When former University of New Orleans forward Cory Dixon's mother, stepfather and two younger siblings died in a car accident Friday night, Privateers coach Mark Slessinger immediately booked a flight to Dallas to support his ex-player.
By the time Slessinger returned home, his program had received more tragic news.
Ex-UNO forward Matt Derenbecker, who also previously played for LSU and Dayton, was found dead Sunday morning in Ponchatoula, La.
Derenbecker's family became concerned when he didn't pick his girlfriend up from Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, his father John told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. When they went to check on him at the house at which he was staying in Ponchatoula, they found the 22-year-old dead in the pool.
"I'm in shock and disbelief," Slessinger said Monday. "When he transferred to us, we built a really good relationship almost immediately. He's one of my favorite kids I've coached. He had a very quick wit and a quick, dry sense of humor. That was really in my wheelhouse. We really had the same sense of what was funny. He had a great smile, an engaging personality and an ability to make people feel very comfortable around him."
The heartbreaking news of Derenbecker's death struck his former teammates and coaches hard. They'll remember him for his sense of humor, charisma and competitiveness on the basketball floor.
"I can't believe this," former Dayton co-captain Devin Oliver tweeted. "RIP to Matt Derenbecker. One of my closest friends. I can't stop crying. He was a brother to me. He was my teammate but first and foremost he was my friend, my brother. I went through more with him than anyone else did. I'm hurting. I went through so much with that kid man, the highs and the lows, good and bad. I feel like puking. Of course I'm [about] to get on a plane for 8 hours. I'm sick."
A top 100 recruit and two-time Louisiana player of the year at Country Day High School, Derenbecker signed with LSU and started 16 games as a freshman, averaging 6.5 points and 2.1 rebounds. Nonetheless, he opted to transfer to Dayton the following summer, telling the Baton Rouge Advocate he had "so many distractions" playing close to home and he "wasn't mature enough to handle it."
"I realized from a basketball standpoint that, with the system they ran, I didn’t see myself excelling," he added. "I thought, if I wanted to further my basketball career, I needed to make a change.”
Derenbecker averaged 4.5 points and 1.1 rebounds off the bench in his lone season at Dayton before electing to transfer back closer to home to UNO last year. He tallied 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and scored 16 points at Michigan State last December, but in January, he left the basketball team because of undisclosed medical reasons.
For Slessinger, the most special memories of Derenbecker won't be any of the baskets he made or boards he secured during games.
"I enjoyed practices with him more than I enjoyed the games," Slessinger said. "He really competed just as hard during drills and skill work as he did during games. He was a lot of fun to coach and I'm grateful I got a chance to coach him."
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