Most nights DeAndre Mathieu, usually the smallest man on the basketball court, carries the biggest burden.
Before a game, in the locker room beneath the Williams Arena court, he’ll write “33” on the side of his sneakers, down by the sole. During every national anthem, he says a prayer.
“And, right before the game starts, I beat my heart three times,” said Mathieu, who is in his first season with the Gophers. “Then I go out and get after it.”
Mathieu plays for himself, for his team. And for the best friend he ever had.
He and Phillip “Tookie” Stanford grew up together in a tough Knoxville, Tenn., neighborhood, connected like brothers. They played basketball together. They were going to get out of Knoxville together. They had plans.
But that all changed Jan. 25, 2012, when Stanford, who lost his sister and father to gun violence and his mother to cancer, took his own life.
Ever since that day Mathieu has played every game both for himself and for Stanford.
“It’s pressure, but it’s good pressure,” he said. “It makes me play as hard as I can.”
Mathieu is listed at 5-9 by the Gophers. This could be generous. But he will insist, for the record, that he is actually 5-11. Of course, he says it with a smile.
On the court? Fearless. He plays like someone who has been told he can’t. Which, of course, has happened more than once by people seeing only his height. “The size thing is always on my mind,” he said. “Even though I don’t show it. It pushes me.”
So, not surprisingly, he is drawn to other players who wouldn’t let size be a factor in their game. Mathieu grew up a huge Allen Iverson fan. He had the braids and everything.
More recently, he has become a fan of Wolves guard J.J. Barea. “I loved it when he was in Dallas, beating the Lakers,” he said. “I don’t like the Lakers.”
Mathieu’s quickness makes him perfect for coach Richard Pitino’s trapping style, but it’s his toughness you notice most. That’s what allows him to go eye-to-chest with bigger guards every night, attacking the basket, setting up his teammates.
And that toughness came out of the tough Lonsdale neighborhood where he grew up.
Story of his life
Mathieu’s tattoos tell stories. On his right arm, above a basketball is the name Tonk, below it Tinky.
Alvin “Tonk” McKenzie was his mom’s cousin, caught in a drive-by shooting while playing basketball when Mathieu was a boy. Tinky was Jamodd Mack, a friend who was shot dead while committing a break-in in 2008.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” Mathieu said. “Got caught up with the wrong group of people.”
That he can recite this so matter-of-factly is striking. This was a tough place to grow up; the kids used a “get-down” drill any time they heard gunfire while playing ball. As in, hear shots, “Get down.”
And then, on Mathieu’s other arm, a shrine: a tattoo of a basketball jersey, the number 33 with Stanford’s name. Angels wings on the side, a halo on top.
Mathieu cannot remember when he and Stanford weren’t friends.
In 1996 Stanford’s 5-year-old sister, Brittany, was killed in a drive-by shooting, shot in the back. A year later Stanford lost his father, Phillip Sr., to another shooting. Three years after that his mother, Otoyia, succumbed to leukemia, and Stanford went to live with his aunt.
And then, in 2012, Mathieu lost his friend.
“It pushes me every day,” he said. “Nothing can be worse than losing your best friend. No matter what, no matter how things are, I keep going. Because nothing is worse than I’ve already been through.”
That Mathieu can tell his story is due mainly to his mother, Tracy Johnson, who raised him, his sister and twin brothers mainly by herself.
“I had three boys, a set of twins,” she said. “I refused to let them hang out with certain people. And I didn’t let them go outside and hang out and do all that different stuff. I admit, it was sometimes kind of hard on them.”
She wouldn’t let her kids out of the house after 9 p.m., turning her home into something of an oasis. Books, schoolwork. And, it seems Stanford practically lived there with them.
One time Stanford ran away from his aunt and came to Mathieu’s house. Shortly thereafter the aunt called the home.
“She said, ‘I know he’s there,’ ” Mathieu recalled. “ ‘I’m just going to bring him some clothes. You don’t have to tell him I know he’s there.’ It was like that. If he was running away from home, he was running to my house.”
But Stanford couldn’t run away from the pain. The two boys played together through middle school before choosing separate high schools. Still, they kept in touch.
After being named to several all-state teams as a senior, Mathieu received no Division I offers and chose to walk on at Morehead State while Stanford opted for a junior college. Not long afterward Stanford, struggling, came home.
On that day in January Mathieu remembers talking with Stanford in the morning, saying he’d call him later that day. But they never talked again.
Johnson remembers trying to keep the news from her son until she could get him home. “I knew how hard it was going to be for him,” she said. “This was his best friend. He called him his brother.”
Mathieu remembers the long drive back to Knoxville when he found out.
“I think about it every day,” he said.
Road to Minnesota
So how did he get from there to Minnesota?
Mathieu returned to finish his season at Morehead. But he decided to leave when he wasn’t offered a scholarship he felt he earned. So he went to Central Arizona College, averaging 17.1 points, 6.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds and being named a NJCAA first-team All-America. Frankly, he said, he wanted to get as far away as he could get.
But even in Arizona, there were problems.
Mathieu had kept texts he had exchanged with Stanford in the days preceding his death. He only recently let those go. At one point he got counseling. “The first few months, I used to dream every night he was there,” Mathieu said. “It was scary. It was eating me up.”
But with time, and with distance, Mathieu learned to cope.
After a very strong year in Arizona, sold on Pitino’s style, Mathieu moved north. And, so far, he has loved it.
“He made himself into one of the better points guards in the country,” Pitino said. “It just shows you how much character he has, how hard he worked.”
Starting at point guard, Mathieu has averaged 9.6 points, 5.6 assists, and one prayer per game.
“I just try to think about him, try to be the best I can be, try to be happy,” Mathieu said. “So, if he’s watching me, he’s happy, too.”