Kid from hardscrabble neighborhood goes to hardscrabble high school. Kid gets taken under wing by hardscrabble guidance counselor, or other authority figure. Kid goes on to become NBA prospect.
If you’ve heard that story once, you’ve heard it 100 times. It’s still a good story.
It’s just not A.J. Matthews’ story.
Kid from hardscrabble neighborhood goes to hardscrabble high school, does not get taken under wing by hardscrabble guidance counselor. Because hardscrabble high school cannot afford guidance counselors. Hardscrabble high school gets shut down due to poor academic performance.
Kid attends four junior colleges. Kid finally talks way into tiny Division III school back East.
Kid gets discovered by Jason Giambi’s former limousine driver.
Kid becomes NBA prospect. The long way. The hard way.
If you’ve heard this story even once, you probably are a liar. But it’s still a great story.
It is A.J. Matthews’ story.
A.J. Matthews stands 7 feet and reportedly has a soft touch around the basket. I didn’t get to see it Monday on Day 4 of the NBA Summer League at Cox Pavilion, because Matthews broke former UNLV star Wink Adams’ summer league record for least playing time by a New York Knick.
A few years ago, when he was trying to catch on with a team in Istanbul, the Winkster played all of a minute in his professional debut. A.J. Matthews did not play at all in New York’s 84-71 loss to the Summer Bobcats of Charlotte.
That doesn’t make his story any less interesting.
A.J. Matthews grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, N.Y., in a public housing project. Then he moved to another housing project in nearby Williamsburg.
He attended the former Eli Whitney Vocational High School in Brooklyn, which became Van Arsdale High — not Van Arsdale as in Tom and Dick, the Indiana twins who starred in the NBA, but Van Arsdale as in Harry Van Arsdale Jr., who starred as the former head of the New York City Labor Council.
“Lots of metal detectors. Lots of fights,” Matthews said.
Now, just lots of boarded-up windows.
Van Arsdale closed in 2007, before anybody there could impress upon Matthews the importance of obtaining an SAT score. So that’s how he wound up attending all of those junior colleges, and why he couldn’t play at St. John’s and UMass, who at first were interested; or Kansas State and Oklahoma, who were even more interested as Matthews’ touch around the basket became even softer.
By then, he had committed to Fairleigh Dickinson. But he didn’t qualify there, either. And if you can’t qualify at Fairly Ridiculous, it’s not “Looks like the University of Illinois” as it was for Joel Goodson in “Risky Business,” and the other rich kids from the Chicago suburbs who hope to go to Princeton.
Matthews’ fallback plan was “Looks like Farmingdale State,” also known as SUNY at Farmingdale. That was the only school that would have him.
Farmingdale State plays in the Skyline Conference, among the likes of Mount Saint Mary and Mount Saint Vincent, The Sage Colleges (Albany and Russell), the Maccabees of Yeshiva University and New York Maritime, located in Throggs Neck, N.Y.
They know all about A.J. Matthews’ soft touch around the basket in Throggs Neck.
Had Matthews gotten into the game Monday, he probably would have been matched against Cody Zeller, the All-American from Indiana, which is a long way from Throggs Neck.
As for the part about Matthews being discovered by Jason Giambi’s former limo driver, it’s absolutely true.
While relaxing in the back seat the day his client signed a $120 million deal with the Yankees in 2001, noted sports agent Arn Tellem slid open the partition and struck up a conversation with the limo driver, a man named Chuck Davis, who told Tellem he considered himself a basketball bird-dog of sorts.
Business cards were exchanged after Davis pulled the limo into Yankee Stadium. Tellem, the story goes, told Chuck Davis that if he ever came across a prospect, he should call, not really meaning it, of course. Because Arn Tellem was pretty good at finding his own prospects.
Some 10 years later, Chuck Davis, the limo driver, came across A.J. Matthews hooping it up on the Juco circuit against future auto mechanics and short-order cooks and prison guards.
An old business card was found. A call was made.
“His son, Ryan Davis, plays basketball,” Matthews said. “We both played in the same area, the Queens-Brooklyn area. So I guess watching his son play basketball, he saw me play.”
So now A.J. is a pro, and perhaps the basketball fans in Istanbul soon will see him play, too, or the ones in Fort Wayne or Bakersfield or Sioux Falls or some other D-League outpost.
If he keeps improving, maybe A.J. Matthews will get a chance to sit on an NBA bench someday. Perhaps he’ll even throw one down, block a shot, contribute some valuable minutes. When it’s cold outside. When it counts in the standings.
Should that happen, perhaps Chuck Davis will be waiting in the parking lot in his limo, one of those stretch jobs, and he’ll have the motor running.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.