Emmitt Matthews Jr. was, as he put it, through the roof with excitement.
Those countless hours spent on basketball courts perfecting his left-handed jumper and building his above-the-rim athleticism and it amounted to this moment – to be able take his basketball skills from Tacoma to UConn.
Wilson High School’s standout player announced Saturday that he has verbally committed to play at one of the most historically successful men’s basketball programs in the country at the University of Connecticut.
And amid all the joy in his decision, he couldn’t help but think of the person who inspired this all.
He was 8 years old when his brother, Oshai Phillips, died. Phillips was 14 and was severely disabled by cerebral palsy and scoliosis.
“Seeing him the day he passed away, I was like, ‘Man, I need to make it,’” Matthews said. “I was eight years old and I was like, ‘I got to make it, for him.’
“Everything I do is for him. He’s been an inspiration all my life in everything I’ve done.”
Matthews was at UConn on his official visit Saturday when he decided to commit, posing for photos with UConn coach Kevin Ollie, a former Seattle SuperSonics player, and former Huskies coach Jim Calhoun.
“This is all crazy,” said Matthews, a 6-foot-7 wing who will be a senior for Wilson this season. “Being from Tacoma, being able to stay in Tacoma my whole basketball career – that’s not something a lot of people can say.
“To be able to come here and have a chance to play – I’m through the roof. I can’t even explain it.”
UConn has won four national basketball championships, including most recently in 2014, and plays in the American Athletic Conference. Matthews chose the East Coast Huskies over offers from West Virginia, Georgetown, Boston College, LSU, Oregon State, Seton Hall, Washington, Washington State and Wichita State.
He had a recruiting buzz that hasn’t been seen in a Tacoma basketball player since Isaiah Thomas was at Curtis or Abdul Gaddy and Avery Bradley were at Bellarmine Prep.
The last time a player from the South Sound headed to UConn for basketball, it was Federal Way’s Donny Marshall, who became a three-year captain there, was selected to UConn’s All-Century team, and made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances with the New Jersey Nets.
So why does Matthews belong in this category?
“His athleticism is off the charts,” Wilson coach Dave Alwert said. “A 6-foot-7 kid who runs a 4.5 40 (yard dash) and then you add all the work he puts into the game. I’m just super proud of him.”
Matthews also has a reliable jump shot that extends well beyond the 3-point line. He averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds per game during the regular season this past year as Wilson reached the Tacoma Dome for the 3A state tournament. He was selected to The News Tribune’s All-Area team, and his commitment comes not long after his former Wilson teammate, David Jenkins Jr., committed to play at South Dakota State.
He traveled to UConn with his mom and dad. He called his brother, sister and grandpa just before announcing his decision on Twitter and he flies back to Tacoma on Sunday.
“My sister just started crying and it almost made me cry,” Matthews said. “It’s hard to make it out of Tacoma. And I want everybody to believe that they can do it, too. It doesn’t matter where you are from if you believe in yourself and have confidence in everything you do.”
Matthews’ recruiting buzz took off this offseason, playing for Carl Howell on the Washington Supreme AAU team. They played on the Under Armour circuit and Matthews for the second year was invited to play at the Under Armour All-American Camp from July 18-21 in Philadelphia.
Matthews’ AAU teammate, Timberline guard Erik Stevenson, committed to Wichita State this summer.
It’s not often a Tacoma kid has attracted such offers from the East Coast and sat in his house, talking over the phone with West Virginia coach Bob Huggins or Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing.
And though he told himself he had to make it after his brother’s death, Matthews never truly envisioned it would be like this.
“No, never,” he said. “I’m just trying to be humble throughout this whole process. It’s just a blessing. To go from one day getting a mid-major offer, to high majors and things starting to go crazy and then everybody on the East Coast – it’s just crazy.”
Phillips died a week before his eighth grade graduation, said he and Matthews’ mother, April. Phillips’ disabilities required 24-hour care, and he wasn’t able to walk or talk. He had been learning how to communicate through blinking.
“Our family was surrounded around him and it really changed the lives of our children because they saw a brother who was not able to do anything,” April said. “He had this wonderful mind that was stuck in a body that was not able to do these things, and now here God has blessed our child with all of these athletic abilities. And he doesn’t take them for granted. It’s kept him humble and quiet and doing what he needs to do.”
Matthews’ father, Emmitt Matthews Sr., grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey, and was a three-sport standout in high school and played football for a semester at Rutgers as a defensive back before joining the Army. His father was a command sergeant major in Vietnam and Emmitt Matthews Sr. said he was a staff sergeant and served in Operation Desert Storm.
He eventually landed at then-Fort Lewis and Emmitt Matthews Jr. was born in Tacoma.
“Emmitt is a tall guard and the game is going to tall guards,” said Emmitt Matthews Sr., who is also one of Wilson’s assistant basketball coaches. “I could have taken him anywhere, but the best thing for him to do was make his own legacy where he’s at at Wilson and it’s worked out perfect. It has worked out so right.”
Matthews was ranked No. 148 in the Rivals 2018 top 150 recruit rankings. The two players above him from Washington are USC commits Kevin Porter Jr. of Rainier Beach (38) and J’Raan Brooks of Garfield (72).
He also received advice throughout his recruiting process from some other Wilson products – NFL players Desmond Trufant and Xavier Cooper.
“When I got out here, I knew about UConn’s program, but I didn’t know what to expect,” Matthews said. “They really took me in and they really included my family in the recruiting process.
“The atmosphere here is just different. You can’t really explain it. This is what they’re known for out here and I wanted to be a part of this. Coach Ollie, Coach (Raphael) Chillious (a former UW basketball assistant), the whole coaching staff has people I can see myself around and are going to push me to get to the next level.”
Because, though this was a big step, Matthews doesn’t feel like he’s made it just yet.
“I’m not where I want to be at all,” Matthews said. “I’ll keep working and hopefully when I get out of here I’m going to turn up the level of intensity way up.
“You’re a product of your environment. I believe I went through the things I went through for a reason, and that is to get to where I am now and to get to where I still want to go.”
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