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Now that Mat had to retake the SAT to regain his NCAA eligibility, our room had undergone a drastic transformation. Instead of me studying while Mat goofed off, had sex and/or partied until all hours of the night, we were both spending quiet nights hitting the books. Of course, Mat's attention span being what it was, he could only hit them for minutes at a time, but his study breaks were fairly unobtrusive. The silence in the room had become almost eerie…but totally welcome. (By me, anyway.)
At times, though, our entire floor seemed to be holding its collective breath. There were still a fair number of people on the floor – not to mention in the dorm, at our school, at competing schools, etc. -- who thought Mat was going to be the next big thing on the men's basketball team. The hype was mostly an underground movement because even before he was declared ineligible, Mat hadn't decided whether he was going to redshirt his freshman year. And yet hundreds, maybe even thousands of people were intensely interested in Mat's immediate destiny.
Mat wasn't the only person affected. His situation and the corresponding interest it generated had an impact on me as well. Now, instead of being harassed with questions about whether he was going to play, I was getting bombarded by people asking whether I thought he could pass the SAT (that is, score the 820 points required for NCAA eligibility). The best I had to offer was an "I don't know." And I really didn't.
I mean, on the one hand, scoring an 820 should have been walk-across-the-street easy. But Mat could barely concentrate on a preparation manual for 10 minutes at a time. Did he have it in him to take an hours-long test that would probably give his underworked brain its greatest challenge? I had my doubts.
Speaking of doubts, it wasn't clear at that point whether my roommate could even play the game of basketball. However, the general consensus was that someone that tall should be an instant success on the court. It was all about the size. The lament of most pickup ballers I know is "If only I was taller...." It doesn't matter what a person's height is. If he's 5'8", he thinks being 5'10" would allow him to be a superstar. And 5'10" guys think the same would happen if only they were six feet tall. Six-footers want to be 6'3" or 6'4" or 6'5". The guys who are 6'5"-ish wish they were 6'8" or 6'9". So on and so forth.
The point is, most people -- even people who really should know better -- honestly believe that a few extra inches would be a magic elixir for their basketball abilities. After all, someone might suppose, if huge white stiffs like Greg Kite (and later Greg Ostertag) could have a decade-long career based mostly on height, why not them?
Of course, in most cases, basketball players would do well to spend less time wishing for added height and more time honing their actual basketball skills. Assuming they have any.
At any rate, the mass assumption seemed to be that at seven-plus feet and 300-ish pounds, Mat should be a white Shaq. Although, admittedly, some people had woken from that pipedream a few weeks earlier, when Mat had his official team debut at a "Midnight Madness" team practice. Midnight Madness was free and open to the student body. The intent was to get everybody hyped up for the upcoming season (which was set to begin at the end of the November). Mat's only noteworthy contributions to the event were throwing down a few awkward, barely-over-the-rim dunks and then acting as a prop in a little dunking exhibition put on by the Future NBA All-Star. As in, the Future NBA All-Star leapt into the air and dunked over him, much to the delight of the screaming crowd.
I attended Midnight Madness with Susan and her friends Jodi and Josh (who was crushing on Susan even harder than I was). "You're Mat's roommate," Josh said. "Can you, like, get us into the locker room to meet the team?"
"Uh, I don't think so," I said. The reality was I hadn't asked. In fact, it had never even crossed my mind. The last thing I wanted to do was ask Mat for any favors. He was the last person I wanted to owe anything to.
Since he didn't really do anything at Midnight Madness, no one (outside of the players and coaches, who weren't talking about it) knew anything about his game. Like, did he even have one? What could he do? Did he have post moves? Could he dominate the boards? Block shots?
I was actually pretty curious about all that myself. I had long wanted to see Mat play, and therefore had tried several times to lure him over to the Co-Rec for a little hoops action. He had repeatedly told me that he wasn't allowed to play pickup, that it could cost him his scholarship. And he seemed totally serious about it, so I had to assume he was telling the truth.
However, now that Mat was ineligible to play, the restriction on pickup ball had been lifted. He could play whenever or wherever he wanted. (Well, except for team practices and games.) He even announced his intention to play at the Co-Rec. So, naturally, I was bugging him about it every day. And every day he declined.
"Dude," I would say, "you're totally going to pass that test. You need to keep your skills sharp."
"I know," he'd say. "I'm gonna do it. Just not today."
This cat-and-mouse game went on for a week. Then, one night while I was preparing for a calculus exam that would take place the next morning, Mat returned from a study break and said, "I'm going over to the Co-Rec tonight. You wanna come?"
I cursed inwardly. I really needed to study for that exam. Or, at least, that's what I thought. As it turned out, I could have taken that test in my sleep. But it was my tendency to over-study back then. I groaned and said, "Dude, I don't think so. I really have to keep studying."
"Future NBA All-Star's gonna be there," he said.
"Wha...what? Really?" I said. "I thought you guys weren't allowed to play pickup ball. What, he doesn't have the same restriction you had?"
"Shit, he can do whatever he wants," Mat said.
That made sense. It would have been like the Bulls telling Michael Jordan he wasn't allowed to play pickup ball over the summer. They could scream and yell all they wanted, but MJ was going to do what MJ wanted. And it was the same with Future NBA All-Star. He was the basketball team's meal ticket. That gave him special dispensation to do as he pleased.
I might have been able to say "no" to seeing Mat play, but I wasn't going to miss the chance to hoop with Future NBA All-Star. As I was changing into my basketball gear, Mat walked up and down the hall collecting anybody else who wanted to play. He gathered five other guys, so the seven of us went across the street to the Co-Rec.
“So,” I said, “with Future NBA All-Star, there’s gonna be eight of us. We could totally run four-on-four.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Mat said. Totally noncommittal, I might add.
The Co-Rec was pretty busy. The two downstairs courts were full, but we went upstairs (where there were a few more courts) and managed to get a half-court to ourselves.
Everyone was gaping at Mat. Games were stopping just so people could stare at him. He seemed completely unaware of it. That or he didn’t care.
Things started the way they always do: with everybody chatting and half-heartedly shooting around. Mat flushed down a little mini-dunk, tossed in a clumsy looking half-hook, and then bricked a handful of free throws that would have made Ben Wallace (a career 41 percent foul shooter) cringe.
I was juiced to actually play, but nobody else seemed to be in any particular hurry to start. I was excited to see Mat play, and really excited to play with Future NBA All-Star (assuming he showed up), but I could also hear my mental clock ticking. It was already close to 10 p.m.
Then Future NBA All-Star arrived.
People had stopped to watch Mat walk by, but they openly gaped at Future NBA All-Star. He wasn’t just a celebrity on campus, he was The Celebrity. Somebody a couple courts a way yelled out his first name, and Future NBA All-Star just grinned and half-waved at the guy. Applause broke out.
Unlike everybody else in the gym, the people in our little group were trying to play it cool. Nobody wanted to embarrass himself in front of Future NBA All-Star by acting like a drooling fanboy. When he got to us, most of the guys just kept shooting around, although a couple guys said “hey” and shook his hand.
After shaking some hands and slapping palms with Mat, Future NBA All-Star grabbed a ball and started draining jumpers. He went about it so casually. It almost looked like he was moving in slow motion. He missed one or two at first, then he drained 10 or 12 in a row.
Then he started dribbling through his legs. Again, he made it look very casual. “So,” Future NBA All-Star said, “who’s gonna stop me?”
Everybody in our group just looked at him. Nobody wanted to step up.
“Awp,” he said (yes, he made an “awp” sound), looking at Mat, “they scared.” Mat laughed.
“Tell you what,” Future NBA All-Star said, “you can all guard me.”
We all kind of looked at each other, and a couple guys laughed nervously, but we arranged ourselves between Future NBA All-Star and the basket. I was right under the hoop, which in hindsight probably wasn’t the best place to be.
Future NBA All-Star juked and spun and basically walked through all six of us (Mat was standing off to the side). Again, he looked like he was moving at one-quarter speed. Guys were reaching in and swiping at the ball, but nobody could get it.
Then he reached me. I decided I was going to stop him. For some reason, I wanted to prove myself, maybe even impress him. I set my feet. I threw all my weight into him. I pushed against his body with all my strength.
Future NBA All-Star turned ever-so-slightly, rose up, and dunked like I wasn’t even there. And, insult to injury, the ball banged off my head.
That was the first time I realized -- like, really, really realized -- that elite athletes are on another plane of existence. Their strength, speed and natural athletic ability are almost alien to mere mortals. Future NBA All-Star has barely expended a fraction of the effort he could have, yet he waltzed right through six reasonably fit and athletic guys who were genuinely trying to stop him. And of course he posterized me.
Sadly, that was it. Future NBA All-Star moseyed over to Mat and chatted for a few minutes, and then he left. Everybody in the group was bummed. We were really hoping he’d play a pickup game with us. Apparently, he had better things to do…which wasn’t all that surprising.
As it turned out, Mat didn’t want to play a full game. Instead, we played 21, which is an every-man-for-himself sort of game where the first person to reach 21 points wins. And so, at long last, I got to see my roommate play.
It wasn’t pretty. He had no handles. He couldn’t shoot. He had no moves around the basket, other than bat the ball around until it went in. Now, mind you, Mat wasn’t going all-out. In fact, he seemed to be making a point of behaving so that we would all understand he wasn’t going all-out. You know, we weren’t really worth his full effort. He was still able to dominate because he was a foot taller than most of us (and he had insisted on playing no take-backs).
That said, it was painfully obvious that Mat’s basketball skills were limited. To the point of near-nonexistence. Everything he did or tried to do was awkward and forced. Honestly, he looked like someone who had never played basketball before. He had no natural feel for the game. At least, that was my interpretation.
We ended up playing for only about 20 minutes before Mat got bored and wanted to leave. On the way back, I was walking behind the rest of the group. One of the guys dropped back to walk next to me and said, “Was it just me, or did he kinda suck?”
“It wasn’t just you,” I said.
“That’s crazy,” the guys said. “If I was that size, I’d be awesome.”
That was the first and last time Mat played pickup ball during his ineligibility.Part 22
Labels: college stories, Livin' Large