Jerian Grant all business with return to Notre Dame basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

As the walls were seemingly closing in and a decision made weeks earlier was about to cost him the second half of the college basketball season, Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant would seek solace in the one place where his mind would not wander or wonder or worry.

The gym.

There, Grant could set aside everything about his error in academic judgment and live in the moment of a game, a practice, or, on a foggy early-December night out in Iowa City, Iowa, nothing more than just him and a ball and a basket.

At home or on the road, day game or night, Grant often is one of the first to emerge from the Irish locker room to get up shots and work up a serious sweat. His pre-game routine typically starts 90 minutes before tip, but inside near-empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena before Notre Dame prepared to face nationally ranked Iowa in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Grant was on the parquet floor a good two-plus hours before game time.

At the time, it seemed like Grant was simply getting ready to play a game. A really big game. But on Thursday, the first time Grant spoke to the media about the “academic misstep” that separated him from the university for the spring semester, that night alone on the arena floor was more about dealing with a decision he knew was coming.

In mid-November, Irish coach Mike Brey learned that the program might be without its best player for the second semester because of an academic issue. Grant declined Thursday an opportunity to further explain exactly what he did, simply referring to it as an “academic mistake.”

Three weeks after receiving word that Grant’s spring semester was in jeopardy, Brey, his coaches and his players learned that Grant would have to leave school at the end of the fall semester.

“It was hard, knowing that you’re probably not going to be here for the second half of the season,” Grant said. “Every time I felt like I stepped on the court, all those things went away and I was able to play. Off the court, that was the only thing that I thought of, so it was tough.”

So was what turned out to be Grant’s final game on Dec. 21. Seemingly closing in on a victory over then-No. 3 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, Notre Dame allowed an eight-point lead to slip away in the final 58 seconds of a 64-61 loss. With each passing turnover and Buckeye basket, the magnitude of the moment threatened to suffocate Grant. This was it. Twenty seconds from now … 15 seconds from now ... there would be no more Irish basketball for him.

Afterward, knowing that his season, and perhaps his collegiate career was over, Grant served as team spokesman in the postgame interview room. Leaving behind his stunned and soon-to-be staggered teammates in a surreal locker room, he tried that night in New York to explain the hows and whys of what had just happened, all the while knowing that when it ended, he was going one way and the guys he loved, his teammates, were going another. Perhaps forever.

A minute into the presser, he was finished. So was his season. It was the last time that Grant spoke with the media until Thursday.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a tougher locker room to deal with,” Brey said. “Everyone knew he was done.”

Road to return

As Notre Dame scrambled to pick up the pieces and reconstruct some sense of normalcy for its first run through the ACC, Grant returned home to Maryland and stayed away. He would watch every Irish game on television, but often did so from faraway places. He spent time with his uncle, Horace, in California, and with his maternal grandparents in Kansas.

Grant watched the Irish go 7-13 without him, and took in only one game in person. He was seated in the front row behind the Notre Dame bench for the first-round ACC tournament game against Wake Forest. That day at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, Grant watched the Irish again give good effort and have a chance to win it in the second half before an 81-69 loss.

It was yet another game where one more player, a veteran, experienced player with swagger who thrived in end-game situations, may have made a big difference. In other words, No. 22.

“I wanted to be out there really bad,” Grant said.

Not only did the Irish season end, but so too did the career of his close friend, confidant, backcourt running mate and roommate Eric Atkins. They had long talked of taking the ACC by storm, but when that time to play in the league arrived, the expected two-guard attack was nothing more than a one-man show.

As Atkins and fellow seniors Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman wrestled that night with the end of their college careers, Brey already was turning the page to a new chapter, one that he knew would include Grant. About an hour after the Irish traveling party arrived back at their hotel, Brey summoned the returning players to his room. As they assembled, still feeling a whole lot of sorry for themselves after missing postseason play of any kind for the first time since 1998-99, in walked Grant.

Brey’s message that evening was clear – anyone have anything to say about what the past three months had been like could speak their minds. They could address Grant, who in turn, could address them.

Once they did, any future finger-pointing or pouting over what might have been would not be tolerated.

Next season started then and there.

“It was powerful when Jerian came into the room and we saw our team as a whole – moving on, this is our new team and it’s time to step up and take care of business,” said junior power forward Zach Auguste. “It brought us together. We just took it like, ‘You know what, we can’t do anything about it now, but we can make sure we can do something about it next season.’” 

Unfinished business

While away from school, Grant stayed in shape and fought off any lingering urge to call it a college career. It wasn’t always so easy to remain motivated to go back to school. He wanted to finish his undergraduate degree, but he also felt the pull of pro ball. His best friend (Victor Oladipo) is set to start his second season in the NBA with the Orlando Magic. His younger brother (Jerami) left Syracuse after two seasons as a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers. And Atkins, his closest friend on campus since the two carpooled to South Bend as wide-eyed freshmen, is playing professionally in Greece.

Had Grant’s career arc continued from where it was when he left the team last winter, he would likely be playing today for a paycheck. Instead, he’s still at Notre Dame for his fifth year, finishing his degree.

“Those guys are making money playing professionally, doing something they love, and I’m excited for that,” Grant said. “All I think about is, ‘I’m next.’”

Grant convinced himself that the only right decision was to return for summer school in June, set the foundation for being a main guy during the August foreign tour of Italy, then play his fifth and final year in 2014-15 and graduate in the spring.

“At the end of the day, I had to make the best decision for me,” Grant said. “I feel like I haven’t finished the goals that I set for myself coming here. I feel like I have unfinished business here.”

The 6-foot-5 Grant was really good when he left in December, averaging career highs for points (19.0), assists (6.1) and free-throw percentage (.865). He was the one guy on last year’s team, and still may be, who could go get himself a bucket or free a teammate for a high-percentage look.

Brey’s happy to have Grant’s play-making, creating and scoring ability back. But he’s also happy to again coach a kid who’s more focused and driven. Once quiet and reserved, Grant can be – has to be – a voice of determination, of leadership, of reason.

“It’s really good to have him back,” Brey said. “The one thing Jerian can do is he can talk to all these guys about how good they have it here.

“Sometimes when you’re here, you don’t know how good you have it until you’re gone.”

Grant knows.

tnoie@ndinsider.com | (574) 235-6153 | Twitter: @tnoieNDInsider

Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant has returned to the team and met with the media Thursday. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)