McDermott and Sabonis' college teams square off Sunday in the Sweet Sixteen
They have an undeniable chemistry on the court and are seatmates on the team plane. But Sunday's Gonzaga-Creighton game is personal.
A year ago, Doug McDermott was in Omaha, Neb. The coronavirus pandemic hit, the NBA season was paused and McDermott didn’t want to spend it alone at his downtown Indianapolis condo.
So he moved back in with his parents, helped around the house and had to get creative to stay active. Even though his dad, the coach of the Creighton men’s basketball team, has 24-7 access to the gym, it was temporarily closed off.
So McDermott got shots up in the driveway — just like old times. He learned to cook and helped out with household chores like the dishes and taking out the trash. It was not the childhood home he grew up in, but he valued the quality time with his parents at 28 years old.
It’s now March, 2021 and his parents are in Indianapolis, where he’s in his third season with the Pacers and having the best season of his career. Greg McDermott’s Creighton Bluejays have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and will play the top-seeded Gonzaga Sunday at 2:10 p.m. ET on CBS.
Doug’s college team, where he was a three-time All-American and the 2014 national player of the year, against Domantas Sabonis’ squad that is trying to become the first team pull off an undefeated season since IU in 1976.
“They’re playing the best basketball they’ve ever played,” Sabonis said. “I’m so happy for Mark Few, Tommy (Lloyd), all the coaching staff. This year should be the year.”
McDermott and Sabonis are close friends, on the same wavelength on the court and they jive off of it. They even sit next to each other on the team plane. You can be sure there’s a friendly wager on it. The unspoken standard amount inside an NBA locker room when two teammates’ college teams square off is $100.
“Obviously, Gonzaga is very good so he should definitely spot me the points,” McDermott said, smiling. “They’re a really talented team, but you never know in the NCAA Tournament.”
Sabonis spent two seasons at Gonzaga (2014-16) before turning pro. He appeared in every game — surprise, surprise! — and became the program’s all-time leader in career field goal percentage at (.632).
“The last month of college basketball, if you make it to the tourney, is the most fun ever,” he said. “Every game is awesome. If you keep winning, it keeps getting better.”
McDermott, meanwhile, talked with several Bluejays players in the last week. They shared how the experience has been isolating having to spend most of their time in their downtown Marriott hotel.
But Indy has been an excellent host and gotten creative — so Victory Field, the Triple-A baseball park, is available to get fresh air, walk around and throw a football. They took them to the nearby zoo last week and to Top Golf in Fishers. That’s definitely something McDermott, a 4.8 handicap, would have enjoyed.
“It’s been tough on all those guys because last year, they had such a great year in winning the Big East, then their game got shut down in the Big East Tournament,” he said. “They probably would have been a 2 or 3 seed last year and they didn’t get that chance to play in the tournament. Just to have this year, to be able to have another opportunity and see them thriving like they are, it’s been really fun to see and I’m just super happy for those guys.”
One of the tough things Doug was also referring to was how his dad, coach McDermott, used an unacceptable analogy.
"Guys, we got to stick together,” he said in the locker room. “ We need both feet in. I need everybody to stay on the plantation. I can't have anybody leave the plantation."
The school suspended him for four days and it received national attention. Now they’ve come together and are seeking their sixth straight win on Sunday.
“I’m just really happy for my dad and those guys,” Doug said, then added this comment without it being brought up.
“He made a mistake, what he said was wrong. I know he’s disappointed in himself, but as a white man in America, it’s a learning experience for us. It shows that we still have a long way to go. We still got to educate ourself, we still have to listen and I know my dad is gonna become a better man for this. I hope we all can.”
The Creighton guys are fortunate to have Doug in their corner. He’s made himself available as a mentor and resource. He played there and earned his way to the NBA. When he played for the Bulls, he was teammates with Michael Carter Williams, whose brother, Marcus Zegarowski, is their top scorer. He says he’s also close with Mitch Ballock.
“I think we started recruiting him when he was in eighth grade or something,” McDermott said with a grin. “I’ve known these guys for a long time. Whenever they have questions about anything, they can always hit me up either through social media, text or call me. We all stay in touch — former players with the current players. It’s one big family.”
The Pacers are scheduled to practice Sunday morning and then fly to Washington DC for Monday’s game just as the game tips off at Hinkle Fieldhouse — so I hope the Delta plane’s Wi-Fi is working.
Ordinarily, a coach would move back practice to accommodate this special request, but due to the NBA’s Health & Safety Protocols, they cannot be at the game anyway. For now, they’re still restricted to the team facility and home.
“I always joke with my dad that I’m kinda bad luck when I’m at the games so I think he wants me far away from that place,” McDermott said.
The winner advances to play either (6) USC) or (7) Oregon) in the Elite 8 Tuesday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.