SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The Grant clan recently descended on Wichita, Kan., for four days to celebrate Grandma Trudy’s 75th birthday. Kids, grandkids, great-grandkids and other friends and family stuffed a ballroom rented out for the big party, a black-tie affair.
That night teemed with new memories. The old ones, in the meantime, had Jerian Grant up every morning just after dawn, chasing them away.
At around 6:30 or 7 a.m., each day on vacation, Grant woke up with his three brothers. They found the nearest YMCA, where they lifted weights and played two-on-two in the gym for hours. Grant had an ascendant junior year at Notre Dame ripped away halfway through thanks to an academic-related suspension imposed for the second semester. He watched as the program’s first run through the ACC crumbled. Months later, he could slip on a tuxedo and wear a smile for Grandma Trudy’s party, but he could not shed a burden.
“He is so focused,” said Harvey Grant, Jerian’s father, “on making things right.”
Jerian Grant returned to campus this summer, and here he finds himself responsible for a resurrection. Notre Dame hummed along with seven straight 20-win seasons, including six NCAA tournament berths, before its first ACC foray last January. What followed was bracing like a lake-effect snow squall: A 6-12 conference record and a 15-17 overall mark. Grant was the one player the Irish could not afford to lose, the high-volume scorer and creative playmaker, and they lost him in late December. The ACC, expected to be unforgiving, lived up to the billing.
A league adding Louisville this season grows no less callous, and this is the issue. For all its consistency, Notre Dame is not a program inoculated against irrelevance. It can’t sustain too many winters like the one it just endured and not feel it in recruiting and on-court results. Grant knows it, which is why he believes his call is to make sure last year doesn’t happen again.
"Coach (Mike Brey) and the team tell me all the time, 'Jerian, it wasn't your fault, what happened,'" Grant said Thursday, standing in a Purcell Pavilion hallway and speaking for the first time since the suspension.
"But at the end of the day, me being me, I feel like a lot of that was on my back. The games came down to the end and I feel like for maybe the last two years here, I’ve been the closer. It definitely fuels me."
At the time of his suspension, Grant was averaging 19 points and 6.2 assists per night while shooting 51.8 percent from the floor. He was involved on 24.6 percent of the Irish’s possessions, second-most on the team. Forward Garrick Sherman’s 28.6 percent usage rate ultimately led Notre Dame, but there’s little doubt that number wouldn’t have been as high without the roster shakeup. As Brey will say, still shaking his head at losing his primary offensive conduit last year, Grant did freaking everything.
Brey also likens the current state of his program to the one he faced when he first arrived. Notre Dame was scraping to claim a Big East identity then. The upshot now is that part of the identity regenerates automatically with Grant’s return: He did so much, he arguably was the Irish.
"There was just one thing missing from those close games (last year)," Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton said. "That was the biggest thing I found moving forward; we had guys that may not have played up to their potential in some games, and that’s where Jerian has always been solid. He’s never going to hurt you in any way."
That may remain true on the court. Off the court last winter, there was a toll exacted on everyone for what Grant won’t describe as more than an "academic mistake." Grant’s suspension became official after a Dec. 21 loss to Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. The emotion in the locker room was raw and suffocating; the team knew for weeks that the end was near but still Grant and point guard Eric Atkins, his best friend, shed tears at the reality dropped like an anvil in the middle of the floor.
The Irish rallied to upset Duke in their ACC opener but lost six of the next seven. Grant was tortured watching every minute of it, telling his father that he wished he were there. Even his seemingly inviolable harmony with Atkins was tested. This was to be maybe their last ride, Atkins as a senior and Grant eyeing the NBA Draft, and Atkins was left to pay the rent alone. He walked into Brey’s office one day and asked to discuss his feelings about his not-long-lost friend.
“I’m hurt,” Atkins said.
“I’m hurt, too,” Brey replied.
The tension lasted maybe a week or two. Grant and Atkins now talk multiple times a week even as Atkins plays professionally in Greece. But leaving his team and his best friend to fend off the ACC jackals left a mark.
"That was his last year to make a run at doing something special, and me not being there definitely affected that," Grant said. "I'm sure I'd feel a little bit of the same way if I didn't have him by my side. I definitely understood where he was coming from."
To recharge, Grant unplugged a bit. He traveled to see his brother, former Syracuse forward and recent NBA draftee Jerami. He saw his grandparents, and he ventured to Los Angeles to hang with uncle Horace, like his father Harvey a longtime NBA veteran, and his kids.
"Just to get away," Harvey Grant said. "And reflect on something else besides basketball. When something is taken away from you, something you hold dear, what do you have to fall back on?"
Still, Jerian Grant continued to workout and play pickup at his old high school, famed DeMatha Catholic. He did just enough to keep his body tuned properly. He remained on the group chats with his Notre Dame teammates and Brey texted his exiled star after every game to ask for his feedback – a homework assignment, of a kind, to keep Grant engaged. He watched the Irish’s ACC tournament loss to Wake Forest in person, aching to get on the floor. Whatever passing thought he gave to entering his name in the NBA Draft gave way to an imperative in South Bend.
“I feel like I have unfinished business here,” Grant said.
The problem with carrying Notre Dame up the ACC ladder, though, will be the multiple defenders draped on Grant the entire way.
Connaughton averaged 13.8 points as a junior, but no other double-figure scorers returned. Opponents will dare anyone but Grant to beat them, as well they should. And that complicates the premise of Grant as the go-to scoring outlet. But Grant added a few more pounds of muscle in anticipation of heavy minutes and extra defensive attention, ending up around 205 pounds for his 6-foot-5 frame. Meanwhile, summer workouts and a four-game tour through Italy reinforced Brey’s optimism that Grant’s presence alone may be a good start.
"You hadn’t seen him for five months, (you realize) he’s really talented, and he gets guys easier shots," Brey said. "Guys shot it better when they were on Jerian’s team, because he finds them and he draws the defense a little more than anybody else."
When Grant first called his father to break the news of his academic transgression, he said he was sorry. Harvey Grant said he understood. He said mistakes happen. But as a Grant, he told his son, you don’t get to shy away. You take responsibility.
It’s going on 10 months later and Jerian Grant hasn’t abdicated much of that. He watched his team flail through the sort of season that, if repeated, can inflict all sorts of deep damage on a program trying to find its way through a rugged league. So standing in that arena hallway, Grant says he’ll find validation in winning more ACC games. He says he wants to win ACC Player of the Year honors, figuring the victories will come if he’s that good. He says he sees his little brother and his friends move on to professional careers, their successes carrying them exactly where they want to go, and all he can think about is that he’s next.