Noie: Wide World of Sports a special spot for former Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Doing a slow burn with no immediate basketball release available, all the standout AAU player could do was sit and stew.

On the bench.

It was supposed to be his week to grab the attention of college basketball coaches and prove worthy of a scholarship at the elite Division I level. He could handle the ball. He could shoot it. He could score and find teammates and make guys around him better. He could compete. Man, could he compete.

But on this July day in 2010 in one of the main gyms at the Wide World of Sports complex on the grounds of Walt Disney World, he was forced to watch and wait because of a mistake. His mistake.

Set to play an AAU outfit from Alabama, the soon-to-be high school senior for the Middlesex (Mass.) Magic had slipped the wrong jersey into his backpack. His team was the designated home team, so they were required to wear white. But the kid packed only his blue jersey. Until he could secure a white one, he couldn’t play.

A teammate offered up his tank top. The player declined. If he was going to play, he had to play in his traditional No. 24. The player’s father, in the seating section of the arena now known as HP Field House, took off running. He ran out of the building, ran back to his rental car and sped to the nearby Marriott Grand Vista, a four-star resort where the Magic were headquartered.

That’s the place where the teammate often shared a condominium-like hotel suite with up to 12 of his fellow teammates during their extended stay. They’d sit around one of the resort’s three pools and play Hearts during the day, order up some food and do more of the same at night. They’d go for a swim, tell some stories, share some laughs and play a lot of basketball in between. Like, three games every single day.

In this game, the first quarter unfolded without the one guy the Magic needed. The other team scored the first 12 points. By the end of the first quarter, Middlesex trailed 17-4. The Magic were all out of sorts. The head coach looked down the bench at his best player and figured something special might be brewing.

“He’s got steam coming out of his ears,” said Middlesex coach Michael Crotty. “He’s just got that look about him.”

The player’s father returned with the jersey at the end of the first quarter. From the concourse, he tossed it right into the team huddle. The kid put it on, then put on a show. He scored 28 points. He grabbed 16 rebounds. His team came back from 13 points down and won.

Afterward, Crotty was stopped by a college coach.

“Oh, my gosh,” then-Alabama and current Dayton coach Anthony Grant said to Crotty, “that No. 24 is going to be special.”

One play enough

Former Notre Dame and Middlesex standout Pat Connaughton is back playing basketball on the Disney campus for the first time since those AAU days unfolded 10 summers ago. A member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Connaughton is a key piece to an organization chasing its first NBA championship since 1971. He’s a rotation guy. He’s a main guy. A needed guy. A proven veteran.

Basketball has taken the five-year pro places he never dreamed, and it all started that summer of 2010. In AAU. At Disney. In some of the same gyms the Bucks will call home through the upcoming NBA playoffs. For Connaughton, it’s summer of 2010 all over. He had to prove himself worthy of a college scholarship then. He has to prove himself worthy of an NBA championship and a future contract now.

“It’s kind of fun to have that feeling again,” Connaughton said from inside the NBA bubble at Disney last week. “That week put me on the map. It wouldn’t hurt to do that over the next three months.”

That game when he forgot his jersey was only the start of it for Connaughton. A handful of schools showed interest before that week of AAU, including Notre Dame. Associate head coach Rod Balanis watched Connaughton play two games that winter in Springfield, Mass., and mentioned in a follow-up note to Crotty that the kid was a “real tough SOB.”

“I’m like, what the heck does that mean for Notre Dame?” Crotty said. “Does that mean he liked him?”

It did. But head coach Mike Brey also had to like him. He watched him for the first time in Orlando. It took one play — a busted play — for the head coach to fall hard.

At 6-foot-5, with long arms, a 44.5-inch vertical leap and a motor that seemingly always ran hot, Connaughton often played all five positions. In his first game in front of Brey, he played point guard. But still being a kid, Connaughton felt he needed to show more than he should, and got too cute with his handle.

Turnover. Defender headed the other way with a sure bucket.

“I tried to play with the dribble,” Connaughton said. “And the kid picked me.”

Connaughton thought of Crotty being upset, thought of his dad being even more upset and thought of Brey not being impressed at all during the five hard steps he took to track down the kid. In one motion, Connaughton blocked the kid’s layup, pinned it against the glass and kick-started a fast break.

“I knew he wouldn’t expect me to do anything when he went up for a layup,” Connaughton said. “I just chased him down.”

Connaughton finished with 28 points and 17 rebounds, but it was the chase-down that sold Brey. Connaughton’s next-play mentality would fit nicely into the Irish program. Connaughton had another game when he scored 38 points and had 24 rebounds. He averaged 30.5 points and 20 rebounds in the 12 games. But it was that sequence that Brey most liked.

“That’s all that Mike needed to see,” Balanis remembered.

Notre Dame bound

After watching him once, Brey said three words to Crotty that opened the door to Connaughton’s basketball future.

“I want him.”

Minutes after Connaughton received his scholarship offer, he went off with his teammate to do what high school kids do in Florida in the summer — find the pool. Brey and Balanis went and did what coaches on the recruiting trail do. Crotty remembers standing in near silence with Connaughton’s parents.

“Wow,” Len Connaughton kept saying. “Notre Dame. Wow.”

“We all had a drink,” Crotty said. “It was a feeling of, Notre Dame. Like, this is the one. It makes so much sense.”

Connaughton received his Notre Dame scholarship offer in July 2010. By the end of that month, he had 14 others from 14 Division I programs. He committed to the Irish in September. He arrived on campus in June 2011. He stepped into the starting lineup for a home game against then-No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse in January 2012 and never again stepped out. When he finished his career, Connaughton had played in a then-school record 139 games. He logged more than 4,400 minutes. He scored 1,465 points. He grabbed 823 rebounds. He was a second-round NBA draft pick.

He was a winner, a leader the likes of which the program seldom has seen. Everything he did in his four years in South Bend, everything he’s doing now, can be traced back to Disney.

That week lit the fuse.

“His rise during July was unlike anyone else,” former recruiting analyst Dave Telep told the Tribune in 2010.

“It lined up for Pat Connaughton that week,” Crotty said. “The rest is sort of history.”

Why did it all come together that week for the former three-star prospect known more for his baseball potential? Easy. He believed that he had to earn his way, then he did. And then some.

“It was understanding that this was my last chance to play in front of college coaches and achieve something that I believed I could do,” Connaughton said. “It was about going out there and letting it rip and doing the best that I could so I could get the chance to play basketball at the major Division I level.”

All the pieces fell into place 10 years ago for the 27-year-old Connaughton. They may again as he and the Bucks chase a championship.

“He’s got a chance to make that happen,” Balanis said. “It’s interesting to see how life comes full circle.”

This time, he’ll be wearing the right jersey.

Playing in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando holds significance for former Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton, now with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Pat Connaughton, shown here in 2015, was a player that the Notre Dame program had seldom seen.