Almost a Gator, fate intervened and made Mooney an Irish star
Charlotte Edmonds | Friday, May 15, 2020
Talking to John Mooney, it quickly becomes evident he seemed destined for Notre Dame. If it weren’t for his 6-foot-9 stature, he’d likely blend in on campus as a self-described æIrish Catholic kid.”
But Mooney has done anything but blend in. The native of Orlando, Florida, has earned himself the reputation of being a double-double machine, chasing records owned by legends such as Tim Duncan and emerging as a leader and mentor while the Notre Dame men’s basketball program endured disappointing seasons due to injury and looked to rebuild with a young corps.
Seeing the impact he’s had on this Notre Dame program over the past four years, it’s hard to believe there was a time when the Irish weren’t even on his radar.
For much of his high school career, Mooney planned on continuing a family tradition and heading to Gainesville, Florida, to play for Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators. When Donovan made the jump to the NBA, accepting a position with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Mooney found his college plans up in limbo.
“When Coach Donovan offered me, I just pretty much ran with it given his given his track record and his ability to develop guys like me,” Mooney said. “I thought it was a great fit at the time. He took the job in the pros after my junior year of high school … [and] when that happened, I kind of wanted to open up the recruitment and see what else was out there.”
While he was no longer in the running to coach Mooney himself, Donovan, a renowned coach among collegiate circles, continued to advise Mooney and was instrumental in putting the Irish on his radar.
“He was fantastic,” Mooney said on Donovan. “He reached out to some coaches including [Notre Dame head] Coach [Mike] Brey and he said that, you know, it may be a good fit for me to go Notre Dame.”
With that initial introduction made, Brey invited Mooney and his family up to campus in the fall of his senior year, a visit that sealed the deal for the three-star recruit.
“Pretty much right when I stepped foot on campus, I knew,” he said. “It was a great fit for me.”
For Mooney, the basketball environment and the vibe of campus were exactly what he and his family were looking for in his college experience.
“We wanted a place where I could have a good relationship with the head coach and the staff,” he said. “… and then we wanted a place where I could fit in with the guys on the team and fit in with the vibe of the student body, and Notre Dame is great with that. I’ve made countless friends and countless memories with people there.”
Playing behind All-ACC first team member Bonzie Colson, Mooney spent much of his freshman year learning the ins and outs of the program. He credits Colson as being a major role model for the development of his game in college.
“You can learn from a guy like that and see how he comes into work every day and works his tail off,” Mooney said. “He leads the team and you just pick up on little pointers, like little techniques and stuff around just playing basketball, like shooting or post moves. Whatever it is, just learning from him really helped me out then. … We’re friends more than anything, but having that experience to learn from him was definitely very instrumental for me.”
While he added to his arsenal of moves on the block, those first two seasons with the Irish taught Mooney important lessons of leadership that would prove essential later on in his career. As the team was plagued with season-ending injuries and the grind of the ACC, Mooney never wavered in his commitment to Notre Dame and the basketball program.
“We were really rolling to begin my sophomore year. Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, T.J. [Gibbs], Rex [Pflueger] and [Martinas Geben] were really kind of leading the ship,” he said. “My role was a little bigger than it was freshman year during my sophomore year. We were top-five in the country at one point.”
An injury to Bonzie Colson’s foot that left him out for the majority of the season meant Brey and his staff turned to Mooney to fill that gap in production.
“Whenever guys go down the vibe just naturally probably goes down a little bit too,” Mooney said. “You never want to see a guy get hurt, but I just remember … thinking to myself that is part of the game and you have to have that next man up mentality.”
That second half of his sophomore year set the stage for a breakout junior season, as Mooney was tasked with leading a team that was integrating five high-profile freshmen into the fold.
“The coaching staff kind of talked to me a little bit and said that I needed to be more of a leader how I play now. You know, communicate with the younger guys,” he said. “I feel like I accepted that role and just worked my tail off each day to produce, and a lot of it is a testament to my teammates and the coaching staff for trusting and being eager to get better each day.”
While the team struggled to find its footing with this young group, Mooney helped keep the Irish competitive, averaging a double-double and shooting nearly 45% from the field. Despite the attention he started to garner, Mooney never lost sight of the team goals and how his teammates were facilitating those impressive statistics.
“It’s a testament to my teammates. A lot of the points that I score are off assists from Prentiss Hubb, T.J. Gibbs, Rex [Pflueger] and countless other guys throughout four years,” Mooney said. “They give me the ball, I just sometimes shoot it and make it. In terms of the rebounding, you have to rebound a miss. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, when guys are contesting shots, like when T.J. and Rex are contesting shots, if the ball misses it’s because of them and then I just try to go get the ball.”
With the younger guys gaining confidence two seasons in, Mooney made sure to take advantage of the team’s growth, leading the nation in double-doubles this past season with 25 as well as improving his overall offensive production, averaging 16.2 points per game. His play earned him a top-10 spot in the running for the Karl Malone Award, given annually to the nation’s best power forward, and garnered him praise from the likes of Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim.
Boeheim said that, if Mooney was not one of the 25 best players in college basketball — alluding to his absence from midseason Wooden Award watchlists — then the Orange coach of 43 years must not know anything about college basketball.
Feeling like the team was playing its best basketball yet towards the end of the 2019-20 season, he described the disappointment of hearing that all postseason tournaments were cancelled following their 22-point win over Boston College in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
“We got word that the next day we would play without fans to play Virginia and we were cool with that,” Mooney said. “We just wanted to go out there and play. And then as the day went on, there were talks of the SEC Tournament canceling, the Big 12 cancels. … We got word that the tournament was canceled. Not gonna lie, we were bummed out, especially the seniors.”
Despite that bittersweet end, Mooney maintained his perspective, commenting that “It’s disappointing for it to end that way, but it is what it is. You live to see another day.”
Perhaps part of the senior’s ability to maintain optimism is the fullness of his college experience. While many college athletes struggle to integrate with the everyday student body due to their jam-packed schedules, Mooney said he made a point to experience Notre Dame beyond the athletics.
“I think the thing about Notre Dame is that it requires requires excellence in all fields,” he said. “Certainly academically, certainly athletically on the court and spiritually.”
Mooney said one of the highlights of his time at Notre Dame was being confirmed at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart his freshman year.
“That was really cool,” he said. “And then just, going through your day-to-day routine is something that I’ll never forget. … I’m gonna miss it for sure.”
While his Notre Dame career might have come to a premature end, Mooney continues to set his sights on the next level.
“I want to keep playing. … Going through the whole pre-draft process, a lot of it is delayed and everything because of the virus, so just taking it day by day,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll work out here. If not, I would love to love to play in Europe. A lot of former guys from Notre Dame have done that very well.”
Despite the uncertainty as he continues to finalize his plans, some might say Mooney has left his mark on the basketball program and campus community as a whole.
As to where this lifelong Gator fan’s loyalty lies these days?
“Notre Dame, for sure,” he said.