovanni near Milan, Italy, and ultimately had surgery overseas, so the team would cover the costs. She recovered back home and thus had the opportunity to work with City Gate during the regular school year.
She holds the No. 4 all-time spot at Tennessee with 1,044 career rebounds behind Chamique Holdsclaw, the all-time leader with 1,295; Glory Johnson, 1,218; and Mercedes Russell, 1,085. Graves also is No. 21 at Tennessee in points scored at 1,509.
Graves was drafted into the WNBA after college by the Minnesota Lynx and also played for the Chicago Sky for one season. With so few teams and low roster numbers, a WNBA team is the hardest to make in any professional sport, so Graves turned to overseas leagues to make a living.
“If we’re able to go overseas, why aren’t we able to do it here in the States?” Graves said. “Obviously, we’re wanted in other countries all the way to Australia, Spain, Korea, everywhere. Basically, there’s a women’s league in almost every country.”
Players face challenges overseas from language barriers to attitudes about Black women in some countries – racist taunts are sometimes translated by teammates to puzzled players – but that wretched behavior also is encountered in the United States, especially on social media. When Graves had surgery, the medical support staff didn’t speak English. The surgeon knew a little English, but direct translation of medical terms proved to be difficult.
The WNBA needs expansion teams, especially with so much talent in college, and U.S. players having to leave the country for a career. Women’s sports are extremely popular, and the South Carolina vs. LSU basketball game last week bested the Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat in TV ratings that evening.
“There’s a lot of attention on college players, but there’s always been a lot of attention on college players,” Graves said. “That transition into the WNBA is what’s really missing and that’s what I’m looking forward to seeing. But they have to have spots.”
Now that Graves has resettled in the United States, she has the chance to see former teammate Andraya Carter more often. Carter makes her home base in Atlanta as she travels around the country for her broadcasting career. She also keeps in touch with former Lady Vol Jordan Reynolds, who with Graves and Carter, was part of the three amigos as they dubbed themselves, and former teammate Ariel Massengale, who is now a college coach.
The college careers of Graves and Carter ended March 27, 2016, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Tennessee had reached the Elite Eight – one game away from the program’s first Final Four since 2008 – after beating heavily favored Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
But the win took a steep toll as three starters suffered serious injuries: Reynolds sustained a concussion, and Graves and Carter both broke their hands. Reynolds wasn’t cleared to play in the next game against Syracuse, and Graves and Carter – who both would need surgery to repair the bone damage – wore soft casts, took the court in pain and essentially played one-handed.
The “what if” of that Syracuse loss tormented Tennessee fans. It stayed with the players, too.
“Me and Draya talk about it all the time,” Graves said. “There were so many possibilities … that team that year we struggled, but when we got to tournament time we were getting it together and pulling together. It definitely seemed right.
“We played an amazing against a great Ohio State team with Kelsey Mitchell, and then to go into the Syracuse game injured? There was still a possibility that we could have went to that Final Four, and it was our last chance to do that. It definitely stays in our minds. We talk about it when we get together.”
The Lady Vols play at Georgia this Thursday, Feb. 1, and Graves intends to make the trip to Athens. She is part of the long orange line that never breaks.
“I have so many memories and once I get with my teammates, more memories are brought up,” Graves said. “Regardless of how long I go without talking to any of my teammates, when we actually do get together, it’s like nostalgia all over again.
“We talk about all those memories, the good and the bad, throughout the years that we were there together.”
Maria M. Cornelius, senior writer/editor at MoxCar Communications + Marketing, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.