All the Rage
Competitive spirit propels Wesley Matthews into leading role with Blazers
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Inanimate objects fear Wesley Matthews.
They are defenseless against his rage.
One of his early victims, a locker-room door he punched as a freshman at James Madison Memorial High in Madison, Wis., is still traumatized.
Matthews was playing on the sophomore team at the time and grew infuriated with his performance, completely dismissing his team’s 20-point halftime lead. So he stormed into the locker room, decked the unsuspecting door and broke a bone in his hand.
It didn’t change him.
As a $34 million guard with the Trail Blazers, Matthews still engineers acts of brutality on all things lifeless.
There was the wall he beaned with a basketball three weeks ago at Portland’s practice facility; the 24-year-old irate after two consecutive misses during a shooting drill. There was the padding beneath the basket he slugged at the same venue a few weeks prior; Matthews fuming after failing to score on teammate Luke Babbitt in a one-on-one drill.
And then of course there were the drinks, cards and poker chips he abused in a hotel last November; losing to teammate Patty Mills in a card game called Bourré, then shoving the drinks and cards to the floor and the chips directly into Mills’ face.
Don’t worry, there was an apology shortly after.
“Yeah,” Mills said, “I apologized to him for winning.”
But such emotion is ingrained when you’re the son of hot-tempered NBA champion Wes Matthews, amplified when you’re the son of former Big Ten track star Pam Moore, intensified when you survive four years at Marquette, and magnified with Hubblesque force when you go undrafted after your senior year.
Perhaps this is why Matthews never stops moving — why he practices on team off days, dives for every loose ball and refuses to finish anywhere but first in post-practice wind sprints. He knows the fate that awaits the motionless, so he simply doesn’t rest.
“I’ll be content when I’m 50,” he said.
And that’s likely a conservative estimate.
• • •
“I always knew he was built for this game. To see what he’s achieving right now is not a surprise.”
— Wes Matthews, Wesley’s father
Three days after Matthews’ birth, Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson each lifted him in the air. Things like this happen when your dad signs a contract with the Lakers on the same day you’re born.
Wes won his first of two consecutive NBA championships eight months after inking that deal, but a few months following title No. 2, he split with Moore and was out of Wesley’s life.
This is why Matthews used to hate fielding questions about the influence his father had on his career, because the executive producer on that film was Moore.
She was the mom who worked three jobs to finance her only child’s youth basketball and soccer trips. She was the mom who’d earned scholarships to the University of Wisconsin in both hoops and track and won a national 400-meter title for the Badgers in 1981.
She was the mom who preached that Wesley never cheat himself during workouts, yelled at him during AAU games and made sure he properly boxed out on rebounds.
She was not the mom who brought snacks and juice boxes for all the other kids.
But besides serving as Matthews’ biggest influence in most aspects of life, Moore also passed along a piece of advice that has stayed with her son throughout his career, perhaps even launching him into the world’s most prestigious basketball league.
“I told him that there are so many opportunities in a basketball game to be effective. He doesn’t need to be the star of the game to make an impact,” Moore said. “He can get in the passing lanes, take the charge, get in there and crash the boards. You don’t have to be the one making the shot. Once he bought into that and started using those tools, he saw the game in a whole new light.”
So Matthews transformed himself into a basketball sampler platter, focusing on all the little things while remaining one of Wisconsin’s fiercest competitors.
This drive manifested itself as a middle schooler, when he and friends would play a game akin to breaking a press in their basement, going so hard that they had to covertly slide a signed Brett Favre poster six feet over to cover a hole Matthews made in the wall.
It showed up later on the soccer field — Matthews said soccer was his best sport — where Wesley kicked and headed his way to a Memorial High record 104 points (69 goals, 35 assists) over four years.
And it definitely reared its head on the basketball floor, where practices grew so heated that Memorial coach Steve Collins sometimes had to end them early to ensure nobody got hurt.
“I played four of years of college baseball,” said Justin Dahmen, Matthews’ high school teammate and good friend to this day. “But I’ve never been a part of a workout as intense as those.”
The end result was Matthews being named Wisconsin’s top basketball player and earning a full ride to Marquette, an institution he said, along with his family, shaped him into the man he is today.
“What did I learn about myself when I was at Marquette?” Matthews asked. “That I’m tough as hell.”
• • •
“I’ve been coaching Division I basketball for 17 years now. Wesley is the best teammate I’ve ever seen.”
— Buzz Williams, Marquette men’s basketball coach
So far you’ve read about the Wesley Matthews who sees death as a more palatable alternative to losing.
But you don’t know about goofy Wesley Matthews — the one who slaps the imaginary “3 Goggles” over his eyes whenever he nails a 3-pointer, speaks with an Australian accent in front of Mills, recorded a verse on his friend’s rap song yet collects animated movies like he just came in from recess.
“I’ve never seen a grown man without children with the type of Disney collection he has,” said Lawrence Trend Blackledge, Matthews’ former teammate at Marquette.
You don’t know about compassionate Wesley Matthews — the one who donated 100 turkeys to the Hunger Task Force on Thanksgiving, cut a $10,000 check to his former high school teacher Kara Glauser because he promised he’d do so when he made it big (she turned it down), and begins text-message conversations with the words “you belong here” to former Marquette teammate and aspiring NBA player Jerel McNeal.
You don’t know about family-first Wesley Matthews — the one who is working on securing homes for various relatives, brought his uncle Cory Moore with him to Portland, and said facilitating his mom’s retirement is his proudest achievement to date.
Yes, those are all colors composing the Rubik’s cube that is Matthews, but the most salient shade is still the one frustrated by the fact that there are only 168 hours per week to work on his game.
Blackledge dubbed Wesley “robot” at Marquette because of the way he breezed through Coach Tom Crean’s grueling practices.
When his lackluster dribbling skills were criticized his junior year, he woke up each weekday at 6 a.m. and worked on ball handling for an hour before class. When his teammates were learning where to be on certain plays and sets, he was studying where everybody should be in case he had to play that position.
Buzz Williams, who replaced Crean as the Golden Eagles’ head coach before Matthews’ senior year, took notice.
“I think there are several attributes that have led to Wesley’s success, none of which have to do with his physical talent,” said Williams, who watched Matthews scoring average jump from 11.3 points per game as a junior to 18.6 as a senior. “His character is above reproach. I never saw him have a bad day, never saw him not be prepared, never saw him not engaged in practice. When Wesley was on the court, was he always the best player? Not necessarily. But could you find a way to take him off the floor? No.”
• • •
“He was very emotionally upset by that, but I told him it wasn’t over. We never see anything as a negative situation.”
— Pam Moore, discussing the 2009 NBA Draft
The Dahmen family hosted a draft party two Junes ago but Wesley did not attend. He was working out in the Memorial High gym; eyes focused on the court, ears focused on his phone.
But in an era where playing four years of college ball serves more as a red flag than it does a golden ticket, Matthews’ name went uncalled. No tears ensued, though — just a text to Justin Dahmen reading “it’s all good.”
Any casual Blazers fan knows what happened next. Utah gave him a workout, he wriggled his way onto the team and earned a starting spot by February. He averaged 9.4 points per game in the regular season, 13.2 in the playoffs and was assigned to guard Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant in the first two rounds.
Portland raised an eyebrow, offered him a stunning 5-year, $34 million contract that the Jazz declined to match, and Matthews became one of the richest undrafted NBA players ever.
Textbook dream come true.
“It was just disbelief that God would continue to write a story like this,” Matthews said. “We knew we were coming into more money than we’d ever had, but this amount we never expected. But I was more happy for my family. They never want anything, though. Christmas is terrible. I ask them what they want and they’re like ‘I don’t need anything,’ and then they ask me what I want and I’m like ‘I definitely don’t need anything.’”
But this is about the extent to which Matthews will comment on his paycheck. Crean and Williams may not have been able to wear him out, but reporters incessantly asking whether he feels pressure to live up to his contract have.
“You get tired of it,” Matthews said. “The money always matters. You play this game because you love it, but also you get paid. Until the day comes where you can buy stuff just off of kindness, the money will matter. But I’m not about the money, I play because I want to be great.”
Matthews’ new tax bracket hasn’t seemed to change him, either. At least not according to anyone in the Western Hemisphere who knows him.
He still shows up at Justin and his brother Tyler’s pizza store in Madison and occasionally serves food. Still keeps in touch with his old soccer coach, Ben Voss, who jokes that Matthews would have scored 69 more goals if he could convert on a breakaway.
Still grills friends with ambitious career aspirations, telling them they’re “wasting away” when he feels they’re slacking off, yet continually draws praise from people who tout his work ethic, integrity, and most of all — authenticity.
“What am I most proud of about Wesley?” Pam Moore said. “I guess just the young man he’s turned out to be.”
• • •
“We’re growing. Our relationship is getting better.”
— Matthews, on his father
Character flaws are tough to uncover with Matthews — almost to the point of irritation. If it’s too good to be true, it usually is, right?
But if there is one blemish on the crystal-clear complexion that is Matthews’ life, it’s his tenuous relationship with his dad.
Wesley said he was unbothered by his father’s absence 90 percent of the time growing up, but when asked about his biggest regret in life, his response seemed to contradict that ratio.
“It’s not getting to know my dad’s side of the family earlier,” Matthews said. “That was me being bitter, just not being me. My thing has always been that only I can affect what I do. You can’t get to me. I let myself throw off what I should be doing as a man.”
But now it’s rare a day goes by where the two don’t chat. Wes will call after games, maybe even attend one if it’s on the east coast, and the pair will tighten their bond one tiny knot at a time.
Granted, the conversation rarely veers away from hoops, but that’s OK at this point.
“I’m still pops, and I will always be pops. We have a strange relationship because of the breakup with his mother, but it’s a good relationship,” said Wes, the 6-foot-1 former point guard who averaged 7.9 points per game in his career. “But this isn’t about me. Right now I’m just a fly on the wall, scouting for him, talking basketball, hooking him up with little tidbits. You can’t make up for lost time, but what he’s accomplishing with his hard work, without having that father fanfare growing up, I’m just so proud of him.”
One of Wes’ fondest memories is of 1-year-old Wesley scooping up a Nerf basketball, charging toward the mini-hoop Wes set up in his hotel room and crashing into the window trying to score. Decades later, he’d blossom into a 6-foot-5, 220 pound man Wes said “was the prototype of everything I wanted to be as a player.”
He also acknowledges that his departure was hardly ideal for Wesley’s childhood, but affirmed that Wesley “will always have his father in his life.”
“In hindsight, I could have been in a hell of a legal custody battle, but it was about what was best for him, what was best for his growth. I’m sure it’s probably eating at him to know what really happened,” Wes said. “But if that’s what it took to get him hungry, well, look at Wesley now. I couldn’t be a prouder father, and I’m sure he’s coming to be in a better place now because he’s getting to know who his father is.”
Better? Possibly. But it’s a good place regardless.
Matthews is averaging 15.8 points per game and just under 20 when playing at least 30 minutes.
Timberwolves rookie and Marquette product Lazar Hayward credits Wesley’s success as a major factor for him getting him drafted in the first round, while Blazers point guard Andre Miller, commenting on Matthews’ fiery persona, said that “every team needs a guy like that.”
This one may need him more than ever.
With Brandon Roy’s sore knees sidelining him indefinitely, Matthews officially replaces the three-time All Star as Portland’s starting shooting guard. One writer described the supplanting as the “changing of the guards.”
Clever. But hardly applicable to Matthews.
You ever seen one of those ceremonies?
Afterward, the guard stays still.
Matt Calkins is the Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or email@example.com.