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K-Mac’s comeback: The black jersey

Chris Hine | Thursday, November 8, 2007

Late last January, Irish coach Mike Brey flew to Staten Island to visit an angry, lonely and confused Kyle McAlarney, who, just days earlier, was suspended after his arrest on charges of marijuana possession.

McAlarney said he was angry with himself and his punishment, lonely because he was missing an opportunity to have a special season with his teammates, and confused about whether to spend his future at Notre Dame or elsewhere.

“Oh, man, I think I was as close as anyone could get to transferring,” McAlarney said. “I called Coach Brey and told him I was thinking about transferring. That was when I was home. I only had a certain window to decide if I was going to transfer and a lot of schools jumped on board, and I was as close as you could get to transferring. I had visits set up.”

But those visits wouldn’t be necessary.

Brey used a lot of words during his visit to persuade McAlarney to come back, but it was one gesture that left the biggest impression.

“I think he sold the deal on my mother, actually,” McAlarney said. “He brought my black jersey. He just took it out of his bag as a little recruiting tool that he uses. He took the jersey out of the bag, put it on the table and walked out the door. He left the jersey there, and the jersey’s still at my house and my mom will wear it. At that time, I was closer to transferring than I was if he didn’t come visit.”

In the end, McAlarney decided to stay with the coach who refused to abandon him during his troubles.

“For him to just fly in like that, I thought about that that night. I don’t think too many coaches would do that,” McAlarney said. “Coach Brey is just such a great guy. Besides all the things he does on the court for me and helps me grow as a player each day, for him to just show that he cares that much about his players is just huge. I had a great relationship with my high school coach and no matter what team I’m on, I want to have a good relationship with my coach. That’s the kind of player I am.

“So, for him to do that, how can I play somewhere else when we have such a great relationship?”

Waiting is the hardest part

The day after his arrest in December, McAlarney had to summon the courage to go into Brey’s office and tell him what happened.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” McAlarney said. “So I didn’t have any expectations as to what he was going to say, but I think he was as good as any coach could ever be in that kind of situation. He was as helpful as possible and we started talking right away about what we can do to fix it.”

After his arrest, but before the University’s Office of Residence Life passed down its ruling, McAlarney still practiced with the team, but was suspended indefinitely from games. That, he said, was the hardest part of the process.

“I came to practice every day and, I’d go up to [Brey’s] office everyday and ask him if I could play the next game and I would never know the answer and every time he was just like, ‘no,'” McAlarney said. “Coming out of this tunnel in street clothes and having to sit on the end of the bench and watch my team play the first couple games of the Big East season, it was so hard.”

McAlarney watched Notre Dame have success early in the Big East, but his inability to play and the uncertainty of his future caused him pain.

“No matter what anybody said or what anybody did, I still felt alone, so alone, me against everybody in the arena,” McAlarney said. “But my teammates just included me in things like going out to eat. Little things like that really helped me go through it.”

Sorting things out

The University made its decision on Jan. 23 to suspend McAlarney for the rest of the spring semester, and therefore, the rest of the season. McAlarney received the news while the team was on the road at St. John’s, and right away, he gathered his belongings and began a long, solitary drive back to New York, stopping in Cincinnati to visit family.

“As soon as I got suspended, I packed my bags, got in the car and I left,” McAlarney said. “That ride was very emotional. I was by myself. It was kind of relieving in a way. When you go for a long drive like that, you get in these kind of modes and you contemplate everything, and I think that drive actually helped me come back to school because that drive helped me think everything through.”

But once he was home, McAlarney was not so sure he was going to come back to the Irish – until Brey’s visit.

“Once he came to visit, laid the jersey down, I think it started to become fresher in my mind how good this place is,” McAlarney said.

During the days after he was suspended, McAlarney had limited contact with his teammates, and most of them had no idea how close he was to transferring.

“We didn’t know until we talked about it when he got back,” said junior forward Ryan Ayers, McAlarney’s roommate. “I’m just so glad he’s back.”

McAlarney stayed in contact with teammates through the Internet, phone and text messaging, but it was another four months until he could rejoin them on campus, and nearly 10 months until he could suit up to play again. To keep himself in shape, McAlarney had his own workout routine and had the key to his high school gym anytime he wanted to practice. He attended class at the College of Staten Island, and was even inspired to change his major to American Studies with a focus in history after taking a class about World War II.

While at home, McAlarney spent time with his best friend from grade school, Antonio Betalia, who happened to be going through a similar situation at the time – he had just been expelled from Saint John Fisher University. Betalia is now in the Navy.

“I got suspended and a week later he gets thrown out of [school],” McAlarney said. “He’s a character, but he’s in the Navy now. I give a lot of credit to him for being in the Navy because he got thrown out of school and didn’t have any direction in his life. He was home the whole time I was home, so having him there, he’s a character.”

Joking about his arrest helped McAlarney get through those days away from his teammates. Notre Dame would go on to grab fourth place in the Big East and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament without him.

“It gave us more motivation that we were one man down,” Ayers said. “But we were going to play like he was still on the team. He was cheering for us, and gave us support.”

But the team’s success was bittersweet for McAlarney. With every broadcast of a Notre Dame game came a reminder of his mistake. Even a brief mention of his arrest by the announcers brought back a flood of emotions that tortured him and made the games unwatchable.

“They would always bring it up,” McAlarney said. “Then, when they bring it up, everything just kind of revisits my mind. You know, it’s like, here it is again … I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard watching them have success without me. At the same time, they are like my brothers so I was happy for them in a way, but at the same time, I would’ve loved to be there.

“There were a lot of games that I just wouldn’t watch. I would let my mother just tell me after the game what happened. It’s just hard, and it would only make me upset and angry and I did everything I could not to bring myself to that point. There’s something in the back of your mind that’s telling you, ‘I don’t want them to win,’ but it was great to see them win all those games and make the Tournament.”

Back into the groove

Notre Dame’s season ended with a loss to Winthrop in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and, eventually, so did McAlarney’s wait to get back on campus. He enrolled in summer sessions at Notre Dame in late May and began working with his teammates again. He played in his first game for the Irish since last season in Notre Dame’s 109-53 thumping of St. Ambrose on Nov. 2, scoring 11 points and handing out five assists.

“It’s awesome,” Brey said. “I had chills when he was announced in the starting lineup the other night. I had chills on my arm and the back of my neck because it’s a great story. I’m so proud of him.”

Ask Brey or any of McAlarney’s teammates how it feels to have him back, and a smile lights up their faces before they answer the question. Nobody feigns enthusiasm, and that means a lot to McAlarney.

“I’m so close with these guys and if anything happened to them like it happened to me, I think I would react the same way if they came back to school,” McAlarney said.

McAlarney said going through the pain of being away humbled him as a person and made him glad he had friends and family that understood his situation and stuck by him. McAlarney could have left this incident behind him forever and moved on to another school, but he came back for a chance to play for a coach and teammates who never left his side.

“I was close as you get to transferring,” McAlarney said. “And no one was going to blame me, but there was something inside of me saying, ‘Go back.'”

For all his days of pain and indecision, all it took was a black jersey to remind him of what he would have left behind.

Contact Chris Hine at [email protected]