For Deandre Mathieu, it was nothing new.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in spring of 2015 and leaving the basketball team, the dream, once again, hit a road block.
The lithe point guard, listed at 5-9 on the Gophers’ roster, had hoped to transition from the power-conference team that had given a chance to the professional realms. Despite the long odds Mathieu has faced throughout his young basketball career, just about everyone in Lonsdale – the fraying neighborhood in Tennessee where he grew up – seemed to expect it.
But after getting his degree, nothing went as planned. Mathieu signed with an agent, but work never came. Not in the states, not overseas. While former teammates Mo Walker, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins all took jobs internationally, Mathieu sat at home, wondering what had happened.
It felt like a flashback to the start of his career, when as a walk-on at Morehead State, Mathieu battled to be seen as a scholarship athlete. Later, at a junior college, Mathieu hungered for the next stop, which ultimately came with the Gophers. Along the way, many told him he was too small and not talented enough to make it.
Man, he thought again, after graduating, I should be playing.
“It was bad for me for a minute,” Mathieu said of his first few months post-Minnesota. “I wouldn’t even watch games or anything on TV. It was just like watching games, sometimes, was just sickening, sitting at home after I’d played basketball every day for the last 20 years of my life ...I kind of feel like I let a lot of people down, but at the same time, I knew I’ve let myself down.”
Mathieu, who is currently working at a Nike store in Knoxville, took a job with the local Boys and Girls club last year, working as a gym instructor with the kindergarten and first grade group. The gig had plenty of bright moments, hanging out with kids and playing basketball. And for the first time since the birth of his son, Elijah, who will be 2 in July, he had some free time. He watched little Eli grow from an infant who attended most of the games with mom, Charisma Payne, during Mathieu’s senior season to a toddler who will make shots on his Little Tikes hoop and then jog backwards, reveling.
“It doesn’t make sense how smart this dude is,” Mathieu said. “He loves it. I’m happy he got that – I’m not going to have to force him to play. He wants to play.”
But in a town where Mathieu had the reputation of local star, there were also wide-eyed questions he couldn’t answer.
“Mr. Dre,” some of the kids at the Boys and Girls club would ask, “Why aren’t you in the pros?”
“I didn’t really know what to tell them,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t know myself. For kids, you can’t tell them it doesn’t work like that.”
Now, Mathieu is hoping that once again he can maneuver his own fate. This year, he’s been working out with Knoxville’s Charlie Petrone – a trainer who has worked with multiple collegiate and professional athletes. With Mathieu’s contract with his former agent expired, he’s setting his sights on a pair of prestigious exposure camps next month that have served as entry points to professional careers for other wayward players in the past.
First up is the WSM Invitational, a three-day showcase at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Registration is $175 and then 72 players (out of 225 applicants) will be drafted by various coaches to play in the tournament.
Later in the month is the Scorer’s 1st Showcase, which players can participate in through a draft or by buying their way in.
It’s the longshot path, if not one that seems tailor made for Mathieu.
To fund all the fees and boarding costs required for the dream’s next plateau, Jesse Smithey, a former reporter and old friend, started up a GoFundMe account for Mathieu. So far, he’s raised $850 of the necessary $6,500 for both tournaments. (You can contribute here.)
Is there one more come-from-behind win for Mathieu? He’s willing to find out.
“I’m just hoping that somebody sees me or maybe just remembers my face,” he said. “It’s kind of like JUCO all over again, trying to get noticed, trying to get my name back on the map. It’s the same story, and it’s crazy how the same story seems to happen to me over and over again.
“I feel like I have even more motivation now. When I was doing this coming out of Morehead and coming out of JUCO, it was kind of about proving people wrong. Now it’s that I want to prove people wrong – and I’ve got to feed my son. So there’s even more fire.”