Noie: Former Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton savors life as NBA champion

Tom Noie
ND Insider

On the third full day of life as an NBA champion, everything settled down and settled in for former Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton.

He finally had some down time to himself after two-plus months of high-energy playoff basketball, which is as much of a challenge mentally as it is physically. When it all was over, when there were no more games to play or charter flights to catch, Connaughton could exhale and reflect.

On the fourth full day of life as an NBA champion, something that hasn’t happened to a Notre Dame graduate/former Irish since 1993, Connaughton broke his unwritten rule. At the end of every season — this was his sixth in the NBA — Connaughton unplugs from everything and everybody and sets out for an extended vacation, usually to his secret spot in Hawaii. As the Bucks marched deeper through the playoffs, Connaughton was clear that when everything ended, whenever and however it did, he wasn’t going to be found for a while. Maybe weeks. Or months.

Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton gestures during Thursday's parade for the NBA Champions.

On Saturday, he reached out to the Tribune for what he said would be one of only two offseason interviews he’d do before disappearing. It’s time for a break from playing basketball, from talking about basketball, from thinking about basketball, but not before a phone call where he tried to sum up the last two months.

Connaughton said he had 10 minutes.

The conversation ran twice that long.

That’s Connaughton.

The 28-year-old didn’t have much time to think during Milwaukee’s four playoff series — first, against Miami for four games, then the seven-game slog against Brooklyn, then six more against Atlanta before the six NBA finals games against Phoenix. On Friday, when he boarded a plane in Milwaukee for a quick weekend get-away to Miami, Connaughton finally allowed himself to unwind. Like, whoa, what a freaking title-winning ride.

“You look back on the culmination of it and it sets in a little more each day,” Connaughton said. “It was incredible. It’s like nothing else. It was exhausting.”

You could see that about Connaughton in the closing minutes of Game 6. Typically, when he’s on the bench for a breather, Connaughton remains engaged in the game. He’s up encouraging the Bucks to get a stop, or celebrating a big bucket. In the late stage of the fourth quarter, even when the Bucks did something celebratory-worthy, Connaughton remained seated.

Yeah, he was running on the proverbial fumes. He was exhausted. Everyone was. That’s life in the NBA playoffs where the irony is that the biggest series of the season often is the most challenging.

“Mentally, fans don’t really see it,” Connaughton said. “They see the physical demands and the incredibly athletic plays, but each playoff game is kind of its own movie.”

One that often followed a familiar script for Connaughton.

A beat-up Buck

Catch a Bucks playoff game over the last two months, and you’d likely see Connaughton playing a big role. Hitting a key shot. Making a momentum play. Or getting smacked in some way in his face. A shot to the jaw here, a poke in the eye there. It became a running joke between Connaughton and the training staff — if he didn’t get it in the face in one game, it was guaranteed to happen in the next.

“It’s kind of the epitome of Pat Connaughton basketball,” Connaughton said while going third person. “It’s tough. It’s hard. It’s whatever it takes to win. Let’s just say I added a few scars, which will be happy reminders when I look in the mirror.

“Maybe I’m a little less handsome, but at least I can say that it’s because I have a (championship) ring.”

Against Brooklyn in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, an errant elbow from Joe Harris opened a cut above Connaughton’s left eye. Stitches certainly were needed, something a Bucks team doctor decided after examining Connaughton in the Barclays Center locker room. When he heard the word stitches, Connaughton’s first thought was, that’s going to take time. He didn’t have time. He had to get back to the game.

Connaughton offered a compromise — how about just glue the cut shut and worry about it later?

“We had a negotiation going on,” Connaughton said. “The doctor said he’d glue it, then steri-strip it and then glue over those. He said if that held, then we’re good, but if it didn’t we have to stitch it. I said, fine.”

The glue held. Actually, it held for a week and a half. After the cut healed, Connaughton would take yet another shot to the face. Nothing that required stitches or glue or anything else, but he was one of the few guys who nursed a sore mug on the back end of postseason.

“It was worth it in the end,” he said.

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Connaughton proved something with more than just his toughness. He proved something with his play. Coming into postseason, his a career numbers were rather average — 6.8 ppg., 4.8 rpg., 1.2 apg., 14.4 mpg. In the finals, Connaughton averaged 9.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists in 30.0 minutes. He wasn’t a back of the rotation guy. He was a main guy. He likely did enough and showed enough to feel good about finishing out the final two years of his current deal knowing there’s another three-year pact (and maybe one after that) waiting.

Connaughton as a 10-plus-year NBA pro? Sure looks like it.

“It was awesome for me to be able to show the world, hey, I’m a basketball player,” he said. “I’m not just a shooter. I’m not just a guy that’s tough who can play spot minutes. I can be a significant piece on a championship-winning team for a multitude of reasons.

“I was able to be a part of something that very few people thought I could.”

Pat Connaughton is the first Notre Dame graduate to win an NBA championship since 1993 when John Paxson won one with the Chicago Bulls.

Everything ends

When Game 6 wrapped late Tuesday, Connaughton didn’t know what to do, or how to react. His teammates raced to the locker room to spray champagne and light victory cigars. Connaughton remained on the Fiserv Forum floor trying to comprehend the organization’s first NBA championship in 50 years.

His first thought remained solely on basketball. What time’s the next charter back to Phoenix? The next shoot-around? The next practice? It took a minute to process that everything was over. There was no next.

“Not many teams end their season with a win,” Connaughton said. “That’s why, at first, you’re like, what’s next? I’ve never done this before.”

Actually, he has. Last time Connaughton was on a team that won its last game was in 2011. He was in high school and St. John’s Prep won a Massachusetts state championship. That time, he celebrated. Late Tuesday, he really couldn’t. He sat with his parents, Len and Sue, on the Bucks’ bench. He sat with his AAU coach and basketball confidant, Michael Crotty Jr. He sat with his two closest friends from home. He sat with Bucks general manager Jon Horst, who took a chance on him as a free agent.

“Just taking it all in and how we had done it,” Connaughton said.

Game 6 was the only one of the finals where Connaughton didn’t score. He also missed his only two free throws of the entire playoffs (11-of-13) in the closing seconds.

“Still disappointed,” he said. “I was a little excited.”

Post-game featured a memorable on-air exchange between Connaughton and teammate Bobby Portis. How deeply had they dived into the champagne before the interview, they were asked on NBA TV. Connaughton looked at Portis; Portis looked at Connaughton. Both busted out in laughter.

Connaughton chuckled because he knew Portis had taken a sip or two or three of the bubbly backstage. Portis laughed because he knew a secret — one that Connaughton shared Saturday.

“I don’t drink,” he said. “I didn’t want to admit to it.”

Connaughton finally left Fiserv early Wednesday morning with a bottle of … wait for it … chocolate milk. Seriously.

“I should be on the ‘Got Milk?’ ad,’ He said. “I was as happy as could be.”

And also exhausted. Connaughton crawled into bed at 6:15 Wednesday morning. His goal, especially during the season, is to get 10 hours of sleep every night. He woke around noon Wednesday, four hours short. His parents were up and about and out by 9 to go to a local gym.

“They’re workout animals,” he said. “Now you know where I get it.”

Connaughton planned to be back in Milwaukee on Monday, at which point he’d start mapping his offseason trip to Hawaii. He guessed that it would be at least three weeks before he again touched a basketball. The 2021-22 season already is closing quickly (training camp starts in late September) and his body and his mind need time to recharge.

So, yeah, three weeks with no shooting or running or jumping sounds good. In theory.

Connaughton figures to be back in the gym doing something sooner than later. Lifting. Running. Yoga. Working.

“I,” he said, “can only stay still for so long.”

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI