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.”