Jim Souhan: Enter hoops; exit hurt

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2007 - 10:56 PM

A Brooklyn Park sixth-grader and a Wolves assistant GM shared heart health issues, but passion for basketball, not pain, consumed the moments when their paths crossed.

Matthew Gamber has endured numerous medical procedures to fight serious health issues, but his love for hoops has not suffered a bit. The 12-year-old proudly displayed a basketball autographed by Kevin Garnett and other players.

Anyone taking their eyes off the Target Center court one day last winter might have spotted two basketball junkies in the expensive seats, talking with their hands, rating players, comparing ambitions and ailments.

The man wore the mien and wardrobe of an executive. The boy wearing the Timberwolves jersey could have been his son, but this wasn't just another night of male bonding.

The man was Timberwolves assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg, who was forced to retire from the NBA because of a heart condition. The boy was Matthew Gamber, 12, a sixth-grader from Brooklyn Park who has clung to life since being born with a variety of life-threatening illnesses, including a growth around his heart. A network of mutual friends brought them together, leading to a few of the best days of Gamber's life.

For all of the corruption in big-time athletics, you don't have to look far to find someone as giving as Hoiberg, or as buoyed by sports as Gamber. The night he spent next to Hoiberg in the stands gave them a chance to talk about the intricacies of basketball and the fragility of life.

"But all Matthew wants to talk about is basketball," Hoiberg said. "I think when anybody has something involving their heart, you do create a bond with that person. What he's gone through is a lot tougher than what I had to go through.

"He's had 100 surgeries already. I had one, at 32 years of age. He's just a kid. If we can bring him to a game like this and put a smile on his face, that's the important thing."

Gamber's family and support system at Monroe Elementary in Brooklyn Park, where this story started, would agree.

"There are really two heroes here," said Gregg Scherer, a teacher at Monroe and usher at Wolves games who helped bring everyone together. "Fred is someone for Matthew to look up to, but Matthew is someone Fred can look up to, too.

"This is a miracle child."

A fragile beginning

When Gamber was born, doctors questioned whether he'd ever be able to sit up, speak or walk, much less become an aspiring athlete and devoted sports fan.

When he was 3 days old, Matthew stopped breathing. Pediatricians at Fairview-University Medical Center saved him and diagnosed his condition as a rare inborn metabolic disorder known as ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency.

Gamber is a rare survivor. He has undergone dialysis and a liver transplant and more than 100 surgeries. Matthew also developed posttransplant lymphoproliferative disease (PTLD), a deadly disease that, among other things, affects Matthew's heart and gums.

"He had a liver transplant when he was almost 7 months old, and then about a month after that, all of his bile ducts fell apart," said his mother, Kathy. "So for four years he had to have all these tubes put in. That's why he's had hundreds of surgeries.

"Then he was diagnosed with this postlymphoma disease, so there were cancer cells in his chest. Every six months he gets scans for that.

"A lot of people ask, 'How can you go through all of that?' I always say, 'How could you not?' ''

During the countless hours they spent at hospitals, Matthew would wear his Gophers basketball jersey as a nightshirt and make his parents push his IV pole behind him, so he could shoot hoops on whatever toy rim was available.

"Every hospital visit, he'd wear that jersey into the operating room, and then they would take it off him before the surgery," Kathy said.

For Matthew, even smiling can be painful. He had undergone gum surgery before attending that first game with Hoiberg.

"He was beaming, and his gums would break open and he'd be bleeding and smiling at the same time," said Jeanne Carney, the speech clinician at Monroe. "They have to twist the gums, and use razor blades to cut them, and he's awake the whole time.

"So when he smiled, the blood was coming down, and it just didn't matter."

Making a connection

It took a lot of good people to land Matthew next to Hoiberg, and it all started with Scherer, who got to know Matthew along with Carney and Kelly Barnes, his fourth-grade teacher. They told stories about a student who kept coming back from surgeries in a better mood than kids coming back from vacation.

"I'd stay in touch with Kathy, and I'd know he was going through these things that were so hard for him," Barnes said. "And then he'd come back to school with a smile on his face and be kind to the other kids and just work hard."

Said Scherer: "He thought I was famous, because I had met Kobe Bryant. He kept stopping by to talk basketball. I thought there had to be something I could do.''

Over the years, Scherer had become friendly with a woman sitting near his station at Target Center. One day, he told her about Matthew, and she offered a favor. "Fred Hoiberg is my son," she said.

Soon Fred and his mother, Karen, were showing up at Monroe to talk to Matthew, and shortly after that the Gamber family was headed to Target Center.

"When Fred gave me the tickets, I told him, what I really want is for Matthew to be able to talk to you," Scherer said. "Fred said, 'No, problem,' but he didn't tell me how it was going to work."

This is how it worked: Hoiberg sat with the Gambers in his seats, and talked to Matthew through the whole game. When Matthew's parents began thanking Hoiberg and gathering their coats, Hoiberg told Matthew, "Come with me."

Hoiberg led Matthew across the court, through a host of security guards, one of whom stopped Matthew outside the locker room. "He's with me," Hoiberg said. Soon Matthew was chatting with Kevin Garnett, who asked for his Wolves jersey and with the rest of the team signed a basketball.

Matthew had quite the story to tell the next day at school, but, "when he wanted to talk about Fred, he'd pull me outside my classroom, because he didn't want the other kids to feel left out," Scherer said.

The story could have ended there, but Hoiberg stayed in touch. Matthew has attended three games thanks to Hoiberg, and now Matthew might be the only person in existence who is 3-0 at Wolves games the past two years.

"Sports have been everything to Matthew his whole life," said his father, Jerry. "This has meant the world to him, to be able to talk with someone in sports who has overcome a similar problem."

Thinking ahead

Kathy said Matthew always dreamed of being an NBA player, or a garbage truck driver. His NBA aspirations took a hit this fall when he failed to make a traveling basketball team. This winter, Jerry is coaching his in-house team.

"I find that incredible, that you could cut Matthew," Scherer said. "Wouldn't you want him on your team, as an inspiration?"

Kathy tries not to speak in absolutes about Matthew's future, but Matthew has it planned. "I'd like to be a sportswriter, or a general manager or a coach,'' he said.

Should current sportswriters fear for their jobs? "Yes," he said.

Matthew smiled. This was a good day, a day when he could talk about his buddy Hoiberg and smile without pain.

"He's a joyful child," Scherer said. "I think I have a bad day, and my day is nothing compared to his, and he's just joyful. We're all lucky to know him, and I think he and Fred are lucky to know each other."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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