“It’s been a hell of a ride.”
That’s the way a beaming Jhery Matos described it Friday night after he cemented himself into the Dayton Flyers’ rotation and the hearts of UD fans by helping lead his new team to an 89-71 victory over Capital University in an entertaining exhibition game at UD Arena.
It was a night for mixing a few old Flyers memories with several new faces on Blackburn Court.
The opposing coaches — Dayton’s Anthony Grant and Capital’s Damon Goodwin — were teammates on a pair of NCAA Tournament teams and one NIT squad in the 1980s.
And referee Edwin Young was a UD point guard on Flyers’ teams in the late ‘90s that made it to the NCAA Tournament and NIT.
Against Capital, UD suited up four new scholarship players and also returned redshirt junior Ryan Mikesell, who sat out last season after double hip surgery.
And none of the new faces provided more promise, more of an exclamation point, than did the 6-foot-5 Matos, who said he’s been looking for a place like this since he left the Dominican Republic by himself for the United States a little more than four years ago.
He was a teenager then, knew only one person in the U.S., knew no English and was scared.
UD is the fifth school at which he’s played since then, and, if Friday night is the indication I think it is, he’s found a real home.
After leading the team with 15 points, stellar defense and no turnovers in almost 19 minutes of play, he’s certainly known by the 12,446 people who jammed UD Arena as though it were a game of consequence in the regular season.
As for his English, he speaks it — right down to the idioms, jokes and heartfelt explanations — better than many folks born right here in Dayton.
Most of all, he’s no longer scared.
You saw that as he took on every defensive challenge that Grant asked of him Friday night. He played better defense than any newcomer and maybe better than anyone on the team.
And you certainly saw it in the first part of the second half when he hit three straight 3-pointers in a span of just over 2 1/2 minutes to finally lift UD into a double-digit lead over the well-coached Crusaders and their own sharpshooting guard, Joey Weingartner, a product of Centerville High School.
Matos did all this — he made six of his seven shots Friday — while wearing a pair of bright pink shoes that made him stand out from everyone else on the court.
It was just for “a little swagger,” he said with a grin. “Coach Grant always says, ‘You got to bring the swag!’’’
And Friday night he did — from his shoes to his shot.
Making a tough journey
Matos grew up in the Villa Juana section of Santo Domingo and was raised mostly by his mom.
He played on various age-level national teams for the Dominican Republic and ended up travelling the world, playing in France, Italy, Greece, the United States and Puerto Rico.
“Everybody always told me, ‘You ought to go to the United States so you can play college basketball there,’” Matos told me over the summer. “They said, ‘There’s a lot of opportunity there. You can follow your dreams.’”
That proved to be a tougher challenge than he imagined.
He left home for Miami, played a season there at Calusa Prep, then was coaxed to West Oaks Academy in Orlando. After that, he played a season at East Florida State (formerly Brevard Community College) in Melbourne, Florida and last season ended up at Monroe College in New York, where he became a Junior College All-American.
“Every year I was moving to different schools, it hasn’t been easy,” Matos explained Friday night. “I didn’t get used to a school. I’d be there for a year and then had to go to another place and would meet new people.”
Ricardo Greer — the UD assistant who, along with associate head coach Anthony Solomon, recruited Matos here and as a fellow Dominican has become a mentor to him — has said some of the places that lured Matos didn’t have his best interests at heart:
“He came to the U.S. by himself and bounced around a lot. A lot of people used him for his talent and not for what was best for Jhery.”
Matos said when Solomon first contacted him, the coach asked, “’So you know anything about Dayton basketball?’ And I told him, ‘Coach, to be honest with you, I never heard of it.’”
He said the Flyers sent him pictures and videos and then brought him to a game against Fordham at UD Arena. When he walked in, he said students in the Red Scare section began to chant: “Jhery! … Jhery! … Jhery!”
“It was crazy,” he said.
Just as he felt an embrace by the fans, he felt one from the coaches.
“He’s a kid who values relationships,” Greer has said. “Jhery was mature enough when we recruited him to understand what was real and what was fake. He needed to be at a place where they really cared about the kid, not just his basketball, and I believe he’s finding that here.”
Friday night, Matos agreed, and he credited that to Grant and especially to Greer:
“He’s the type of coach every player needs. And when you come from a different country, you aren’t the same … I don’t know how to explain it … The culture and stuff. You don’t have the same type of mindset the other guys have.
“He understands me. He knows what’s going on with me when he just looks into my face.
“I finally feel like this is my place. It’s home to me right now. The people, the community. They show love all the time … 24/7. There’s all the T-shirts, the commitment to the program. You walk on campus and everybody says, ‘Hi.’
“Anything you need is here for you.”
Well, almost anything.
He said he hasn’t found any place yet that serves Dominican food.
“I eat a lot at Chipotle,” he shrugged. “They got rice and beans.”
Reaching a new level
Matos said he sees a real difference between junior college and Division I basketball.
He said he played in front of “a couple hundred” people at most — except when he was playing for the national team “and we played against the U.S.” — and he said at the junior college level there might be one photographer courtside during games.
“You don’t see that many people or that many cameras pointed at you,” he smiled. “And here we’ve got the (postgame) interviews.”
The difference that really hit him though was on the court.
“The energy is way up here for all 40 minutes,” he said. “In JUCO, sometimes the competition is not that good. Sometimes you can take a play off. Here everybody’s the same level. You’ve got to be locked in and work every play.”
He did that Friday night and Grant was pleased:
“I’ve been impressed with the things I’ve asked him to do. I’ve tried to get him to understand the role he’ll need to play for us to be successful — for him to have success — and I think he’s bought into that. It’s great to see him go out and … do the things we talked about.”
Matos said Grant has given him “the green light” to shoot, but said what the coach most wants is for him to play defense:
“Me and Coach Grant always talk about defense, how we need a guy who can really come in and stop their best player, so tonight I was locked in on defense. That was my focus.
“I didn’t really think about offense, but as coach always says, ‘If you play good defense, the offense will come by itself.’”
That’s what happened.
“I thought the best thing Jhery did tonight, he gave us some really good minutes on the defensive end,” Grant said. “He locked in on what we needed to do defensively and guarded a variety of different positions. He’s a guy for us, from the defensive standpoint, that we have talked about.
“He could be one of those guys who’s a difference-maker for us this year.”
And that sounds like the “hell of a ride” for Jhery Matos is just beginning.