It was not a pleasant meeting, the sharp edge of a metal bleacher and the head of a never-stops 5-year-old. But meet they did, and Matt Gatens knew something was wrong.
“My friend was staring up at my head,” Gatens said. “I said, ‘Is it bleeding?’ He was speechless.”
A Marshalltown police officer, working at the state baseball tournament the Gatens family was attending, scooped up Matt and went looking for his parents.
Julie Gatens looked down from her seat and saw her son in the arms of the law.
“Blood just gushing down his face,” she recalled.
Julie and her husband, Mike, rushed to the family car, son in tow, for a trip to the hospital. A flat tire greeted them. George Funk, Marshalltown’s athletic director, provided transportation.
Matt still has a swoosh-shaped scar on top of his head.
The career of Gatens, a senior guard for an Iowa basketball team that meets Illinois at 10:30 Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, has duplicated that day in Marshalltown. Nothing goes as planned.
Gatens committed to one Iowa coach, and played for two others. He saw nine different Iowa teammates join the program, then leave before completing their eligibility. He’s on a team desperately trying to finish with a winning season for the first time since 2006-07.
He’s been a model of consistency in an inconsistent basketball world, starting all 124 games in his career. Former Iowa star Roy Marble is the only player other than Gatens to record more than 1,500 points, 400 rebounds, 250 assists and 125 steals in their career.
His play has been an inspiration to his coach, Fran McCaffery.
“He is the epitome of character and class,” McCaffery said. “Not only in terms of what he has done on the floor, but how he’s carried himself.”
Gatens’ journey to Iowa was no surprise. Mike played basketball for the Hawkeyes. Julie was a cheerleader. Matt grew up a Hawkeye basketball fan.
His most vivid memories are of watching former Iowa stars Luke Recker and Reggie Evans.
“I remember all of Reggie’s double-doubles, always counting his rebounds as a kid,” Matt said.
Gatens committed to the Hawkeyes, then coached by Steve Alford, after his freshman season at City High School in Iowa City.
“I’ll never forget, Alford told him, ‘When you leave this room you represent your family and your high school, but you also represent Iowa, the state of Iowa and the Big Ten. You can handle that, Matt,’ ” Mike said.
The losses have piled up faster than the wins. If Matt contemplated transferring — the rumor dujour after his sophomore season — he’s keeping it a secret.
“He knew there was no way he could leave Iowa,” Mike said.
Mike used to serve as a host to a visiting team when Iowa held its own December tournament. That’s when he met McCaffery, who brought his Lehigh team to Iowa City to play in 1985, and returned with his North Carolina-Greensboro team in 2004.
When Mike brought his family to a team dinner at a downtown Iowa City hotel in 2004, Matt first met McCaffery.
“Crazy how things work out,” Matt said.
Now McCaffery has become Gatens’ biggest cheerleader, promoting him as an NBA player.
“He needs to be on an NBA roster next year,” McCaffery said.
Gatens plans to coach after his playing days end.
“I think he would be spectacular at it,” McCaffery said. “His basketball intellect is off the charts. This is a profession where you talk about guys putting hours in, and his work ethic is nothing like I’ve ever seen.
“But my thought now is that he should keep playing.”
As a kid, Julie remembers her son decked out in a Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant jersey. Gatens wears No. 5 in honor of another of his Iowa idols, former guard Andre Woolridge. Some day soon, he’ll take that Iowa jersey off for the last time.
“Not having another season to look forward to in an Iowa uniform is going to be pretty rough to take,” Matt said. “But you’ve got to move on to the next phase of your life.”
Mike has always preached to his son to get the maximum out of his abilities. He used two Iowa City natives turned NFL players — Tim Dwight and Nate Kaeding — as examples.
“Nate maxed it out,” Mike said. “Tim maxed it out. The last thing I’m going to tell Matt, when he’s done, is ‘Job well done.’ ”
The Hoop Scoop on Iowa’s Matt Gatens
— 7th in career scoring at Iowa with 1,591 points
— Has started all 124 games of his college career, averaging 12.8 points.
— Has scored in double figures 88 times, including career-high 33 against Wisconsin Feb. 23. Has 19 games of 20 points or more.
— Fourth-best free-throw shooter in Big Ten history (minimum 350 attempts) at 86.1 percent. He’ll become the first player in Iowa history to lead the team in free-throw shooting four consecutive seasons.
— Will become the seventh Iowa player since 1939 to lead the team in scoring three different seasons.
— In Big Ten play, ranks in the Top 10 in six statistical categories – 3-pointers made (2.7, 1st), 3-point percentage (.480, 3rd), scoring (17.0, 5th), steals (1.4, 7th), free-throw percentage (.809, 9th), and minutes played (36.1, 9th).
— Joins Roy Marble as the only Iowa players to have more than 1,500 points, 400 rebounds, 250 assists and 125 steals in their career.
SIZING UP THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Ind.
Television: Big Ten Network, ESPN2, ESPN, CBS.
GAME TO WATCH
Northwestern is on the right side of the bubble in hopes of getting the school’s first NCAA bid. But a loss to the 10th-seeded Gophers could send a negative message to the NCAA selection committee. Another must-win challenge for the Wildcats.
Hard to label this a real upset since Illinois, the No. 9 seed, just beat No. 8 Iowa in Champaign on Feb. 26, 65-54. That is the onl y win for the reeling Illini over their last nine games. The Hawkeyes have been one-and-done in the last five Big Ten Tournaments.
MOST TO LOSE
Michigan State clinched a share of the Big Ten title with two regular-season games remaining, and finished the season with a share after losing at Indiana and at home to Ohio State. The Spartans could sink another seed or two by not winning the tournament, and the loss of freshman Branden Dawson to a torn ACL won’t help.
MOST TO GAIN
Ohio State got its swagger back with a stunning win at Michigan State on William Buford’s buzzer-beater Sunday. Now the Buckeyes look to the big picture. A Big Ten Tournament title would return Ohio State to the status of national championship contender.
Michigan State’s Draymond Green is the most complete player in the Big Ten, and the Spartans will go as far as his scoring and rebounding takes them (45 career double-doubles). More importantly, Green’s will to win matches coach Tom Izzo’s passionate approach. Green is as good a leader as he is a scorer and rebounder. But he must avoid his biggest nemesis, foul trouble, to keep Michigan State afloat.
SIZING UP IOWA
The Hawkeyes doubled their Big Ten victories from the season before and improved the overall win total by five. That included three league road wins for the first time since 2005-06 and a 4-3 record against Top 25 teams. Iowa is last in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 71.6 points, but that has been an area of improvement down the stretch. With five of the six leading scorers freshmen or sophomores, and attendance on the rise, a dormant Iowa program is showing signs of life.
WHO: Illinois (17-14) vs. Iowa (16-15)
WHERE: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Ind.
TELEVISION: Big Ten Network.
RADIO: WHO-AM (1040), Des Moines and Hawkeye Radio Network.
STAT LEADERS: For Illinois – Brandon Paul 15.0 ppg, Meyers Leonard 8.3 rpg, Paul 2.9 apg; for Iowa – Matt Gatens 15.7 ppg, Aaron White 5.4 rpg, Bryce Cartwright 4.3 apg.
ABOUT THE ILLINI: Illinois started the season 15-3 but won just two of their last 13 games.
ABOUT THE HAWKEYES: Iowa’s scoring average of 72.1 points is the highest since the 2004-05 team averaged 72.9.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Leonard, a 7-foot-1 sophomore, tied Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger for the second-most double-doubles this season with 12. Only Michigan State’s Draymond Green had more with 20. Leonard matched a career high with 22 points and added 14 rebounds in a 65-54 victory against visiting Iowa on Feb.26.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball