How Matt Scott Became One Of The Best Wheelchair Basketball Players Ever

This story was originally published in Dime 70. Check it out on newsstands nationwide to see it in its entirety…

Every young athlete grows up dreaming to become the next Michael Jordan, the next Aaron Rodgers, the next Albert Pujols. But Matt Scott couldn’t because of a debilitating birth defect. He decided instead to become one of the best wheelchair basketball players ever.

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“An excuse is worse than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded”.
Alexander Pope

Take a moment and reflect on your life. On a daily basis, how many times do you spew out lame excuses for not getting up, getting out and doing something? Whether you’re too tired to roll out of bed for that 8 A.M. sociology class, or complaining of the Monday morning doldrums, we’ve all felt sorry for ourselves at one point.

Don’t bring that nonsense to Matt Scott. Every child who lives, breathes and drinks basketball dreams of national championships, pro ball, Olympic medals and Nike ads. Scott has done all of this and more… in a wheelchair.

“It’s never been like something was taken from me,” Scott says. “I never felt down. I’ve met some really interesting people through this sport. I’m a world traveler, professional athlete. I’ve been to the Olympics twice. I’ve done some things that a lot of people can’t say that they did.”

Scott downplays his accomplishments, insisting he has “kind of a boring story”. Born with Spina bifida, an incomplete development of the spinal cord, doctors doubted him from the very start.

“When he was born, they tried to get us to let him expire,” recalls his mother Audrey Scott. “Their exact words were you don’t have that much money and this child will never standup, walk or crawl. We should let him just expire.”

Then an infection spread throughout his body as a child, and doctors said his legs would have to be amputated. If not, he would die.

“Matt at first said no, I don’t want nothing cut off,” his mother says. “I said I respect how you feel. Mommy is going to make sure you get buried and you have a really nice funeral and I will take really good care of you. A couple days later he agreed to the surgery.”

Scott grew up happy in Detroit, completely ignoring a fact no else could. He did everything his friends did. When the neighborhood kids played on the court, little Matt was right there. No special treatment either.

“I couldn’t believe it,” longtime friend Sam Elia says. “He played better than I did for sure and just so aggressive. It didn’t stop him at all. You know how some people are like take it easy, he’s in a wheelchair? You actually had to go harder with him because he was a really athletic guy.”

“I was really lucky to have the friends that I have because they never took it easy on me at all,” says Scott. “In fact, if there was a way they could absolutely dominate me or just completely take advantage of a weakness they would do it. They didn’t look down on me.”

The kid who dribbled the basketball everywhere from lunch to bed found an outlet to show off his game with wheelchair basketball at the age of 14. There were reservations at first.

“I saw it in a negative light,” he says. “That’s me being in a wheelchair so I can’t imagine what some people think sometimes when they hear wheelchair basketball.”

Scott played juniors in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He led the Michigan Thunderbirds to an undefeated season, captured two national titles and MVP honors.

Pretty soon Scott witnessed how far wheelchair basketball could take him. As an 18-year-old, he made the 2004 U.S. Paralympics team, representing the country in Athens, Greece.

David Kiley is considered a wheelchair basketball pioneer, and he remembers his first matchup with Scott. It was a day he knew his time was up.

“I came in with a big rep and he was on me like a glove,” Kiley says with a slight chuckle. “I was older in my game at that point and it was then that I knew Matt was really going to be special as he grew more into his game. He does things in his chair that I’ve seen no other human do. He can be going full speed and get clipped and barrel rolled and come up without missing a beat.”

Young players are always told to use the game for a better education and life. But there are only 12 college programs that offer competitive wheelchair basketball programs. Turning down a full scholarship offer from the University of Texas-Arlington, Scott went against the grain and opted for comfort at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“In high school you get offered a full ride that’s a huge deal,” Scott says. “I met with the coach at University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Really hit it off well with him. I really felt like he could un-tap the potential I was trying to un-tap. So I turned down that full ride. My mom was in tears. She couldn’t believe it. It was the best decision of my life.”

Scott led the school to three national championships, pouring in 13.5 points and 3.1 steals per game as a senior. His four-year collegiate performance garnered an ESPY award nomination for best male athlete with a disability. This also prompted Nike to call on his services for a motivational commercial.

Scott is now perhaps the most recognizable face in wheelchair basketball. Kiley says he’s probably the highest-paid American player overseas. Fresh off making the national team for the 2012 Paralympic Games, the 26-year-old Scott is heading back to Istanbul, Turkey for his fourth season across the pond with the Galasaray club.

But it’s more than his signature chiseled frame and tenacious defense. It’s a smile that exemplifies the beauty of the human will, a smile Audrey Scott remembers from her baby boy fighting the odds of life.

“Matthew was a very special child,” Audrey Scott says. “Every time he was in the hospital he had this reputation of having a tremendous smile. He’s always smiling.”

“He’s got an infectious smile and an intense game approach,” Kiley says. “I think it’s an amazing blueprint that he’s made on the sport of wheelchair basketball that a lot of juniors and young adults have been inspired by. He’s been a difference maker as far as how our sport is received.”

Sure he wants to win a second European championship next season. A gold medal in London would also be nice. But Scott knows his life journey is deeper than basketball.

“I’m out here to make my family proud,” he says. “There are so many people that are supporting me. There are so many people in my corner. I gotta make them proud. It’s so many people looking up to me. I gotta give them something to look up to.”

Somewhere out there a kid can only dream of running the length of the court and elevating like their pro heroes. But they don’t have to be like Mike. Being like Matt is not so bad.

“Some of the things that I’ve done, I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I didn’t have a disability,” he says. “Use the things that are given to you. Don’t look at it as far as having a disability. There are still opportunities. We should all just go after them.”

What do you think?

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