METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham traces the beginnings of his NFL career back to the success Drew Brees had with Antonio Gates in San Diego more than a half-decade ago.
"Without him, I wouldn't have even been given this opportunity, or even been given the opportunity to play in college," said Graham, who played four years of basketball at Miami and one year of football. "He paved the way for me. I know that."
Gates played basketball at Kent State and had not played football since high school when the Chargers decided to give him a look at tight end in 2003.
"He was an experiment. I was like, 'This guy will never make the team,'" Brees said while recalling Gates' arrival in San Diego. "Midway through the season we had a bunch of injuries at tight end and he ends up starting, and the light bulb came on and you were just like, 'Wow.'
"I see a lot of similarities between him and Jimmy in just how much basketball can help them in regards to the body control and body position and suddenness and going up and attacking the ball, just like you would in the paint in basketball."
Gates is San Diego's career receptions leader with 603 and has been to eight straight Pro Bowls.
Graham, a surprise third-round pick in 2010, had his breakout season in 2011 with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs.
On Sunday night, they'll both be in the Superdome when the Saints (0-4), desperate for a victory, host the Chargers (3-1).
Gates said he knows little about Graham's basketball background, but is well aware of Graham's work on the gridiron.
"He's a phenomenal tight end," Gates said. "He plays the ball in the air really well. He reminds me a lot like a young Tony Gonzalez, maybe more athletic, the way he uses his body — big target, they throw it to him, jump balls in the red zone, etc."
Likewise, Chargers coach Norv Turner has been impressed with Graham's development, and views Sunday night's game as one featuring two of the best tight ends in the NFL.
"Obviously Drew was here at the beginning of Antonio's (tenure) when he got rolling, and I see them using (Graham) in a similar way," Turner said. "Those guys with a basketball background know how to use their body and shield guys off their body to go up for balls, and then as they continue to grow and grow as route runners it just becomes crazy."
Graham was gratified to learn that Gates knew little about his basketball background and more of him as a football player, but he also was not surprised, noting, "I wasn't a really good basketball player anyway."