Jourdan Grant: The rocket

Jourdan Grant. Courtesy photo / UMBC Athletics
Jourdan Grant. Courtesy photo / UMBC Athletics
Jourdan Grant. Courtesy photo / UMBC Athletics

You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt.
-Crash Davis, “Bull Durham”

Every once in a while when Jourdan Grant leaves the RAAC Arena after a late-night shooting session, his gaze will drift down to the baseball diamond below. Grant’s eyes graze past the dugouts and over the turf of The Baseball Factory Field, until they finally settle on the rubber of the pitching mound. His thoughts drift back in time.

“Yeah, I’ll catch myself looking at the field and wondering, ‘what if?“ says Grant, a 6-foot-2-inch freshman and the starting point guard for UMBC’s men’s basketball team.

It might come as a surprise that Grant, who has hit the ground running and only kicked it into higher gear on the hardwood, averaging an America East best 4.4 assists per game, while ranking second in steals at 1.9 per game to go with 7.3 points per game, still wonders about his career in baseball. But surprises might as well be synonymous with Grant, who in addition to excelling on the hardwood has a passion for playing the piano and cites The Great Gatsby as his favorite book.

“I was decent,” he says of his abilities on the diamond.

“Decent,” is one way of putting it — no, actually, “decent” is the Jourdan Grant way of putting it.

“The kid is so humble, he could probably save a baby, hit the lottery and be elected president in the same day and he’d still tell you he needed to work on his jump shot and help-side defense,” laughs UMBC head coach Aki Thomas. “But the thing is, he isn’t bs-ing you when he says stuff like that: he’s always focusing on the areas he needs to improve.”

So how good was Grant really on the diamond as a youngster? He was good — good enough to land squarely in the sights of area scouts and college coaches by the time he was in middle school.

“The kid threw smoke,” says one Maryland area baseball scout, who despite the fact that Grant no longer plays the sport, commented on the condition of anonymity because of his amateur status.

“Going in to high school I was a pitcher and a couple of colleges were talking to me,“ Grant finally admits, still unwilling to serve as his own hype man.

Growing up in Bowie, Mayland, a town that literally owes its very existence to the railroad when the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Company began construction on a new line in 1853 and which quickly grew from a small railtown to the state’s third largest city, Grant was surrounded by basketball.

“I grew up in that D.C.-Maryland area so basketball was always around,” he says.

Athleticism runs in Grant’s family, literally. His mother, Caryl King-Grant, ran track and played volleyball, his father, Maurice, qualified for the Olympic Trials in track and field, and his older brother, Kyle, played baseball in college at Southern University and CCBC Catonsville. Despite showing early promise on the hardwood, Grant quickly gravitated towards the diamond, following in his brother’s footsteps.

“My mom and dad didn’t play basketball,” Grant says. “I mean, they’re from New York so I’m sure they played pick-up, but it wasn’t their sport, so they didn’t push me into any particular sport and let me choose. I chose baseball — things just clicked on the field.”

Grant quickly began to excel on the diamond and, in fact, left the sport of basketball altogether.

“I actually stopped playing basketball during my middle school years and just focused on baseball,” he says.

Then fate — bad or good luck, depending on how you look at it — or random chance intervened. Grant suffered a devastating injury in his pitching shoulder. Unable to pitch while he rehabbed, he began playing basketball again.

“Shooting is a different motion than pitching, and I could always dribble, and I started to get involved in AAU,” he says.

Even after rehab and recovery, Grant’s fastball was never quite the same and at that point he had begun to star on the hardwood, starting for three years at Archbishop Spalding high. Grant racked up personal awards and led his team to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinals and the Baltimore Catholic League finals as a senior while being named to the Baltimore Catholic League First Team and earning a spot in the Capital Gazette All-Star Basketball Classic.

Grant’s play on the court quickly caught the eye of Thomas and his staff at UMBC, but it was how he carried himself in empty gyms and high school hallways that sold Thomas on the young playmaker.

“Jourdan was definitely a talent, but much, much more than that it was apparent he was an incredibly special person,” says Thomas. “You talk about a hard worker — Jourdan works incredibly hard. And he is incredibly coachable: He wants to hear about the areas he needs to get better at and he is never satisfied, and being coachable like that is kind of a lost art these days.”

“He’s also an incredibly mature, incredibly intelligent young man,” adds Thomas of Grant, who will not turn 19 until after his freshman year of college comes to an end.

For Grant, freshman year has been one of trials and tribulations on the court. UMBC lost dynamic guard Rodney Elliott, the reigning America East Rookie of the Year, for the entire year 20 minutes into the season to a torn labrum. UMBC subsequently suspended three other players and lost forward Will Darley for a considerable time to a knee injury, leaving the team with just six healthy scholarship players.

“It’s definitely been rough,”says Grant who is averaging 33.9 minutes per game. “We’ve had guys going down, we’ve got six scholarship players and two walk-ons. It definitely got me acclimated with college basketball quickly.

“Rodney was Rookie of the Year last year. I expected to play but I didn’t really expect to be doing what I’m doing now. I thought I’d be giving him a break when he needed, moving him off the ball for a breather.”

However, according to Thomas, despite Grant’s modesty, the freshman had already won the point guard position even before Elliot’s injury, and the plan for the start of the season was for Elliot to move to the shooting guard spot.

“Jourdan was in the starting lineup for our first game at the point,” Thomas says. “He’d won that position fair and square, and the plan was to play Rodney off him, off the ball, and let [Elliott] become more of a scorer.”

With just six healthy scholarship players, it would be more than reasonable to expect the Retrievers to find some solace in how competitive the team has been, taking UMass Lowell to overtime, giving UNH everything it could handle in a three-point loss, and competing as equals against conference front runners Vermont and Stony Brook. But Grant isn’t satisfied.

“We’ve lost a couple of tough ones,” he says. “I feel like we could have had the UMass Lowell game, I feel like we had the New Hampshire game and let that one slip, and we were in the Stony Brook game for 37 minutes.”

It’s exactly the kind of attitude that Thomas said has made Grant a team leader despite being one of the youngest players in the league.

“Jourdan is one of those kids who just leads by example,” Thomas says. “He has a presence, he has an air about him that people just gravitate towards and follow, and I am incredibly happy to have him in our program.”

As for Grant, in typical fashion he downplays his role on the team, crediting seniors like Davarick Houston for taking him under his wing, while saying his only focus is on making the team better and getting some wins.

Hours after UMBC’s 71-54 loss to Vermont on Jan. 17, the team’s 15th loss on the season and sixth in a row, Grant stepped into the cold Baltimore night, his gaze once again locking on the pitching rubber, close enough that Grant felt as if he could hit it with a four-seam fastball, but a lifetime away.

“I probably could have been pretty good, maybe I could have made a career of it,” he finally admits. “But I’m exactly where I need to be, playing exactly what I need to be playing, surrounded by the exact right people in my life.”