Bear Down: A Wildcat for Life
Matt Babcock outlines his journey to the University of Arizona and his unavailing college playing career.
After playing four years of varsity basketball in high school and scoring nearly 1,500 points, I thought my future as a college basketball player was bright. I turned down some scholarship offers from low and mid-major Division I schools to attend Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida in an effort to increase my stock and receive scholarship offers from bigger schools the following year. The first game of my freshman year in college I scored 13 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 5 assists and had 5 steals. You would have thought I was on the right track. However, I was battling severe chronic tendonitis in both of my knees and it continued to get worse. I was dealing with a brutal pain cycle consisting of feeling fine and being able to play and then my tendonitis would flare up and my entire lower body would shut down. I would rest and feel better, then I would practice with the team and have another ‘episode’. Rest, feel better, practice, tendonitis flare-up, repeat. This cycle went on and on. I was 18 years old trying to manage injuries that only aging veteran players or senior citizens usually have to deal with… Eventually, the team trainers and doctors decided to have me completely sit out for the remainder of the season in hopes that the tendonitis would subside. I was granted a medical redshirt for that year. Unfortunately, as a result of sitting out, my recruitment didn’t develop as I had hoped. After that season, my options weren’t great in regards to moving on and I felt that I owed something to the school in return for the scholarship they provided me.
Gulf Coast Community College had just built a brand new facility and hired a great new coach, Jim Hatfield, so I decided to return to Panama City for a second year. I really liked my teammates and I loved Coach Hatfield! He was an extremely experienced coach, most notably as a longtime assistant coach at the University of Kentucky. His coaching style was a perfect fit for me. He was upbeat, positive and he was a terrific communicator and teacher of the game. I felt like he was the exact coach I needed to elevate my game and accomplish my goals. I was named as a captain of the team and I was really excited to be back — and to finally be able to play! A few weeks into practice the same tendonitis injuries flared up, again. However, this time I left school to return home to Milwaukee in order to receive medical treatment there. With my dad working in the front office for the Milwaukee Bucks I had access to some really top-notch doctors and physical therapists and I was able to do the bulk of my classes online during this time. At this point, I wasn’t quite sure what my next steps were going to be…
Some time went by and after talking with my family extensively, we decided to consider the idea of having me walk-on at a big school in hopes of proving myself as a capable player but, more importantly, providing me an experience that would be beneficial to me once I finished school and began a career working in basketball — which had always been my long-term intention. So my dad contacted a number of college coaches that he knew to plant the seed that I was willing to walk-on. The response he received was amazing — which is probably more of a testament to my dad than to me. Regardless, all of a sudden, I felt like a hot commodity and to be completely honest, it was a lot of fun. I had interest from schools such as Auburn, Georgia, Louisville, and Texas, to name a few. Most schools said they thought there could be the potential of earning some playing time and suggested I would have a good chance to be put on scholarship after that first year. Overnight, it felt like I went from being at a dead end to having a ton of great options.
This would have been a tough decision with all of these options but then my dad spoke to the coaches at the University of Arizona. To give you a little bit of background, I grew up in Arizona. My grandparents went to UofA. My grandfather and my uncle from my mom’s side of the family had both been baseball stars there. I grew up idolizing Lute Olson and his teams. Sure, there were other schools that wanted me more and would have probably allowed me a better opportunity to earn playing time or a scholarship, but the fact of the matter was that there was no way I could say no to UofA if they would take me.
Well, Coach Olson and his coaching staff wanted me on board so without hesitation, I was heading to Tucson. Associate Head Coach, Jim “Roz” Rosborough was my point person on the coaching staff. He said that they thought it might be distracting if a new member of the team showed up mid-season. It was fall at the time these conversations were going on and Roz suggested that I spend the year rehabbing my injuries and getting ready for the following season, which is what I did. I arrived in Tucson in the spring of 2004, after the team’s season finished. My next chapter was set to start at THE University of Arizona. I couldn’t believe it — it was a dream come true!
I spent that summer in Tucson taking summer classes and playing in the Tucson Summer Pro League. I was getting to know some of my new teammates and I was gradually getting back into shape after sitting out the previous two seasons — which was not easy. Before I knew it, August came and the school year began. We started pre-season workouts and I was back playing full force at this point. Our team was really good! We had a handful of star players including Hassan Adams, Channing Frye, Ivan Radenovic, Mustafa Shakur and Salim Stoudamire. Our head coach was the legendary Lute Olson, of course, and his coaching staff was comprised of assistant coaches: Jim Rosborough, Josh Pastner, and Rodney Tention.
My workout partner was Salim Stoudamire, which was a natural fit as Salim and I were both undersized combo guards and shooters. Although I was a decent player, Salim was incredible, he was an All-American that would go on to play in the NBA and is truly one of the best college basketball players I have ever seen. Coach Tention was our designated development coach. He would often have Salim and I play 1 on 1. The loser would have to run. Well, I ran a lot — Thanks, coach!
Everything was back on track and I finally felt like things were rolling for me. To be a basketball player at Arizona is truly a special honor. The fan support is like nothing I have ever seen. We were treated like royalty in Tucson and life was great. I was very proud to be a member of that team.
The day before the first day of official practice started, Roz called me into his office. He had bad news. The compliance department ruled me ineligible to play for the entire season. Since I had left school in Florida early the year prior because of my injuries, I was forced to withdraw from some of the classes that would not allow me to finish the courses remotely online. Therefore, per NCAA rules, I did not have enough credits for how many semesters I had been enrolled in school. And because I was a walk-on and not on scholarship I would have to be enrolled in school for a full year before I would be eligible to play. I was not even able to practice or travel with the team. I was devastated. After the two years I had just gone through — and now this — I felt I couldn’t catch a break. I was mentally burnt out. Right or wrong, I ultimately decided to stop playing, finish school and pursue a job working in basketball.
As it turns out, the one game I played in my freshman year in Florida would end up being the only game I ever played in college. Therefore, my career per-game averages were 13 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals. Something I occasionally brag about, jokingly, of course.
As disappointing as my college playing career was for me, it forced me to deal with some adversity early on in my life and helped me grow up much quicker than I probably would have otherwise. Everything that happened led me to the University of Arizona and although I was never able to play, it gave me the opportunity to meet the beautiful captain of the pom line and UofA Homecoming Queen, Meghan McMahon, who is now my wife and is the mother of our son, Matthew Jr. — a future Wildcat. I also made many lifelong friends there and it allowed me to be a part of the Arizona basketball brotherhood — which is comprised of players, coaches, management, agents and media members — certainly, a force to be reckoned with.
Although my college career did not pan out to be even close to what I had planned, I would not change a single thing.