Noie: More than basketball brings former Notre Dame players back to campus
SOUTH BEND — Four years in the making and decades overdue, a different kind of Notre Dame men’s basketball reunion quietly unfolded Monday afternoon at Rolfs Hall.
They arrived from various points across the country. From Milwaukee and Orlando. From Las Vegas fresh from NBA Summer League. And the homegrown kid, now right down the street in the new house he recently purchased, who for the last few months has treated the facility as a second home. He’s always there.
Notre Dame hasn’t had a player selected in the NBA draft since 2017. Hasn’t had a first-round pick since 2015. Hasn’t had a guy go in the lottery since 2001. But they have pros. Sixteen played professionally last season. Most had an opportunity this week to return to campus.
Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson came back. So did Jerian Grant. And former Marian High School standout Demetrius Jackson. The ringleader was former captain Pat Connaughton. He first got the idea early in his rookie year in 2015 with the Portland Trail Blazers. That’s when guard Damian Lillard set up something similar to a min-training camp in San Diego. That spring, Connaughton had returned to South Bend for Grant’s hoops camp at Kroc Center and started thinking about doing something Irish alumni related.
Connaughton brought with him from Milwaukee several NBA basketballs. He designated the drills. He had the music going. He was in charge of setting the schedules for the afternoon and evening. This was a group effort, but really, it was PC at ND.
“He made it real,” Auguste said of Connaughton. “It’s real important, especially for the brotherhood way that we think here, to get some work in and be around family.”
Tim Abromaitis, who just completed his fourth season in Spain and will play professionally this season in Russia, was due to join in. Fort Wayne native V.J. Beachem might swing through. Luke Harangody, was expected to attend after his season in Spain. Matt Farrell wanted to attend, but he was home in New Jersey after playing in the summer league to prepare for his hoops camp that starts next week. Steve Vasturia, the only starter from the 2015 Elite Eight team not present, couldn’t make it because he’s already leaving in a few weeks to play professionally in Germany.
Former Irish forward Eric Katenda and Ty Nash remained maybes when Monday’s 85-minute skill session commenced with help from Irish assistant Ryan Ayers. The former players worked, and he worked. Hard.
Connaughton talked when he was a senior at Notre Dame of leaving a piece of himself with the program, one that wouldn’t end when he graduated. It’s one that continued Monday and will continue for the rest of this week.
Their legacies continued.
“We can continue to do that even though we’re not here,” Connaughton said. “For us to come back as pros, we can show the current players, whoever’s looking at the program that you can go to Notre Dame and then go make a living playing basketball.”
For the pros, it wasn’t about winning individual drills, though it did get competitive with Colson vs. Connaughton and Grant vs. Jackson on the block. Foul? No foul? Monday was about deepening that bond they formed in their college careers, when they endured losing seasons, when they won an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, when they pushed the program to rare places.
For that core, it was about being around one another. About sharpening their skills. This is what we do with this drill, or this is why we do that one. It was about more than basketball.
Monday, it was about that brotherhood. Being with one another off the floor. Catching up for more than a few minutes or text messages.
Dream now reality
Just off the road during the latest recruiting cycle, coach Mike Brey had long dreamed of having these guys — his guys — return together to campus. It’s always been one or two at a time. Never this many together. Schedules never matched. Somebody always had something going on somewhere in the world.
Facilities also were an issue. This is a time of year when the main floor of Purcell Pavilion is trucked off for refinishing. No way were guys with so many dollars and pro contracts and futures at stake going to play on that old floor that still sits like a concrete base in the arena.
Brey admitted last week that the former guys weren’t going to return and risk getting hit in the head with a baton during the annual “America Youth on Parade.” But it was Brey who nearly was bonked with said baton a couple summers ago, leading him to demand Rolfs be fast-tracked.
When they built Rolfs, which was finished in the spring, this alumni week became a reality. Up on the second floor, there’s a locker room specifically for former players. It’s around the corner from the current team locker room. On Monday, the old guys were using the locker room for the current players.
“Have you seen the new one?” Connaughton said. “Oh, my God.”
It’s on par with the locker room Connaughton has at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Let that sink in. We’re comparing a basketball locker room at Notre Dame to that of an NBA team. Didn’t think THAT would happen.
The barber chair in the new one would have come in handy in 2014-15, Auguste agreed. He was the team’s resident stylist. Still is.
“It’s amazing,” Auguste said of the facility. “It’s a great resource for the former players and our current players.”
Rolfs is a place for the today and tomorrow of Irish basketball, but it probably doesn’t get built if not for the yesterdays of 2011 and 2015 and a few more seasons included.
“All of us feel we had a hand in why this was able to be put up,” Connaughton said as he surveyed the Rolfs court. “It kind of sparked the athletic department to say, to be able to continue to compete, we need something like this.”
Early Monday evening, the former guys returned to run pickup against the current group. They’d get up and down the floor a few games, and watch how the pros worked like, well, pros. That session was off limits to outsiders.
The current Irish need to see how the former Irish do it.
“It’s great inspiration, to see how we’ve built this program up,” Auguste said. “I wish we had guys come back when I was here so we could measure our games and see where we’re at and get better, how we can compete.”
Auguste could show senior John Mooney a new move or two in the post. Jackson could work with guard T.J. Gibbs on how to better execute Brey’s offense. Connaughton could corral injured fifth-year senior Rex Pflueger this week and offer advice on how to max out his role as a captain. Just having the young guys around the old guys could get them to realize the pride they have in this program, one that can help them bounce back from two-straight sluggish seasons.
“All the guys on that team right now should see the collective chemistry we have,” Connaughton said. “That’s the type of chemistry it takes to compete and win an ACC championship.
“It gives the current guys a chance to see, hey, put the team first. It may not be the role you want it to be, but if you can fit in and compete, it’s going to benefit you for the long run.”
They’ll follow a similar schedule Tuesday and Wednesday and maybe Thursday. They’ll then go their separate ways — back to their lives in professional basketball, but never too far from those memories and moments and where it all started.