Noie: Former Irish hoop stars give back with giveaway at Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune



{child_byline}By Tom Noie

South Bend Tribune{/child_byline}

SOUTH BEND — Rolling up Notre Dame Avenue on the way to the outdoor basketball courts behind Hammes Bookstore, former Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton was slowed by what he saw out the window of his black Jeep Wrangler Sahara.

He quickly dialed the guy in the midnight blue Range Rover behind him. Driving that vehicle was former Irish guard Jerian Grant. He had coordinated earlier this week with his good friend and former college teammate to give away backpacks and school supplies to anyone who showed up in line near the courts on a steamy Thursday afternoon.

Connaughton noticed that the giveaway line had stretched way longer than anticipated. All the way toward Notre Dame Avenue. Cars carrying more parents and even more kids circled an already jammed bookstore lot to find places to park when there were no places left to park. It was one big parking lot and quite the scene. A borderline circus, without the clowns or elephants.

Close friends with both former teammates, Notre Dame men’s basketball video coordinator Eric Atkins stopped through to see the giveaway get going. He planned to stay a few minutes. He wound up helping the entire time. Once the point guard, always the point guard.

The two NBA players had hoped for a solid turnout, but didn’t expect it to be that big. and it was big.

“We wanted to put a small thing together, give out a few backpacks,” Grant said. “This felt amazing to give back to people who need something.”

The two get an A+ for effort and execution, but fall shy of a passing grade in planning. Hoping to spend three hours (3 to 6 p.m.) handing out free stuff, the two needed only 45 minutes to distribute all 400 backpacks and assorted supplies, which they paid for out of their own pockets.

Once everything free was gone, the best they could do was offer those still in line — and it still was a long line — autographs and cellphone pictures. Just after 4, the tailgate tent that had offered the two some semblance of shade during the giveaway was dismantled.

Nothing left to see. Nothing left to get. Nothing left to do. Except plan for next year. It will be bigger. It will be better. The pair promise.

“I don’t know if we had a good grasp on how many people would be here,” Connaughton said. “We wish we could have gotten a backpack to everybody (but) we didn’t know how much publicity it was going to get.”

Grant’s announcement on Twitter earlier in the week about the event was retweeted more than 1,200 times. Word of it spread quickly. In The Tribune. On Facebook. The first people in line arrived at 1:15 p.m.

Once the free stuff was handed out, some were none too happy.

“We waited in this line for nothing!?” wondered one girl as she stalked off toward the bookstore parking lot.

Others left hanging hung around and debated on whether to wait for autographs. Some didn’t. Most did. It could have been worse. The plan was to distribute only 200 backpacks. When the two players feared Thursday afternoon that they might need more — a lot more — Connaughton made a last-minute run to Walmart. He bought another 200.

While the backpacks Grant brought were provided by his apparel company — Under Armour — Connaughton arrived with assorted Superhero backpacks stacked in the back of his Jeep. They were a hit. One boy requested a Batman backpack. Connaughton dug one out.

“We wanted to mix it up,” Connaughton said. “Hopefully next year we’ll be able to get even more and make it a bigger thing.”

Grant, who hosted a basketball clinic for local kids at the Kroc Center in 2016 the summer after his rookie NBA season, thought of the backpack giveaway earlier in the week after watching LeBron James open a school for underprivileged kids in Akron, Ohio. Grant and Connaughton don’t yet have the NBA scratch to start their own school, but wanted to do something for South Bend this week while both were in town.

So it was backpacks and supplies.

“I’m like, it will be cool to give back,” Grant said. “To be able to do that meant a lot.”

Bond like brothers

Neither ever dreamed that 400 backpacks would fall so far short. They could have handed out 800. Maybe close to 1,000. That’s how deep the line kept growing after the pair pulled up and parked right at 3.

“It was a good opportunity to come out and get a backpack for my daughter,” said South Bend’s Alicia Rocha, who was first in line with her daughter, Hadassah Betts. “I knew it was going to be a big crowd.”

“It’s crazy to think that Notre Dame basketball players would think about us,” said Betts, a sixth-grader at LaSalle who secured a black Under Armour pack. “I’m thankful for them to give their time to think about the kids.”

It wasn’t just about handing a backpack or a book bag to a kid and then sending them on their way. Connaughton and Grant posed for pictures and engaged in conversations. Connected. Even with those who are way too young to remember that the two were part of one of the most successful seasons in Notre Dame men’s basketball history. and one of the best overall success stories now as NBA veterans.

Chapter One of that magical 2015 season starts with Pat and Jerian. Jerian and Pat. About how they aimed to leave their mark on the program by doing something special. Then they did something special. They haven’t forgotten what the season meant to them. To the program. To the fans. Thus, the give-away.

“That’s the way we’ve always been,” Connaughton said of being tied in somehow and some way with basketball and Grant. “It’s great to stay in touch with the school and it’s great to do it as a duo.”

Connaughton talked to almost everyone, and signed just about everything. He put his signature on one fan’s phone (which had a Los Angeles Clippers case). He signed a $1 bill. He signed a $20.

Connaughton and Grant were role models as teammates for the way they led and drove Notre Dame to a magical 2014-15 season, one that saw the Irish go 32-6, win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and get to the Elite Eight. They remained role models Thursday.

Current Irish senior swingman Rex Pflueger watched with wonder as the two worked the crowd like everyone was a long-lost relative. Or a friend. Everybody was important. The two made sure of it.

“This is awesome,” Pflueger said. “It sets a great example, just to see them come back and do something for the community. It speaks to their overall character.

“It shows again that when I chose to go Notre Dame, it wasn’t a four-year decision, it was a 40-year decision.”

The week was about more than just basketball. It was about giving back. It was about the Notre Dame way. and doing it the way Connaughton and Grant usually do it.




Andre Wells, 9, gets his shirt signed by former Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant at the giveaway. Grant and fellow former Irish teammate Pat Connaughton passed out backpacks near, the Hammes Bookstore.
Joseph Saunders show off his Ninja Turtles back pack to his dad, Dustin Saunders. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton passed out backpacks near, the Hammes Bookstore, as part of the first Annual back pack and school supplies giveaway Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in South Bend.