Emmitt Matthews Jr. has a saying: It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than basketball.
Matthews just finished shaking the hand of each of the opposing players, with his Wilson High School basketball team celebrating a league win at Spanaway Lake.
Then the other team’s point guard, Divante Moffitt approached him, Moffitt’s eyes filled with tears. Matthews hugged him and offered some encouraging words.
“Before the game we talked about how bad I wanted that game,” Moffitt said. “I gave 110 percent and fell a little short. I was very emotional after.
“But that’s what brothers do … they pick each other up. Win or lose he was by my side.”
And against Timberline in the Tacoma Dome, there was Matthews, high-fiving Timberline’s Erik Stevenson after getting his shot blocked, and he helped pick him up out of the seats instead of running down the court when Stevenson dove for a loose ball.
Kevin Porter Jr. is heading to USC next year out of Seattle’s Rainier Beach. But he was in Tacoma for just about every one of Matthews’ games this season to watch his friend play.
Matthews, the 6-foot-7 left-handed senior is The News Tribune’s 2017-18 All-Area player of the year because he can do it all on a basketball court. The UConn signee plays every position and was just as skilled of a passer and defender as he was electric – he threw the ball off the backboard to himself for a dunk one game and knocked down 3-pointers from well behind the arc.
Few players from Tacoma have modeled his skill set. Wilson coach Dave Alwert said he’s never seen an athlete with his gravitating personality, either.
“Emmitt is just an outgoing person,” Moffitt said. “Once you get him on your side, he’s literally down with you through thick and thin.
“I was hearing all this hype and chatter about Emmitt. Emmitt this and Emmitt that. So I had to see it for myself and he ended up with 23 points and 10 rebounds in a win over us. I had a good game, as well, but what got me is after the game he comes up to me and says, ‘Keep your head up, your future is so bright. Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t.’ You look at Emmitt, this 6-7, lanky dude and think maybe he’s stuck up and rude. But it’s literally the complete opposite.”
After Wilson played Spanaway Lake Alwert said that Matthews told his coach he was calling in a favor — that he needed Alwert to call as many college coaches as he could about Moffitt.
Matthews says his personality comes from his upbringing. His parents instilled that in him, but also his brother, Oshai Phillips.
He said he was 8 when Phillips died after battling cerebral palsy and scoliosis that left him severely disabled.
So he never takes his athleticism and abilities for granted. He sees Oshai’s name whenever he walks past the shelf his urn rests. His brother has been his inspiration.
“Every day I walk in to our house and I see his name on our shelf – it’s a big motivation for me to push myself,” Matthews said. “That’s my motivation, my push to keep going every day. I always think about that – it’s why I do what I do.”
And why he’ll take time for all those kids who flock to him after games.
“There was this little girl who has this big crush on him. She was crying after a game when he hugged her,” Matthews’ mother, April Phillips said. “It’s just – he’s inspiring these kids and he wants to be a good role model for them.
“I think so much of who he is comes from his brother. It changes the way you look at people and human beings. It comes from a different space in your heart.”
If there’s a knock on Matthews, some coaches have said it’s a lack of a killer instinct, that he’s too nice.
Matthews’ AAU coach, Carl Howell, a former assistant with Eastern Washington and head coach at Tacoma Community College, said Matthews’ big heart is his strength, not a weakness.
“As a coach, I’d way rather have an unselfish guy than a selfish one,” Howell said. “I’ll say that right now and every coach in America will tell you that. There’s nothing worse than a selfish player. You can’t win with them, you just can’t.
“So that’s no fault against Emmitt. No way. And here’s the thing – Emmitt is a sweetheart of a kid. He’s got a great heart and he’s a good guy. But on the basketball court, the sky is the limit for him, man. There is no ceiling for him. It’s going to be really exciting to see him keep playing.”
His father, Emmitt Matthews Sr., was asked about that killer instinct. He recalls what his son did to end the season.
Matthews learned he broke his right hand after Wilson’s district tournament finale, just before heading to state for the third consecutive season. And it came just as he was turning it up for the playoffs – scoring 40 points with 13 rebounds against Central Kitsap and 31 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks against Kelso.
Matthews was told by one Tacoma doctor his season was over and he’d need a cast.
But his father took him to UW Medical Center later in the week who said he could play, but they’d be taking a risk.
That’s all Matthews needed to hear.
“He could have been like, ‘I’m done, I’m going to UConn,’” said Matthews Sr., who was also one of Wilson’s assistant coaches. “Emmitt wanted to play and he did that for his teammates. If that doctor had told Emmitt he had to get a cast – oh my goodness. His door would have been shut to his room and I probably wouldn’t have been able to get him to eat anything.”
Limited by the injury and a brace on his right hand, Matthews still earned second-team all-tournament honors and a return trip to the 3A quarterfinals before losing to Rainier Beach.
Before that he had earned the 3A Pierce County league MVP, while averaging 22.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.3 blocks per game and the 3A senior state player of the year by the state coach’s association. Matthews finished his career with 1,614 career points and 744 rebounds.
He’s the first player from the South Sound to head to UConn, which has won four national championships. Matthews was discovered by former UW assistant coach Raphael Chillious and was offered during the AAU circuit while playing with Howell and Chris Spivey’s Washington Supreme, alongside Stevenson, Moffitt and others.
UConn’s head coach is former Seattle SuperSonics guard Kevin Ollie, who had Matthews even running some point guard when he joined the Huskies for some team scrimmages.
“Emmitt is a tremendous athlete, who can really run the court,” Ollie had said. “We want him to be able to play defense on four different positions. He’s a nice shooter who can make the 3 and also has outstanding skills as a facilitator – he can really pass the ball. He’s another versatile guy who can play multiple positions to add to our roster.”
Richland’s Riley Sorn, the 7-foot-3 center who earned this year’s 4A senior state player of the year was also on that AAU team.
“Oh, Emmitt is a lot of fun – there’s never really a dull moment with him,” Sorn said. He’s always telling stories and talking. He’s a really cool guy. It was fun walking around when we were in New York.”
But he had to bring up when Matthews had corn rows and wore a headband when they played in Atlanta.
“Oh, man – that was so bad,” Sorn laughed. “That was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. I think the whole team gave him crap about that, especially Erik, and he had a horrible tournament. But he got his hair back the next one and he was balling out again.”
It should probably be noted that Matthews returned the dreds against Enumclaw this season – and he scored a season-low eight points.
Matthews was actually planning to be a football player before basketball became his love. His father starred as a receiver and defensive back at Long Branch in New Jersey before playing for a semester at Rutgers.
Emmitt Matthews Sr. moved to Tacoma after being stationed at then-Fort Lewis, where Emmitt was born. At 5, he was doing football drills, and he played quarterback up until his freshman year at Wilson.
Wilson coach Dave Alwert can barely recognize the videos he has of freshman-year Emmitt on his phone, wowing with his athleticism in box-jump drills.
“That was when we really started knowing Emmitt was going to be the next one,” Alwert said. “I still remember his sophomore year when he really started to get aggressive and attacking the hoop – Coach Matthews would make him dunk it ever time he got it in practice. No more lay-ins. Dunk it every time. It just built his confidence to play above the rim.
“He’s just been a special kid. He’s such a delight to coach, especially the past two years where he’s become the bonafide leader. He takes on that role really well.”
He stayed loyal to Wilson and Wilson was loyal to him. And two years in a row he was representing his town, Tacoma, in the Dome – even if he had to do it with a broken hand. He ended as Wilson’s all-time leader in career wins (80).
“I knew I was going to end my career in the Tacoma Dome,” Matthews said. “I wasn’t going to end it in a regular high school gym. The best place to end it is in the Tacoma Dome.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
TNT ALL-AREA BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
A look back at some of the past few TNT players of the year
2017-18: Emmitt Matthews Jr., Wilson
2016-17: Roberto Gittens, Foss
2015-16: Malachi Flynn, Bellarmine Prep
2014-15: Viont’e Daniels, Federal Way
2013-14: Bogdan Bliznyuk, Todd Beamer
2012-13: Dezmyn Trent, Foss
2011-12: Ahmaad Rorie, Clover Park
2010-11: Gary Bell Jr., Kentridge
2009-10: Cole Dickerson, Federal Way
2008-09: Abdul Gaddy, Bellarmine Prep
2007-08: Abdul Gaddy, Bellarmine Prep
2006-07: Terrell Smith, Federal Way
2005-06: Isaiah Thomas, Curtis
2004-05: Brandon Moore, Bethel
2003-04: Rodney Stuckey, Kentwood
2002-03: Joey Henley, Kentridge
2001-02: Justin Holt, Lincoln
2000-01: Corey Belser, Bethel
1999-00: Curtis Allen, Wilson