- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Wesley Matthews is used to the questions, which isn't to say he's comfortable with them, but simply to say he's learned to understand they come with the territory of being named after a former NBA player everyone wants to ask him about but one he hardly knew growing up.
He knew the questions would once again come up last week when the Utah Jazz beat the Denver Nuggets to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. After all, Matthews' dad, Wes, played in the NBA from 1980-89, winning back-to-back championship with the Lakers in 1987 and 1988. This should have been a story about a father raising his son to be a basketball player just like him and watching his child grow up and take on his former team in the playoffs.
Maybe in a perfect world that would have been the angle, but as Matthews found out growing up, life isn't perfect and there was no problem with that as long as he had his mom, Pam Moore, by his side.
Matthews' memory of the "Showtime" Lakers is as faint as his childhood recollections of his father. He wasn't even 2 years old when his dad won his second championship ring as Magic Johnson's scrawny 6-1 backup point guard. He was barely 3 when his parents separated in 1989 and his dad left to play basketball in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and the Philippines for the next eight years, leaving Moore to raise Wesley by herself.
Matthews, 23, never knew where his father was, let alone what obscure overseas club he was playing on while he was growing up in Madison, Wis. He didn't pick up a basketball and start playing to be like his father, he did it to be like his mother.
Moore was a standout basketball player, scoring 50 points and grabbing 50 rebounds in a game at Madison Memorial High School (Wesley still wants to see footage of the game before he believes it) and later attending the University of Wisconsin, where she was the team's leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman in 1977-78. Moore, who met Matthews while at Wisconsin, quit basketball after her freshman year to focus on track. She was an All-American 400-meter runner, and recently she was inducted into Wisconsin's Hall of Fame.
Basketball, however, was still Moore's favorite sport and she would always find time to play basketball with her son with the hoop she had set up outside their home. They would play one-on-one and run through drills but Moore wouldn't simply pat her son on the back like other mothers, she would also play the role of the father who wasn't there and played physical with him as well.
"The biggest thing I always tried to do was play tough with him," Moore said. "I just wanted him to be more physical and because obviously I was bigger and he was smaller I would push him around a bit. I wanted him to be able to stand up for himself."
Matthews was around his mother so much growing up, the kids at school would often tease him and call him a "mama's boy," a name he despised but has learned to embrace. In fact, he's embraced it so much he got a tattoo on his left biceps when he turned 18 which reads, "Dynamic Duo" in cursive over a basketball with his initials, "WM," and her initials, "PM," above and below their nickname.
"I was always with my mom," Matthews said. "I'm not knocking [my father] but dad was never around. I was always with my mom so in the school yard, kids would call me, "mama's boy, mama's boy" and I took offense to it. I got into a couple scuffles because of it, but she's the reason I'm here."
As much as people want to tie his success in some way to his father's, Matthews is always quick to correct anyone who wants to write the story of an NBA player's son who followed the footsteps of his father. It's not that he holds a grudge against his dad, with whom he has started to build a relationship in recent years, but such a fairy tale would be a lie and ignore the real reason he's in the NBA.
"Growing up in the same state and city where he went to college and having the same name, everyone assumed he was the reason I played," Matthews said. "It didn't hurt the fact that he wasn't really around but that everyone was asking, 'What does your dad say, how is your dad helping you, how's your dad, how's your dad, how's your dad?' I'm like, 'You know what? It's my mom.' I took pride in that. My mom did everything. She laid it all on the line. I just hate it when she didn't get the credit she deserved."
Anyone who watched Matthews play basketball in grade school or high school didn't need to be reminded who was behind his success. Moore could always be seen and heard at every one of his games, yelling instructions to her son on the court.
"I always did coach him from the sideline," said Moore, laughing as she thinks back. "Even though I allowed other people to coach him ,I still coached him from the sidelines and he still did what I told him to do versus what his coaches told him to do at the lower levels. I did allow his college coaches to coach."
The transition from coach in the stands to fan in the stands wasn't an easy one for Moore but Matthews sat down and talked with his mom before left for Marquette to play under Tom Crean, who had coached Dwyane Wade and the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003.
"We both have strong personalities," said Matthews. "She's opinionated and I'm stubborn, so we're going to butt heads. She sends me texts and breaks down my game sometimes, but I told her before I went to college that she had to change. When I was in high school she would be standing up screaming, telling me where to be and what to do, and I'm like, 'Yo, mom, let me play.' So when I got to college, I told her, 'I need you to be a fan. I need you to be a mom and a fan; I don't need you to be a coach. These guys get paid millions of dollars to coach so let them do their job.'"
For most talented players, draft night is the moment where they can momentarily bask in the glow of their dreams coming true. They put on the hat of their new team, hug their mother and promise them the riches they deserve. Such a storybook scenario has never been a part of Matthew's script.
Matthews had done everything in his power to be one of the 60 players selected in the NBA Draft last year. He starred at Madison Memorial High School, being named Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin in 2005, and was a four-year starter at Marquette, where he averaged 18.6 points as a senior and was named second-team All-Big East.
None of that, however, mattered on draft day as he was passed over time after time and went undrafted. Matthews spent the "the worst night of my life" training and playing basketball at his old high school while his mother and small group of family and friends watched the agonizing process unfold on TV.
"I didn't even watch it," said Matthews, who was making plans to play overseas. "I had my phone on and if something was going to happen my agent was going to call me. It got late, late, late, late, late and I'm like, 'OK, this isn't going to happen.' So I drove home and my agent called me and told me we were going to the summer league with Utah. It was a rough night. My grandma said I had until midnight to be mad about it and then move on to the next thing."
Instead of signing a contract and getting his NBA career started, Matthews hit the road, first to the summer league in Las Vegas with the Sacramento Kings and then to the summer league in Orlando with the Utah Jazz. Moore traveled to Las Vegas to watch Matthews play but was unable to go to Orlando yet watched every game on her computer.
"I needed to gauge it myself," she said. "If anyone was going to tell my son he wasn't good enough or he needed this or needed that, I couldn't depend on secondhand knowledge. I needed to witness it myself and be my own judge. I thought it was always important that I be there. I needed to know what these coaches were saying. I needed to know what feedback they were giving so I would know whether I agreed or disagreed."
Matthews, who averaged 6.2 points for the Jazz in Orlando, eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Utah, who he thought would draft him in the second round before the team took Goran Suton, the Michigan State center who would later be waived in training camp.
Injuries in training camp to perimeter players C.J. Miles and Kyle Korver thrust Matthews into the starting lineup Nov. 13 in Philadelphia, and he responded by scoring 16 points. He would go on to start 19 straight games before Jazz coach Jerry Sloan moved Ronnie Brewer to shooting guard and inserted Andrei Kirilenko at small forward. By Feb. 18, Matthews had become such a fixture in the lineup the team felt comfortable enough to trade Brewer to Memphis. Matthews finished the season as one of only two Jazz players to play in every game and started 48 games, more games than his dad ever started in a season, while averaging 9.4 points, which is better than his father's career average of 7.9.
"Only God could write a story like this," Matthews said. "Only he could make a path this way, and I'm just trying not to mess it up. This time last year I was training in D.C. for the draft workouts and I was watching the Jazz play the Lakers in the first round, and now to be a part of it, I can't even put it into words."
Moore, an insurance underwriter in Madison, has been to about a dozen games this season, making it a point to attend all of Matthews' firsts during his young career -- his first game, his first start, his first playoff game -- but watches most of the games from the new 60-inch screen in her home which is hooked up to NBA League Pass.
She sends Matthews the same text ("Good luck sweetie") before every game, which he usually gets while on the team bus, and another text ("Awesome game" after a win or "Tough game, you'll get the next one" after a loss) that's usually waiting for him in the locker room when he gets back. She still has to contain herself from saying or writing more, knowing her son is in good hands with Sloan.
"I've really tried to learn not to critique his performance," she said. "He's beyond me now. He's beyond my coaching. Early on I may have added a few more tips but I really wanted to get to a point where I wasn't putting any additional pressure on him. Wesley reads into everything that I say. He can even look at me and tell if something is wrong. I have to be careful with the way I look in the stands because if he sees any sense of stress on my part or anything I'm not approving, he'll get bent out of shape about it. So I have to be careful my body language doesn't reflect anything negative to him."
Matthews laughs when he thinks about his mother's texts now in comparison to the constant coaching he heard from the stands growing up. He sometimes has to call her and remind her that it's OK to be herself. If he can handle the likes of Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs, he can still take her criticism -- in moderation, of course.
"We text a lot," he said. "Sometimes I got to call her and say, 'Mom, you can't keep texting me all the time. You have to let me hear your voice. She's been doing good. I'm proud of her. She hasn't been blowing me up and all that kind of stuff."
As Matthews sits down after a recent Jazz practice and touches his tattoo, he laughs when he thinks back to his childhood and being called a mama's boy. The way he looks at it now, those kids in the schoolyard were right, he was and still is a mama's boy, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.
"We've been through a lot," Matthews said. "She sacrificed everything. She had a promising athletic career and she came up short because of me; I was born. She was a single parent who worked three jobs to provide me with stuff I didn't even need. One job would have been fine for me to have shelter, food and clothing, but she went above and beyond. We were always close, always tight. She did her best to play both mother and father."
Watching Matthews go up against Bryant and the Lakers in the playoffs is a surreal sight for Moore, who still sees the little boy she played one-on-one with in their front yard when the 6-5, 220-pound starting shooting guard of the Jazz is introduced. No matter what he does, No. 23 will always be her baby boy.
"Wesley is my heart and soul and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him," she said. "All of the struggles we've gone through and doing it together by ourselves made us very close. He's the joy of my life. Wesley makes me a better person. He makes me see the good even when I don't see the good. He's my inspiration. As he's come to mature I think he's realized being a mama's boy isn't a bad thing to be."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com
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