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Ex-KU forward Jeff Graves embarks on adventure with Midwest Reign women’s hoops team

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By Gary Bedore gbedore@kcstar.com

Jeff Graves believes there’s a market for minor-league women’s basketball in Kansas, Missouri and other neighboring states.

That’s why the former University of Kansas power forward has accepted the role of full-time owner and temporary head coach of the Midwest Reign — one of eight franchises in the Women’s Minor League Basketball Association.

“We’re trying to make it big. I want us to be there next to the Royals, big ol’ banners and stuff,” Lee’s Summit native Graves, who played for both Bill Self and Roy Williams at KU, said Saturday. “Us Jayhawkers … we know what success looks like. When we taste that little bit of success and when you know what it feels like, it’s like, ‘Hey let’s build it.’ ”

He said the goal of the first-year team in the league that was founded on April 8, 2016, is to provide a service for “kids, our city and women’s sports.”

Graves is in the process of organizing an AAU program for girls in the Kansas City area and hopes his Reign 8- to 10-player roster will ultimately be full of players who were not drafted into the WNBA but need a place to fine-tune their skills en route to playing in the WNBA or overseas.

“Why can’t I or people around here from Kansas City actually give back to Kansas City? This is my way of giving back, not only for players, but community and kids. I have an 8-year-old daughter. It’s something where she can be one of those taught the fundamentals of hard work and dedication. If you put your all into something, if you have the right people with you, the sky is the limit,” said the 35-year-old Graves, who played on KU’s 2003 Final Four team.

After playing for Self’s 2004 Elite Eight team, the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Graves competed professionally in Slovenia, Turkey, Croatia and the D-League before retiring a couple of years ago following ankle surgery.

According to the team’s publicist, Graves’ first Reign roster is made up of Jasmine Thompson (Central Missouri), Andrea Rhoiney, Azaria Nave (Lincoln, Mo.), Sarah Rogers (Northern Illinois), Raven Gary-Williams (Appalachian State), Leah Smith (Rogers State), Jasmine Harris, Rician Williams, Royce Shields (Bethany College), Zaneta Lindsey (Northwest Missouri State) and Bree Fowler (Missouri).

“We’re going to get them (players, fans) through P.R. and marketing to realize, ‘Hey this is the real deal for women’s sports,’ ” Graves said. “Even college athletes who didn’t quite make the cut … they need a league to stay in shape or get an overseas contract. It’ll always be a beneficial league for the women to come back to.”

Until Graves hires a head coach, he’ll gladly run the show in the team’s inaugural season.

“Probably hard-nosed coach Williams and a little bit of coach Self, too,” Graves said with a laugh, when asked which coach in his past he’ll most resemble on the bench.

“I told the players, ‘You are pros now. My expectations are to get you ready professionally, mentally and better as people personally,’ ” he added.

Tickets for Reign games are $10 for fans 18 and older; free for anybody 17 and under. For schedule information go to wmlba.com. The Reign Facebook account is at https://www.facebook.com/MidwestReignBasketball/. The Reign also has a Twitter account, as does the WMLBA.

“We’re fixing and smoothing the rough edges. It’s a process,” Graves said. “We’ll get everything smoothed out.”

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