Hoops challenge reunites ND's Brey, elder Valentine

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When life became terribly tough and there seemed no good way to turn for the inner-city kid from one of the roughest neighborhoods in southeast Washington, D.C., there always was one person he could count on for help.

The assistant boys’ basketball coach of the nationally-known high school program, someone who also served as his homeroom and history teacher, was always there for the kid.

Basketball was their bond, but the kid and the coach could talk about almost anything with equal ease. After another long day of academics and athletics, with the kid facing another two-hour commute that included three different bus rides, the coach was waiting with his Toyota Celica to give him a lift home.

The kid helped his high school win a mythical national championship in the early 1980s and went on to play collegiately at Michigan State. He would get married and send one son, then another, to also play college basketball in East Lansing.

On Wednesday, Carlton Valentine will walk into Purcell Pavilion for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup between No. 19 Michigan State (5-2) and Notre Dame (6-1). He’ll see one son, Drew, performing his duties as a graduate student manager on coach Tom Izzo’s staff. He’ll see another son, Denzel, a junior guard averaging 14.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists, in the layup line.

Valentine also will look across the way and see his old history teacher from their days at DeMatha Catholic High School – Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.

“I love Mike Brey; that’s my guy,” Valentine said by phone Monday from Lansing, Mich., where he’s back as boys’ basketball coach at Sexton High School after a one-year hiatus. “I don’t know if I can put into words what Mike Brey meant to me as a basketball coach.”

Brey was more than just someone who could help Valentine talk knowingly in the morning about the Declaration of Independence and then decipher a zone defense in the afternoon.

Hailing from an area of D.C. that was “190 percent” black and attending a predominantly white, affluent school was difficult for Valentine. There were many days when he wondered why, others when he wondered if he belonged and some where he figured he was better off somewhere else.

Brey helped him through those periods just by spending time with him, talking with him, showing the student that the coach/teacher cared about him not just as a student or a basketball player, but as a person.

“Somehow, he got me,” Valentine said. “He understood my struggles even though there were so many that he probably doesn’t even know of.

“He just made me feel that there was no racial divide. We were equal and basketball was our common bond. That’s some real stuff.”

With his team set to face their toughest challenge to date in Michigan State, Brey was just as eager Monday morning to discuss his relationship with Valentine as he was about his team.

“One of my favorite players to coach at any level,” Brey said.

What made Valentine special was the ease in which he associated with just about anyone without regard for color or social status. There were guys on that 1984 national championship team who garnered more attention for their ball skills – notably Duke-bound and future NBA lottery pick Danny Ferry – but it was Valentine who pulled everyone together and made that squad so special.

“Carlton Valentine was the fabric of the team,” said Brey, who compared his personality to that of former Irish guard Tory Jackson. “He was the voice. He was the humor. He was the motivator.

“Just a lot of life and energy.”

Long after Valentine graduated from DeMatha and moved on to Michigan State – his only other scholarship offer came from nearby American University – he kept tabs on Brey’s coaching journey. Duke, then Delaware and now in his 15th season at Notre Dame. The paths of Brey and Valentine often crossed on the AAU/recruiting circuit when Denzel was coming up through Sexton. The Irish recruited Valentine’s son, but Brey knew it would be tough for him to turn down dad’s alma mater.

Brey and Valentine haven’t spoken for some time, but reminders of the coach’s influence are everywhere for the former pupil.

When Valentine’s wife often wonders why he spends so many hours in front of the television, which is almost always tuned to the History Channel, she has Brey to thank.

“He made learning history fun,” Valentine said.

Though he lives in the middle of Big Ten country, Valentine seldom goes more than a day or two without mentioning to someone somewhere a love for Notre Dame. He did it again Monday morning, only hours after returning from Florida where Michigan State finished runner-up to Kansas in the Orlando Classic.

Why talk up Notre Dame? Thank Brey.

“He’s an incredible person, one of the best people you’ll ever meet,” said Valentine, whose Sexton team will practice at 5 a.m. Wednesday so he can be in South Bend that night. “I’m so proud to know him.

“He made life simpler for me.”

Jackson back in action

Former Irish guard Tory Jackson was done chasing his professional basketball dream. After a brief training-camp cameo in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, time in the NBA Development League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and a near-go with a professional team in Germany, he was content with plying his hoops trade as a coach.

Jackson spent 2013-14 as an assistant at Division II Northwood (Mich.), which kept him close to his young daughter and his Saginaw roots. He then played in last summer’s The Basketball Tournament (6.0 ppg., 2.6 rpg., 0.6 apg., 1.o spg.) and was part of a group of former Irish that won the single-elimination tournament and a prize of $500,000.

Maybe, Jackson thought, he still could do it.

“Don’t want to waste it if I can still play,” Jackson told the Tribune in a direct message last month.

Late in the summer of 2013, Jackson was hours away from boarding a plane to play professionally in Germany before taking the coaching job at Northwood. Outside of the occasional church-league contest back home, his playing days, he insisted, were done.

Jackson resigned from Northwood last month and set out for Ulaanbator, Mongolia, some 1,385 northwest of Shanghai and 6,100 miles away from Saginaw. There, he joined Tanan in the seven-team Mongolia National Basketball Association.

Tanan starts the regular season Wednesday.

“It’s one of the better teams here in the league with a few national players as my teammates,” Jackson told the Tribune on Monday morning via direct message.

Jackson is the lone player from the United States on the team. That hasn’t prevented him from bonding with teammates. Jackson posted a photo on Instagram over the weekend of him and his teammates out to dinner. A translator helps with the language barrier.

“The food has been the toughest thing to adjust to, and being away from my daughter this long,” Jackson said.

Baseline bits

• Heading into the first week of December, Notre Dame led the nation in field-goal percentage (58.0 percent), ranked seventh in scoring margin (+29.4) and was 10th in assist/turnover ratio (1.8).

• Notre Dame opened the week atop the Atlantic Coast Conference in six categories – field goal percentage (58.0), 3-pointers made (68), 3-pointers attempted (158), points (604), assists (125) and steals (61).

• After finishing last in the league – 15th – in 3-point field goal percentage defense last season, the Irish opened the week ranked seventh in the ACC (27.1).

• Four of five Irish starters are all shooting at least 54.8 percent from the field.

• Wednesday’s game against No. 19 Michigan State marks eight years to the day that Notre Dame last played a non-conference December home game against a ranked team. On Dec. 3, 2006, unranked Notre Dame beat No. 4 Alabama, 99-85.

• Wednesday also is nine years to the day that a Big Ten team last visited Purcell Pavilion for a regular-season game. On Dec. 3, 2005, Notre Dame lost 71-67 to Michigan.

• The Irish are 0-1 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge following last season’s 98-93 loss at No. 23 Iowa.

• Michigan State freshman guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., attended the same prep school (Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan.) as Irish junior power forward Eric Katenda.