They say you never forget the spot where you fell in love, and Matthews Arena – which sits on St. Botolph Street on the campus of Northeastern, and straddles the divide between Boston’s trendy night spots and posh shopping jaunts of the rich and famous, the college world of opportunity, and the darker corners of the city where the real world gets REAL in a hurry – is where I fell in love with America East hoops.
It was during the 2002 conference tournament, held in a mostly empty Matthews. You could hear the echoes of leather slapping hardwood reverberate off of the empty, faded-red, plastic seats. You could smell the sweat in the damp corners of the arena, and hear the squeak of sneakers bounce off of the wrought-iron pillars and beams. Matthews is the oldest multipurpose sports arena in the world, and the oldest in all of college basketball (it’s been 101 years now), and back then (prior to the multimillion dollar renovation) it really looked it.
But man did it have character. I loved the obstructed view; loved the cracked and corroding, cobweb-gray walls. And I loved watching down from the upper-level overhang seating just below the rafters. I was 17 years old, a senior in high-school, and it was a rare moment for my father and my brother (four years my junior) to still hang out together as a family.
It remains one of my most vivid memories of spending time with my father, and one of the last things we ever did together as a family.
I had already become a follower of the America East by tournament time – after having grown up as a member of the UMass “Refuse to Lose” family during the John Calipari/Marcus Camby/Lou Roe years (my dad had played college ball at UMass), we migrated to Northeastern, BU and the America East after the Minutemen jumped the shark (and new head coach Bruiser Flint alienated many of the faithful alums).
But three big things happened on Sunday, March 3rd, 2002, that forever cemented my love of the America East (Perhaps I should preface it by saying that Austin Ganly had the dunk of the decade the day before against Maine, which piqued my interest, and foreshadowed the following day’s impact on my life):
- I saw Trevor Gaines play the final game of his college career. I will never forget that game.
To say that Gaines played with a heart the size of a basketball is a tremendous understatement: He was a center who stood 6’5 ½” in his sneakers. He relied on the best low-post moves I have ever seen in the league, and he relied on guts, guile and determination; on outworking and out-hustling his opponent every single night. As a senior, he was named First Team All-Conference, averaging 15.5 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting almost 56 percent from the floor.
Gaines’ 11 rebounds per game ranked 7th in the nation. His 4.79 offensive rebounds per game led the nation. Think about that: a 6’5” center led the nation in rebounding. That was Trevor in a nutshell: rebounding is, above all else, an effort statistic – simply fighting as hard as you can for positioning and willing yourself to the ball – and Trevor’s effort was second to none.
Gaines left everything he had on the Matthews Arena floorboards.
It has been well documented that Gaines was EVERYTHING to that UVM team – the heart and soul, the leader, emotional and spiritual center – and on what would be the last game in his career; he left EVERYTHING he had on the court. On the opening tip, Gaines found himself looking right into the chest of 7’ Maine center Justin Rowe, who’s 4.03 blocks per game led the league and ranked in the top 10 in the nation. It wouldn’t have mattered if Rowe was 11 feet tall; he wasn’t stopping Gaines that day. Gaines scored 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting and ripped down 12 rebounds. He could have scored 40 if Vermont kept feeding him the ball; he was relentless – all heart and determination.
Vermont was the top seed in the America East tournament and it was their destiny to go to the NCAA’s for the first time in school history. Gaines’ career was supposed to culminate under the bright lights of the NCAA’s; instead it ended in a dimly lit, mostly empty, archaic arena. Gaines was despondent – bawling his eyes out, he couldn’t even make it to the locker room. I had never before seen someone care so much about anything, and it left a lasting impression.
I would later learn from Catamount head coach Tom Brennan, and Vermont stars T.J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath, that an inconsolable Gaines repeated “It isn’t supposed to end like this,” long after the final buzzer had sounded on his career; words that would prove tragically prophetic later in his life.
- I saw Stijn Dhondt hit the “Matthews Miracle.”
I often here people talk about the “duality of life,” and immediately following Gaines gut-wrenching heart ache, came the feel-good story of the year: Dhondt, a forgotten man from a foreign land, hit the biggest (and most dramatic) shot in BU history, propelling the Terriers to the NCAA tournament.
Dhondt was – to say the least – a character. Born in Borem, Belgium, he spoke American-English like he was straight out of Compton. With Platinum-blond hair styled in a 90’s era fade, and biceps as big as my head, he was equal parts Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vanilla Ice, and a Euro-terrorist from the Die Hard Series (had to get ya, Stijn).
Dhondt came to BU by a combination of hard work, random chance, and complete luck: It was during a summer trip to the states that he earned a scholarship to play for Cuesta College, a tiny JuCo in California.
Despite no other DI or even DII offers, after one year at Cuesta, Dhondt caught the eye of then-Terriers head coach Dennis Wolff. During his 3 years on Comm. Ave (The NCAA made him sit out his first year, despite being a phenomenal student and more than academically qualified out of high school, and stripped him of a year of eligibility because of when he took the SATs), Dhondt emerged (like Gaines) as the Terriers’ hardest worker, and unquestioned team leader. Dhondt was the ultimate team-first player, who gladly took a backseat to teammates for the good of the team.
A workout warrior, he was a monster in the weight room, played every minute of every practice like it was his last, set brain-rattling, bone-breaking screens, played tenacious, lock-down defense, and was a hell of a towel-waver and champion for his teammates.
What he didn’t do, was set foot in the spotlight or score the ball much. After starting virtually every game as a junior, he took a spot as the 8th man in the rotation as a senior and never made a peep about it. Which brings us to Matthews, with eight-tenths of a second left and the score knotted at 60 apiece between the Terriers and the surging Hartford Hawks (who had all the momentum). Inbounding, with the length of the floor standing between them and overtime, they ran the ultimate Hail Mary.
Dhondt stood at the top of the key, his one responsibility: decapitate someone with a screen. Instead, the length of the court pass fell short and right into his hands. Dhondt leapt, ripped down the ball between three defenders, and in one motion, landed, turned, and banked in a 28-footer to win the game.
Everyone went bonkers – the Terriers, the pep band, the cheerleaders, fans and players from other teams, myself, my brother, and my father (and he never got excited at basketball games). Everyone except Dhondt, who calmly walked over to distraught Hartford wing Deon Saunders, pounded him on the chest, said something in his ear, and walked off.
Earlier in the season, Saunders had hit a buzzer beater against BU, and immediately charged Dhondt (one of the last people in the league you would charge), yelling “Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bucket,” and setting off an end of the game melee to end all melees.
What did Dhondt say to Saunders after his heroics in the biggest game of their lives up until that point?
“Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bucket, Baby!”
It was Dhondt being Dhondt, and it was all captured live on NESN (as was his on-court post-shot interview in which he dropped the S-Bomb live on TV).
Dhondt’s shot would be featured on SportsCenter’s Top Plays of the week, month and year. Dhondt would be featured on local news casts and Sports Radio, and his shot would propel the Terriers into the NCAA Tournament. It was the best kind of irony that it was Dhondt, the last player to ever seek the spotlight and the consummate teammate, to be the ultimate hero. It was karma in its purest form.
The heart, the effort, the humanity, of Dhondt and Gaines would stay with me long after that day. Interestingly enough, the two formed a friendship – born out of respect and admiration for each others work ethic on the court – that grew as they competed in the pro ranks overseas.
- The third event of March 3rd, 2002, was the day itself: I spent the day in the upper level of Matthews with my brother and my dad, watching Gaines heartbreak, Stijn’s elation, and all of the human condition that the America East tournament epitomizes: where the hopes and dreams of young men come to a heart-wrenching end without ever experiencing a second under the bright lights of mainstream college basketball.
When you’re 17, a lot of kids like to put on a front that they have outgrown the need to spend time with their family – chasing girls, high school parties, and the façade of being “grown” being primary smoke screens – and perhaps I was guilty of that. But I loved every second with my dad and my brother. I don’t have the words for the relationship I had with my father, but it was beyond a bond, beyond that of a parent and child.
A little over a year later my dad was riding his bike along the Minuteman Bike Path from Bedford to his work in Cambridge. As he crossed Bedford Street in Lexington, he was struck by a van. He never fully regained consciousness, never recovered and passed away a month and a half later.
I carry the memories of that day in Matthews with me always. Those memories, and my connection to my father, are why I became linked with the America East – as a way to hang on to him.
After my dad’s death, I spent the next 12 years following and covering the America East in one capacity or another – writing for small papers and websites, before launching my own, One-Bid Wonders, through which I got to know the America East conference more intimately than perhaps anyone else on earth. Those 12 years allowed me to stay connected to a small part of my dad, who I was before my life was ripped apart by tragedy, and the bond we shared.
It’s funny how things work out in life. On that one weekend in March my dad, my brother, Dhondt, Gaines, and I all crossed paths for brief moments. I would later become close friends with both Gaines and Dhondt. Not to be overly sentimental, but life is funny like that. Both of them helped me put life in perspective, both know more about myself and my dad than most people on this earth, and they never hesitated to lend an ear.
My brother and I drifted far apart after my fathers death – tragedy has that impact on people – he had once followed the America East as closely as I, but it had (apparently) become too painful a memory for him. A wall of anger and hostility grew between us that seemed impregnable and impossible to scale.
But slowly, over time, it began to come down, in small cracks and fragments at first, and larger chunks as time went on. It came tumbling down in its entirety in March of 2009 when my brother agreed to attend the America East Tournament in Albany with me – the league bringing us back together.
Gaines passed away in the summer of 2010 from a heart attack after a prolonged battle with kidney disease (amazingly, he continued to play professional basketball until the end – a basketball warrior in the truest sense).
Dhondt and I often talk about Gaines, my dad, our paths through life and how we all intersected that day. It’s safe to say that Matthews left its mark on us all. And it is for that reason that Matthews truly is hallowed ground for me. And – hopefully Northeastern fans won’t be too offended when I say that — while it was once the home to the Celtics and Bruins; was the venue for speeches by over a dozen presidents; was the home of the late, great, Reggie Lewis and the stomping grounds of a young JJ Barea; to me, Matthews Arena will always be about my dad, my brother, Trevor and Stijn, and those fleeting moments when our paths crossed.
As is the case with most things in life, my time covering the league came to an end after the 2014-2015 season – I suppose we’ve all got to grow up and move on with our lives at some point. I’m now an elementary school teacher and a father, and I don’t get to watch a ton of college basketball.
But no matter how far removed I am from the league, Matthews will always be a part of my heart. It’s a bit bittersweet, because of the memories of happiness, and the reality that things will never be the same again, but sweet nonetheless. And for a few brief moments, when I squint hard enough and blur my vision enough, it is almost as if no time has passed, and I am still in the arena, sitting beside my old man and my annoying younger brother, hoping that Trevor can gut out one last miracle, and waiting with bated-breathe for Stijn’s shot to drop.