DES MOINES, Iowa — Luke Wilson has Charles Matthews cornered.
The sophomore guard is holding a camcorder as Matthews rides an exercise bike in Michigan’s locker room, surrounded by media the day before the Wolverines open the NCAA Tournament.
“Alright, Charles,” Wilson says. “NCAA Tournament. 2019. On the big stage. I have one question for you.”
Tension is low. The mood is light-hearted. Matthews is at ease, but completely unprepared to be on the spot with Wilson.
“If you could be any fruit —”
“What?” Matthews groans, nearly falling off the bike in disbelief. Wilson presses on.
“You could be a strawberry, a blueberry, a blackberry —”
“Isn’t there a fruit called a starfruit?” Matthews asks. “Yeah, yeah, a starfruit.”
A reporter wants to know why. “Come on, man,” Matthews says. “Self-explanatory.”
Matthews didn’t expect to be here. Not answering questions about fruit just 28 hours before he begins his final stand in college basketball — a stand for which he has spent a year expanding his game, his role and steeling his resolve to prepare for. Not preparing to make that final stand in the first place.
Matthews, the lone senior on the eighth-ranked team in the country, takes pride in creating a living hell for opposing shooting guards. He’s the poised, man-of-few-words leader that will put his team on his back or collapse under that weight.
“He takes everything in stride, he doesn’t really get too high or too low on everything, he’s a very humble kid and doesn’t like the limelight,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “ … But if you’re gonna try to shut any perimeter player down in the country, Charles Matthews is gonna be at the top of the list.”
But often, a different Charles Matthews appears on television, where his name is introduced with the epithet “Kentucky transfer,” and, intentionally or not, every connotation that accompanies it. The kid who couldn’t hack it under the bright lights. The blue-chip bust whose chance at stardom came and went when he left Lexington.
If everything had gone as planned, Matthews would be in the NBA right now. His expectation was to follow in the footsteps of John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
More than five years after he committed to Kentucky with intentions of becoming the next great one-and-done lighting college basketball on fire, Matthews is the captain of a Michigan basketball team with national championship aspirations, finally ready for one last go-around.
“(I envisioned) going to Kentucky win a national championship,” he says. “ … I didn’t expect to transfer for sure. One of those things where it worked out for the better.”
If you were to sculpt your ideal basketball player, that player might look a lot like Charles Matthews: 6-foot-6, 205 pounds, most of which is lean muscle. A 6-foot-9 wingspan. Explosive, yet graceful athleticism.
Of course, basketball players aren’t sculpted. They’re born and grow up just like everyone else. Matthews happened to do so in a basketball family, a family with sons named after NBA legends Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, three kids that honed their skills in their grandmother’s backyard on the south side of Chicago.
Charles idolized Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady. He formed a friendship with fellow Chicagoan Dwyane Wade. His city drove him, as did his love for the game.
“Growing up in Chicago it’s pretty rough,” said Jordan, Charles’ youngest brother and a freshman at D-III Loras College. “I’m pretty sure you hear the news, we’re on the news 24/7 … the drive to be able to make it this far is mind-blowing.”
When Dominique, the oldest brother, started playing at St. Rita of Cascia High School, Charles, watching practices from the bleachers, caught the eye of coach Gary DeCesare. St. Rita was an ascending program, with talent such as Dominique — now at Illinois-Chicago — and Northwestern-bound Vic Law. DeCesare saw Matthews as the final piece of the puzzle.
Charles became much more — he was the Mustangs’ best player from the moment he joined the team, according to DeCesare. Always a premier athlete, he guarded every position and did so well. As a senior, he averaged 21 points and six rebounds as St. Rita went 26-4.
DeCesare gets in his players’ faces. He doesn’t let his them rest on defense or the boards. His defensive system is aggressive and features multiple presses. You might call his coaching style “old-school.”
You might say the same about St. Rita itself. It’s an all-boys Catholic school, one that tries to limit distraction and improve focus. It’s not for everyone, but for Matthews — a naturally gifted student and tenacious worker — it was perfect. Get to the gym early, go all out, leave late, repeat. Distractions? With Charles, there weren’t many to begin with.
“(He’s) pretty much never off the court, safe to say,” Jordan said. “But when he’s off the court he’s pretty much chill. He’s barely on social media.”
The summer before Matthews’ junior year, the offers started to roll in.
“I watched him play with Tyler Ulis (in AAU),” Kentucky coach John Calipari told The Daily. “I said, this kid’s got a chance of being special. He’s got an unbelievable motor, long, will play rough if he has to, has solid skills.”
Calipari wasn’t the only one who saw these gifts. By his junior year, Matthews had blossomed into the No. 12 recruit in the entire nation; the best high school player in the state of Illinois.
This nationwide recruiting battle might have gotten in the heads of some prospects. Not Matthews.
“His personality will never change no matter the situation or circumstance,” Jordan said. “He’s always gonna be himself. He handled the situation real well. He never got too high or too low on the recruitment, because you never can take any of this for granted.”
But there are elite programs, and then there’s Kentucky.
The blue-chippers arrive every fall and leave a short while later, usually for the NBA. The next crop of elite freshmen steps on campus one year later. Under Calipari, it’s as consistent as the tides, waves that carry the country’s best players to Lexington. High schoolers coming to Kentucky aren’t usually expecting a long stay.
“(Matthews) was impressed with the players going there, and being one-and-done or two-and-done,” DeCesare said. “He thought at that time he could go there and get right to the league.”
When Matthews became the first commitment in the Wildcats’ class of 2015, midway through his junior year, he looked well on his way to doing just that.
Alongside Matthews, Kentucky’s freshman class included future NBA players Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe. Upperclassmen Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress now play professionally as well. The NBA isn’t just a goal in Lexington: it’s almost an expectation, especially for five-stars like Matthews.
“They’re all trying to do stuff that’s so outside the box … to compete at the national level and you’re all young,” Calipari said. “It makes this thing different.”
Matthews wasn’t naive about his situation, but he still struggled to make an impact. He averaged just 10 minutes per game. He went from being The Man to a 1.7-point-per-game scorer.
Calipari tried to get Matthews playing time, but so much talent in one place limited his opportunities. Ultimately, what brought Matthews to Kentucky might have doomed him there.
“I think he found out, when you go there and all of the guys on the team have the same ambition, and they all do the same thing,” DeCesare said, “… it’s hard to play when you’re looking over your shoulder.”
So after the season was over, Matthews told Calipari of his intention to transfer.
In terms of transfers, which are inherently challenging, this one was uncomplicated and amiable. Matthews wanted to be an offensive focal point, and more of an opportunity in general. Calipari was surprised and disappointed — he had high expectations for Matthews’ sophomore season — but understanding.
“He still has a great relationship with Coach Calipari and (Kentucky assistant coach) Kenny Payne,” Jordan said. “I know a lot of people may think it was a drama or something else, but it wasn’t like that.”
Matthews and DeCesare looked around. Where would Matthews be close to home? Where would he improve his weaknesses — namely, shooting? Where would he play for a quality coach and a stable program?
Two stood out: Michigan and Xavier. Jordan described it as a “tough” decision, but the deciding factor was stability. Musketeers coach Chris Mack was a rising star in coaching circles, and Matthews could not afford the risk of him leaving for greener pastures. (Sure enough, Mack left Xavier for Louisville last summer.)
“Charles did his homework too,” DeCesare said. “ … He saw that Coach (John) Beilein put a couple of guys in the pros that didn’t have big reputations. Michigan was a great fit — location was great, mom and dad could get back and forth and see him, he could get back and forth and go home, Coach Beilein was a great coach. It was a perfect marriage.”
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wasn’t sure what to expect.
Here was Matthews, a high-profile transfer in a place that wasn’t known for either. Kentucky and Michigan are seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum of how to build a successful program.
But it immediately became clear that Matthews was far from any preconceived stereotype. He balanced confidence and natural talent with an easy-going, adaptable nature.
“He surprised a lot of people when he first got there with how open he was to being a team player,” Abdur-Rahkman, a guard at Michigan from 2015-2018, said in a phone interview. “You’d think, maybe, because he’s a five-star and he has expectations that he wants to reach his goals, but he wasn’t like that at all. He fit right in, right from the beginning.”
Matthews connected with everybody on the team, from the starters to the walk-ons to the scout team on which he would spend his NCAA-mandated sit-out year after his transfer. This wasn’t any extra effort in his part — as his new teammates found out, this was just who he was.
“It wasn’t like he set out to prove himself different. He just really is different,” said former Michigan forward Brent Hibbitts. “He wasn’t looking for a reputation to prove. He wanted to prove to himself on the court, and we really respected that.”
The NBA dreams that pushed Matthews to Kentucky? They were still there, but they would have to wait while Matthews’ hard work and Beilein’s skill at developing players took effect. This was his second chance, and he wasn’t about to let it slip.
Matthews worked on his passing after spending all of his life as a scorer first and second. He worked to extend his shooting range to consistently knock down 3-pointers, a prerequisite in Beilein’s offense, coupled with his already developed midrange game.
As his comfort increased, so did his willingness to lead. Once Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin graduated after leading the 2016-17 Wolverines to the Sweet 16, this began in earnest.
This wasn’t the fiery, passionate leadership of Moritz Wagner or Zavier Simpson — instead, Matthews followed in the footsteps of Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. Behind the scenes was where most of Matthews’ contributions took place.
“I was more lead by example, talk to guys on a personal level, and I think Charles is more like that,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “He’s more personable, talking to people behind close doors.”
Along with growing leadership, Matthews averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as the Wolverines made a surprise run to the national championship game. It was good enough for him to enter his name in the NBA Draft, but after declaring without hiring an agent, Matthews pulled his name at the last minute. He returned to Michigan to find a much different team than the one he nearly left behind.
Wagner had kept his name in the draft. Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson had graduated. These departures left a void in scoring and leadership, one that Matthews was expected to fill.
It was similar to what happened a year earlier. Only this time, the stakes were raised.
The implication wasn’t hard to see. Charles Matthews, no longer just the “Kentucky transfer,” was an elder statesman. He had had his fresh start, and now it was time to write the ending.
Being a senior means both privilege and pressure. People listen if you have something to say, but expectations are raised with experience. All the more true if you’re the only senior on the team.
This was where Matthews found himself going into this season. He’s only a redshirt junior, but that’s a technicality.
Along with Simpson, he still sets the tone on defense. He provides a security blanket for the No. 2 defense in the country, just as he did last year.
“Charles has been that rock all year long,” Yaklich said. “He was that rock all last year, he’s one of the best defensive players in the country. … And he just helps everybody else be able to do their job better.”
But at the same time, Matthews recognized that leadership only by example was no longer adequate. The situation called for more.
“He’s gonna do whatever, no matter what happens and what it takes in order to win a game,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “And being able to have a leader like that is great.”
Added Abdur-Rahkman: “He’ll step out of his comfort zone and call people out because it’s necessary. But it’s not going to be for no reason.”
In mid-February, the reason was Michigan’s 75-69 loss at Penn State. Matthews had stood in front of media that night, obsessed with the ugliest statistics from the defeat. Twelve offensive rebounds by the Nittany Lions. Thirty-four free throws given up. Five 3-pointers to Penn State guard Myles Dread. He let reporters know the Wolverines had gotten “punked,” and in practice later that week he let his team know himself.
“He’d rather just lead by example, but we have such a young team,” Beilein said on Feb. 16. “We don’t even have a true senior on this team. Somebody has to do — we need another voice beside (Simpson). … We need another leader, and he’s doing it.”
His actions still speak just as loudly. Assistant coach DeAndre Haynes recalled when Michigan won the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off in November, in which Matthews was named to the all-tournament team.
“He didn’t even want the trophy,” Haynes said. “The first thing he said is, ‘I’m not worried about this. I want to get a national championship.’ ”
The defining feature of Charles Matthews’ last stand is that it was never supposed to happen this way. But now that the climactic moment of his career has arrived, it brings up a question:
Is this what Matthews wanted?
“He tells me that all the time, you gotta enjoy where you’re at, no matter the situation, always enjoy it, that’s the only way it’s gonna get better,” Jordan said. “It wasn’t about, I have to come back and I have to do this, no. Because his personality won’t allow that.”
Matthews’ friendship with Wade has put a unique twist on how he views Wade’s career. But with the Miami Heat legend winding down his final season, Matthews has taken the time to reflect.
“Especially since it’s his last year, I’ve actually been looking in and appreciating greatness,” Matthews said. “He’s always been one of my favorite players, but the relationship me and him had was like more of a brotherhood. So it kinda took away the basketball admiration and took it to — man, this is really one of my favorite players, one of the greatest players that has ever played the game.”
Matthews seems to view his probable final college campaign in a similar vein. The advice he’s received from Wade this year?
“Enjoy myself, enjoy the moment.”
“I think that it’s his time. He recognizes it,” Yaklich said. “And all great programs that when you get to be a senior, and you’ve learned from other great leaders in your program, there’s a recipe for winning is having talented leaders, but they’re all talented players. Charles learned that you can be both.”
It’s a careful balancing act that Matthews is pulling off — knowing his moment is now, while trying to both soak it in and make the most of it. But Matthews appears to be taking it all in stride.
Talk to anyone around the program, and they’ll note Matthews’ increased sense of urgency. Not only a drive to win now and finish his career on a high note, but to leave the program better than he found it.
“I just think he wants to pass on what he’s learned to the guys that are coming next year,” said sophomore guard CJ Baird. “Charles really cares about the program and the opportunities that Coach B and the coaching staff have given him. He wants to afford that opportunity to the young guys as well and as a leader on this team. … He wants to give it all he has while still teaching everybody, and I think that’s the most selfless thing he’s done for this team.”
This hasn’t prevented Matthews from slowing down and soaking in the moment. If, as nearly everyone assumes, he makes the jump to the NBA after his season is over, he’s concerned with ensuring the foundation he helped create stands after he’s gone. Enjoying a path that has been much more circuitous than he once thought it would be.
But as for that circuitous path?
Matthews doesn’t demand to be understood that way, doesn’t enjoy talking about himself. He keeps in contact with his Kentucky teammates and coaches, but doesn’t talk about the past. He’s aware of his reputation as a Kentucky transfer, but doesn’t care to go out of his way to erase it.
Whatever Charles Matthews wants to be known as; whatever he wants to say, he will say the way he knows how: by playing basketball.