Noie: Chris Doherty presses pause on start of Notre Dame hoops career

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

All looked right that first night for Chris Doherty.

The last piece in a five-man recruiting class ranked among the nation’s 15 best, the freshman power forward seemingly fit seamlessly with the Notre Dame men’s basketball program that mid-June evening.

The Irish gathered for the first time during summer school to play pickup in The Pit in front of dozens of campers and on-lookers. Doherty was easy to spot from the start. Battling for position, barreling into the lane with his imposing 6-foot-8, 225-frame. Racing after rebounds. Setting screens. Taking a few shots here, grabbing loose balls there. Hustling. Playing. Hard. He was an obvious effort guy. He looked the part of a college basketball player.

Watching from his spot on a side staircase, coach Mike Brey smiled. He likely imagined what could be down the road for the kid from Marlborough, Mass.

But that Monday night marked the beginning of the end — at least then — for Doherty.

Over the coming days, Doherty grew more uncertain of his new home. Of his place in the program. Of being in Indiana. It had been a whirlwind transition. A week after graduating high school, Doherty headed to college. There was no break. No time to reflect on how life would change. Like that, it all did.

Doherty missed his home. Missed his mother. Missed his grandparents, who had provided him the only home he’d really ever known. The day before Doherty left for Notre Dame, his grandfather was admitted to the hospital with a medical issue. Everything turned out OK, but it added to the stress for Doherty, who plans to wear No. 15 in honor his grandfather’s birthday (Jan. 5).

By the end of the second week of summer school, with Doherty having dived deeper into his funk, his mother drove 13 hours from Massachusetts, collected her son and drove another 875 miles back home. The coaching staff had no idea that Doherty had left. Or was struggling. He had made every tutoring session, attended every workout, even finalized his schedule for the fall semester.

Doherty eventually withdrew from summer school. He remains in contact with the coaching staff. Associate head coach Rod Balanis swung through Marlborough after a summer recruiting trip to New York. Doherty drove 70 miles to Springfield, Mass., one day to have lunch with Brey, who was in the area recruiting. Both are sympathetic to his situation.

“Chris needed time to return home and take care of some family business,” Brey said Wednesday in a statement. “We look forward to him returning to the team for the start of the fall semester.”

Notre Dame did not make Doherty available for comment. He’ll speak to his situation in the fall. His locker at Purcell Pavilion sits ready and waiting. He follows the folder of strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski’s workout schedule.

When Notre Dame gathered Wednesday for practice, Doherty wasn’t there. When Notre Dame embarks next week for the Bahamas and its three exhibition games, Doherty will remain home in New England. The first day of the fall semester is Aug. 20. Doherty’s expected on campus.

“We’re going to support him as best we can to help him,” Balanis said. “There’s a good kid in there.”

It’s an odd situation — a freshman coming to campus, leaving two weeks later, but promising a return. It’s one that Brey never has had to handle in his previous 18 seasons as Irish head coach. Heck, over the last seven seasons, the program has had only two players transfer. Cameron Biedscheid left in 2014. Matt Ryan left following the 2016-17 season. He'll play this season at Vanderbilt.

Guys generally don’t leave the Irish program.

It’s odd, but so was Doherty’s path to Notre Dame.

A back injury cost Doherty his junior year of high school. That pushed him off the national rankings radar. He was a three-star prospect by Rivals, zero by Scout and not in the ESPN.com recruiting database. But he was a member of the New England Playaz, the same AAU team as current Irish freshman forward Nate Laszewski. Irish coaches liked Doherty because they had so closely watched Laszewski.

The Notre Dame coaches fell hard for Doherty during the July 2017 evaluation period when he grabbed 20 rebounds in one AAU game in Las Vegas. Doherty made his official visit last November. He verbally committed hours before the home opener against Mount Saint Mary’s. On a Monday night five days after national signing day. He averaged 19.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 4.5 blocks and 3.1 assists his senior season.

Balanis likens Doherty to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on the basketball court. A menace. A terror. But a talent.

Watching Doherty work that June night in The Pit, the description fit. He played aggressively. Angry. Like someone was trying to take his lunch money. Like his red hair was on fire. He could give Atlantic Coast Conference opponents fits in coming years. Opposing fans will boo him hard. Irish fans will love his lunch-pail, all-out style.

What Doherty is dealing with is not unique. Every freshman struggles to adapt to college. To being away from home. At one point, they all want to leave. Former Irish guard Matt Farrell graduated high school on a Friday. Forty-eight hours later, he was in a Notre Dame dorm and scrambling to find firm footing. Former Irish All-American Jerian Grant almost left when he was a freshman. Former Irish guard Demetrius Jackson struggled mightily on and off the floor his first year. All stuck it out and figured it out.

It would be easy for Notre Dame to cut Doherty loose when he left. End the relationship right there, then spend the summer recruiting period looking for someone to hand that scholarship. Brey and his staff had that discussion that maybe they should just move on. But it’s not that easy. Life’s not that easy. This is as much about Brey giving Doherty hope as it is about hoops. Hope that he can make it.

On the court. More importantly, off it.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has given power forward Chris Doherty a little extra time away from the program before he starts his freshman year.