‘We struggled together’
Gabe Grant and Antwain Johnson embrace common obstacles after overcoming NCAA transfer rule
On the final night of the Bulls’ record-breaking 2018-19 men’s basketball season, the players walked off the court with their heads down and their hopes dashed.
But nobody was more frustrated than Gabe Grant and Antwain Johnson, two members of the team who had no impact on the final outcome.
During the 2018 men’s basketball season, Grant and Johnson were forced to watch games from the bench, despite being listed on the team’s roster. The NCAA transfer rule mandates that players spend an academic year “in residence” at the school they transfer to, with few exceptions.
Grant and Johnson transferred in from different pockets of the country — the University of Houston and Middle Tennessee State — before joining forces as redshirt seniors. Both had already transferred once before, which meant they were playing for their third team in five years.
“It was extremely hard for me to be patient,” Grant said.
Today, Grant and Johnson embrace their common obstacles. They are expected to be key contributors to the 2019 Bulls, who seek to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years.
“We expect a lot of them this year,” Bulls head coach Jim Whitesell said. “I’m excited for them. Both of these guys can hit four or five threes a night, but along with it, we need them to do other things: leadership, rebounding and defense.”
Throughout the 2018 season, Johnson and Grant were deployed on the scout team. There, they were tasked with mimicking the opponent during practice, in order to prepare the starters for what they would face during a real game.
“They did individual work with us, but along with it, they would run with the team sets and get used to it,” Whitesell said. “That was a big part of their jobs, getting prepared for the games.”
Johnson said the scout team didn’t slouch against anyone.
“A lot of people don’t know, but the scout team used to win every day at practice against the team last year,” he said, laughing. “That’s what was funny. We used to beat them every day.”
Grant and Johnson have no shortage of basketball experience.
They both grew up playing basketball, albeit in different parts of the country. Grant grew up in Chicago. Johnson was raised in Greenwood, FL.
Coming out of high school, Johnson had one offer: Stetson University in DeLand, FL.
“It’s a good school to get a degree from, but I felt that I wanted better for myself,” Johnson said. “I knew that I can adjust. So I was willing to take that junior college route and I knew I was going to grind to get where I wanted to go.”
Johnson spent a season at Chipola College before taking his talents to Murfreesboro, TN, where he contributed to a tournament team. When head coach Kermit Davis left the team, Johnson started looking for his third school in four years.
That’s how he found Buffalo.
“It was really just a coaching change,” he said. “I came up here on a visit, and it was just genuine.”
Grant grew up in Chicago, where — like Johnson — he excelled not only in basketball, but also in baseball.
“I pretty much thought I was going to play Division-I baseball up until high school, when I got a little bit taller,” Grant said. “Basketball became more appealing to me and I started to run with that.”
Coming out of high school, Grant had his “back against the wall,” with no D-I basketball offers and a desire to compete at a higher level. He enrolled at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, CT, where he stayed for two years, before transferring to the University of Houston.
Under coach Kelvin Sampson, Grant “learned to find happiness in other things outside of basketball.” But earning playing time was a struggle for Grant, who averaged just 5.3 minutes per game.
“I picked Houston because, at the time it was the place I thought I could grow and become a great basketball player,” he said. “Things just didn’t go that way.”
In the summer of 2018, Buffalo assistant coach Bryan Hodgson spoke to Grant about transferring to UB. Grant remembers Hodgson pitching the idea of a “bigger opportunity” to achieve his goals.
Grant appreciated the sincerity of the Bulls coaching staff, and decided to transfer in the following year.
On Nov. 8, Grant and Johnson took the court for the first time in the regular season — not as members of the scout team, but as members of the team.
As they took warmups on the Alumni Arena floor, they both felt chills.
“It felt really good,” Johnson said.
“It was nothing but a blessing from God,” Grant said.
As they enter their final collegiate season, Grant and Johnson are determined to make the most of their opportunity.
“Gabe is just like my blood brother,” Johnson said. “We have been through so much. We struggled together, and won together. So anything with me and him, we know we can look after each other and help each other grow.”
Justin Weiss is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.