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."
"Most people would have called me the enforcer. I was the kind of guy who just went in the game and, you know, just got a lot of fouls, got stuff started, dunked on people, so for the most part, I guess he's right," Graham said.
"I was always trying to change the image and not to be called a basketball player anymore, so that's an honor that he says that he just knows me as Jimmy Graham the tight end. That's pretty cool."
When asked about the success both he and Gates had making the transition from basketball to football with Brees as their pro quarterback, Graham was not about to dismiss it as mere coincidence.
Graham said that from the moment he arrived at Saints headquarters, Brees would talk to him about the success he had in San Diego with Gates.
"He said, 'Listen, I remember where Gates was when he first got into the league and I was there for his first start. And I'm going to work with you every day. I'm going to work with you as much as I can so that we can try to get that connection because I think you're going to be a special player. You're a special athlete and I believe in you,'" Graham recalled.
"So that was my first day of work. I remember he always used to just compare certain things to Gates and how I should do things — you know, 'Gatesy did this and Gatesy did that.' I heard that like every other day."
When Philip Rivers took over for Brees as San Diego's starter in 2006, he, too, quickly came to rely on Gates, and said he's not surprised the Saints looked to help Brees develop a similar target in New Orleans.
"You really see how the basketball benefits them ... in this game at that position from a route-running standpoint, body position and I know I've certainly thrown Gates a lot of high balls he's gone up and gotten," Rivers said. "I've seen Drew do the same to Graham. I've seen him go up and get a bunch of balls and obviously his body position and ability to go up and do that gives us confidence to throw those types of balls that otherwise you might not throw."
Notes: Five Saints players sat out Thursday's practice: WR Lance Moore (right hamstring), DT Brodrick Bunkley (illness), DE Turk McBride (left ankle), LB David Hawthorne (right hamstring) and RB Travaris Cadet (right shoulder). S Roman Harper (right hip) and LB Jonathan Casillas (neck) were limited.
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AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this story.