Old Man’s Game

by March 14, 2013
Grant Gibbs

Grant Gibbs

by Danny Spewak / @dspewak

Until the ambulance came, Grant Gibbs was just going to have to sit there and suck it up.

The blood streaming down the left side of his face looked like makeup for a Halloween costume. His right wrist was broken. He’d eventually need nine stitches for his left eye and two operations to heal his wrist, but before he could do that, the senior basketball star at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, needed the ambulance to come and take him out of the gymnasium.

It was January 22, 2008, and a defender on Waterloo East had just fouled him as he skied for a dunk near the end of the first quarter. The collision sent Gibbs spiraling toward the floor at full speed. Bang. His wrist broke his fall. One hard foul had jeopardized the future of one of the best high school basketball players in the state of Iowa.

Hank Huddleson was sitting on the opposing bench as an assistant for Waterloo East on that cold, icy night. But this wasn’t just a faceless opponent of his lying bloodied on the hardwood floor. During the off-season, Huddleson also coached “Martin Brothers,” Gibbs’ AAU team.

“That was hard to watch,” Huddleson said. “He’s a kid that a lot of people gravitate to.”

For all the blood and guts Gibbs literally spilled on the court at Waterloo East that night, he returned for the state playoffs a month later and made the game-winning shot at the buzzer in the consolation championship game.

Injuries don’t slow Grant Gibbs.

They didn’t slow him in high school, and they haven’t slowed him in college. Like this past Sunday. Less than an hour after winning his second straight Missouri Valley Conference championship, Gibbs jumped out of the shower and found a comfortable spot on a wooden bench near the back of Creighton’s locker room. Ah, rest.

“I think last year was a lot worse, but this year I’ve actually felt better,” Gibbs said. “I just got a bad knee.”

That’s all. Just a bad knee. He’s already had surgery on three different body parts during the last five years, so he’s used to it. After high school, injuries derailed his two seasons at Gonzaga, and they continued even after he transferred to Creighton in 2010.

Sometimes, he takes cortisone shots to make the pain go away. Other times, his coaches hold him out of drills in practice or give him half-days to help him rest.

“The goal is having me feel as good as I can when it’s game time,” Gibbs said.

Which has worked. Playing alongside Doug McDermott, an All-American forward and the nation’s second-leading scorer, Gibbs quietly led the Missouri Valley in assists this season by averaging close to 6 dimes per game. The 6-5 guard plays more than 30 minutes per contest, shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc and converts about 75 percent of his free throws. He is a steady presence and reliable ball-handler who makes smart decisions and hardly ever commits turnovers.

You know the type. Basketball IQ. Gritty. The guy who’s destined to be a coach some day. All those clichés and more.

“Everybody wants to play with him,” Huddleson said, “because it’s not about him.”

His current teammates respect him so much they voted him a team captain before he ever played a game for the Bluejays. He developed into a vital leader and locker room voice almost immediately after transferring from Gonzaga, even as he sat out his redshirt year in 2010-11 due to NCAA transfer rules.

“It’s always been my personality,” Gibbs said. “Even when I was redshirting, I was trying to be that vocal leader, so it was easy for me once I started playing to get people behind me.”

If not everybody was behind him right away, they sure were after last year’s MVC title game. Gibbs made several clutch shots—including a tie-breaking 3-pointer in overtime—to lift Creighton to a victory over Illinois State in March 2012.

A year later, he did it again, even though he took care of his dirty work a little more discreetly this past Sunday. In a 68-65 victory over Wichita State, Gibbs finished with 7 assists and just 1 turnover, adding to his modest 11 points and 6 rebounds. As the Shockers made a furious charge from a double-digit deficit late in regulation, Gibbs’ coach credited him partly for helping the Bluejays.

“If you want to point to one reason we won the game, we took care of the basketball against a great defensive team,” McDermott said.

Gibbs and fellow guard Austin Chatman have done that all year. After the graduation of do-it-all point guard Antoine Young, those two have filled the void and facilitated the Bluejays’ highly efficient, Doug McDermott-centered offense. And even though the Shockers held McDermott on Sunday to 14 points, well below his scoring average, Jahenns Manigat and Ethan Wragge exploded for a combined 31 points and 9 3-pointers. Somebody had to pass them the ball, too, and that’s where Gibbs and Chatman came in with a combined 14 assists.

“I think people thought we were a one-man team,” Greg McDermott said. “And I think that idea has been put to rest today.”

For proof, look no further than Gibbs’ statistics during the MVC Tournament. In three games this season, he turned the ball over exactly three times. He’s now 6-0 in MVC Tourney games during his career.

“It’s going to be special looking back at this, playing six games and winning six games,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got a special thing in St. Louis.”

Thousands of miles west, Gibbs’ old team is ranked No. 1 in the nation. In an alternate reality, he might have finished his career at Gonzaga instead of Creighton.

“Sometimes, when you transfer, you think you’re going to go somewhere else and you’re going to do your thing right away,” Gibbs said. “But a lot of times, that’s not the case. You’re taking a big risk.

“I got really lucky.”

He never found much luck at Gonzaga. Only months removed from breaking his wrist on the court of Waterloo East High School, Gibbs showed up for his freshman season with the Bulldogs ready to make an impact. He could have played at a lot of schools, including Iowa and Iowa State, but he opted for the Zags. Ranked in the Top 150 by Rivals.com as a high school senior, Gibbs was a welcome addition in Spokane.

Then, days before the regular season began, Gibbs tore his labrum. He missed the whole year. When he returned, he developed tendinitis in his knee and needed surgery.

“His body has taken a pretty good beating with his wrist, his shoulders, his knees,” Huddleson said. “I mean, he’s been put through the wringer.”

He came out the other side as a Creighton Bluejay. After his trek to the Pacific Northwest, Gibbs had a lot of schools vying for him. He settled on Creighton because of Greg McDermott, who’d known Gibbs since his eighth-grade year and even tried to recruit him to play at Iowa State.

McDermott’s staff also promised to keep his health in mind.

“The biggest thing in transferring here is that the coaches understood that,” Gibbs said. “Coach McDermott has been the biggest key in getting me back on the court.”

Gibbs doesn’t always play with the most grace. After so many surgeries and ailments, he’s not the most explosive player anymore. He seems to almost shuffle up and down the court, even when he’s running as fast as he can.

“I kind of have the slow, old man’s game,” Gibbs said.

Except he’s still one of the best passers in the league and the captain of a Creighton team that’s qualified for two straight NCAA Tournaments under his leadership.

He’s also now a two-time Missouri Valley champion. Not bad for an old man who once desperately needed an ambulance.