Iowa State's 6th man and the struggle of grief, love and basketball

Remember your first day of school when you were 11?

Sixth grade.

Every first school day seems the same. New outfit, new folder, new pencils and paper, and of course a new teacher.

Can you picture yours? What if your first day of sixth grade your mom pulls you out of school. When you get home your older brother and sister are with you sitting on the couch. There is a lady from the church there too.

Your mom is calm, she is a nurse and she doesn’t panic, but something is wrong.

It is your dad.

He is dead.

He killed himself.

You are angry. Angry at your father, angry at the booze, angry at whatever else besides the booze that led him to this dark place where he ended his own life. Your dad didn’t live with you, your parents had split, but you realize you won’t ever see him alive again. No more of him telling you about how great the Bears are, even in this Packers town. Your dad, is gone.

Your town picks you up. Both emotionally and figuratively. Friends’ families become your family and their dads take the place of your Pops. Your love for the gym grows and so does your body. You play golf to relax, to take your mind off of things, but hoops is where your heart is and you thrive.

Different families take you to practices, to help out in any way they can.

And your mom somehow made it to every game. Your dad is in your thoughts, but your mom is there in the stands.

You become extremely close with one family. The father treats you as his own, you travel with him to your games, you spend summer vacation at his lake house. Then before a big AAU event’s championship game you get word, he drowned. You rush to your friend’s side and you comfort him, but the truth is, once again you have lost another father figure.

You get recruited by a lot of schools and fall in love with Virginia. Its coach grew up in Wisconsin. He speaks your language and loves your game. But there is a closer school that seems like a better fit.

While Wisconsin keeps an eye on you, Iowa State has been all-in for a couple of years. Their assistant is from Wisconsin and he seems like another big brother, maybe even a father-figure type. You decide that is where you want to be. Their head coach is a midwestern legend, their assistant is your “guy,” and it is close to home.

Then, before you ever get to campus, that assistant who you connected with, the Wisconsin born-and-bred guy leaves Iowa State, and once again you are alone.

Now imagine being 19 years old in the summer after your freshman year. Your mom told you time and again to be "careful" of alcohol, because your dad’s problems can be genetic. But you tell yourself that EVERYONE drinks in Wisconsin and the same is true in college at Iowa State. Most guys, to you, seem to just find a way to drive home. Who is really going to know? Sure the managers gave you their number and they can take you home from any party, bar or even a girl’s house with just a call or text. But c’mon, you live down the street.

Red lights flash.

“I only had two beers,” you tell the officer.

Maybe he realizes you are an Iowa State ball player.

Nope.

Cuffed and stuffed, in the drunk tank.

Your buddy picks you up and you have to call home. You go to a diner to get a bite, but it feels like everyone is looking at you. They know, everyone knows -- you blew it.

Now you have to call your mom, the worst part of it all. Alone in your room you cry. The assistant who recruited you, he left before you ever played a minute at Iowa State. The head coach is a great guy, genius with a dry-erase board, but not a culture guy and though his own family is important, so is his privacy.

You feel alone…again.

Everywhere you go it feels like people know. Your dad was an alcoholic, you were charged with operating while intoxicated. All eyes are on you, accurate or not, and that is what you feel.

You quit drinking for a year. You see the err of your ways. You reinvest in basketball, in your family, in you.

You start to read. To unclutter your brain, to relax, to focus.

Your body starts to develop…you still feel embarrassed by the OWI, but you notice a change in yourself since that moment. You feel strong.

Your sophomore year starts and it is the same as your freshman year, but seemingly worse. Your coach was a shooter, but he can’t seem to figure out why you watch the ball and not the target on your shot. Everyone else is playing more and you have the same role.

Frustrated and disheartened, you think about leaving. You could go to a mid-major and get shots, put up 20 a night. Heck, Kyle Wiltjer is killing it at Gonzaga, think of what you could do at a level like that? Your coach is cool, but he may leave too, so maybe this is your last year here.

You isolate yourself at times, wondering why basketball isn’t as fun as it was when you scored 50 in three quarters in high school. Especially when your mom had scored 48 in her own heyday. Should you leave or should you stay? Then, you lose in your team’s first NCAA Tournament game.

Maybe this won’t work, maybe this isn’t meant to be, you think.

Then, the assistant who recruited you returns. Your head coach leaves. That assistant is up for the job. Though he doesn’t get the job, he stays on. You are his guy and he is yours.

The minutes are still about the same, but the fun has returned. Is it you growing up? Is it the intoxication of winning? Or is it the assistant coach who you trust, your new head coach who you like, and having two males in your life when all the rest left? Whatever this feeling is, you love it, you want to stay in this happy place. Basketball is fun again.

Matt Thomas (USATSI)
It hasn't been easy, but Matt Thomas is settling in at Iowa State. (USATSI)

When No. 4 Iowa State faces in-state rival Iowa at 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday at Hilton Coliseum, Matt Thomas will be the first Cyclone off the bench. When he comes in, expect the Hawkeye players to point to him as “Shooter!” Thomas is in fact an excellent shooter, but there is so much more to him than that.

He is more than a 6-foot-4 scorer who can heat it up in a hurry. On the outside, he a clean cut, wholesome picture of a Midwestern farmboy turned hooper, who can hang the net like former Iowa State player and coach Fred Hoiberg when given volumes of opportunities.

Thomas is an underrated defender, and like so many of his Cyclone teammates, he can guard multiple positions. Inside, he has gone from grief to triumph, shame to confidence along his ride.

His dad’s death comes and goes from his mind.

“I can see us shooting hoops,” Thomas said.

The grief is there, deep down it emerges at inopportune times.

When he watches someone hug their dad on NBA Draft night, or watches other people’s fathers meet their sons outside the locker room after games.

“Sometimes I just wish I had that,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ mom pushed him to basketball, and challenged him to succeed. Martha grew up in Dubuque, Iowa. She was one of 11 kids, and played six-on-six basketball at Dubuque's Wahlert High School, where she holds the single-game scoring record with 48 points. And she never let him forget it.

In Matt’s emotion-filled senior season at Onalaska High, where he played with a heavy heart as his buddy Dustin’s dad had drowned in Cedar Lake, Thomas dropped 50, in just 3 quarters, to top his mom’s household record.

“She said I played less defense than she did in 6 on 6,” Thomas told me.

The village that raised him included Mike Lee, who was his AAU coach with the Wisconsin Playmakers. Lee has always been a positive influence and sounding board, even when the tough times hit in college.

Thomas read “Basketball Junkie: A Memoir” by Chris Herren, the former Fresno State star who admitted to a heroin addiction in his book and speaks nationally about the dangers of drug use. When he met Herren, the former basketball star gave him insight into his dad’s addictions and helped him understand how he got to such a dark place. He has read “Mind Gym,” encouraged to do so by Lee, because “everyone works in the gym, but how many guys work on their mind every day.”

The OWI has become a positive in his life. Thomas and that assistant who left, only to return this year, T.J. Otzelberger, speak at schools about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

“I used to be ashamed of what I did, but I’m past that,” Thomas said. “I’m a good person who did something really stupid. If I can help kids see that while I look like something special in an Iowa State uniform, I’m just a human being who is trying to get better every day, then I can make this a positive. It was just so dumb, so humiliating to call my mom. I was crying because I was scared. Scared of what happened to my dad, scared of not being able to play basketball and just ashamed of what people would think.”

From reading to reuniting with Otzelberger, Thomas has regained his slightly shaken confidence and wants badly to beat Iowa, his mom’s favorite team growing up.

“Basketball is so much about confidence,” Thomas said. “And playing in a role in which sometimes the first time you touch the ball is the most open you will be and your job is to shoot it and make it, you need great confidence. I’m in a good place now. And if we can just keep everyone bought in on our common goal, I think we have something special here."

When you put yourself in Matt Thomas’ life for five minutes and see who he has become, you realize that he already has something special.

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