Arch: Derenbecker left lasting impression on Dayton

It was late last March and he found a brief respite from the torment and pain that had grown in him over the past 4 ½ years and would end up claiming his life in less than five months.

The Dayton Flyers were making their improbable run through the NCAA tournament — an embraceable story of hoops and hope that would take them all the way to the Elite Eight — and back at his parents’ home in Hammond, La., Matt Derenbecker was watching every game.

After increasing volatile mood swings for a guy who used to be known as charming, smart, caring and lots of fun, after an uncharacteristic ebb and flow of what once was steady basketball brilliance and, most of all, after years of non-diagnosis and misdiagnosis, Matt finally had been told a couple of months earlier that he was bipolar.

And the impulsive behavior that comes with the disorder had most recently manifested itself in a gambling addiction for which he had gone into a voluntary, 36-day recovery program in Shreveport.

When he was released he was, for a while, like the Matt of old.

“He came back here to live at home and that was the best we saw Matt going all the way back to his junior year in high school,” said John Derenbecker, Matt’s dad. “It happened to be the time the NCAA tournament was starting and when the Flyers’ first game came up, Matt said, ‘I’m gonna watch it.’

“Of course we were very sensitive about triggers and I said, ‘Matt, you sure?’

“And he said, ‘Dad, I got to watch it. Those are my friends. Those are my guys.’ “

The previous two years Matt had been a Dayton Flyer — the team’s multi-talented, three-point-shooting specialist — and he still should have been one during that NCAA tournament. But he had left school, just as he had Louisiana State before that and the University of New Orleans since.

With Dayton though, he had some of the deepest connections — from the ever-caring assistant coach Tom Ostrom to his old roommate and pal, Devin Oliver, the star of the team and the guy Matt had asked to be best man in his wedding.

“I couldn’t watch, it was too painful, but Matt watched every game start to finish,” John said. “And that’s when I saw the beauty, the true spirit of my son again.

“I could hear him cheering in the room with his girlfriend. He was as excited for the Flyers as if he were out there on the court himself. I was amazed he could do that and, then again, I wasn’t. He was healthy again. That was the boy I knew when he was growing up. ”

Within a couple of months, though, the old Matt had drifted off again and this time he never would return. He quit taking his medications, stopped going to counseling and soon people rarely, if ever, heard from him, whether it was Ostrom — whom Matt, upon transferring from UD, had urged, “Coach, promise me you’ll always keep in touch” — or his parents.

In August, Matt’s girlfriend and her parents had him watch their home in Ponchatoula when they were out of town. But that time alone concerned Matt’s mom, Trina, and after repeated tries, she finally reached her 22-year-old son, who promised to come over the next day for Sunday dinner.

First, though, he had to pick up his girlfriend and her family at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport. But he never showed on that August 10 morning, so they called Trina, who was having coffee with a friend.

John was 30 minutes from home on a bike ride so Trina headed over to check things out. When she got there she said things didn’t look right and she called the police.

Back here in Dayton, Ostrom soon got word.

“A friend of mine forwarded me a tweet that said that Matt Derenbecker had…,” Ostrom said with a sudden hitch of emotion in his voice. “I know not to believe everything you read on the Internet, but I had this sick feeling, so I called Matt’s dad.

“When he answered, the first thing I said was, ‘It’s not true, is it?’

“And he said, ‘Yes, it is.’ ”

Police had found Matt floating in the pool, dead from a gunshot wound. The coroner would rule it a suicide.

Feeling helpless

Ostrom was an assistant coach at Arkansas when Matt started for LSU as a freshman.

“We played against him twice and he was really good,” Ostrom said. “Before that he had been the two-time player of the year in Louisiana and that’s a state with some unbelievable high school basketball.”

John Derenbecker had played college ball at Centenary and Vanderbilt. At 6-foot-7, Matt had inherited his dad’s size and, like him as well, had led Metairie Park Country Day High School to a Louisiana state title.

Named one of the top 100 recruits in the nation and also a straight-A student, Matt had been recruited by Stanford, Virginia and Wake Forest, but chose to stay home with LSU.

Although he started 16 games for the Tigers and averaged 6.5 points, his off-the-court issues — caused by the bipolar disorder no one knew about — became more prevalent and it was decided he needed a change of scenery and structure.

“When we heard he was transferring, it was a no-brainer,” Ostrom said. “He had great size, could really shoot it, had unbelievable basketball instincts and he brought a toughness, a grittiness to the table.”

Although Matt briefly considered Tulane, he chose Dayton.

“He came sight unseen, but it wasn’t a reckless decision,” John said. “It was a leap of faith in Archie (Miller) and Tom Ostrom — in what they described to him and what they stood for.”

Matt sat out the 2011-12 season to meet the NCAA transfer mandate and the following season he played in 30 games for the Flyers, averaging 14 minutes and 4.5 points.

Although he was often badgered by one UD fan website that had no clue what he was dealing with, Matt managed to have some shining moments on the court.

He hit five of eight 3-pointers against Florida Atlantic, came off the bench to score 10 and spark a UD win over Xavier and he did the same against Massachusetts. He finished the season sixth in the conference in 3-point shooting accuracy at 42.5 percent.

“I’ll tell you Dayton was just a wonderful place,” John said. “We could not have asked for more from the coaching staff, teammates, administration and the community. I was truly caught up in it. And if Matt had been healthy, he would have been able to take full advantage and would have felt the same.

“But that was a real indication to me. We were about three years into real concerns with him and at Dayton it became evident to me that he was battling something much bigger than himself.”

That struggle first showed itself just before Matt’s senior season in high school.

“That AAU season over the summer had been extraordinary, but a month into his senior year his behavior started changing drastically and quickly,” John said. “It wasn’t like he started missing curfew by five minutes, it just fell off the charts. He became somebody we didn’t know, and in early January he even moved out of our house because he couldn’t live within the confines of what we expected.”

His parents asked him to go counseling and though he showed up, his dad said he never fully participated: “He was smart and charming and we couldn’t believe how good he was at pulling the wool over their eyes. We were told there was nothing wrong with him — that he just had to learn some life skills as he transitioned to adulthood — but we said, ‘Please listen to us. Talk to his teachers or coaches.’

“The thing that was really off was that he had become selfish. It was all about him. And that was not Matt. That was totally contrary to the essence of his heart and soul.

“Unfortunately, we saw all this as a behavioral issue and treated it that way, sometimes harshly.”

When Matt got to UD, even though Ostrom said he was “extremely likeable, people loved being around him,” it didn’t take long for the coaches to see something was amiss.

“He would do anything for anybody, sometimes to a fault,” Ostrom said.

There was the time the Flyers went on a road trip and Matt loaned his car to someone he’d just met and that guy was involved in a hit-and-run. Another time he’d let someone he hardly knew sleep in the apartment.

“I’d say, ‘Matt, you barely know the guy,’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, but he needed a place to stay, Coach,’ ” Ostrom recalled.

Matt would show up for workouts sometimes and coaches could tell he hadn’t slept much. That’s because the illness made his mind race at night.

He’d make midnight curfew with his teammates but then get restless and end up calling anyone he knew outside of basketball and go out with them until 3 or 4 a.m.

“While Matt was here, 99 percent of his problems only hurt him, no one else,” Ostrom said.

The coaches, Matt’s parents and Matt himself met on occasion to try to figure out what was going on. He saw specialists in Dayton. ADD was mentioned, but not bipolar disorder. And too often the solutions were centered around punishments for his behavior.

“His mental and physical toughness was off the charts,” Ostrom said. “When he screwed up, we put him on a step mill or treadmill so much that it would break most people, but he’d go through them like they were nothing.”

Along with that grit was an almost unmatched intelligence.

“He’s maybe the only person since I’ve been here that was required to and learned three different positions,” Ostrom said. “He learned the two, three and four for us, no problem. A lot of people have problems learning two positions or even one at times.”

Without those traits, think of what kind of player Matt could have become here. The frustration that something was wrong sometimes showed up on Matt’s Twitter account.

“Feeling helpless in a situation is the worst,” he tweeted on June 4, 2012.

“Am I out of my mind, most people say probably,” he posted two days later.

“So sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he wrote April, 1, 2013.

After UD, Matt transferred to New Orleans and got an exemption to play right away. John said by then he thinks his son no longer wanted to play basketball, that he was tired of letting teammates, coaches and himself down. But he didn’t want to tell anyone.

Playing nine games for the Privateers before leaving for medical reasons, he averaged 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds and had a 16-point performance against No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing.

“If only I’d understood the torment and anguish he was going through every day and the courage it took for him to pull himself up and compete at that level,” John said. “I didn’t have the understanding or the empathy then to tell him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him.

“The way I describe it now, it was like there’s this paraplegic in a wheelchair and I keep kicking it and saying, ‘If you wanted to walk, you would walk.’ ”

A need to educate

More than 1,500 people, including the UD coaching staff, showed up for Matt’s funeral at the First United Methodist Church in Hammond.

“I can’t say enough about UD,” John said. “And Tom Ostrom, oh my goodness! He was Matt’s position coach and I could not have asked for a better person to look out for him. What he did, that’s rare in the sports world today. He’s meant so much to our whole family, not just when Matt was at Dayton, but after he left and especially now since Matt has died.”

John said Devin Oliver was boarding a plane to play professionally in Belgium when he found out Matt had died:

“He was devastated and a few weeks later we received a first-class, incredibly touching letter from Devin’s family.”

John said everything was a bit of a blur in those first days: “Not until we were at the funeral walking behind the casket leaving the church, that’s when the misery struck me the first time. My entire being felt it.”

He began to question himself, but before he could spiral into the depths of self-blame he said his wife buoyed him with “our family is going to make it — together.”

A few days after Matt’s death John read a story in the New York Times by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist who has suffered from bipolar disorder since she was a child. Her revelations opened his eyes to what his son had gone though and since then he has made himself a student of the issue.

“I didn’t realize how many choices I had after all this happened,” he said. “I could sink into the darkness and never come out of it or I could see this as an opportunity. How could I best honor Matt?

“I can do it by being a good father to our other two boys (Rob and Parker) who are incredibly special as well. And I can try to educate people.

“Everybody knows what cancer is, what heart disease is, and they need to know what bipolar disorder is, too. And all the stigma attached to it needs to go away because that compounds the problem.”

Ostrom feels the same way: “There’s a fine line between kids being kids and mental illness and (the latter) needs to be diagnosed and treated aggressively. And if it’s not, the worst can happen.”

“I find myself thinking about Matt a lot now. I think about his family. It’s a sad story and it brings tears to my eyes, but I also remember the good times with him. And with him the good outweighed the bad 20 to 1.

“I loved him, loved being around him. Everybody did. And that’s why I try to talk to his family when I can. They are the best of the best and I want them to know Matt will always be a part of the Dayton Flyers program. He’ll never be forgotten.”

John understands that: “We haven’t forgotten them either. I’m going to try to go to the Arkansas game when they play there and I want to make it back up to UD one time during the season — just because the memories were so good when it came to Dayton.”

Even this past March, when the Flyers surged through the NCAA tournament and Matt was back home cheering them on and feeling like his old self … one final time.

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