Putting team first
Notre Dame's Peoples embraces sixth man role with savvy and energy
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Unlike Arthur Agee, Jonathan Peoples wasn't forced to dodge the ever-present dangers of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects. Different than William Gates, Peoples struggled little in the classroom.
There were no long commutes from the inner city to St. Joseph High School in Westchester to endure for Peoples, who grew up just a few miles away in the western suburb of Bellwood.
But similar to Gates and Agee, whose professional basketball aspirations while playing for legendary St. Joe coach Gene Pingatore served as the premise for the 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams," a poverty-stricken Peoples was equally consumed by a desire to reach the NBA and change his empty-handed family's future forever.
Now in the twilight of his college career at the University of Notre Dame, which is 14-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big East following consecutive losses to Cincinnati and Syracuse, the 6-foot-3 senior guard admits that his dream has taken quite a detour.
"Life doesn't always go the way you plan," said Peoples, an Irish co-captain who cracked the starting lineup after waiting patiently three years, only to be demoted eight games into the season. "Coach [Mike Brey] had other plans. It's his decision, and I'll do what he tells me to do."
Brey, the only coach to show significant interest in the former Chargers star, benched Peoples in early December for junior forward Tim Abromaitis, who immediately reinforced the personnel change with a 31-point effort against Central Florida.
Peoples made a solid argument for his return to the starting rotation a couple weeks later, pocketing a career-high 24 points in a lopsided victory over Providence in Notre Dame's league opener. In the five games since, however, he's scored only three points in limited action.
But he hopes to get back on track as the Irish host embattled DePaul [8-10, 1-5] Saturday at 1 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.
"It's hard to get in a good rhythm when you're only out there for two minutes at a time," Peoples said. "I try to be more productive, but coming off the bench right away and jacking shots is not my role. I'm not that type of player. I have to just let the game come to me and take those open shots when I get them."
Brey explained that's not what he's looking for in his sixth man.
"I think that one of the most overrated stats, because they have so many, is bench scoring," he said. "That might be the dumbest thing I've ever seen. We have enough scoring in the group that starts. I'm looking for impact and energy off the bench."
And leadership. Notre Dame's among the top five in assist-to-turnover margin. Brey said Peoples' savvy play, which often isn't directly reflected in the box score, is a big reason why. It was that same court vision and sound decision-making that first grabbed Brey's attention while on a quick recruiting stop in Westchester five years ago before a road tilt vs. DePaul.
"We were the only [team] at this level to recruit him," Brey said. "We were there looking at Evan Turner [Ohio State] and Demetri McCamey [Illinois] and [Peoples] makes a play in the open court. Then he gets a steal and scores. Then he gets fouled, makes both free throws and kind of huddles the team up and gets them organized.
"I turned to one of my assistants and said, 'Where's he going?' Come to find out he was unsigned and I said to check on his grades, and if his grades were good to offer him a scholarship.
"Yeah, he's disappointed about playing time. But I'm proud of the way he's embraced his role."
Grade-point average and test scores were never an issue for Peoples, who's on track to graduate this year with a degree in sociology -- the only one in his family to boast such an accomplishment.
"I'm so proud," said Pingatore, a legend in the world of Illinois prep hoops with over 850 career victories. "His sophomore year at Notre Dame he was thinking about transferring. There were so many outside influences. I said, 'Are you nuts? You know what a degree from Notre Dame can do for you? It's like signing a pro contract.'"
The Irish hope to avoid a second-half meltdown that cost them an NCAA tournament berth last season -- motivation that's kept Peoples engaged despite seeing his minutes drop.
"Last year we had a big spotlight on us and everybody wanted to get us," he said. "This year we came out and are playing like we're poor -- like we want to prove something."
No matter the end result, for Peoples, seeing the curtain close on a college career that some would call a disappointment, a top-notch education is the realization of a different dream.
"My family's not rich at all," he said. "That's one reason I decided to come here. Before I committed, me and coach Ping had a long talk about life after basketball. I didn't really have an answer because my whole life had been basketball."
Life after basketball appears to be rapidly approaching as Peoples is aware his odds of making it to the NBA are long.
"I took the whole night thinking about it and I walked into Pingatore's office the next day and said, 'Coach, I want to go to Notre Dame.' He said, 'That's a good choice.' He was right."