Matt Gregory still just one of the guys on Notre Dame basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was supposed to be the standard end-of-season spring basketball meeting with the head coach for Notre Dame small forward Matt Gregory.

Gregory would sit in the first floor corner office with Mike Brey, discuss the season that had passed and look forward to one final year as a walk-on member of an Irish program that had enjoyed a solid three-year run. Brey would thank Gregory for his work, then make plans to reconnect when the players returned for summer school.

Brey then dropped a dream into Gregory’s lap.

It was something that Gregory often thought about during those few times when he’d get a quiet moment away from the classroom and the court, but also one that he was realistic about. It was probably never going to happen. No chance.

Then there was one.

A scholarship.

Brey shared his spring scenario. The Irish still had three scholarships to help fill out the 2017-18 roster. The transfer market had over 500 candidates. Some were interested in Notre Dame. Brey wanted to explore those possibilities. Maybe add a transfer or two. If the right opportunities arose, maybe even three.

But if the fits weren’t right for the all-important locker room chemistry, one of those remaining scholarships would go to Gregory.

Just hearing that left the Avon, Ind., native in a fog.

“You totally dream about that day and then it comes about so gradually that when it happens, it still surprises you somehow,” Gregory said. “It’s euphoria. But when Coach said that it might be possible, it was a shock at first.”

Brey hoped to have an answer for Gregory before he returned in June for summer school. April became May. May slid toward June. And Brey had added only one transfer – former Connecticut power forward Juwan Durham. Two spots remained.

Would one eventually go to Gregory? That was the $64,000 question. Actually, it was a question worth $69,395, the average cost for Notre Dame undergraduates in 2017-18.

In early June – Gregory still remembers that it was a Tuesday afternoon – Brey’s number popped up on his cell phone.

“He just said, ‘Let’s do this. Congratulations,’” Gregory said. “And that was it. It was awesome.”

Brey and his staff pondered doing something special to announce Gregory’s scholarship. Maybe capture it like so many other college coaches have done with walk-ons in a You-Tube moment. Then they thought about Gregory.

That’s just not him. He’s too straight-forward for all that social media stuff. It’s just not his style. Just put him on scholarship and let the days and weeks and months pass with no official word. That’s more him.

“He’s maybe the most mature guy that we’ve ever had here, even as an 18-year-old freshman,” Brey said. “Very deserving.”

As good as Gregory felt about going on scholarship, he knew he’d have to tell his father. And that was going to be … interesting.

Fully-invested father

He lives and breathes Notre Dame basketball like few fathers whose sons have played in the program. Sporting his usual green golf shirt and jeans, he and his wife, Susan, make the drive to most every home game and almost all the road games, even though their oldest child and only son rarely plays.

Kevin Gregory loves the roller-coaster of emotions during a season’s journey almost as much as he loves the weather.

And that’s saying something for the chief meteorologist at WRTV-6 in Indianapolis.

What happens now that his son is a scholarship member of an Irish team that has won a school-record 82 games the last three years and has designs on going places this season that few Irish teams have ventured in program history?

“I don’t honestly know how I can be more wrapped up in the games,” Kevin Gregory said Friday. “I just love to cheer the guys on and enjoy those moments of pure joy or feel the pain when somebody pulls one out on us.”

Kevin typically is in his seat in the parents’ section near the Irish bench for the first halves of most games home and on the road. But come the closing minutes when contests get tight, Kevin seeks a pressure release. An escape. He’s got to get out of there. Fast.

When his son was a freshman and Notre Dame was playing for an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship against North Carolina during that Cinderella season of 2014-15, Kevin couldn’t take it anymore. He sprinted from his seat in the lower bowl of Greensboro Coliseum, hustled into the arena concourse and headed for the nearest men’s room.

Kevin spied an empty stall, walked in, locked the door and sat down. He placed his hands so tightly over his ears to drown out any hint of crowd noise. Big cheers would indicate that Carolina was cruising; silence would mean the Irish were on a run.

It stayed silent for a really long stretch. So Gregory stayed.

There he sat as Notre Dame won its first conference tournament in school history.

“I came back down into the arena with my arms above my head just as the confetti was flying,” he said. “I did not see the end of that.”

Still needing to get up and wander when games get tight, Kevin did manage to see the end of every game last season.

“I’ve gotten better,” he said.

“That’s how invested he is,” Gregory said of his father. “As nerve-racking as it is, he loves it.”

As much as a fan as Kevin is, he can flip the father switch pretty quickly. During that 2014-15 postseason run, Kevin’s first thought as it kept going and going and going was how in the world was his son going to handle his unforgiving academic load?

Three weeks of constant travel and games put Gregory two labs behind in organic chemistry. He would have to carve out time to study on the bus, in the hotel, sometimes in the locker room.

Kevin worried just as much about that as beating Duke or North Carolina or Butler or Wichita State.

The valedictorian of Cathedral High School Class of 2014 had it down.

“He was still able to get an A in that class,” Kevin said. “I’m just so proud of him.”

As outgoing as Kevin is, he struggled to find words to describe what it meant as a father to hear that his son had earned a scholarship for his final season.

“It was emotional for him when he found out,” said Gregory, whose younger sister, Annie, will be a junior at Notre Dame this fall. “Definitely a big moment for him.”

Proud and honored and unbelievably humbled to see his son, who had the chance to graduate in three years and move on to the next phase of his life back in the spring, choose to instead return for one more year.

Words didn’t come easily for Kevin to describe what it all meant. Not without a few long pauses. Thoughts collected. Mind spinning.

“Unexpected is probably the best word,” Kevin said. “Unexpectedly proud. Things happen for a reason and you don’t take this stuff for granted.”

Still the same

Now on scholarship, just like the rest of his 11 teammates, the 6-foot-8, 201-pound Gregory remains realistic about his role this season. He’s still going to help however he can in practice. Sometimes, that’s just with his words. Give the main guys a hard look as part of the blue team. Be one of the voices of reasons in the locker room. Be the one that Brey still body bumps behind closed doors after big wins.

He’s not going to get in games for more than a few seconds at the very end. Maybe not play more than his career-high of five minutes, maybe not best his career point total of three. He won’t challenge senior power forward and All-American candidate Bonzie Colson for minutes. He’ll still be in his spot toward the end of the bench.

During Thursday’s hour-plus practice, Gregory never did jump into any 5-on-5 situations. He’s totally fine with it. With everything.

Be it a walk-on or on scholarship, he’s still ‘Gregs’ to his coaches and teammates.

“That’s the great thing about it – I didn’t feel like I was different in any way the past three years,” Gregory said. “Even coming in as a freshman with big-time names (Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson) on the roster, you felt like a part of the team.

“That’s what makes it so easy to play here. Everyone’s the same.”

In the four weeks that he’s been on campus, Gregory’s felt nothing different about his role, about his spot on the team, about how guys treat him. There was no unofficial initiation process as he crossed over from walk-on to scholarship. Everything’s pretty stayed status quo.

His scholarship status has changed, but nothing else has.

But it has. Gregory has had an impact on his teammates. They may not always say it, but they look up to him in ways that have nothing to do with making shots and scoring points.

“He’s such a humble guy,” said teammate Rex Pflueger. “He’s a huge part of this program. He’s a source of inspiration.

“A true Notre Dame man.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI