Before looking ahead to the coming season – something all Dayton Flyers players seem to relish doing this summer – Jhery Matos looked back.
Way back, to his days growing up in the Villa Juana section of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
“I think you’ve probably seen videos of kids playing basketball outside without shoes,” the Flyers 6-foot-5 redshirt junior guard said as he sat in a room overlooking the Cronin Center practice court.
“I had shoes, but nothing special. And I remember when I was 12 or 13 years old, we played games with one of the American teams that came down there.
“I didn’t speak English, but afterwards I pointed at their feet and asked: ‘Can I have those shoes?’ And they gave them to me. Now one day I want to be able to go back and bring shoes to kids there.”
Playing for the Flyers, Matos is provided all the shoes he can possibly wear. And this season, he said, that collection will feature a left shoe with a special orthotics device to help protect the foot he injured in a game against Oklahoma last November and then had repaired with a season-ending surgery on Dec. 26.
“It’s like a metal plate in there,” he said. “I’m used to it now and, thank God, I’m back to 100 percent.”
The injury – during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas – happened in just the sixth game Matos had played for the Flyers.
He had transferred to UD from Monroe (Junior) College in New York and had made an immediate impression in the Flyers lone exhibition game last season, scoring a team-high 15 points against Capital and providing a defensive effort that head coach Anthony Grant mentioned afterward.
Through the first six games, he came off the bench and averaged 19.5 minutes, 3.7 points and 3.2 rebounds a game. More importantly, he was building a reputation as the team’s defensive specialist.
“Against Oklahoma I just came down wrong on a rebound,” he remembered. “At first, I couldn’t feel my toe. I tried to keep playing, but then I couldn’t even put pressure on it. I couldn’t jump, couldn’t run so I told coach and he took me out.
“At first everybody thought it was turf toe and the doctor said they could try putting me in a boot for four to eight weeks and see if I healed. But after a month in the boot, I still couldn’t do anything.
“That’s when I had the surgery. They moved the bone in my toe, fixed the ligaments I’d torn and then put the bone back.”
He said he began the long road back with the help of several in the Flyers program, from team trainer Mike Mulcahey and some of the coaches to teammate Ryan Mikesell, who sat out two seasons ago recovering from two hip surgeries.
“Ryan told me to stay positive, that everything happens for a reason,” Matos said. “And I realize now, sitting out last season helped me grow a lot. I was able to travel with the team and go through whatever the other guys went through.
“And on the bench I was able to sit and watch and listen. Sometimes I could see what the others guys were doing and I’d tell coach we should do this and that.”
Oh yeah? And would Grant listen?
He started to laugh: “Well…maybe sometimes.”
Before his surgery, Matos flew back home for two days to explain the situation to his mother, Zoraida Ramirez.
She’s never been to the United States, so she’s never been in the stands to see her son play since he left home for Florida at age 17.
But he said his basketball odyssey initially was launched by his mom:
“When I was nine, I’d come home from school, do my homework and just play video games. My mom was like, ‘You’ve got to do something! Just go outside and play,’ So, to be honest, she’s the one who pushed me into sports.”
Eventually, he travelled with a national age-group team that played in Puerto Rico, Canada, the U.S. and in a World Cup tournament that included stops in Spain, France, Italy and Greece.
After that he drew interest from schools in the U.S. And although he couldn’t speak English, and knew just one person in Florida, he left home for Calusa Prep in Miami.
Over the next four-plus years he would play for five schools. After Calusa Prep, he spent a season at West Oaks Academy in Orlando, then a junior college season at Eastern Florida State in Melbourne and another at Monroe.
Finally – after being recruited by UD assistants Anthony Solomon and fellow Dominican Ricardo Greer – he came to Dayton and now says he’s found a home here.
“I feel like this is a great place for me to grow and learn as a player and a student,” he said. “People here really love Dayton basketball and that’s something I appreciate.”
He said since he’s been here, Dayton-area people with Dominican roots have reached out to him. He’s found a place that serves Dominican food and been to another that plays Latin music.
That link to home was strengthened when he went back to the Dominican Republic for a few weeks last month. He said people in his old neighborhood haven’t forgotten him:
“There’s been a lot of good guys from the D.R. who have played college basketball and in the NBA, but I don’t know of any other guy who played in the NCAA from my own neighborhood.
“So everyone back there is really proud of what I have done and will keep doing.”
‘We have everything we need’
As a medical redshirt, the 23-year-old Matos will have two years remaining at UD and he said he can’t wait for the upcoming season to begin:
“We’re going to be special. I think we can make a long run this year. We have everything we need. We have shooters. We have defensive guys. We’ve got rebounders.
“We’ve got Jordy, he’s 6-11. (Nebraska transfer Jordy Tshimanga). An we’ve got Obi (Toppin) coming back with all the knowledge of the NBA teams he worked with after last season.
“It’s going to be good. We’ve got most of the guys back who played last year and all of our transfers too. And they are good.”
The four transfers (Tshimanga, Ibi Watson, Chase Johnson, Rodney Chatman) sat out last season and made up the scout team. And Matos claimed the second team regularly beat the stating five in practice last year:
“Of course. I’d say if our second team played them 10 games, we probably won seven.
“That helped the guys who were playing. So now were all together. I think it’s going to be a good year, a fun year.”
He said his goal is to help the team win the Atlantic 10 championship and, personally, to become the defensive player of the year:
“Coach Grant really put that on my shoulders. I’d never really been that into it before. I knew I could play good defense, but I’d never bought into it completely. Now I know what kind of a impact I can make on the defensive side and it’s something I want to just keep getting better at.”
When we finished the interview, he headed down the Cronin Center hallway, past a display on the wall listing UD players who had won all-conference honors over the years.
At the board listing the Flyers’ 10 all-conference first teamers – from Negele Knight to Toppin – he reached over and rubbed the vacant, blue area that awaited the next name to be added.
And at a list of UD’s all-defensive team selections — beneath the name of Kyle Davis, the Flyers’ last such league honoree – Matos polished the empty spot he also hopes will include his name after the coming season.
“Getting it ready” he said with twinkling eyes and an easy laugh. “Just getting it ready.”
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