Matt Sayman says one of the worst things you can do in basketball is get open right when you’ve been subbed into a game. “When you first get into the game, you’re cold,” he says. He knows this firsthand because of what happened during his freshman year on the Baylor University men’s basketball team in 2000. The Baylor Bears were playing the University of Kansas, the sixth-ranked team in the nation, and the game was being broadcast nationally on ESPN. Baylor coach Dave Bliss shouted for Matt to go in and before he knew it, he was wide open behind the 3-point line with the ball. “I was so wide open that if I didn’t take the shot, I would’ve been in trouble,” he says. So he let it fly. Swish! The crowd went crazy and so did Matt. “You’re supposed to act really cool but I threw my hands over my head and went, ‘Wahoo!’” he says. “It was very childish and a few plays later I air-balled one and got subbed out.” For someone who’d accomplished all of his basketball goals by the age of 19, he knew better, but he couldn’t hold back his excitement about making a play on the big stage.
Matt grew up in Berwick, Pennsylvania, a small town with little else to do than go to church and play basketball, so that’s what he did. From the time he first played the game, he could outhustle everyone on the court despite not being a highly skilled player. His parents saw his grit and decided to help him grow as a player. This involved going to basketball camps, playing for multiple teams at a time, and most importantly, hard work. One Saturday morning when he was sleeping late, his mother swung open the bedroom door with a bang and said, “There’s this kid in Chicago. Already this morning, he’s been up for two hours working on his game. One day, you will meet him on the court, and when you do, he will beat you!” Moments like these fueled the fire in Matt to continue working on improving his game.
His YMCA coach Steve Yoder also had a big influence on him. He and Steve used to play a version of the common street basketball game Twenty-One. However, in coach Steve’s version, fouls were legal. So Matt learned to keep his cool even while taking cheap shots from coach Steve. This aggressive style of play toughened him to the point where he wasn’t afraid of contact on the court.
Matt had another significant coach in his life, John Szella. While Matt was in the seventh grade, coach John asked him a question most junior high school kids never consider: “What are your goals?” After thinking about it for some time, Matt came up with three: 1.) Make the A team as a freshman; 2.) Make the varsity team as a sophomore; and 3.) Get a scholarship to a Division 1 university.
As he began working toward his goals, his life took a wild turn. Coach Steve moved to Texas and was coaching at The Colony High School. He invited Matt to come down for a basketball camp the summer before his freshman year, and while Matt was visiting, the coaches told him he could achieve his goals if he played there. Matt was floored, and he convinced his family to move to Texas.
The coaches at The Colony were right; Matt quickly achieved his first two goals and by his senior year, he was ranked as one of the top 10 college basketball recruits in the state. That’s when recruiting letters from colleges began to pour in. While many of them were impersonal, one letter in particular caught his eye. It was a handwritten letter from Baylor University.
The sound of basketball shoes chirping on the brand-new floor in the Grapevine Faith Christian School gym is a familiar one for Matt. He’s been the school’s head coach for five years, and in 2016 the gym got a major update. “A water pipe busted in the back of the school and water gushed onto the gym floor,” he says. “I got to design the new court—it was great!”
There are two types of coaches, he says—transactional coaches and transformational coaches. He strives to be the latter for the boys in his basketball program. He wants his influence in their lives to go well beyond the game, and he hopes to build character in them, so they can avoid some of the pitfalls he experienced in his own life. “God’s faithfulness is something I find myself constantly teaching,” he says. “In my past, I’ve messed up so much that I thought God couldn’t possibly love or forgive me. Now I see His grace every day.”
The curriculum he teaches is called Living Without Regret. He encourages his students to stay and fight even when a situation looks dire, and he wants them to look for ways to go above and beyond in life. Late last year, preparing Operation Christmas Child boxes was a team activity, and to further help build character, he instills an attitude of gratitude in his students weekly on “Thankful Thursdays.” He also wants them to know that when they fail, there’s nothing they can do that God can’t repair.
When he looks back on his life on the court, he has no regret at all. He put everything he had into the game, but unfortunately life is bigger than basketball and the game doesn’t always love you back. “If basketball was good, I was good,” he says. “When basketball fell apart, I realized I had nothing. Even my relationship with God wasn’t what I thought it was.” Though his level of hard work and perseverance on the court bordered on heroic, he has many regrets about decisions he made in his personal life after his basketball career took an unfortunate turn at the worst possible time.
When Matt and his mother were visiting potential colleges, they arrived in Waco and were greeted by coach Dave Bliss, who himself gave them a tour of the Baylor University campus. This personal touch was unmatched by any other schools they’d visited. Matt’s mom noticed the Bible in the backseat of the coach’s car, and Matt fought back his excitement when coach Bliss offered him a full scholarship to Baylor and told him he planned to build the entire offense around his leadership as a point guard. They were both sold on the idea and within a few days Matt made his commitment to the university.
During his freshman year, none of his teammates could outwork him, and there was nothing the coaching staff could throw at him that he couldn’t handle. He was a model player. On the court, he would hustle and dive for every loose ball, no matter the numbers on the scoreboard. On the sideline, he shouted nonstop encouragement at his teammates. His positive attitude earned him playing time in every single game from his freshman through senior years.
At the end of his freshman year, coach Bliss asked him to drop 20 pounds from his 210-pound frame. “I need you faster and quicker,” he said. On the first day of sophomore year, Matt weighed in at exactly 190 pounds. Each season, Matt saw an improvement in himself. He was getting closer to realizing his dream of playing in the NCAA tournament. “My goal as a college player was to make ‘the dance,’” he says. “We were supposed to be really good—top 25 good.” That’s when tragedy struck.
On a Friday afternoon, just before his senior year, Matt received a phone call from one of his favorite professors. “He said, ‘Turn on the news,’” says Matt. “Everything started to unfold right in front of me.” Patrick Dennehy, one of the star players on the team, had been shot to death, and the murder suspect was another teammate, Carlton Dotson. In the following days, the news got worse. Coach Bliss had been illegally paying Patrick and several other players, and he had invented an elaborate narrative that Patrick got all of his tuition money from selling drugs. Investigations by the school and the NCAA confirmed that illegal payments were made and coach Bliss was forced to resign. For further punishment, the Baylor basketball team was barred from any post-season play. And just like that, Matt’s March Madness dreams were crushed. Most of his teammates opted to transfer to other schools, but that didn’t feel right to Matt. “I felt the urge to flee,” he says, “but I’m glad I decided to stay and fight with what was left of my team.” However, he did find a way to escape.
Matt took a pull from a Mike’s Hard Lemonade. He had never been much of a drinker before that, but the escape he experienced gave him a sense of control. “I told God, ‘We had a plan, and you’ve completely derailed it,’” says Matt. “‘So I’m going to take control.’” (It would be another decade before Matt realized he had never fully given God control of his life.) But the moment he made that declaration is when he started spinning out of control. A new head coach came in and Matt’s new alcohol-induced lifestyle made him lethargic on the court. Those pounds he had lost for coach Bliss were back. “I was heavy in my senior year,” he says. “That’s what happens when you’re living like that.”
He graduated, but a career in the NBA wasn’t an option. In fact, playing professional basketball had never been one of his goals. His dream ended with college ball. However, he was picked up by a professional team in Iceland and was quickly dropped for his behavior off the court. They gave him a nice salary and apartment, and he started throwing parties. “I’d had a really bad party at my place, and they told me not to do it again,” he says. “The next night we had an even bigger one.” The next morning, he was cut from the team and given a plane ticket to go home.
He began a career coaching high school basketball, and occasionally he attended church, but late Saturday nights alone with a 12-pack of beer kept him out of church most Sundays. He also began chronicling his story about his time at Baylor in a book called The Leftovers, however it sat on the shelf incomplete as his life continued on in a haze. A few years went by, along with a marriage, a child, a divorce, and a Driving While Intoxicated conviction. But on his 30th birthday, he had an epiphany. “I was sitting in my apartment with a six-pack—talk about a low point,” he says. “I thought, This isn’t how I imagined my life would go.” That was the last time he drank alcohol.
He began emailing a pastor at the church he attended, but his emails were filled with frustration. “I’m very upset. I have questions and I want answers,” he would write. Another pastor, Jana, corresponded with him and greeted him when he came in for a meeting. They chatted and hit it off while he waited. The meeting itself didn’t reveal anything groundbreaking for Matt. He grew up in church so a lot of what he heard was familiar. Yet, he began to see his life change over the next few days. He got Jana’s phone number and they began to talk. “That following week, we talked for 13 hours over the course of three days,” he says. “Through those conversations I realized that I had tried to control my life and it got me to a horrible place. That was my big moment of giving it all up to God, and Jana came alongside me and walked me through it.” Matt was a changed man. He began attending church regularly, volunteering, and tithing, and a year later he and Jana were married. He even finished his book and got it published. “How do I know what I believe is real? I can look at my life and see that I’m a way different person than I was before.”
In 2013, Matt was on his way to a job interview at Grapevine Faith Christian Academy. He and Jana had found a home at Gateway Church, and he was listening to a message from Pastor Tim Ross while driving. Before his interview, he contemplated what he would say when the inevitable questions about his past came up. Should he play up his time at Baylor and gloss over the nine-year stretch when his life had been a mess? Would a school like Grapevine Faith give a job to someone who had screwed up in their past? Just then, he heard Pastor Tim say, “We have to stop giving edited testimonies and start giving real testimonies because edited testimonies do nothing for anybody else.” Matt knew what to do. He went into the interview and told his story to the four interviewers. They happened to be pastors.
He had come a long way and had finally given control of his life to God. He didn’t know it, but the interviewers had read his book before the interview. Had he glossed over the truth, they would’ve seen right through him. “If I would’ve said, ‘I’ve never really been in big trouble,’ that wouldn’t have gone over well,” he says. “There’s a lot of freedom in not having any skeletons in your closet.”
Days later, Matt accepted their job offer and is now committed to helping transform his students into men who can face adversity head on, whether on the basketball court or in life in general. There are things Matt regrets, and it was difficult seeing his Baylor team make the NCAA tournament a few years after he graduated, but that’s all behind him now. “Since I’ve given up control, it’s amazing how God has worked in my life to open doors I never could’ve opened on my own,” he says. “I think I’m finally living the life He had planned for me all along.”
Matt Sayman tells his amazing underdog story in his book, The Leftovers: Basketball, Betrayal, Baylor and Beyond, available in the Gateway Bookstore.