March 10, 2015

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By Renee Peggs

As close in stature as they are in stats, Notre Dame men’s basketball players Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant have shared more than just the ball.

On the court, their unselfish style of play spells W for the whole team as these guys find each other for the assist. But off the court, their witty banter proves they’d be just as impressive in a gag reel as they are on the highlight reel.

Facing off in a journalistic equivalent of one-on-one, the two manage in spite of themselves to reveal the depths of the bond between them. As with any good-natured competition involving athletes, trash-talking signals that the contest has begun. The first comment out of Connaughton’s mouth is, “We’re not friends.”

Nonchalantly, Grant sets up the play: “Yeah, that’s true, `cause I’m more like an older brother to him.”

Connaughton goes man-to-man in defense.

“What?! You’re only like three months older! It’s not my fault your parents sent you to school early!”

Grant evades the pressure and maintains possession.

“Yeah, but I taught you everything you know. Man, this kid shows up to play basketball at Notre Dame and he’s never owned anything besides sweatpants…” His drive is interrupted by Connaughton’s reach-in: “Hey, I ROCK sweatpants. I look gooood.”

Ignoring and rolling his eyes, Grant keeps it alive: “Seriously, we’re supposed to dress up for certain team functions so he goes out and buys his first pair of pants that’s not sweats. We all show up looking nice, he’s wearing jeans. He bought jeans. His very first pair.”

Easing up on his defense, Connaughton mumbles, “I hate dressing up.” Grant shakes his head.

“One of my biggest challenges here? Teaching this guy how to dress himself. It’s taken years… I take him shopping in New York.”

Connaughton, with full press: “What would I do without you?”

Grant doesn’t waste a second with his buzzer-beater: “Probably look like a… Man, good luck after we graduate.”

He shoots. He scores!

Grant – 1. Connaughton – 0.

On the court, traveling results in loss of possession. By contrast, as road-game roommates whenever they’ve traveled with the team, these guys have found something few men will ever share, something so significant that, independent of one another, they both name it as the stand-out memory of their collegiate careers.

“Two years ago,” Connaughton begins, “we’re at the Big East Tournament in New York City. (By the way, hotel rooms in New York are tiny.) So we win our first game and we’re back at the hotel. Three of Jerian’s buddies are in town to watch the tournament, and they’re hanging out in the room with us.”

He interrupts himself to put his hands over his face and says, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this out loud.” Taking a deep breath, he continues the tale.

“His friends are really concerned that we recover properly because we have to play again the following night, so they’re running back and forth to the ice machine down the hall and filling our bathtub with ice. Again: really small hotel room, tiny bathroom. Jerian and I both get in the bathtub at the same time while these dudes keep pouring ice on us. There’s five guys in this one hotel bathroom. I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget that experience.”

Grant, having no idea what Connaughton has said, later describes a particular memory of their travels together that stands out in his own mind.

“Well, there was this bathtub incident once while we were in New York… we were both wearing pants at the time. That’s really important to mention!”

Connaughton chimes in, “Oh yeah, we had on compression pants!”

Grant momentarily casts back to the memory: “Man, that bathroom was tiny.”

Grinning, Connaughton… admits? Promises? “I don’t think there’s any other man that I’d ever get in a bathtub with.”

Slam dunk.

Points to both for audacious honesty and independently corroborating the details.

Grant – 2. Connaughton – 1.

Given the amount of time they have spent together, on the court and off, perhaps they’ve weathered some differences of opinion or rough patches in their friendship. With barely a moment’s consideration, Connaughton says, “Yeah, we fight about who’s gonna drive if we’re going to a movie or something.”

Grant agrees: “We always fight about that. I’ve never wanted to punch him or anything like that, though.”

They’re ready for The Big Question.

“Fortunately,” Connaughton explains, “we like totally different kinds of girls, so that’s something we’ve never fought over.”

With unabashed generosity, Grant offers a bit more detail.

“Usually one of us ends up being the third wheel on the other’s date night. Like tonight, that’s what’s gonna happen.”

Connaughton boxes out: “To all the ladies reading this, I’d just like you to know that he’s the one with the date. I’m just sayin’… But yeah, I’ll probably go with them, wherever they end up going after Bengal Bouts.”

Nothin’ but net. Point to Connaughton for smooth moves.

Grant – 2. Connaughton – 2.

Connaughton and Grant are serious when they need to be, and clearly have developed a depth to their friendship that enables them to see under the surface. Identifying each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they challenge each other to turn liabilities into assets.

Inbounds to Grant: “Pat’s too nice, just a really nice guy. He doesn’t want to upset anybody, but he’s the captain of the team and sometimes he’s gotta get in our faces a little bit. He’s really stepped up and filled that role this year, though, and gotten over worrying about how people are going take things if he has to critique them.

“So that, and, he’s too short. Six-foot-five, against other forwards? It’s really hard for him to defend sometimes. He needs a couple more inches and then he’d be unstoppable.

Connaughton reaches in: “You’re also six-foot-five.”

Pivoting, Grant protects: “But I’m not a forward.” Easy lay-up from the paint, but hot-dogging costs him a turnover.

Taking over on offense, Connaughton dribbles down the court.

“He [Grant] is really unselfish with the ball. He’s given me thousands of feeds, and he always puts the team’s success ahead of his own. I think where he struggles is with believing in himself as a role model. Young kids look up to him, but so do the freshmen and sophomores on the team, and he has trouble accepting that. But he’s developed so much both as a player and as a person. His dream is to play in the NBA. The reality is that he’s gonna get his dream, but he’s too humble to say it out loud about himself.” Grant goes for the steal: “You say it out loud about yourself. Money money money, you gonna be ballin’!”

Connaughton backs out and resets: “You’re so awesome.”

Switching to zone coverage, Grant applies different pressure: “You snore in the hotel rooms.”

But Connaughton breaks free and lines it up from the perimeter: “I’m not aware of you at all.”

Shot looked good but the wind must’ve got it. Points to both, though, for really speaking to each other’s truth.

Grant – 3. Connaughton – 3.

The demands on any Division I athlete are extraordinary, and especially at Notre Dame with the rigor of academic standards. Both men have worked through struggles and tough times, sharing a common source of inspiration and motivation when they feel like they have nothing left to give.

Grant begins, “My family has given me everything. My parents and my brothers have always supported me and always been there for me and I want to give them everything I can. I want to be able to take care of them and earn their pride in me in whatever I do.”

Connaughton interjects, “Same here. I do it all for his family.”

Grant shakes his head as Connaughton continues, “No, seriously, I feel the same way. My family and my mom especially have always encouraged me and pushed me to do my best. I’m sure my mom wishes I’d done even better academically, and I probably could have, but that goes to the main reason I chose Notre Dame. I wanted to play sports but I also wanted to be held to high academic standards.

“A lot of the guys we play against are awesome basketball players, but they’re either not going to graduate or they haven’t really invested themselves in their education. I wanted both, because the reality is, life will go on far beyond any of our ability to play professional sports, if we end up getting to do that. It was important to me to have a plan for my whole life, not just for a few years.”

Wrapping it up, Grant adds, “Our families are pretty close, though. Our moms put something special together for senior night, and we’ve spent a lot of time with each other’s families.”

A point apiece for being grounded in what’s really important, and probably making each of their moms cry.

Final: Grant – 4. Connaughton – 4.

Both are winners. They bring out each other’s best. More importantly, they have brought out the best in the Fighting Irish this season.