Beyond the Arc: The story behind the legend of Matt Thomas

There is a lot of intrigue around Matt Thomas entering his first NBA season. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada)
There is a lot of intrigue around Matt Thomas entering his first NBA season. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada)

In Onalaska, Wisconsin, a small town of 18,000 people on the banks of the Mississippi River where Friday night high school sports is what most people center their lives around, they still talk about the legend of Matt Thomas.

They still remember the fundraiser he attended in sixth grade, when a free throw competition broke out and he made 99 out of 100. Or the AAU tryout when elementary school kids were put through NBA-level 3-point shooting drills. Asked to make 15 3-pointers from five different spots in a minute and a half, Matt cleared the drill in 53 seconds.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

At the local YMCA, there are still reports of players swishing a game-clinching 3 and celebrating by yelling out Matt Thomas’s name, because he is the iconic sharpshooter who grew up there and led the Onalaska High School men’s basketball team to a 27-1 record and a Division II state championship in his junior season. They still remember when he scored a career-high 50 points in just two and a half quarters in his senior season.

Martha Thomas remembers that game like it was yesterday. She was sitting in the stands, watching her son make jumper after jumper. Two minutes into the game, Matt had 12 points. By halftime, everyone in the gym knew he was headed towards a career night. Head coach Craig Kowal found Martha in the stands at halftime. “I think your record is getting broken tonight,” Craig said.

Martha could only shake her head and laugh. Growing up, she played high school basketball at Wahlert High School in Dubuque, Iowa. Back then, the game was six-on-six basketball. Each team had three designated offensive players. The three defensive players could not cross the half court line. Martha once scored 48 points in a game, a family record that had held up for decades, until tonight.

Martha knew this day was inevitable. At the age of five, Matt was already running around in the backyard roleplaying as a future sports star. Martha scoured garage sales looking for anything her son could use as a costume. “If I found a blanket,” Martha says. “He would turn it into a cape.” In his backyard, Matt scored game-winning touchdowns, hit walk-off home runs and hit buzzer-beating 3s.

By the time he was eight, Matt left baseball and football behind and focused on basketball. Martha laid some concrete in the backyard so her son could have a proper basketball court to shoot hoops. Matt spent countless hours honing his jumper. By the time he turned nine, he had a request for his mom. He wanted to practise shooting 3s, but the court wasn’t big enough. So Martha brought the contractors back to lay down an additional three feet of cement so Matt could have a 3-point line.

The responsibility of managing Matt’s passion for basketball fell squarely on Martha’s shoulders. During Matt’s childhood, his father Greg — who dealt with alcohol and drug abuse issues — committed suicide at the age of 45. Tony, the eldest of the three siblings, was in seventh grade. Matt was in fifth grade. Josie was in second grade.

Martha felt alone, especially when it came to making decisions about her kids, but she knew it was important to make sure their life wasn’t interrupted. “You have three of them going in different directions,” Martha says. “And you wanted to keep life as normal as possible.” So Josie kept going to ballet classes, Tony wouldn’t miss any football practices, and Matt could continue traveling to different states for AAU games.

Martha always put her children first, in hopes they would have the best available path towards whatever they wanted to pursue. Now, inside the Onalaska High School gym against Tomah, Matt is making 3-pointers look like layups. Thirty five points. Forty points. Forty five. Forty six. Forty seven. “Take him out,” Martha yells jokingly. Craig looks at Martha in the stands again. This time, he can only shake his head and laugh. The record is really falling.

Matt finishes with 50 points on 21-for-30 shooting with six 3-pointers, leaving the game for good in the middle of the third quarter in a blowout win. Martha embraces her son afterwards but reminds him that back when she played, there wasn’t a 3-point line, so the record probably still technically belongs to mom.

“Keep working buddy,” she tells Matt.

***

The legend of The Iceman was born at Onalaska High School. (Courtesy Martha Thomas)
The legend of The Iceman was born at Onalaska High School. (Courtesy Martha Thomas)

Matt has taken his mom’s words to heart ever since that record-setting night. After a decorated high school career at Onalaska, he spent four years at Iowa State before playing overseas for two seasons in Spain. This summer, all of the hard work culminated in his first NBA contract when he agreed to a three-year, $4.2 million contract with the Toronto Raptors.

Aside from the fact he had a 99 percent effective field-goal percentage on wide-open shots last season with Valencia, Raptors fans know very little about their newest signee. Teammates and coaches have plenty of stories about Matt’s sharpshooting, but family and friends also remember stories that help fill in the blanks about his journey from high school star to NBA player.

Dustin Gordon met Matt in fourth grade. The two quickly became close friends. After Matt’s father passed away, the Onalaska community rallied around the Thomas family. Dustin’s dad Todd became a father figure to Matt. “He took him under his wing,” Martha says. “He did everything a father would do.” Sometimes, Dustin would ask Matt to hang out, only to find out he was already at his house.

The two were teammates on the high school basketball team. Dustin remembers Matt as a skinny, short freshman who didn’t lack in confidence, making a game-winning free throw on the road once which earned him the nickname The Iceman. He also remembers how Matt transformed into a physically imposing team leader in his junior season. Matt would always be the last person to leave the gym. After practices, he would challenge teammates to play one-on-one. Matt, a right-hander, would play left-handed to level the playing field. “He still beat me 10 games in a row,” Dustin says. “That’s when I was like, ‘okay, yeah, I get the hype.’”

The story Dustin wants to share about Matt doesn’t involve basketball at all. A month after winning the state championship, Matt was playing at an AAU tournament in Milwaukee. Just before tip-off, Martha received a call. Todd had gone missing while boating at his cabin. Authorities had begun searching for his body, fearing he had drowned. Martha watched the game with a heavy heart, and delivered the news to Matt afterwards.

The two left the tournament immediately and drove five hours to the cabin. They met Dustin and one of his family friends off the main highway nearby. “It was three in the morning and no one was around,” Martha says. “To watch those two boys just hug each other and cry, it was the most gut-wrenching thing ever.”

As the search for Todd continued, Matt remained with Dustin at the cabin. “I needed to be there for him,” Matt says. Over three weeks after he was reported missing, a private boater found Todd’s body near Rice Lake, not far from where he was believed to have fallen in the water. Todd was 50. At the funeral service, Matt sat next to Dustin and spent most of the summer by his side.

“There wasn’t much said between us,” Dustin says. “It was a mutual understanding. You’re 17 at the time and you don’t have a good grasp on life in general. Matt was very reassuring throughout. He forced me to go out and do stuff with him. He treated me like a normal person and just made sure I wasn’t laying around all day. He kept telling me everything was going to be alright. He stayed in my house and slept on the floor in the bedroom for weeks on end after everything happened.”

Today, the two remain close friends.

“Our friendship started with tragedy. But we’ve kept growing after that. Looking back, he was one of the biggest reasons why I was able to get through it. It’s something I’ll never be able to repay him for. You never have to ask Matt twice to do anything. He just goes above and beyond and puts his friends above himself. That’s a special quality not a lot of people have.”

***

Matt Thomas was always on the grind at Iowa State. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)
Matt Thomas was always on the grind at Iowa State. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)

When Matt’s father passed away, Tony, the eldest of three siblings in the household, felt a responsibility to support his mom. “I wanted my younger siblings to look at me as someone who was doing okay, as someone who could show them a kind of strength,” Tony says. “That was my role, to let them know it was going to be okay.”

Through the process of grieving and moving on, Tony also came to learn about his father’s substance abuse issues growing up. “My mom was very transparent in telling us about the problems he had,” Tony says. “It never affected us the way it did to our father, but we are his offspring and we have that same gene. It’s that crave, that potential for addiction.”

Before the start of Matt’s sophomore season at Iowa State, he was pulled over by police in Ames, Iowa, and arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. “Unfortunately, it’s a mistake a lot of people make in the Midwest,” Tony says. Matt spent the night in jail. The following morning, he called his mom to deliver the news. They both broke into tears over the phone.

The incident forced Tony and Matt to have serious conversations about their father’s passing. It was important to Tony that his brother didn’t just brush the incident aside. “When people experience this type of stuff, they can react to it in completely different ways,” Tony says. “You can shy away from the mistake, there’s a variety of things that can happen. Matt really took it head on.”

Matt reached out to Chris Herren, the former NBA player who has written and spoken at length about his own substance abuse issues. The two started texting regularly. Soon after the incident, Matt attended classes to learn about substance abuse and went to different high schools to share his own experiences with students. He quit drinking for a year after the arrest.

“I don’t think I was necessarily going down the wrong path,” Matt says. “But at the same time, it was a lesson I needed to learn and I used it as an opportunity to reprioritize what was important in my life.”

What was important was not letting his family and friends down again and also to continue his pursuit of playing professional basketball. The first two seasons at Iowa State was a major adjustment for Matt, who had gone from high school star to starting just 15 of 36 games in his freshman season. His scoring average went from 5.5 points to 4.9 points in his second season, when he came off the bench for all 32 games and averaged just 15.3 minutes per game, down from 21.2 in his freshman season.

Despite having the reputation of being one of the best shooters in the country, Matt knew he needed to improve on the other end of the court if he wanted to stay on the floor. Naz Mitrou-Long was a teammate at Iowa State and Matt’s roommate during his senior season. “He was getting knocked for his defense the first two years,” Naz says. “So between his sophomore and junior year, he took it upon himself everyday in the gym to get better.”

Matt spent more time in the weight room and sought out the strength coach to work on specific drills to improve his lateral movement. In his junior season, Matt worked his way back into the starting lineup and had his best season at Iowa State, averaging 11.0 points and 2.5 3s per game on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He also became a reliable player on defense. T.J. Olzelberger was an assistant coach at Iowa State. “He’s the guy we would put on the opposing team’s best perimeter player,” T.J. says.

Naz also noticed a more confident player on the court. “The confidence comes from the work,” Naz says. “He’s a perfectionist on and off the court. A big difference between pro and college guys is that pros have their routine down. Matt already had that in college.”

In his senior season, Matt made 89 3s, which tied for fifth-best in school history. His 254 career 3s is the third-most in history. He finished his career as a Cyclone as a 40.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc, the sixth-best percentage in school history.

Steve Prohm, head coach of Iowa State, believed then and still does now, that Matt will settle into an NBA role. “You look at guys like Steve Kerr or John Paxson,” Steve says. “Why can’t Matt Thomas be that at some point?”

***

Matt Thomas will get his first taste of the NBA after starring for Valencia last season. (Photo by Rodolfo Molina/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)
Matt Thomas will get his first taste of the NBA after starring for Valencia last season. (Photo by Rodolfo Molina/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

When Matt was a kid, he would be pretty troublesome at the dinner table. “Foods couldn’t touch, so he wouldn’t have casserole,” Martha says. “He could only eat three vegetables: carrots, broccoli and corn. And the corn had to be on the cob.” Flash forward to two years ago. Martha is in Valencia visiting her son, watching Matt speak fluent Spanish while ordering octopus omelettes for breakfast and paella with squid for dinner.

After four years at Iowa State, Matt entered the 2017 NBA draft and went undrafted. That summer, he helped the Lakers to a summer league championship before signing with Monbus Obradoioro of the Liga ACB league in Spain. “That was hard,” Martha says. “I knew I would miss him, and as a mom, you always worry. Now he’s in a different country speaking a different language.”

In Spain, Matt opened himself up to a brand new world of possibilities. He took private lessons to improve his Spanish. He became more adventurous with his food choices. His more daring move: coffee. “I was never a huge coffee drinker,” Matt says. “But I really embraced the European culture of drinking coffee. Some guys had three cups a day. I wouldn’t do that, but I definitely started drinking more coffee.”

When he had downtime, Matt flew to different countries, exploring Rome, Berlin and London. “As a kid from a small town in Wisconsin, we never had the ability to travel out of the country,” Matt says. “I never imagined myself being in that situation, to fulfill my dream of being a professional basketball player and getting to see the world.”

This past season, Matt switched over to another Liga ACB league team, Valencia Basket. He won the league’s 3-point shooting contest and averaged 12.1 points while shooting 48.1 percent from 3 and helped lead Valencia to a EuroCup championship. It earned him an opportunity with the Raptors, although Matt knows it will be a tough battle to earn a spot in the rotation.

“I understand that people are going to doubt me,” Matt says. “I need to prove that I belong and I can play at this level. I believe in what I can do and what I can bring to the table. It’s not a time to sit back and relax, like hey, I made it — that’s not my mindset. I’m going to continue to work everyday, continue to get better, and prove that I belong at this level. It’s a fun opportunity to start at the bottom again. I get to prove myself again.”

Martha, who still lives in the same house in Onalaska where Matt first started honing his 3-point shot, found out about the news while at work and couldn’t hold back tears of joy. The outpouring of congratulatory messages from the community has been overwhelming. Martha wishes Matt and Dustin’s father could be here to share the moment. “Both their dads would be so proud,” Martha says. “Matt’s dad is smiling down too. I would love to see his face watching Matt play. I would love to see Todd’s face hearing the news.”

Her three kids are now grown up and taking care of themselves. Josie plays for the women’s basketball team at the University of Dubuque. Matt just signed his first NBA contract. Tony will be joining Matt in Toronto for the next step of his basketball journey. To see how her kids have remained so close and supportive of each other is incredibly satisfying for Martha. “Seeing them now, it makes me feel like I did some things right along the way,” she says. “I think they would do anything for each other and anything for me.”

For Matt, who has fought through personal and professional adversity to get to this point, it’s hard sometimes to describe how appreciative he is of what his mom has done for the family.

“It’s incredible looking back,” Matt says. “I can’t even put into words how thankful I am for everything she’s done for me, my brother and my sister. The way she sacrificed any of her needs and always put us first. My mom is an incredible person, and I just hope one day I can be a father and a parent the way she was and be able to raise kids the way she was able to with us.”

More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports

What to Read Next