COLUMBUS, Ohio — The reoccurring back issues that plagued Thad Matta and ultimately helped lead to his departure from Ohio State are the first things Sam Thompson remembers when he thinks about his former coach.
In a good way.
The winter of 2013 was turning into spring and the Buckeyes were in the midst of a particularly brutal practice. Not only were mistakes piling up, they were being repeated. Matta directed his rage — not surprisingly — at senior forward Evan Ravenel.
Eventually, the Buckeyes basketball coach decided he had seen enough. And he decided to use his infamously shoddy back to prove his point.
“It wasn’t a great practice,” Thompson recalled to Land of 10 on Monday. “[Ravenel] did something Coach Matta didn’t want him to do. So we all run back on defense and we’re down at the other end. And Coach Matta has one of the other the managers help him down to the floor because he can’t bend down well.”
When the 10 players on the court turned around to run back down the floor following the possession, they found their coach lying down at half court.
“‘Why?! What are you doing?!'” Thompson recalled Matta shouting. “‘Why?!’ It just lit the whole practice up. He was that type of dude.”
Matta’s quick wit served as a staple of his 13-year tenure at Ohio State, which ended Monday when the Buckeyes announced a change in leadership in its men’s basketball program.
Matta’s press conferences were rarely dull. He often used Will Ferrell’s catchphrases as a rallying cry. Just last fall, he decided to try his hand at modeling Ohio State’s new uniforms.
— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) September 29, 2016
For Thompson, Matta’s sense of humor always stood out. The first interaction between the former 4-star prospect and his future coach came on an airplane as a flight attendant offered the 6-foot-7 forward an aisle seat with extra leg room.
Upon accepting, Thompson heard a voice he recognized from recruiting phone calls.
“It’s a great place to sit, Sam,” Matta told the then-high school sophomore from across the aisle.
As with many of his future and former players, Matta’s relationship with Thompson would continue to grow. The outpouring of support for Matta on social media from his former players was impossible to miss.
The pleasure was all mine, big fella. Thank you pic.twitter.com/wWXDIBaO18
— Sam Thompson (@SlamIAm12) June 5, 2017
More than two years after the final game of his college career, Thompson said he’s developed a newfound respect for Matta.
“What stands out to me most is just the type of guy he was,” Thompson said. “No matter what was going on in the world or what was going on on the court, Coach Matta was who he was. Just the great man that he was.
“That’s probably what you appreciate more the further removed you are from the program. Obviously we won a lot during my four years and we had some great times there. But just the type of man he was and the opportunity to play for him, that’s what sticks out the most right now.”
Thompson, who spent this past season playing professionally in Hungary, said he was surprised by Matta’s firing and figured he would get at least one more season to turn around the Buckeyes. And although Ohio State has missed two straight NCAA Tournaments, the high flyer doesn’t believe his alma mater is far from a return to prominence.
“I’m sure that whoever they bring in will be able to turn it around,” Thompson said. “Ohio State sells itself.”
As for Matta, Thompson is hopeful his former coach can get some well-deserved rest. After all, it’s been awhile since he’s been able to lie down anywhere other than a basketball court.
“Everybody always loved him,” Thompson said. “Everybody always loved playing for him.”