With names like “Parseghian” and “Rockne” affixed to its gates, and a 132-foot tall mural of Jesus Christ peering over the north end zone, Notre Dame Stadium has an aura that’s difficult to ignore – and impossible to replicate. To even the casual sports fan, it is more a cathedral than a football stadium, having housed some of the greatest names and performances in college athletics history.
It’s also among the most noticeable structures on Notre Dame’s campus, as is the nearby football complex, which includes three fields and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex – a 96,000-square-foot, bells-and-whistles compound that resembles the mansion of a Southern aristocrat. Even if someone were somehow unable to spot the acres-long football emporium, conversation about the team is inescapable.
By contrast, the Irish basketball team’s arena, Purcell Pavilion, is nondescript. It’s conjoined with the Joyce Center, a multipurpose athletic facility that houses administrative offices and Heritage Hall, an expansive room featuring Irish memorabilia and trophies. With its domed top, some might mistake Purcell for an indoor driving range. There’s irony in that for Irish basketball star Jerian Grant. Because when he first got to campus, Grant might as well have been on Notre Dame’s golf team.
“I could walk around campus or walk around the area and no one knew [who I was],” Grant says. “They’d ask, ‘Do you play football?'”
Grant, now a fifth-year senior, wasn’t alone in getting an unfamiliar reception in South Bend. For Notre Dame basketball players, that’s usually the standard protocol. But Grant now finds himself in rare consideration: Not only could he go down among the greatest Irish basketball players of all time, but he stands a realistic shot at cementing himself in the pantheon of the university’s best-ever athletes.
Already he has made a number of All-American teams, was the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Most Valuable Player – a tournament Notre Dame won by defeating Duke and North Carolina on successive days – and is a finalist for the Wooden Award, given to college basektball’s best player. He also figures to get consideration in the first round of this summer’s NBA Draft. A special page on the Notre Dame Athletics website celebrates the 6-foot-5 guard as the only player in the country who scores at least 16 points per game, shoots 48 percent from the floor and dishes out six assists a night. Those stats are fleshed out with laudatory quotes from various basketball pundits on Grant’s season to date.
Make no mistake: Notre Dame has been – and always will be – a football school. But history will look back upon this sliver in time where that trend was temporarily halted. Because the next few weeks will belong to the basketball team. Notre Dame is attempting a run at its second Final Four appearance. The first one came in 1978. But to get there, this team must take down undefeated Kentucky, which sits in the Midwest region with the Irish. Grant wasn’t short on confidence when asked about the Wildcats. He says of a match up with the long, defensively gifted Kentucky squad: “Offensively we can score with the best of them.” Notre Dame is caught up in a basketball euphoria that rarely, if ever, has been replicated on campus. And the program has Jerian Grant to thank for it.
“Nowadays, it’s ‘Jerian can we take a picture with you?'” Grant laughs. “Or ‘Great season!’ So you definitely notice a difference.”
Was he a visionary? No, not really. A seer couldn’t have predicted any of this. For Grant, the primary factor in choosing Notre Dame was simple: it was the best fit.
His list of college choices included Virginia, Providence, DePaul, Georgetown, Maryland, Villanova and Pittsburgh – each one a basketball-first institution. When he made his college choice, Grant also had NBA aspirations. Currently, there is only one former Notre Dame player on an NBA roster: Jack Cooley, a forward on his second ten-day contract with the Utah Jazz. Choosing the Irish was somewhat of a head-scratcher to outsiders.
But Grant took the advice of his dad, Harvey, who told him: “If you can play, they’ll find you.” Harvey was an 11-year NBA veteran. Grant’s uncle, Horace, was a starter on the first of the Chicago Bulls’ “three-peat” teams in the 1990’s.
That advice reinforced Grant’s inclination to choose the school that best suited his personality. During his recruitment Grant developed a tight-knit relationship with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. Both are graduates of famed DeMatha Catholic High School, a nationally recognized athletic powerhouse outside of Washington, D.C. Brey is one of the best – and least-discussed – coaches in the country, a sincere standout in a profession many have made as much about the X’s and O’s as perfecting the art of bullshitting. Asked what he will do to keep his team loose in March, Brey responds: “I may coach with my fly open.”
“I didn’t want to just go to a school because of the name or just because of it being a basketball school,” Grant says. “For me, it was the type of guys, the type of coaches I wanted to play for, the type of guys I could get along with.”
It also provided Grant the opportunity to take ownership of a team for the first time in his basketball career. As a prep star, he was teammates with Victor Oladipo who starred at Indiana and now plays in the NBA for the Orlando Magic. Oladipo was the second overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and commanded many shots in the offense. Grant only averaged 10.5 points his senior year of high school, a low number for a Division I prospect.
But the potential to lead is what Brey saw in Grant. And it was exactly the kind of opportunity Grant was looking for. The partnership has paid dividends for both. Brey found the kind of reliable point guard needed to make a deep tournament run and Grant found a system that allowed him to play both guard spots. And, yes, showcase his talents for the NBA scouts. When asked how much Brey has developed his game, Grant sighs, as if he didn’t have the time to list all the ways his coach had influence him. Instead, he just says “a lot.”
Though it’s Grant’s attitude that is most celebrated by Brey. Despite his NBA ties, Grant has a blue-collar work ethic. He’s constantly motivated to earn his due. There are ignorant basketball fans who think he has been handed an opportunity because of his bloodline, but his pedigree didn’t prevent him from being snubbed for Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. That honor went to Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor instead. And Brey says that should serve Grant well in the postseason.
“He’ll be hungry,” Brey says. “I mean, he made a great run at it. I think it’s quite an honor to be the unanimous selection to the [all-ACC] first team. Certainly I think a lot of people felt he was the Player of the Year, but I love having a little ammo to poke at him.”
He relishes the underdog role. When Notre Dame hosted Duke on January 28, many thought the then eighth-ranked Irish to be overrated. Duke was to expose Notre Dame. Instead, Grant responded with a 23-point, 12-assist, six-rebound night in a 77-73 Notre Dame win. It was that game, in a packed Purcell Pavilion, in which the crowd noise frequently drowned out the play-by-play announcer, that hinted there might be a shift in focus on Notre Dame’s campus.
“We love having games like that here,” Grant says. “It brings out the best in the players, it brings out the best in the crowd. It shows that we aren’t just a football school.”
There will still be football on campus this week. Notre Dame’s football team is amidst its spring practice schedule. Though no one seems to care. The basketball team plays its tournament opener against Northeastern on Thursday. And the big man on campus is king of the court.