If his college basketball career was a script, former Notre Dame power forward John Mooney would not need a rewrite.
The first draft was just fine, even after he played only 46 minutes over 12 games as a freshman. Even when Notre Dame was basically the first team eliminated from the field of 68 in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year. Even after the Irish won three league games and finished in last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference when he was a junior. And definitely after last season, when he flirted with double double numbers for points and rebounds the likes of which the ACC hasn’t seen since Tim Duncan’s days while earning first team all-conference honors.
Do it all again? Mooney would do it all the same.
“I loved every minute,” Mooney said Sunday afternoon from his home north of Orlando. “I wouldn’t want to go through a career with any other program or any other teammates. It was a tremendous four years and a great ride.”
If Mooney could change anything, it might be that final ride in March while in Greensboro, N.C. and the ACC tournament. A college basketball senior is supposed to see his career end in an arena. At a game. Usually, with a loss. Whether he’s on the floor or on the bench as the final seconds slip away, that’s supposed to be the moment when everything hits him.
This is it. This is the end.
The senior then can process everything on the walk back to the locker room. Then again while sitting in the locker room. Then, finally, while peeling off the jersey for the final time.
Mooney’s college career ended March 12 in the back of the team bus. Even now, nearly four months later, it seems surreal. There was some closure that Thursday in Greensboro, but not really.
The growing global pandemic aside, Mooney and his teammates thought they’d get a chance at Virginia in the quarterfinals that night. That the tournament would continue, just with no fans in the stands. When Irish coach Mike Brey made that walk from the front of the bus to the back as the Irish were on their way to a noon shoot-around, Mooney had no clue that the curtain had already closed on his career.
It all just ended.
“It was a shock,” he said. “It was disappointing, especially to be playing our best. We were rolling.”
The Irish bus instead rolled quietly back to the team hotel. Players walked off the bus and into an uncertain future. Brey grabbed Mooney and fellow senior T.J. Gibbs and graduate student Rex Pflueger and told them to meet him in the lobby. The four then found themselves at the hotel bar in the middle of the afternoon.
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Mooney joked.
He did confirm the tale that Brey has told the last few months. The four had a few adult beverages. They shared stories. It was the only time that Brey had to really say thanks for everything they’d done for the program. Over beers. And tears.
“That,” Mooney said, “was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.”
Notre Dame returned to campus that mid-March weekend before the players scattered for home. Mooney headed back to Florida, and hasn’t been to campus. The school mailed his diploma. Most of his stuff remains in his off-campus apartment. That lease expires July 31.
“I’ve got to get up there in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
The NBA’s shutdown hit Mooney and his basketball future harder than his two former teammates. The hoops futures of Gibbs and Pflueger likely means something overseas. Mooney had a chance to shoehorn his way into the NBA. He was scheduled to play in the league’s annual pre-draft senior showcase — the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational — in April. From there, he may have earned an invitation to June’s pre-draft combine in Chicago. Guys who lead leagues like the ACC in rebounding and register a national-best 25 double doubles tend to attract that sort of attention.
From Chicago, it likely would’ve been one NBA audition after another while flying here and there and everywhere.
Mooney probably wouldn’t have been selected in the two-round, 60-player draft in late June, but he would’ve done and shown enough over the last few months to earn a roster spot with someone for the NBA Summer League. That should’ve started Friday in Las Vegas. There, Mooney would’ve earned a long look from an NBA team. Next up would’ve been an NBA training camp invite, a G League assignment or a chance to play professionally somewhere in Europe.
Regardless, there was a plan in place.
Now, Mooney works out with his trainer and a few former high school teammates at gyms near his house. He’s run some five-on-five pickup games with former college guys and a few pros. His hoops future hangs in limbo. Is the NBA an option worth chasing? The G League? Europe? Where? When?
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “In a normal world at this time, I would probably know exactly what’s next. In the world we live in now, I have no idea.”
Mooney has some idea. With the NBA draft and training camp pushed to October, Mooney has used the free time to ramp up workouts. To get his shot adjusted to the deeper 3-point line. To get in NBA shape. To get leaner. To get quicker. To get better. No summer league has allowed the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Mooney to fine-tune his game to fit the NBA.
“I’m using this as fuel to continue to worry about what I can control,” he said. “When the time comes, I’ll be ready for it.”
Mooney’s transformation from lumbering college big man to an agile pro includes eliminating the trademark hitch at the top of his jump shot. He started tinkering with a new release shortly after returning home in March. It’s still kind of there, but not as pronounced as it was in college.
“I needed to smooth some things out,” he said. “It feels good right now, which is a good thing.”
It also looks good. There’s not that half-second hesitation before a release as he hits the apex of his leap and his shot. It’s not as herky-jerky.
“His shot looks real good,” Mooney’s high school coach, Mike Cuff, told the Tribune in June. “He is ready.”
Mooney and his agent, Adam Pensack, who also represents former Irish power forwards Zach Auguste and Jack Cooley, have held Zoom calls with several NBA teams. There’s a chance that a team or two will want to work Mooney out or meet with him face-to-face when the NBA’s season resumes in Orlando at the end of the month. But all that, like the future, remains to be seen in a state where the coronavirus numbers are awful.
“It’s a mess,” Mooney said. “The whole bubble thing, teams are a little uncertain right now with the spread of the coronavirus. You’ve just got to deal with it.”
That means continuing to do what he did at Notre Dame — work. Mooney’s college career ended in an unusual way, but there was nothing unusual about his game. It was about effort. It was about work. No Irish chased success harder. No Irish took losing harder. Even as a college kid, he handled adversity like a pro.
How does he want to be remembered in South Bend?
“Just a guy who gave it his all every game and every day,” Mooney said. “A team-first guy who wanted to do everything he could to help his team win. That’s something I took pride in.
“I think I did that.”