Column: Matthews makes his millions, then returns to the gym

Part of what drives Wesley Matthews is an inner fire. One that has burned bright since the newly signed Portland Trail Blazers guard was a small child, when his mom pushed the 5-year-old to defend the best player on the court other than himself.

Part is the chip that Matthews openly acknowledges rests on his shoulder. It’s what happens when people who are supposed to believe in you don’t. When those who are paid to know, understand and grade the game of basketball fail at their job, and a promising four-year standout from Marquette is suddenly erased from the picture.

“If you’re going to doubt me, all right,” Matthews said. “Well, I’m going to take that. I appreciate it; I accept it; I understand where you’re coming from. Now, I’m going to go to the gym. And when I come back on the court, I’m going to give you my reasons.”

Matthews gave his reasons last season, earning a starting spot for Utah that translated into one of the best rookie seasons by any player who came out of the 2009 NBA Draft — the same draft the former Jazz guard was left out of.

Matthews said he endured too many sleepless nights after his evening of infamy, and asked too many questions that began with “What if?” But after spending countless days examining every option that an undrafted rookie can explore, Utah finally came through.

Matthews delivered. He averaged 9.8 points while shooting 48.3 percent from the floor during the regular season. And he increased his numbers in the playoffs, starting all 10 of the Jazz’s games and averaging 13.2 points and 4.4 rebounds. In addition, he mirrored his 5-year-old self, guarding NBA stars such as Denver’s Carmelo Anthony and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.

Next, Matthews traded his steadily rising stock for big money, a new team and a bigger name. Thirty-four million dollars for five years, and a yet-to-be-determined role in Blazers coach Nate McMillan’s grand plan.

But Matthews’ did not depend solely on his inner spark, nor on the boulder that rests on his shoulder as he made his Hollywood-like journey from Milwaukee, Wisc., to Salt Lake City to Portland.
What truly guided the well-spoken, confident 23-year-old was the unyielding idea that he could answer every doubter, every critic with a simple mantra: just play.

Matthews acknowledged that it is easy to get carried away with a you-versus-the-world mindset when the world temporarily lets you down.

“I feel like that’s when people pass you,” Matthews said. “This career’s too short. You’ve got to live in the moment. You’ve got to prepare yourself for the next day.”

So that’s just what Matthews did. For every 2009 draft pick who was making millions and reveling in new-found fame, there was Matthews: in the gym, getting out what he put in.

Even when news broke that Portland had made a front-loaded restricted free agent offer that would guarantee Matthews his own millions, the about-to-be-signed Blazers guard offered the same answer: back to the gym.

It’s how Matthews answers every question. How he makes sense of everything. And how he explains a life that has seen him rise, fall and rise again by an age that finds most people still navigating their way through the unpredictable uncertainty of their early 20s.

“God’s got a plan,” Matthews said. “Whatever happens is going to happen. I just accepted that and that way of life, and accepted that way of thinking. And it’s worked out for me.”

Now, Matthews is richer. Better known. And a season after not having his name called during draft night while 60 other players did, Matthews received his own main-stage press conference Wednesday in Portland, before a phalanx of television cameras, media members and eager Blazers fans.

But Matthews also understands that nothing’s changed — he’s still going to have to fight for everything he’s given.

The starting spot Matthews wants currently belongs to Portland small forward Nicolas Batum. Meanwhile, the minutes Matthews showed last season that he deserves are currently divided between a like-minded collection of first- and second-round draft picks.

So Matthews is going to have to prove everything over again. And while his fire will still burn and the chip will still remain, Matthews already knows what the real answer is: just play.

“More than starting, I want to be in in the fourth quarter,” Matthews said. “I want to be in when you need that stop. I want to be in when Brandon Roy has the ball in his hands and he gets trapped, double teamed, and needs to kick that ball out. I love that time.

He added: “I find it hard to believe that they paid me $(34) million dollars just for nothing. At the same time, I’m just really excited for this opportunity.”

Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or Read his Blazer Banter blog at Follow him on Twitter at

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