The phone call began like so many others Farmingdale State coach Erik Smiles has received before.
A man whom Smiles had never met called in May 2011 to gauge his interest in a pair of junior college prospects searching for a four-year school. One was the man's son. The other was his son's teammate.
"You get these calls a million times, so I didn't think much of it," Smiles said. "He's like, 'My son is a guard,' and I'm thinking, 'OK, a guard.' And then he says the other kid is a 7-footer. At that point, I almost rolled off my couch in shock. I'm like, 'Holy Jesus. You have a 7-footer?' At our level you just don't hear that."
Intrigued yet skeptical, Smiles invited the man and the two players to meet with him on campus the following morning. Then he spent the next hour scouring the web for any tidbits of information he could glean about his mystery visitors.
What he learned was 5-foot-10 Ryan Davis and 7-foot-1 AJ Matthews were teammates at Broward Community College in Florida during the 2010-11 season and originally planned to spend the next two years together at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Matthews averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds at Broward and drew interest from Cincinnati and Oklahoma State, which made him absurdly overqualified to play for a Division III program like Farmingdale that competed against teams whose tallest players were 6-foot-5.
When Chuck Davis brought his son and Matthews to meet with the Farmingdale coaches and tour the campus the next morning, Smiles asked why the two players had scrapped their plans to go to FDU. The elder Davis explained that both failed to qualify academically to play Division I or II basketball, so he was scrambling to help them find a Division III school near their New York homes with affordable tuition and space on its roster.
Smiles wasted little time offering the younger Davis and Matthews a spot on the team, but he still didn't fully grasp his good fortune until he saw them play in person for the first time in a summer-league game at the famed West 4th Street courts in Greenwich Village. It was then that Smiles realized Matthews wasn't some plodding, mechanical big man. He's an explosive athlete with soft touch, quick feet and baseline-to-baseline speed most guards can't match.
"About halfway through the game, I was like, 'Whoa, this is unreal,'" Smiles recalled. "AJ was the best player on the court by far. That's when I realized he was legit."
In the 18 months since Matthews chose to come to Farmingdale, he has only validated Smiles' first impression.
He earned NABC DIII All-American honors last season after averaging 22.4 points and 16.3 rebounds per game and shooting 61.4 percent from the field. He has solidified himself as early favorite for Division III Player of the Year so far this season, increasing his scoring average to 27.2 points per game while still contributing 15.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks.
Matthews' combination of production and potential has caught the attention of a handful of NBA franchises. Scouts from the Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers have arranged to watch Matthews play this month, a surreal experience for a little-known Long Island program and an unlikely opportunity for a kid far removed from college basketball's big stage.
"It's proof that scouts are going to find you no matter what school you're at," Matthews said. "I was worried that by coming to a Division III school I wasn't going to get the exposure I needed. I thought people would say he's playing against Division III kids. He's supposed to put up big numbers. But scouts are still coming to see me play and I appreciate them giving me the opportunity."
If an NBA team were to select Matthews in next June's draft, he'd join a small group of players who have gone from small-school oblivion to shaking hands with David Stern on draft day. Nine Division III players have previously played in the NBA, according to the league, with former Augsburg College forward Devean George probably enjoying the most success.
Division III schools rarely attract pro-caliber players since they're forbidden from offering athletic scholarships, yet the consensus among coaches who have watched Matthews play is he has the tools and upside to interest NBA scouts. FDU coach Greg Vetrone, who recruited Matthews and has followed his career at Farmingdale, admits the 215-pound senior needs to put on more muscle yet he raves about Matthews' shot blocking, free throw shooting and ability to run the floor.
"I scouted for the Los Angeles Clippers for two years, and a guy like AJ Matthews would be very, very intriguing," Vetrone said. "The things he does, you can't teach them.
"AJ Matthews would have gone to Fairleigh Dickinson, been a first-team all-conference player and elevated my team and this league immensely. He's that kind of talent. I'm not one of those guys who blows smoke. This kid is that good."
It's a testament to Matthews' perseverance that he's on the NBA's radar because his basketball journey has been strewn with obstacles.
Uninterested in team sports throughout most of his childhood, Matthews didn't play competitive basketball growing up even though he towered over his peers. Only after Van Arsdale High School coach Ron Peters spotted him shooting around in the gym one day and begged him to join the team did Matthews agree to play midway through his sophomore year.
"I had no post moves, I didn't know how to dribble, I didn't even know how to shoot the ball," Matthews recalled with a chuckle. "I just tried to dunk everything and to block a bunch of shots. I really didn't know anything."
The process of refining Matthews' game really began when he met Chuck and Ryan Davis during the first organized tournament he participated in the following summer. Ryan's AAU team was a couple players short that weekend so Matthews volunteered to fill in and quickly forged a strong friendship with both the older and younger Davis.
Chuck Davis gradually became a basketball mentor to Matthews, teaching him everything from fundamentals of the game, to footwork in the post, to how to use his left hand. They started every practice session jumping rope and running sprints, then progressed to ball handling and post-up drills before concluding with shooting and free-throw shooting.
"When I first started working with him, he was tall, raw and had no skills whatsoever," Chuck Davis recalled. "I put years of hard work into that young man. He got in the gym and I taught him how to play from his feet up. It was hard work every day, hour after hour. He'd say, 'Chuck, no more. Chuck, no more.' I'd say, 'We're going to go as long as we can.'"
The combination of Matthews' work with Davis and his natural size and athleticism caught the attention of college coaches at UMass, Rutgers and St. John's late in his senior season. Unfortunately for Matthews, those schools quickly stopped recruiting him when they realized he had no chance of qualifying academically.
Since Matthews had never really considered the possibility of playing college basketball until his senior year, he admits he didn't focus sufficiently on his schoolwork. It also didn't help that he and his parents were naive about college basketball, that Van Arsdale High School changed basketball coaches between his junior and senior year and that nobody bothered to explain to Matthews the NCAA required athletes to pass standardized tests and certain core classes to be eligible to play.
When a college coach asked Matthews about his SAT scores during the final month of his senior year, he says he didn't know how to answer.
"I didn't know anything about it," Matthews said. "I said, 'What's the SATs? I don't know what SAT is.' I went back to my guidance counselor and the principal and asked why nobody told me anything about this, but by that time it was too late."
When Matthews graduated from Van Arsdale and enrolled in prep school in 2007, his goal was to pass the core classes he hadn't taken and to achieve a qualifying SAT score so he could go Division I the following year. Instead, that year at American Christian Academy in Aston, Pa., was merely the beginning of a three-year odyssey in which he bounced between five schools, made decisions influenced by some unsavory handlers and too often allowed his grades to slip.
Unable to achieve a qualifying SAT score at American Christian, Matthews enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, one of the best junior college basketball programs in Florida. Poor grades prevented him from being able to play that year, so he left to take summer classes at Garden City Community College in Kansas.
Isolated and unhappy so far from home, Matthews left after a few months and returned home to New York. He played his freshman year at Monroe College, reconnected with the Davis family during that time and then joined Ryan at Broward Community College in Florida the following year.
Since Chuck Davis is a longtime friend of Vetrone, he recommended the FDU coach come watch his son and Matthews play. Vetrone saw Division I potential in Ryan Davis, but he was so blown away by Matthews that he returned home thinking he didn't have a chance to land the 7-footer at FDU because he was "a mid-to-high-major talent."
"A guy like AJ Matthews comes through the NEC about once every 10 years," Vetrone said. "I really mean that. Just from his defensive prowess, he was an impact player. He'd have changed games."
Much to Vetrone's surprise, both Matthews and Ryan Davis chose FDU in part due to the elder Davis' advice. Top programs like Oklahoma State and Cincinnati entered the picture after Matthews averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds at Broward and earned conference player of the year honors, but he remained loyal to Vetrone.
The only thing that prevented both the younger Davis and Matthews from enrolling at FDU was once again academics.
Ryan Davis had satisfactory grades but didn't made sufficient progress toward a major available at FDU to satisfy NCAA standards. And Matthews had fallen behind on his coursework yet again at Monroe and was unable to pass all the classes he needed his second semester at Broward in order to meet Division I or II eligibility requirements.
Vetrone describes telling Matthews he wouldn't be able to play at FDU as "one of the toughest things I've had to do in my career." Matthews said he cried throughout that conversation and pleaded with Vetrone to find some kind of loophole, but two years removed from the disappointment, the 7-footer admits he has nobody to blame but himself.
"Now that I'm older and more mature, I realize it was all on me," Matthews said. "It wasn't nobody's fault but my own I didn't do what I needed to do. I should have been more focused on my academics. I just was lazy. I was just focused on going Division I and I was forgetting that without the grades, I wouldn't be able to play basketball, period."
Unable to fulfill his dream of playing Division I basketball and unsure what to do next, Matthews again turned to the Davis family for help. Chuck called a handful of New York-area coaches in search of a Division III program for his son and Matthews to attend, which led them to discover Farmingdale State.
What Matthews has learned the past two years is the perks of playing at an 8,000-student Division III school on Long Island are a bit different than those at top Division I programs.
Instead of playing in front of sellout crowds at cavernous arenas, Farmingdale draws a few hundred people a night in a high school-sized gym. Instead of taking charter flights to road games, Farmingdale players cram into 18-year-old state-owned vans and fight over what station to put on the radio.
"I want 1010 WINS. They want Hot 97," Smiles joked. "Whole different world here, baby. Whole different world."
Nonetheless, it's a world that has benefited Matthews immensely. For the first time in his tumultuous basketball career, he has found a stable environment filled with people who have his best interest in mind.
He has benefited from steady coaching and instruction on the floor. He has maintained a 2.3 GPA and is on pace to graduate this year. And while he understands some NBA teams will be wary about whether his production will translate against tougher competition, he's hopeful a team will give him a chance.
If he hears his name called in the NBA draft this June or even merely receives an invitation to training camp, Matthews says he'll be overjoyed. If not, he has no problem playing overseas and taking a longer, more difficult path to the top of his sport, something he has already proven capable of doing.
"There are so many times I could have easily dropped out and went and got a job at Target," Matthews said. "I could have went back home and blamed it on my friends and family, but I picked my head up and said I was going to stick it out."
Quite often, it looked like Matthews' perseverance may not be rewarded. Now, he's on the verge of defying the odds.
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