As the Madison Square Garden clock wound down on Dec. 21, 2013, it looked like the University of Notre Dame’s 8-2 men’s basketball team was going to earn a much-needed victory over undefeated Ohio State. The win would bring a measure of redemption for home losses to underdogs North Dakota State and Indiana State earlier in the campaign. With 50 seconds to play in regulation, the Irish led 58-50.
Then things began to unravel.
Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the final 50 seconds, paving the way for a 14-3 Ohio State run and an eventual 64-61 Buckeye victory. Irish star junior guard Jerian Grant, who led all scorers in the game with 18 points, committed two of those giveaways. It marked a painful contrast to Grant’s mind-boggling final-minute-of-regulation performance against Louisville in February 2013 when he scored 12 points in the last 23 seconds to force overtime. Notre Dame finally won that epic back-and-forth battle against the eventual national champion Cardinals at the end of the fifth extra session.
For the Irish, redemption would have to wait for another day. For Grant, redemption would take much longer—and it first would have to come away from the basketball court.
Unbeknownst to anyone except Grant’s teammates, coaches and family, those final seconds against Ohio State were also the last seconds of his 2013-14 season—and perhaps his Notre Dame basketball career. The following day, in a statement posted on the University’s athletic web site, Grant acknowledged that he had handled an academic situation improperly and would not return to campus for the spring semester.
“I was counting down,” Grant says. “You know, ‘One minute to go, 30 seconds to go,’ in what could be my Notre Dame career. It was definitely hard to finish out that game, and it showed on the court, losing that lead that we had. It was tough.”
Grant’s teammates were aware of the situation because Grant and Irish head coach Mike Brey had broken the news to them days earlier. Grant and Brey both use the word “embrace” to describe the situation.
“The guys embraced me,” Grant says. “They told me they were going to have my back regardless. They were going to keep in contact with me. Just to know that those guys were behind me 100 percent made it easier.”
“I just remember, when I was giving the news to the team that Jerian was going to be gone, Pat Connaughton had his arm around him the whole time,” Brey says. “I’m looking at that and getting chills and just getting emotional watching that. I’m thinking, ‘Man, that’s pretty good stuff.’”
The support of his teammates may have made things easier for Grant, but no one said it was going to be simple. In fact, Grant admits that, in the beginning, he felt a lot of anger toward both himself and the University. Brey shares that the senior expressed embarrassment to the point of thinking no one would want him to return to Notre Dame.
“I was more concerned about him,” Brey says. “Obviously, he’s a big part of our basketball team and it was going to affect our basketball team. But how was this going to affect him? Knowing that the ruling was going to be that he would be away from us for a semester, would he return and finish school here? He was so close to graduation.”
Grant’s tight-knit relationship with Brey led him to Notre Dame in the first place—they are both products of DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. Grant calls this their “instant connection,” and upon it, the coach and his star built a relationship based on strong communication. This bond helped tie Grant to Notre Dame during his forced absence.
Brey kept in daily contact with Grant, and Grant’s mother laid out a plan for how her son would spend his time away from Notre Dame. She made sure Grant devoted much of the time to visiting relatives: a few weeks with his uncle in California, then his grandparents in Wichita and finally his godparents in New Orleans.
“Being in a difficult situation like that, being with family definitely helps to ease the pain,” he says. “To be with people who understand what you’re going through, it kind of took my mind off basketball a little bit even though I was still watching the games.”
Grant did more than simply watch his teammates. Brey asked him to email his thoughts on Notre Dame’s after every game. Sometimes this became a struggle for Grant, as he never made it through a telecast without the announcers mentioning his absence. Even across the country, Grant couldn’t escape the painful and embarrassing reality of why he wasn’t there. Still, the process kept him engaged with his team despite his time away.
“He had amazing insights on our games,” Brey says. “He has a very high basketball IQ. He had some insights that we as a coaching staff didn’t have that I used. It was hard on him watching us not be very successful. He took that personally. My tone with him was, ‘Hey, you’re going to be back next year and we’ll attack next year, but in the meantime, be there for the team.’”
Grant’s suspension had a profound effect on the team as Notre Dame, without its leading scorer, suffered the first losing season during Brey’s 14-year tenure. The Irish failed to make the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2009. And watching his Notre Dame teammates go head to head against his younger brother Jerami, who plays for Syracuse, just rubbed salt into Jerian’s still raw wound.
But it doesn’t take Grant longer than a second to pinpoint his lowest moment.
“Definitely the last game in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Tournament against Wake Forest,” he says. “To know that those seniors weren’t going to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament or get a chance to play another game and to know that was it for them. I was there in person for that game and to know that I wasn’t going to get to play another game with Eric (Atkins), who I came in with, and a guy, Garrick (Sherman), who I grew to have a good relationship with on and off the court--to know that I wasn’t going to get to play with those guys again was definitely difficult.”
But Brey sees the bonds Grant had created with his teammates as a key factor in his decision to return to Notre Dame for his fifth and final year.
“I think it’s because we build really deep relationships here,” Brey says. “I think I have great relationships with my guys and they know I care about them. They know Notre Dame cares about them. At the end of the day, Jerian couldn’t leave Pat Connaughton and Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett and Eric Katenda. That’s what our program is all about.”
During the off-season, Connaughton also decided to return for one last year as part of Brey’s program, albeit under very different circumstances. The Baltimore Orioles selected the two-sport Irish star in the fourth round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. After a summer playing in the Orioles’ farm system, Connaughton will come back to Notre Dame to finish his basketball career.
“I think it says a lot about Notre Dame as a place,” Connaughton says. “Obviously, academically it’s tough. But it’s the people that make it up—the professors, the friends that you make, the teammates that you have. It’s a unique community in the sense that it draws a lot of people. It really develops you as a whole person.”
Brey says developing this “whole person” is the biggest part of his job because it makes him an educator. Grant wasn’t the first Notre Dame student-athlete to face this predicament, a fact that Brey made clear to his pupil. He drew parallels between Grant and Kyle McAlarney, who returned to Notre Dame following a 2007 suspension for marijuana possession and then set several Irish three-point shooting records and earned first-team all-BIG EAST honors. Irish football standouts Everett Golson and DaVaris Daniels also missed a semester in 2013-14 due to academic issues.
“I’ve had so many people say, ‘Boy, that’s a tough place. Can they change that rule?’” Brey says. “And I said, ‘Whoa, hold on a second. That’s who we are at Notre Dame. And we’re really proud of it.’ I think it speaks volumes to the mission of this place, our commitment to educating the total person. We’re not using them as athletes. If we were, those guys would have been around and would have only been suspended a game or two, right? They were not used. We want them to use football or basketball to help themselves.”
A great Notre Dame story is a concept that Brey firmly supports. He cites McAlarney’s case as “one of the great stories in my tenure here.” When the news of Grant’s suspension broke, Brey was quoted as saying, “I think this is going to end in a great Notre Dame story.”
So, what makes a great Notre Dame story? To Grant, it’s a success story. It’s turning something that went wrong into something good, or even great, and that’s what he intends to do.
“When Coach Brey said that, it meant that he had my back and he knew it was going to turn out for the good,” Grant says. “At the time, it was hard to see any good in the situation. I was playing well and the team had high hopes, so it was difficult to see what kind of good could come out of this.”
During last winter’s 15-17 campaign the Irish didn’t find much of that redemption they came so close to claiming against Ohio State. But Grant, who hopes to graduate in December 2014 with a degree in sociology, has found his—even though he had to leave Notre Dame to find it. Now, Grant and the Irish will seek redemption together on the court.
“I still felt like I had a lot that I wanted to do when I came here, and I think this year is a great opportunity for me to do those things. I want to do something here that hasn’t been done; I want to make this season a special season for me personally but also for the team. It would be great to go down in the record books somewhere as a team that was special.”