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Reclaiming a lost season: E.C. Matthews returns to lead Rhode Island

A year ago, E.C. Matthews tore his ACL in Rhode Island's first game of the season. Now he's back with a new perspective and ready lead the Rams to the NCAA tournament.

KINGSTON, R.I. — On a Saturday in the middle of September, the Rams assembled in their locker room for what they thought would be their first fall practice. As they were sliding on shooting sleeves and wiggling into tights, a group of Navy SEALs burst in and screamed for them to form a line. They gave the players a packing list for a weekend away and ordered them to return in an hour. When the players reappeared at the arena, a van shuttled them to Alton Jones, a campus retreat site 20 miles away. Coach Dan Hurley planned the getaway to help his team bond, but more importantly, he wanted them to hear a message.

The coaching staff stripped the players of their cell phones at the gate and directed them to carry all the luggage and supplies to their cabins. After being subjected to military-style training during the day, the team recovered by playing volleyball, listening to guest speakers and sleeping in bunk beds at night. At the end of the second day, Hurley showed a video on a projector. It began with his introductory press conference, where he pledged progress for the program. Then it flashed through the four years of torment and triumph in his tenure.

Everyone would later agree that Year 4 was the hardest to endure. On the screen, E.C. Matthews, the Rams’ star guard, was carried off the court by teammates. Forward Hassan Martin writhed on the ground with a stress fracture in his right knee in what would be the last game of his season. A collage of calamitous headlines was captioned with Hurley’s message: “This year was taken from us.”

The video went silent. So did the room. After the music kicked back in and the ensuing highlights picked the players back up, Hurley stood in front of the team and told them they had been robbed, that last season was supposed to be the year they broke through to the Big Dance for the first time since 1999 but instead they ended up 17–15 and home for the weeks in March that matter most. “And what do we do when we get robbed?” Hurley asked. “You either call the police, or you take back what’s yours.”

Matthews sat in the front row and absorbed it all. Ten minutes into what he had hoped would be his final college season, he made a move to the basket and felt his right knee buckle. As he collapsed, so too did his plans—of resurrecting the program as he’d promised Hurley, of playing in the NCAA tournament, of becoming a first-round NBA draft pick. During his yearlong rehab, he had reflected, stripping his game down to the studs and rebuilding it, and ripping up his plans in order to start living for each moment. And now, in this one, as he heard Hurley’s message, he finally felt ready: It was time to take back what was his.

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When Matthews was 13, he settled on basketball after trying hockey, gymnastics, karate and swimming. His mother, Regina Townsend, knew hoops would be the sport to stick one summer day shortly after he had started playing. Matthews was outside with his friends Marcus and D.J. after lunch on a 90-degree day in Romulus, Mich., shooting hoops. After a couple of hours, they jumped in the pool to cool off, but Matthews kept shooting. When his friends dried off, they went to jump on the trampoline and invited Matthews, but he declined in favor of launching jumpers. Finally, they came back to the court and played with Matthews until suppertime. “I knew I would remember that day forever as I was looking out my kitchen window,” Townsend says. “He was just 13 and already so focused and so in love with basketball.”

For Matthews, basketball came easy—even if other things didn’t. At home, his mother raised him because his father left shortly after he was born. At school, he was bullied because of his first name, Elbert, and his big ears. Studying was a struggle. But on the court he found clarity of mind and purpose. “I would empty everything out through the net,” Matthews says.

In basketball, he found friends. In basketball, he found father figures, first in Romulus (Mich.) High coach Nate Oats and later in Hurley. In basketball, he forged an identity. He would wake without an alarm and warm up alone for an hour before 6 a.m. practices. In winter, he’d clear a patch of snow 15 feet from the hoop and practice free throws. “It was so bad, but I just had to play basketball,” Matthews says. “I would shoot the ball and it would go in and it wouldn’t bounce [because of the cold and snow] so I had to run and get it and run back. I wanted to play so bad, I did anything.”

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He didn’t get a driver’s license because he didn’t want to go anywhere other than school and its gym. He didn’t even go to prom despite the fact that by the time he was a senior and had switched his moniker to E.C., he was a popular star. Instead, he averaged 17.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists, led Romulus to its first state championship since 1986 and fielded offers from big-time colleges like Iowa, Arizona and USC.

He chose Rhode Island over those power-conference teams because of Hurley. Early in the recruiting process, Hurley identified Matthews as the player he’d need to rebuild the Rams around, and he pitched Matthews a plan: Become the A-10 freshman of the year, have a breakout sophomore season, lead the Rams to the NCAAs as a junior and then go pro. Hurley, who is the son of Hall of Fame high school coach Bob and the younger brother of Arizona State’s Bobby, is a relentless planner who scripts even off-season practices down to the second and will cancel them in minutes if players aren’t performing up to his standards. And with Matthews, the plan was playing out page-for-page.

In 2014, Matthews won A-10 rookie of the year. That summer, he impressed NBA scouts at Adidas Nations in Los Angeles, and as a sophomore he increased his scoring average from 14.3 to 16.9. The Rams improved from 14–18 to 23–10 and even earned an NIT bid for the first time since 2010. Matthews finished the season with 999 career points, and he was tempted to turn pro before his junior year, but he decided to continue following the path he and Hurley had mapped. “I blew up before I was ready,” Matthews says. “I coulda left. It came so fast, but I wasn’t ready. I knew I needed to stay in school.”

The summer after his sophomore season, he spent every night in the gym, putting up 500 shots each session trying to tweak his unorthodox motion—because he didn’t play much organized basketball before high school, he had a tendency to jump forward when he shot and to release the ball off the side of his hands. He hoped to improve his three-point percentage from 32.5% to keep defenders from slacking off of him. He and Martin, the star forward from his class, were selected to the conference’s preseason team, and A-10 coaches and media predicted the Rams would finish second in the league.'s 2016–17 college basketball season preview

But before he could get his 1,000th point, he heard the pop.

He thought the whole arena heard it too. The sound still rings in his memory like the recoil of a gun. From the time he hit the ground to the time the doctor diagnosed him, he can hardly remember what happened. He knows he slung his arms around teammates and hobbled to a table in the locker room. But the first thing he remembers is hearing his diagnosis and then borrowing his physician’s phone—in the confusion, he couldn’t find his own—to call his mom. When he heard her voice, he began to cry.

Regina was devastated to hear the news from her son, but gave him advice that became his mantra for the next year: “This can either be the worst thing that ever happened to you—or the best.”

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Before he tore his ACL, Matthews had only suffered one serious injury: In practice before a Jan. 7 game against Saint Louis his freshman year, he caught a teammate’s pass straight on his pinky. He thought he jammed it, but the swelling never subsided. He was so scared of doctors, though, that he hid it and refused to have it checked out until the summer. When he finally agreed to have surgery, he asked Regina to fly out and help him get through the day in the hospital. His pinky never fully healed—it’s permanently bent and he can’t form a normal fist.

The experience taught him to be more proactive in rehabbing his knee, but it didn’t make him any less afraid of anesthesia or the scalpel. Regina flew out again and sat with her son as they sedated him, using a soothing voice and telling him to focus on wiggling his toes rather than the nurses and needles. After the surgery, she stayed with him at a Hampton Inn near campus for a week, keeping track of his medicine and refilling his ice bag every few hours.

The first few days after she left were the hardest. He would lay alone in bed, his knee throbbing and his mind racing with unanswerable questions. But he learned to love the isolation and self-examination, and he even rediscovered a passion for reading, beginning with The Beautiful and the Damned, a collection of poems by R.M. Drake. Hassan Martin, his classmate and the Luigi to his Mario (they call themselves the Super Mario Bros), would bring him food and they’d talk for hours. For the two years before they suffered their injuries, their conversations had always been about the future. But now, with both of them limited by rehab, they began to limit their talks to the challenges of the day.

After a week, when Matthews had weaned himself off the Oxycontin, he found a photo of the moment his ACL tore and set it as his phone’s background: He pledged never to be that low again.

That determination made him focus on even the most mind-numbing moments of his rehab. When he sat in bed with the CPM (Continuous Passive Motion) machine that bent his knee back and forth slowly, he refused to watch TV or play with his phone—he just stared at his bowling ball-sized kneecap as it bobbed. Each morning, he spent two or three hours in the pool or on the treadmill, learning how to walk and run again; and each night he matched that time doing stationary ballhandling drills and eventually shooting free throws.

The Rams struggled without him, losing five games in nonconference play and going .500 in the A-10. “This guy started this whole thing for us,” Hurley says. “This was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced on a basketball court, and it just put a dark cloud over the team that we couldn’t run away from.”

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Hurley invited Matthews to coaches-only film sessions and parked him behind his staff at home games so he could grow his hoops. In practices, Matthews—who had been quiet most of his career—would yell instructions to teammates from the sideline. In the weight room, he’d pick a playlist and pepper teammates with encouraging comments. “If I turned around, I’d bump into him,” Hurley says. “He was like s--- on a shoe.”

Most important, Matthews learned to embrace imperfection. During his first two seasons, he would find the worst aspect of each game and replay it in his mind relentlessly. Now he had no choice but to accept each shortcoming and learn from it. Along the way, he discovered that failure is a far greater teacher than success. He tightened his handle to reduce his turnover rate; he corrected his mechanics to improve his three-point percentage; and he gained muscle—as well as a new level of commitment to the game—that could help him become a vastly improved defender.

“You can plan and plan and plan and hope things come true, but life doesn’t always work that way,” Matthews says. “I’ve finally seen that by going through this. This time around, it’s just about working my a-- off every day, which I’m doing. I’m living the moment. I’m enjoying every day at this school, every game at Rhode Island. Whatever is going to happen in the future, it’ll be different than I can imagine, and I believe it’ll be better.”

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In early October, at the Rams’ sixth practice for the season, Matthews spreads out on the sideline of the raised court at Rhode Island’s Ryan Center and buckles his knee brace so tightly his legging ripples. He is fully cleared to practice and participates in every drill except for the sprints the team runs as punishment for poor play. Instead, as they run away, he drops to the court for push-ups, and as they return, he flips to his back and does sit-ups. His knee is sore from practice the day before, and he considers himself 85% ready for the season, which begins at home, against Dartmouth, on Nov. 11.

“He is getting the rust off his game, but it’s great that he’s going through this,” Hurley says. “He used to be a perfectionist, but now he understands that his best is good enough, and he doesn’t have to be perfect. This rust would have destroyed him before. The perfectionist in him is hanging on for dear life.”

When Hurley transitions the team from drills to five-on-five, Matthews suddenly seems sharper and more sure of himself. On an early offensive possession, he receives the ball on the right wing, jabs with his right foot, flips the ball behind his back and cuts left, pivots in the paint, leaps for a layup and releases the ball on the way back down for a bucket. On his next trip down the court, he bounds straight into the paint and attacks the rim, crashing hard onto the court and sliding onto the bare concrete floor. Players follow the ball back in transition, but a few coaches turn and cringe, the hoop obstructing their view of their fallen star.

Andrew Hurley, the coach’s son, is standing at the baseline and offers Matthews a hand, but Rhode Island’s leading man leaps back up and chases the fast break to the other end of the court. The scrimmage screeches to a halt after the made basket, and Matthews grimaces. But he isn’t upset about his knee—he’ll say later that the fall didn’t hurt at all. He is only mad because he missed a play. After everything he’s endured, he knows exactly how precious each possession is.