Gabe Grant had always thought of himself as a recreational basketball player. He never thought of himself as an NCAA Division I player, and he had one offer to go to college, which came from Three Rivers.
Grant had to go to a tryout when he visited the campus. He did well enough to earn a scholarship offer from coach Gene Bess, and the rest is history.
“Three Rivers was the only school that offered me. I had nowhere else to go,” Grant said. “That was the thing about Three Rivers that made it so special. It wasn’t like I was one of those guys where I had to go JUCO because I didn’t have the grades. I had to go JUCO just because I had nothing else, nowhere else to go.”
Grant made the most out of his opportunity, and then some.
His freshman year, Grant averaged 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and started 24 games on a 23-8 squad. That pace put him on the national radar and he earned NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American honors.
During his sophomore year, Grant was the second-leading scorer on a 25-8 Raiders team that won the Region XVI Tournament for the first time since 2012. The Raiders were favored to win the region tournament the prior season but lost in the semifinals to Moberly Area. The Raiders waited a season before getting their revenge on the Greyhounds in the region championship, a win that still sits atop Grant’s favorite memories at Three Rivers.
“I look back at that time as one of the best times of my life,” Grant said. “Of course, winning the region the way we did it my sophomore year was crazy. … To go back my second year losing Justas (Furmanavicius) and losing some of the guys we had, then to go win, that was crazy. That was probably one of the most fun times, something I’ll remember forever. And we won it on Gene Bess’ birthday, too, so that made it cool, too.”
The Raiders fell just short of the national tournament in Grant’s sophomore season, losing 79-75 to Highland (Ill.) in a game in which Grant led the team with 20 points in his final game as a Raider.
The Chicago native had drawn enough interest to take his talents down to Houston to play for a top 25 Cougars team that made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed. Grant appeared in 24 games and scored a season-high 12 points in 11 minutes against East Carolina. After his junior year, Grant and Houston coach Kelvin Sampson discussed what role Grant would likely have on the team as a senior.
“What I wanted for my senior year and what they envisioned for me my senior year, it was just a mutual thing where I really wanted to fulfill my dream,” Grant said. “I wanted to reach that, and Buffalo presented me with a proposition that made it realistic, so that was something I wanted to take hold of immediately.”
Grant made the decision to transfer to Buffalo, which has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and four in the last five years. With the transfer came a one-year redshirt as required by the NCAA. After Buffalo’s season ended, then-head coach Nate Oats resigned and moved to the Southeastern Conference to coach Alabama. In just a year under Oats, Grant learned to love the game of basketball again, much like he did at Three Rivers.
“The one thing I got from being here under Oats is, basketball should be fun, it shouldn’t feel like work. You should want to get in the gym, not have to get in the gym,” Grant said. “You should want to be playing basketball, not have to play basketball. That was one of his mottos, and I was like, ‘All right, I can love the game,’ because when I was at Three Rivers, I fell in love with the game, and Oats brought that back to me.”
The good news for Grant and the rest of the Bulls is that things have run the same under new coach Jim Whitesell, who spent the previous four years as an Associate Head Coach, so Grant can keep loving the game the way he did his first year at Buffalo and during his time with Three Rivers under Bess, who he said has a lot to teach players.
“To anybody who’s with Gene Bess right now, listen to exactly what he’s saying because he’s telling you the truth,” Grant said. “I couldn’t stress one specific moment, but in general. When he’s on you, he’s on you for a reason, and he knows exactly what it takes to be successful at the Division I level. If he thinks you can get there, listen to everything he has to say.”
Grant has learned a lot about people during his time in college because he accidentally ended up taking a major in sociology. When he graduated from Three Rivers with a general studies degree and transferred to Houston, he already had 50% of the requirements met for a degree in sociology, so he chose that path and ended up enjoying it.
His options for a career after his playing days end remain open. He just wants to help people. But this year, Grant’s focus will be on helping Buffalo make a third straight trip to the Big Dance.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic