The Daily Pennsylvanian recently chatted with Penn men’s basketball assistant coach Nat Graham. We asked him 15 questions about his basketball experiences, his coaching time in the Ivy League, his love for the British version of "The Office," and more. Here's what he had to say.
1. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?
I graduated from high school in Miami in 1993 before coming to Penn. I played two years on the team while coach [Steve] Donahue was an assistant coach, and I played alongside three future NBA players in Ira Bowman, Matt Maloney, and Jerome Allen. After Penn, I went to play in Canada where I got a little more playing time.
I got into coaching shortly after that, and Donahue offered me a coaching position at Cornell. After following him to Boston College before he was let go there, I came to Penn for one year under Jerome Allen, and then Donahue was hired just a year later. It was truly full circle to come to my alma mater, and I love being at Penn today.
2. What do you enjoy most about coaching at Penn?
I love the familiarity of Penn that I’ve gained over the years by working with [Bowman] and [Donahue], whom I’ve known for a long time, and my parents live here, which is great as a dad. I’m also year in, year out impressed with the kids we recruit each year.
They’re extremely talented and smart, but they also have extremely high character and amazing passions outside of basketball. Being able to chat with these guys and have great conversations on the sideline about things other than basketball—that stuff is invaluable.
3. What made you decide to get into coaching?
My wife was finishing school up in Canada after my two-year stint overseas, and I got involved coaching and teaching at high schools in the area. I always knew that I wanted to have basketball be part of my career, but it was hard to gain traction at the college coaching level. I had two other stints in Canada in the early 2000s, but I kept reaching out to Donahue along the way, and he finally relented and gave me a spot at Cornell.
4. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience playing overseas?
I went to Ireland and Denmark and played overseas for two seasons, but I quickly learned that that life really wasn’t my style. I was already married, and the constant traveling just caught up with us. But it was great to see the world from that perspective, and I have an immense amount of respect for guys who have long careers overseas; it’s really hard to do.
5. What is your favorite memory at Penn as a player?
I think my favorite memories were when the band and the student section stormed the court. In , we beat Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament and everyone was running onto the court. That was a great moment. And then in the next round, we almost beat Alabama, and they had one of the top NBA draft prospects at the time, Antonio McDyess.
6. What has been your most memorable game coaching at Penn?
When I came back as a coach, winning the Ivy League title in 2018 takes the cake. Obviously that stretch from 2007-2018 was one of the longest stretches in recent Penn basketball history where we didn’t win a title, and bringing the trophy back to the Palestra just felt right.
7. What has it been like to finally practice again with the team in person?
It’s been great. Admittedly, we don’t have the whole team with us, which isn’t ideal, and initially, all the health restrictions made it difficult to do that much. Still, it was great to get back after the long hiatus. It puts so many things in perspective, and it helps us appreciate the game on a deeper level. You love the members of this program like members of your family.
8. You’ve been close with head coach Steve Donahue throughout your coaching career. What do you admire most about coach Donahue?
I admire that he was generous enough to give me a job two times despite knowing me. But in all seriousness, it’s a hard profession to gain traction in, and I’m forever grateful to him for opening that door for me. Aside from that, I think coach Donahue is an extremely talented offensive mind; he just sees the game from so many different angles, and he’s very creative.
I also think he’s a true leader. He has put in lots of hard work to get to where he is, but he makes sure to treat everyone with lots of respect. He makes everyone feel like part of the Penn basketball family.
9. Who was your favorite athlete growing up?
I didn’t really have a single favorite athlete growing up, but if I had to choose, I’d say either Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan. I grew up during the Magic-Bird rivalry, so that will always be nostalgic. But in general, I’ve admired a lot of different athletes over the years. Now as a coach, I find myself loving those guys who make contributions off the stat sheet.
10. What’s your favorite professional sports team?
The Phoenix Suns. In the '90s, I followed the Suns when they had [Charles] Barkley and watched them lose to the Bulls in 1993. It was heartbreaking, but in hindsight I probably should have seen it coming.
11. What’s your favorite Philly restaurant spot?
The big joke on the basketball staff is that Chipotle is my favorite restaurant. Don’t get me wrong — I do love Chipotle — [but] Baby Blues BBQ tops my list. I also really enjoy trying new types of food from different countries, so I like exploring new restaurants.
12. If you had one extra hour in a day, how would you spend it?
I got three kids, so a lot of days, I would be taking an extra hour of sleep. If I weren’t doing that, I’d be hanging out with my wife or watching something on TV.
13. What are you most looking forward to post-pandemic?
Seeing the Palestra full again for a Big 5 matchup. I miss the energy and atmosphere of a packed Palestra.
14. What’s your favorite TV show?
"The Wire" is one of my favorites. The British "[The] Office" is pretty funny, and my wife and I watched it so religiously that we refused to watch the American version.
15. What’s one piece of advice you would give to student-athletes trying to navigate college during the pandemic?
In regular times, I’d try to recommend trying new things, having new experiences. But in pandemic times, you’ve gotta stay disciplined in your day-to-day routine and keep your head up. And reach out to your coaches, because we are here to help.
Find ways to be involved in opportunities at Penn to figure out what your passions/interests are. I know it’s difficult in the virtual setting, but there are still great resources at students’ disposal.
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