Clark Atlanta University women’s assistant basketball coach Nicole Graham took a break from setting up her desk in the women’s basketball office at L.S. Epps Gymnasium to fully appreciate the moment. She was back in the Atlanta University Center, back at her alma mater as a full-time member of the coaching staff.

The young woman made her way to Atlanta to honor her aunt’s passing was back on campus as a basketball coach. A dream fulfilled. “I had to sit back and say to myself ‘I used to visit my coaches in this office,’” said Graham on Thursday afternoon. “It felt good to be back.”

Last week was Graham’s first week back on campus after a season as an assistant coach at Saint Augustine’s University in her native North Carolina. As a high school athlete Graham played her ball at Mallard Creek High School, a statewide powerhouse program, and knew from an early age that she wanted to play college basketball and where she wanted to do it at. “My entire family attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities and I always wanted to play for an HBCU,” said Graham who began her playing career at Fayetteville State University before transferring to Brevard College. “Growing up in North Carolina I didn’t look at Clark Atlanta because we had so many HBCUs to choose from back home.”

Following her graduation from Brevard Graham decided to give Clark Atlanta a chance. Though the opportunity to play her final year of eligibility in the SIAC and for the Lady Panthers came via tragedy. Graham’s aunt, a CAU alumnus, was tragically murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and Nicole came to campus to honor her passing, and also continued the path she’s on today. “This job means the world to me,” said Graham. “I used to dream that one day I was going to coach at CAU. I remember telling teammates that I would be back as a coach.”

Graham is now back on campus two years after earning her master’s degree in Public Administration at CAU.

“Nicole’s addition [to the staff] makes sense,” said Lady Panthers first-year head basketball coach Antonio Bailey. “She’s an alum, former student-athlete and grad-assistant for us. The story of how she got to CAU is even more incredible. I just think it made sense to hire her.”

The relationship Graham forged with her coaches during her initial time at Clark Atlanta also helped her when it was time to leave campus. At St. Augustine, also an HBCU, she became that kind of coach that she enjoyed playing for. “I connected well with my players even though it was tough adjusting to my first coaching job,” said Graham. “Overall my time at Saint Augustine was a learning experience and I’m glad I got to do it.”

As a graduate assistant during the 2017-18 the Lady Panthers won the SIAC tournament title and Graham wants to help bring that title back to campus as an assistant coach under Bailey, himself a former CAU assistant coach during the previous regime. “When I left CAU it was as a champion and I’m going to try to put another ring on my finger,” said Graham.

Bailey knows he has a good assistant in his hands. One that will take this opportunity and run with it. “Nicole is punctual, organized and passionate about the opportunity to return to her alma mater,” said Bailey. “She will make a great impact on our players in the classroom and on the court.”

Her desk just about set up, Nicole Graham is “back home” at Clark and ready to get to work. She makes mention of wearing her CAU gear to the office today and how this is a dream come true. “This is what it’s all about, God never allowed me to give up and he told me to come to graduate school here and it’s been one of the best decisions of my life,” Graham said.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...

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