Paul Grant’s preconceived notions stopped him short of saying yes when the phone rang with a coaching proposal five years ago. Now, he and the man on the other line that night are part of an unusual, budding basketball powerhouse.
Larry Anderson, head coach of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology men’s basketball team, had called to offer Grant a job. Anderson had seen young players under Grant’s tutelage improve immensely on the AAU circuit around the Boston area and was intrigued by his teaching talent.
Not only was Grant a former University of Wisconsin standout and an NBA draft pick, but he clearly possessed a knack for mentoring, Anderson thought. So, Anderson made his pitch: How would Grant like to become MIT’s newest assistant basketball coach?
“I was like, ‘Uh, no,'” Grant recalled. “I didn’t know anything about MIT basketball.”
Anderson suggested Grant come to a practice and a game. Then, he could make up his mind for good.
When Grant obliged, he was surprised to find that, contrary to popular belief, the words “MIT” and “basketball” were not mutually exclusive entities. MIT may be better known for its engineering or computer science programs, but the school could play some hoops, too.
“Practices were a lot more organized than maybe my preconceived notion led me to believe,” Grant said. “The kids were great. They were super responsive to what I was teaching and what I had to say. Next thing I knew I was showing up two, three times the next week. The kids were calling me coach. Larry was like, ‘Come on, man. The kids are calling you coach. Let’s do this.’ I was like, ‘All right.'”
Five years later, Grant remains an integral part of MIT’s basketball success.
MIT has made four consecutive trips to the NCAA Division III tournament, and during that span, the Engineers have gone 92-25 (.786 winning percentage). In Grant’s five seasons, the team is 104-39.
This past season, MIT set a school record for wins, finishing 29-2. MIT reached its first Final Four before losing, 71-56, to eventual national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater in the semifinal.
Though Grant, 38, doesn’t deserve all the credit for the transformation, he certainly has been instrumental in the development of MIT’s players. Grant, a 7-footer, works with the team’s big men as well as guards. He also often provides them with visual imagery demonstrations and positive verbal reinforcement.
“He’s able to read underlying things that student-athletes do not say,” said Anderson, entering his 19th year as MIT coach. “He can read that because he was a student-athlete himself. When they’re working as hard as they know how to work, he somehow gets them to work at a higher level.”
Grant, who owns a real estate development business in Boston with his brother, knows a thing or two about working hard on the court to prove himself.
He spent three seasons at Boston College under coach Jim O’Brien but rarely made a significant impact. In desperate need of a change of scenery, Grant sought out Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett and transferred into the Badgers’ program before the 1996-97 season.
With a fresh start, Grant quickly became a team leader and one of Wisconsin’s best players.
“If it wasn’t for Dick Bennett taking that chance on me, I was up sh**’s creek,” Grant said. “I guess I could have gone back to BC with my tail tucked between my legs, certainly as an athletic pariah on campus and finished my degree in solitude.
“I had no other options. O’Brien kind of put the word out like, ‘Don’t take this kid.’ Dick heard that as well and Dick paid no mind to it. I owe him a great deal.”
Grant averaged 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds and earned an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection as a senior at Wisconsin. A few months later, he was drafted No. 20 overall in the first round of the NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves — 7-footers don’t grow on trees, after all — and eventually traded to the Milwaukee Bucks.
He appeared in just 16 NBA games and spent time playing pro ball in Europe before opting to begin his post-playing career. Grant remained close to the sport by running youth basketball leagues and working individual training sessions. And when the offer came from MIT, he made the decision to work as a volunteer, refusing to accept money from the sport of basketball.
“I get a lot of rewards from it, more so than any kind of monetary stipend or a salary I could get,” Grant said. “I really made a conscious choice in my life not to be paid for basketball ever again. It muddied things up. I’m not saying it’s wrong or the money that I received didn’t help me. At 30 years old, I made a conscious decision once I left a job in professional basketball behind that I was more interested in doing it for free.”
Anderson pointed to Grant’s dedication to the sport as the primary reason for his success in a volunteer coaching capacity.
“We’re friends, but you won’t keep coming back just because of that,” Anderson said. “It’s not a commitment for him. What he does with our program and for our department and our institution, it’s a lifestyle for him.”
MIT is one of the most selective schools in the country, with an acceptance rate of 10 percent, where 4.0 high school grade-point averages and 36 ACT scores are the expectation. But Grant made a point to his players that standards on the court would be equally high.
In five years, they have listened quite well. And Grant has been pleasantly surprised by the experience during his coaching tenure — mighty thankful he opted to say yes after closer inspection of the program.
“Everyone, including myself, has preconceived notions and expectations of them at MIT as student-athletes,” Grant said. “An athlete is an afterthought and nobody gives you much credit for being an athlete, but that’s ridiculous. You guys have achieved in the classroom beyond comprehension to most people. Get rid of those preconceived notions.
“Who cares if you’re nerds? That has nothing to do with it. When you step on the court, we want to be a good team. We prefer to be a good team. It’s a choice everyday. Let’s do it.”