By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
Everyone who goes to college has a different experience. Like a fingerprint, each person’s journey through college tells of personal adventure to find oneself before knocking on the door of the real world just a few years later.
Some people don’t make it very long and bow out, deciding to tackle to world prematurely. Others go through in four years time, walk across the stage, and feel adequately prepared to tackle the challenges of being a doctor, a Wall Street investor, or a high school teacher, just to name a few.
But for a select few, college presents such steep challenges that its effects stay with you for years after you depart from the campus. Whoever you thought you were walking into your dorm room that first day is no longer there. You are a shell of your former self, and sometimes it could take years before you truly find the rest of you again.
For Matt Sayman, an assistant boys basketball coach at McKinney High, his senior basketball season at Baylor University and the tragedies and scandal that he and his teammates endured have redefined his life. There was the death of a teammate at the hands of another teammate. A coach who eventually lost his job for lying about the cirscumstances and encouraging others to do so. Sayman, a once untroubled player, spent almost a decade rediscovering who he was, constantly battling the memories of a season that has defined an era at Baylor. After years of trying to make sense of what happened, Sayman has written a book called The Leftovers, about his decade-long journey to rediscovery, highlighted by his 2003-04 Baylor Bear basketball team.
Basketball From the Get-Go
Sayman, 31, grew up in Sayre, Pa., and left when he was 14. A hardcore Duke University fan at that time, he quickly developed a love for the game of basketball and became obsessed with the game. Sayman and his parents would drive him to basketball camps anywhere from Iowa, North Carolina, and New York, just so he could continue to develop as a basketball player.
After playing in some events down in Texas, Sayman realized that there were some tremendous opportunities to play ball and excel on the court in the area. Sayman said his parents moved to the Dallas area for his basketball future. They moved to The Colony, something he was very grateful for at the time.
“They saw that I was committed to this thing,” Sayman told TownSquareBuzz.com ina recent interview. “This was very real.”
Sayman had three goals he wanted to accomplish heading into his high school career at The Colony: make the freshman ‘A’ team, make varsity as a sophomore, and earn a Division-I scholarship.
In order, Sayman accomplished all three feats during his time at The Colony. Even during baseball season, the six-foot-two-inch Sayman would get in a solid basketball workout, ensuring that he never missed a day of getting better on the hardwood. He was a two-year MVP, including being named a McDonald’s All-America nominee as a senior. He averaged 13 points, 10 assists, and three steals per game as a senior, earning the reputation around the state as the player who hustled his way to success on the court.
College Journey Leads to Waco
In his book, Sayman writes a chapter called “All According to Plan,” which encompasses his highly detailed three-pronged plan for success during his high school and college basketball days. With being named the No. 9 recruit by Texas Hoops, Sayman began his journey to decide where he would sign to play at for the next four years.
Sayman said his SMU trip didn’t give him or his family good vibes, but nothing compared to the connection he had on his trip to Baylor University. In 2000, Baylor’s head coach was veteran Dave Bliss. On his recruiting trip to Baylor, Sayman recalls seeing a Bible in the backseat of Bliss’ car. For Cathy Sayman, this was a definite sign that her son was in the right place.
“I loved playing for him,” said Matt. “I was definitely a Bliss fan. He had a brilliant mind for the game that was very old-school and very disciplined. I loved playing for him because you could be a more cerebral player and survive. I could think my way through his system and I enjoyed that.”
Through his first three seasons at Baylor, Sayman played in all 89 games the Bears had played over that span. He averaged about five points per game each season, playing anywhere from 20-25 minutes a night. During his junior season in 2002-03, Sayman was named “Mr. Hustle” for his tireless work ethic, often out-hustling bigger and stronger players to the basketball in order to make productive plays.
Heading into his senior season in 2003-04, the Bears were supposed to be a Big 12 championship contender. With the return of Sayman along with Lawrence Roberts, John Lucas II and Kenny Taylor, Baylor was supposed to compete for a conference title and make a run in the NCAA tournament in March.
But like life can do from time to time, plans and expectations change on a drop of the hat. In one fateful summer, Baylor basketball, the campus, and the city of Waco would be rocked with controversy, murder, and the loss of innocence for several young men and women, including Sayman.
Tragedy and Scandal Strikes at Baylor
On July 21, 2003, Sayman’s teammate Carlton Dotson was officially charged with the murder of another teammate, Patrick Dennehy, a junior forward who had just transferred to Baylor from the University of New Mexico. The shooting had occurred almost a month earlier when suspicions began to arise when Dennehy’s family went days without hearing from him.
“You aren’t necessarily best friends with your teammates, but you are around them every day and battle one another every day,” said Sayman. “The hardest thing was that it just felt like he was missing. We all kind of had that hope that one day he might just show up and this may not be real. My feeling was that this couldn’t be real, because you see that kind of stuff on the news but it is other people’s problems.
“When you are smack dab in the middle of it and it is your teammate involved, it just felt like everything was closing in on us. That was my first real experience with that kind of tragedy.”
Sayman said that Baylor brought in psychologists for the players to talk to if they needed, allowing them an avenue to release all the pain and confusion several players had built up over time. Unfortunately for the players on the team, things were about to get even worse.
Beginning the following month, in August of 2003, allegations surfaced around Bliss and the coaching staff about improper handling of scholarship money, along with his attempts to cover up the violations from the NCAA during its investigation. From suspected drug use to recruiting violations involving the observations recruit practices, the NCAA was building a solid case against Bliss and the Baylor program for infractions over a multiple-year span.
After Bliss confessed to making payments to Dennehy and Corey Herring’s tuition funds not covered by financial aid (an action that violated NCAA rules), along with violations of Baylor’s drug test policy and several other infractions, Baylor President Robert B. Sloan forced the resignation of Bliss on August 8, 2003.
On the same day of Bliss’ resignation, the school imposed a two-year probation on the basketball program, along with no postseason play for the 2003-04 season. A memo was sent out to every player in the boys basketball program, stating that any player could transfer out of Baylor without penalty. Roberts, Lucas II, and Taylor all took the bait, leaving the Bears for greener pastures elsewhere.
While the NCAA sanctions would be handed down towards the conclusion of the 03-04 campaign, Sayman and his teammates were suddenly faced with more questions than they could ever hope to have to answers to. Despite committing three years of his life to the program and the university, Sayman entered his senior season with a new coaching staff, a talent drained roster, and a sudden loss of hope and faith in the world.
“It was a loss of innocence thing for me because coaches are put in a position to have the trust of his players,” said Sayman in regards to Bliss’ departure. “I put my trust in him and there were a lot of things that I didn’t know about, so all those revelations every day were kind of a punch to the gut.”
In total, Sayman lost his entire coaching staff and 10 teammates over a two-month stretch, leaving just Terrance Thomas and R.T. Guinn as the last two seniors on the roster. No longer were the Bears a contender to win the Big 12 title, but the team would be lucky to win a non-district game.
“We were supposed to go 0-16 in the Big 12,” said Sayman. “There was no doubt about that.”
After running through applicants, Baylor hired Scott Drew as the new head coach of the Bears boys basketball team that August 22. While Sayman looks back at the first discussions that Drew had with the team as positive and for the good of the team, he couldn’t help but sit back and find himself questioning every word that he was speaking to him and his teammates.
“For the first time I found myself questioning,” he said. “When he walked in for the first time, I looked around and saw just two seniors with me. The rest were a couple sophomores who never played, a few freshmen, and some walk-ons. That normally isn’t your typical 13-man roster, so I looked around at that reality and wondered how we were going to compete with Texas, Kansas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma.”
Sayman knew that Drew was trying to inspire hope into the team, allowing something to flow through their veins besides the daily dose of anger and negativity. While the words were right and the purpose was significant, Sayman struggled to accept the words without feeling anger towards the game of basketball.
For years Sayman used basketball as a refuge from the outside world, a place of peace where he could escape for a couple of hours and just feel free. Now, basketball was the source of his problems and the primary location of all his troubles, leaving him with nowhere to hide, as he had to face head-on the most difficult year of his life to that point.
In the days following his arrival on campus, Drew pulled over several players aside to have one-on-one discussions. Sayman was one player Drew pulled over individually, telling the senior guard that he knew about his leadership and hoped he could count on that again for the next season. But most importantly, Sayman discovered that he needed to prepare to play a few more minutes, as Drew was planning on playing the senior guard 30 to 35 minutes a night.
“I was not built to play that long in a Division-I basketball game,” said Sayman with a tiny chuckle.
As the season tipped off in late November, Drew and the Bears had to rely on several key walk-ons to have any kind of chance at winning a game that night. The four main walk-ons were Will Allen, Robbie McKenzie, and Turner Phipps, and Ryan Pryor. McKenzie was the man behind the scenes in running the open student tryouts, developing the slogan for games to bring students in that “you could watch one of your own play.”
At any time Baylor had between five to seven walk-ons listed on the roster, and by the time Big 12 play had arrived in early January, the Bears had stumbled out to a 5-8 record, including home losses to Texas-San Antonio, Stephen F. Austin, and SMU. Sayman said he thought about quitting during non-conference play, as he did not see any hope in the future as his team was preparing to face some of the best talent in the country.
Despite projected to go 0-16 in Big 12 play, Baylor beat Iowa State and swept Texas A&M in both games, including a road win at Reed Arena on Feb. 25, 2004. However, Sayman recalled a scene in a Feb. 21 game at home versus Missouri. Baylor lost the game 70-66, but the Bears had taken the Tigers down to the wire in a game they couldn’t afford to lose if they had tournament aspirations. Sayman remembers looking towards the Missouri bench as the Tigers were forced to make clutch free throws down the stretch, and seeing the bench players interlock arms and lean forward in fear.
“I almost laughed at that picture because our little group of leftovers has Missouri scared right now,” said Sayman. “Even if you aren’t a Baylor fan, you have to love hearing stories about teams like that.”
After the game Sayman remembers looking around the locker room and seeing true anger on the faces of his teammates. Even though they weren’t supposed to even be on the same court as Missouri, the players were beginning to buy into Drew’s message and believe that they were a team worth taking seriously.
“The fact that we thought we should have beaten Missouri is incredible,” Sayman said.
Baylor finished 3-13 in Big 12 play and 8-21 overall, but according to most Baylor people involved in the program during that era, that team holds a sacred place in school lore. Heath Nielson wrote a story in the Dave Campbell’s Insider Report back in March 2004 that said “a team that finished 8-21 was one of the greatest teams I ever saw play.” For Sayman, he averaged 35.1 minutes per game, averaging eight points and four assists per game. He finished with the most games played in Baylor history, playing in an astonishing 118 games in the green and gold.
After college, Sayman played one professional season in Iceland. He helped win the Icelandic championship for Njardvik in 2005, before returning to the states the following year. While in Iceland, a teammate inquired Sayman about where he played his college basketball. After stating he played at Baylor, the teammate asked him “Don’t you shoot guys there?”
“Wow, this is in Iceland and even they know about it,” said Sayman.
Life’s Next Step: Coaching … and the Book
When he returned to the states, Sayman went from job to job, “wasting time” as he struggled to put together the events that occurred during the summer of 2003. He bounced between eight or nine jobs, attempting to numb him from the constant pain and depression he had built up. Despite not drinking until after turning 21, he found refuge in alcohol and other chases. No longer was Sayman the sheltered and well-grounded individual he had come to know inside. With the religion of basketball seemingly dead and gone, he struggled to find a path that would lead him to better days.
A couple years later, a group of eight graders played on a team called the IAD Force. Sayman said that being around the kids opened his eyes to the game of basketball again, and the idea of coaching began to make its way into his mind.
“They opened up the world of coaching to me, and even though I was still struggling I had some lessons through basketball that I could still teach,” said Sayman.
After four years coaching at the AAU level, Sayman got into the high school coaching ranks after taking a job at Garland Naaman Forest High School. After a year there, he has spent the last five years at McKinney High under varsity head coach Wes Watson. While Sayman has aspirations to become a varsity head coach, he loves the opportunity to work under Watson on a daily basis and accepts the responsibility that he gives him.
“One thing I love about the high school level is you have a real opportunity to impact their lives outside of the game,” said Sayman. “You can help them a little bit with their skills and make them faster and stronger, but it is really the day-to-day things of keeping them accountable that will make them better in life that makes it great.”
The Leftovers began as an idea after reading Alan Williams’ The Walk-On, a story about Williams’ experience playing at Wake Forest. Sayman could relate to his story in the sense that he played his entire four years at Baylor as if he was a walk-on, always fearing that a stronger and more athletic player would take away his scholarship.
“Even though I was on scholarship at the time, I always felt like I had to survive to keep my scholarship from more talented and faster players,” he said.
For almost five years, Sayman worked through the process of gathering his thoughts together, writing them down, before sitting down and debating whether the story had any meaning at all. He almost quit writing the story two years ago. As he was looking back at where he was prior to the season and who he was afterward, Sayman didn’t believe that a good story could involve a person who doesn’t learn from the experiences and become a more enlightened person. While he wasn’t in the business of lying in the book despite still feeling pain inside, Sayman debated dropping the project all together.
“Before the tragedy happened I was going into my senior year, and up to that point I experienced a pretty charmed life,” said Sayman. “Nothing bad had happened to me. Everything with basketball was going according to my plan. I thought I had a strong belief system behind me, I had both my parents, and I had no deaths in the family. I really was living a charmed life, so when that happened and basketball was ripped away, I found out that the faith I had really wasn’t that strong.
“Basketball was what I was obsessed about and it was kind of a religion to me. When my religion fell apart, I had nothing. Even when our team had success during that season, I still struggled and began to develop bad habits that year that would follow me until my 30’s. Until I turned 30, I was pretty miserable, stressed, depressed, and just lost.”
Sayman did all he could to block out the memories of the season for so long, that grabbing paper and a pen to write down the memories was a daunting task to say the least. In the book, a lot of the information regarding the sanctions and the murder is what has been reported in newspapers and articles in the past, as Sayman learned along with everyone else back in the day what was going on with his own team.
After unveiling his story to several of his teammates, a few were asked and accepted the opportunity to write a couple paragraphs about their experiences that season, as part of the book’s afterword. Sayman even asked if Drew would be interested in writing the book’s foreword, and despite the anticipation that his former coach would say no, Sayman was more than thrilled that he would love to write the book’s foreword.
This summer is the 10-year anniversary of the events involving the Baylor boys basketball program. It seems quite fitting that a book like this is released just before the anniversary is official, as the pages contain a story and a message for everyone. The Baylor bookstore on campus will be the first store to carry the book, and while it took Sayman several years to make his way back to the campus because of fear of how he would be received, he was pleased to know that his fears were for naught.
“I was completely wrong,” said Sayman. “When I saw the coaching staff, they hugged me like I was part of their family.”
Looking back at the last decade of his life, and specifically that senior season of 2003-04, Sayman cliams that his biggest regret was not being the leader he could have been, but hopes that his book can make up for the lost opportunity in some way.
“My biggest regret is that I didn’t do more, give more, and buy in more that year. I was in a position where I could lead and be a light for a lot of things, and I didn’t take all the opportunities that I could have. I hope it is not too late, but 10 years later I am getting a chance to help kids who are struggling through times.”
If you love a good underdog sports story, you won’t walk away disappointed. If you love a personal tale of a man who journeys for almost a decade to rediscover his values in life after losing everything he had, you won’t walk away disappointed.
If you love a book that can make you laugh, cry, and cheer all on the same page, you won’t walk away disappointed. When asked what he wants people to take away most from The Leftovers, Sayman said to ensure that your foundation is set to endure anything life can throw at you.
“You have to take a good hard look at your life and make sure you know where your foundation is,” said Sayman. “Basketball was not a horrible thing for me to be obsessed about. It wasn’t drugs or alcohol, but it ruled me and I never dreamed that basketball would be the thing that ripped me away. When that happened I went on a nine-year journey or finding myself and hurting people that I never thought I could. It wasn’t until I got my foundations right again that I was able to tell this story again and have no fear of it. And obviously, I would love for people to look back and say that our team was a great underdog story and know that we never gave up.”