You study the photo for a moment, recognize the faces all in one peaceful place and realize that sometimes it’s just bigger than basketball.
It’s one powerful picture.
This is a big season for Notre Dame as it prepares to climb back from being knocked silly in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season. The Irish weren’t very good in a lot of areas it needs to be very good. They’ve missed the last two NCAA tournaments and cannot afford a three-peat. They need to be one of those 68 teams celebrating Selection Sunday.
But when it comes to a different tournament, one that involves real issues of real life, the Irish are worthy of a No. 1 seed. The photo shows it.
Look at it again. It was taken on a late-September evening at the Monarch Beach Club in Dana Point, Calif. In the background, the sun’s about to tumble into the Pacific Ocean. It’s picture-postcard serene.
Someone gathered the Irish and snapped the photo hours after the memorial service for Rebecca Pflueger, the mother of graduate student guard Rex Pflueger, who lost her battle with brain cancer on Sept. 14 after diagnosed last December. She was 53.
Pflueger and his father, Russell, are on the left side of the photo, happy and smiling and surrounded by nearly all the current coaches and players on this year’s team. Former walk-on guard Liam Nelligan sneaked his way into the shot. Current sophomore guard Dane Goodwin is not pictured. He was back home in Ohio for his sister’s wedding.
It’s not just that they’re all smiling but that they’re there, in Southern California, 2,100 miles away from campus after having dropped basically everything that needed to be done back in Indiana that weekend to be there for Pflueger and his older brother, their father and their family. Support them. Cry with them. Laugh and share with them as they gathered to grieve during the day, then watch the Georgia-Notre Dame football game at night. Travel out as one. Return as one.
“It was a pretty surreal moment,” Pflueger said late last week. “It was a special moment and a special day. It’s pretty ridiculous to think about, how everyone on our team came out.
“For them to be there, you can’t really put that into words.”
Earlier that week, when memorial plans were finalized, senior power forward John Mooney contacted coach Mike Brey with a simple statement.
“Coach, we’re going out there, right?”
Darn, right. But it was tricky. Had that been a road trip to play a regular season game — much like last December only days before Rebecca Pflueger’s diagnosis when Notre Dame played at UCLA — the Irish would’ve traveled by charter plane. Get there quickly, conveniently, hassle free. That weekend, they were booked on a commercial flight, with a connection through Dallas.
When that plan fell through, the Notre Dame traveling party wound up busing to Chicago for a direct flight into Los Angeles. They didn’t arrive at their hotel rooms until just before 3 a.m. Pacific time, less than eight hours before the memorial service.
“When your brother needs you,” said director of operations Harold Swanagan, “it doesn’t matter.”
It didn’t matter. Nobody complained about the long travel day or the lack of sleep or the quick return flight back or anything.
“Everybody was like, ‘Yes, we need to be there,’” said senior guard T.J. Gibbs. “That trip, we still talk about it. We needed to do that for Rex. We all have his back.”
The memorial service was difficult. It was emotional. Pflueger spoke eloquently about what his mother meant to him. She was his best friend. She was his biggest fan. Even when on her toughest days, she insisted her youngest son remain at Notre Dame, to be around people who loved him, doing what he loved while pursuing his Master’s degree in business.
The more Pflueger spoke that day, the more strength he seemed to gain. He shed a few tears, but for the most part, he was rock-solid strong. Not so his teammates. Brey looked at his guys during the service and saw some of the most stoic sobbing. Hard. It was a difficult moment for all, but one they had to help lead one another through. Together.
“It really changed everyone’s perspective toward one another,” said sophomore guard Robby Carmody. “Our togetherness is a lot different than last year. It’s a whole different level.”
Carmody was one of those who wept at the memorial. It took him back in time to when he was younger, and one of his closest friends back home in Mars, Pa., went through something similar. It hurt then. It hurt now.
“It’s taught us a lot,” he said. “It’s going to take us a long way. Every great team is really together.”
Nobody would have thought twice had sophomore guard Cormac Ryan remained on campus that weekend. A Stanford transfer, Ryan still was adjusting to campus life at Notre Dame, still making friends, still finding where to go. He barely knew Pflueger. He never knew Pflueger’s mom. But he’s in the picture, alongside his Irish teammates.
“Not a doubt in my mind,” Ryan said when asked if he debated not going. “I was all in. I was so glad to go out there and support him.”
Carmody, who played in only nine games last season, and Ryan, had no reference point when it came to understanding how much Rebecca Pflueger meant to the team, meant to the program. Mooney did. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, the Pfluegers seldom missed a game. They were at the home games. They were at the road games. They were at the neutral-site games, always there in the first few rows behind the Irish bench. In March 2017, Rebecca Pflueger even served as the point person to scout several downtown restaurants in Louisville as potential brunch spots for the players’ parents before an afternoon game.
In any city, for any game, she always was there with a smile and a hug. It was weird for Mooney last year when she no longer could travel.
“Mrs. Pflueger was an unbelievable person,” Mooney said. “No matter the circumstance, she always had a smile on her face. She was a role model. Just the way Rex’s handled this situation is remarkable.”
The head coach also had to navigate it without a map. At no time during his now 20 seasons at Notre Dame has Brey had to deal with anything like this. Where’s the chapter in the coaching manual on how to do it? There isn’t one.
Brey handled it more like a father than a head coach. The day after Rebecca Pflueger died, he texted Pflueger — meet me at The Grotto at 3 p.m. There, they lit a candle. Brey talked about losing both of his parents in a span of nine months in 2015. They laughed. They cried. They talked about everything but basketball.
“Everything that’s been thrown at him, he’s handled it amazingly,” Brey said. “That’s kind of done some things to our team dynamic that you couldn’t orchestrate.”
Last time the Irish had a losing season — 2013-14 — Brey tried to pull the strings on different exercises to build a better team dynamic. Not this time. The way the Irish rallied around Pflueger, the way they helped him stay strong, the way they took ownership to constantly be there for him, that could take this team a long way this season.
“We really are a band of brothers,” Gibbs said. “No matter what happens in life, I can count on these guys.”
One final look at the photo shows something interesting. Almost everyone is wearing shoes. No big deal, right? The only two barefoot are the head coach (of course) and the team chaplain (the Rev. Pete McCormick, C.S.C.).
What does THAT say about this program?
“We’re pretty cool,” Pflueger said. “We’re one of the most relaxed programs in the country.”
Maybe one with the biggest heart.