One block before Adcock Street disappears into woods at the edge of the bypassed neighborhood, a celebration cuts through the crickets’ buzz.
DeAndre Mathieu is home.
In Lonsdale — a densely populated 2.8-square-mile neighborhood on Knoxville’s west side — everyone is a cousin or an aunt or a brother, even if the blood ties are elusive. On this night, there are some 20 relatives drifting in and out of the front door of the shotgun-style house; cramming loudly onto its front porch; shooting at the basketball hoop that hangs over the worn asphalt street.
Mathieu, the pride of Lonsdale and the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team’s most vital player, sits at the heart of it all. He folds his arms across his chest and leans back, a slow smile creeping across his face as he watches the racket. Everyone on the porch has big plans for the incredibly athletic 5-foot-9 Mathieu. He’ll dunk in a game. He’ll be featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” He’ll be drafted to the NBA, just like those in Lonsdale always knew he would.
“I’m telling you, man, this is my cousin and he’s going to the league!” Joey Thompson bursts, wiping the lingering humidity off his brow. “He’s going, man.”
Mathieu laughs off the talk. These are not his greatest pressures.
“He never gets overwhelmed — he’s one of the strongest people I’ve met in my life,” Brandon Lopez, one of Mathieu’s best friends and a walk-on at the University of Tennessee, would say later. “It ain’t nothing to him because his expectations are higher than anybody else’s anyway.”
Mathieu, a college basketball drifter only a year ago, expects to turn his Gophers into a true threat come NCAA tournament time.
He will provide for his 9-week-old son, Elijah, and his girlfriend, Charisma Payne, both of whom moved in with him on campus this month.
He will pass his five classes.
He will go to practice and work out daily.
He’ll change diapers.
He’ll master the dizzying agenda. For himself. For Lonsdale. And for one other person, with whom he planned these glory days long ago.
According to the Lonsdale narrative woven over Mathieu’s 21 years, it’s his fate. He will succeed because there aren’t any other options. There were always two who were destined to transcend the beaten-down neighborhood. Two who would make it out. One of them took his own life before he could. Only Mathieu remains. He carries the dreams of two, and the weight of a community’s expectations.
The glare is unmistakable. DeAndre Mathieu is here to win.
The undersized guard slices through a pair of defenders and floats one from 4 feet out. Swish. He grabs the ball and gives it a hard slap before dropping it and running back on defense.
“Even right now,” his mother, Tracy Johnson, says with a laugh, “he’s playing that passionate pickup.”
He’s always had to.
Last year, Mathieu was one of just two players shorter than 5 feet 10 in the Big Ten. But despite his success — he averaged 12 points, 4.2 assists and 1.6 steals while starting from the moment he arrived at Minnesota — he’s still regarded with a degree of hesitancy. His name was missing from every all-Big Ten team.
Outside of Knoxville, he’s always been doubted. But within Lonsdale’s borders, where his monstrous reputation belies his small frame, the rise seemed inevitable. Mathieu has fought against reluctance across the nation while coming home, each summer, to a community that can’t imagine seeing him fail.
Mathieu graduated from Central Knoxville High School in 2011 a star. He ruled his league with 1,612 career points and 852 steals and was named District 3AAA Player of the Year three times. On the sidelines, his crowds grew. His mother made every game. His cousins were all there. His father, Berma Mathieu, who was in and out of prison in Mathieu’s early life, began showing up and yelling so much he’d have to be removed.
But away from the brick-lined gym, the legend fizzled. Schools were concerned about his size and competition level. Mathieu graduated without a single scholarship option.
Frustrated, he enrolled as a walk-on at Division I Morehead State in Kentucky. By the end of the year, he was in the starting lineup. But coach Donnie Tyndall — now at Tennessee after a stop at Southern Miss — refused Mathieu a scholarship once more.
“I believed in Dre and thought he could be a good player,” Tyndall said in March, when the Gophers faced Southern Miss in the NIT quarterfinals. “But with everything he’d been through, we just couldn’t scholarship him that coming year.”
Spurned again, Mathieu left Morehead State and landed in Maricopa, Ariz., of all places. There, at Central Arizona Community College, he lit up the league on his way to earning junior college All-America honors. Suddenly, the calls were pouring in. The first, from Pepperdine, came to Mathieu’s mother, who almost instantly began weeping.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” the voice asked through the phone.
“I’m going to need a minute,” Johnson managed to choke out through the tears.
Finally, her son was wanted. Pepperdine. UCLA. Ole Miss. Memphis. Wyoming. And plenty of others. But buoyed by Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s freewheeling style, Mathieu chose Minnesota. He arrived without fanfare but quickly became the team’s emotional leader, most consistent performer and unofficial spokesman, roles that only solidified after Andre Hollins went down with a severe ankle sprain.
Along the way, Pitino kept up the pressure. Mathieu started the nonconference season well, but the Big Ten was a different story, he was told. After Mathieu finished with 20 points and four assists in the first two conference matchups, the coach reminded him that road games would be more demanding. When Mathieu excelled there, Pitino was quick to point to the mental toughness needed for the postseason. But pressure is the only impetus Mathieu has ever truly been comfortable with. In the NIT, he averaged 11.2 points and 2.8 assists, and his 13-point, seven-assist game led Minnesota to a championship at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s kind of what makes me run,” Mathieu said. “Pressure — it’s what gets me going. Pressure is my adrenaline.”
Around the green-top court at Lonsdale Park a crowd builds, three bodies deep.
The locals who watched out for him as he grew up are now simply watching. Young hoop hopefuls dot the park with a peculiar amount of Gophers gear. Mathieu’s aunts, sweating beside the park’s charcoal grills, have toted along more than 100 hot dogs and hamburgers to feed everyone. The whole neighborhood is here for the party.
Mathieu routinely gets text reminders at school of the role model he’s become to the kids of the town. Here, it’s reality. He brought home 20 Gophers T-shirts this time around, and emptied the box on his first day back.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Mathieu said earlier. “It’s like, ‘You’re overexaggerating.’ But when you come back and they’re really just sitting there, watching you play pickup basketball, it’s really a humbling feeling. No joke.”
Here and there, he takes a break to grab a soda or a hot dog and cradle Elijah, who has made him think differently about everything.
“I can see it, he looks just like me,” Mathieu says with a grin. “It feels like this is a smaller version of me, and for the next 18, definitely, he’s in my care. I’ve got to make sure he’s all right at all times.”
But the new dad is also addicted to the squeak of sneakers, the pursuit of another gravity-defying layup. He can’t stay off the court for long, playing for hours as the evening’s pink clouds roll in to signal some small relief to the heat.
After a couple of games, his cousin Phillip Weaver, known as “Bam,” settles onto the aluminum bleachers.
“I just try to get him out of his comfort zone,” he says, lifting his voice above the giant speakers blasting Young Jeezy. “It’s about all I can do.”
On the top bench, cousin Breel Johnson leans against the metal fence, her yellow summer dress dancing in the hot breeze. She sighs.
“The only thing missing,” she says, “is Tookie.”
Blue jays cry from the old oak trees that hug New Gray Cemetery as the visitors search.
He is here, somewhere.
Mathieu hasn’t come back to this place since the week Tookie died, and even then, he was in a daze. His face grows long and hard now as he and cousin Ashley Johnson pace the plot near the top of the expansive graveyard.
Three flat headstones sit in a row near the street. One for Tookie’s sister, who was killed at age 5 in gang violence. One for Tookie’s father, who was gunned down while being robbed at his house a year later. One for Tookie’s mother, who was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after, and passed away a couple of years later.
Tookie, whose real name is Phillip Stanford, is nowhere to be found.
Twenty-seven minutes later, after a call to Tookie’s aunt, Mathieu realizes the unsettling truth. His best friend is buried, head-to-head with his father, on a footworn plot marked only by unruly grass.
By the time Tookie died, his picture joining the rest of his family’s on the stone memorial that was built at the center of Lonsdale, there was no one left to buy his headstone.
The dream grew along with Tookie and Mathieu. Each year, it got bigger. Closer. More urgent. One minute, attainable; the next, far away.
They had talked about it since they were 5 years old, when they met playing ball in Lonsdale. Throughout the years, they’d cut through the neighbors’ yards on the way home from the recreation center, taking care to avoid the family memorial, fantasizing about the days ahead. At night, they’d stay up at Mathieu’s house, whispering about their big plans. When gangs from eastside Knoxville and westside Lonsdale clashed — causing the boys’ schools to practice gunshot drills and Mathieu’s family to sleep on the floor and away from windows — Mathieu and Tookie told each other this life wasn’t permanent.
The older they got, the more their own childish ambitions wove into the fabric of the community. Tookie and Mathieu had talent, and lots of it.
Lonsdale showed its good faith by packing the fish fries Mathieu’s mother and grandmother would hold to scrape together the money necessary for dreams. Neighbors and friends handed over extra donations while they were there. For AAU trips. For basketball shoes. Tookie and Mathieu would go to college. They would give Lonsdale a good name. They would rise above it all.
The morning all of that changed, Tookie, the perpetual comedian and social butterfly, sounded upset. A couple of months earlier, he had returned home from junior college in Florida, having grown frustrated with his coach. Now, he’d hit a wall. Mathieu was still at Morehead State. Tookie was in Lonsdale again, going backward.
“Go to the gym,” Mathieu told him from Kentucky. “It’s what we do.”
It was the last time they spoke.
A few hours later, Mathieu was watching TV with Payne, his girlfriend, in his dorm when he got the call from his mom. Something had happened to Tookie. When his friend didn’t answer, he called Tookie’s girlfriend. She sobbed into the receiver as she answered.
Mathieu hung up. He texted Tookie.
Yo, text me back.
They’re telling me you killed yourself.
Tookie, tell me it’s not true.
Two-and-a-half years later, Mathieu’s words are still heavy and incredulous. He peeks down at the No. 33 jersey, with a halo and angels wings, inked on his left arm.
“I never got a text back,” he says, staring ahead.
He crouches down to Tookie’s nameless patch of land. He decides here that he will take on yet one more burden: buying his best friend a headstone. “I didn’t know,” he breathes into the grass. “I didn’t know.”
Long weeds crawl up the chain-link fences at the edges of the neighborhood. They spill onto the cracked sidewalks and frame the houses with boarded-up windows and crumbling shingles.
Lonsdale is yearning for another cookout. Another Mathieu homecoming. Something or someone to reward the hope and unity that embody this place. There is love here, especially for Mathieu, but nothing else comes easily.
He is one of just three cousins in his extended family to go to college. His older sister, Tramaine Patterson, toils to raise and support three children in their mother’s old house. His younger twin brothers, Demonte and Jermonte Patterson, live there too, working construction jobs to contribute. Beyond Adcock Street, a bleaker reality looms. There is too much crime on these corners — “every day,” Mathieu says, as he rides past flashing blue lights. The median income in town barely clears $22,000 a year.
“If he does play professional basketball, I don’t want Dre to move back,” his mother said. “People get stuck. They get stuck.”
Even now, as Mathieu walks the projects that raised him, these streets hold a grip on him. There are no other guarantees. The NBA draft, which rarely pulls players of his size, could come and go. Teams overseas could look elsewhere, just as so many colleges once did. If his basketball story stops, he could turn back to Lonsdale, as so many have.
Over the summer, Mathieu talked to the principal at Central High about a coaching position.
“Don’t worry,” Mathieu was told. “If basketball ends and you want to come back, you’re definitely hired.”
That path wouldn’t match the expectations on the porch. It wouldn’t mesh with his and Tookie’s dreams. But Mathieu — on track for graduation with a business management major after nearly acing his three summer classes — says he will attack the next challenge, do what it takes, just as he always does.
“I know the NBA is a long shot, and I have to be out of my mind this year to even get a look,” Mathieu would say later. “It’s not really hard to think about Plan B because it’s a reality. When you start as a walk-on, you think: Well, the NBA is definitely out of the picture. I’ve been thinking about Plan B for a while now.”
On this day, the Lonsdale narrative says Mathieu has made it out. But there is no time to toast the accomplishment.
He is charged now with delivering the two biggest performances of his life: at the University of Minnesota, where the senior point guard will be defended by opponents like never before; and in his Minneapolis home, raising Elijah. He has a chance to lift not only this corner of Tennessee but an entire basketball program that has been waiting almost two decades for another inspired season.
“Regardless of what happens,” Mitch Mitchell, Mathieu’s high school coach, said, “you can’t take this away from him, ever. ... The goal has been accomplished. He’s gotten there. After all of those twists and turns, he’s finally gotten to where he needs to be.”
At the windowless, tin-roofed corner store, a van pulls up and someone inside rolls down the windows.
“Dre!” he hollers. “You’re here!”
Lonsdale’s legend smiles and tells them to come to the cookout at 4.
DeAndre Mathieu is home. And he’s about to put on a show.