Former Kentucky Castoff Charles Matthews Is All About Now as Michigan’s Main Man

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 31: Charles Matthews #1 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts after a basket in the second half against the Loyola Ramblers during the 2018 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at the Alamodome on March 31, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — It’s Friday afternoon, two days after Charles Matthews and the Michigan Wolverines landed here to prepare for the Final Four and one day before Michigan will beat Loyola of Chicago to reach Monday night’s national title game against Villanova. Right now, Matthews ambles into a media session and settles into a seat behind a raised table. Like so many others with big basketball dreams, he grew up imagining not only sinking buzzer-beaters but also recounting his heroics in interviews. But as he faces the reporters and hears the first question about Kentucky, he can’t help but let out a sigh.       

“I spoke with my media department and my coaching staff,” he responds politely, “and I’m not answering any more questions about the Kentucky-transfer process. It’s so far removed now. I’ve been at Michigan two years now. If it’s not about Michigan or the Final Four, I don’t really want to talk about it.”

It’s easy to understand his frustration. Yes, Matthews started his college career at Kentucky. And yes, at one point, he considered himself a potential one-and-done player. But he left Lexington after nine months, and he’s been with Michigan for almost two years now. And one of the biggest lessons he’s learned with the Wolverines is how to not worry about the past, not obsess on the future and, instead, focus with laser-like precision on the present.

Working with Michigan’s Greg Harden—the life coach who has helped mold the minds of Tom Brady, Desmond Howard, Michael Phelps and many others—Matthews has learned to become a man of the moment. And this is his moment with Michigan.

In this most important month on the college-basketball calendar, Matthews has been the Wolverines’ most consistently stellar two-way star. He was the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, and he’s averaging 16.6 points per game in his team’s NCAA tournament run. “He changed his color blue,” says assistant coach Saadi Washington. “He’s a Maize man now.”


Charles Matthews likes to introduce himself to people.

In the past two seasons, John Beilein and his Michigan basketball program have endured an incredible amount of coaching turnover, which means Matthews has had plenty of new people to meet in his short time with the team. In the summer of 2016, two assistants leapt to fill head-coaching vacancies. And this offseason, two more made lateral moves to assistant-coaching jobs. If you talk to any of Michigan’s current assistants—Washington, DeAndre Haynes and Luke Yaklich—one constant will emerge: As soon as they got their jobs, Charles Matthews was among the first players to find them and shake their hands.

But there was one other coach around Michigan athletics that mystified Matthews—Greg Harden. An athletics counselor at Michigan since 1986, Harden is an internationally known motivational speaker and life coach—but Matthews didn’t know that. All he knew was that this man would walk into basketball practice and bro-hug everyone, from Beilein down to the team managers. And after Harden would leave the facility, Matthews would walk up to those he’d talked with and ask a simple question, “Who is that guy?” When his research was complete, he realized that Harden could be the guy to help him unlock his potential.  

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

“He initiated,” Harden says. “And when a young person initiates, it’s a very different story than when he’s sent to you. It’s a rare moment. Tom Brady. Desmond Howard. Those are my poster children. They’re the kids who were on a mission and had a vision and were coachable. They had respect for authority figures and commitment to figure out, ‘What can I do that the average person isn’t doing?’ It’s a rare bird that does that. Charles is a rare bird.”

Over the past two seasons, Harden has hosted Matthews a couple times a month in his cluttered office on Michigan’s campus. And Harden’s first mission was to remind Matthews that he was more than just a basketball player. It wasn’t easy. Matthews and his brothers, Dominique and Jordan, were named after NBA legends Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan, respectively. And as they grew, they bonded at the basketball hoop behind their grandmother’s home.

For a while, Charles was able to blend basketball in with his other interests. He would watch shows starring celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse with his grandmother, and they’d cook together. Once, when he was about 5, he lost control of a stovetop flame while trying a new recipe and set her cabinets on fire.

He loved skateboarding video games and the X Games, so his parents bought him a board and he rode it around for a few years, going as far as mastering a kickflip.

And in middle school, his band teacher saw his long arms and scouted him as a budding trombone player. “I don’t think I was that good,” Matthews says, “but during performances you wouldn’t have been able to single me out, so I held my own pretty well.”

He also held his own pretty well on the basketball court. Although Dominique regularly dominated his younger brother in the backyard, Charles became the bigger hoops star. When he was 11, he joined Dwyane Wade’s Chicago-based AAU team Wade Elite, and he formed a friendship with the NBA superstar.

“That’s my big brother,” Matthews says of Wade.

By the beginning of high school, basketball was his main focus. When he committed to Kentucky, in February 2014, his junior year, he was the country’s No. 3 shooting guard and No. 11 player overall. He was the first member of a Kentucky recruiting class that would go on to produce two first-round NBA draft picks. By the end of high school, he had fallen to 50th in the country, according to RSCIHoops.com. But he believed that at Kentucky, paired in the backcourt with former AAU teammate Tyler Ulis, he’d blossom.

Instead, he struggled to find his footing as a freshman, averaging 1.7 points in 10.3 minutes per game. And although more than 40 schools recruited him as a transfer—the list was so long that he and his parents created a Google Doc to keep track—he still needed to rediscover his sense of self-worth at Michigan. And on that journey, Harden served as his guide.

“Everybody was Johnny Badass in high school. Everybody on their team was that guy,” Harden says. And then, pointing to his head and his heart, he continues: “The difference now is here and here. If you want an edge, you have to figure out how to manage anxiety, how to manage stress, how to manage negative self-talk. You’ve got to figure out how to settle yourself down. You have to stop thinking about things you can’t control. You cannot control what’s going to happen a year from now or six months from now. What you can control is today.

“When you can teach a young person to put a priority on the present moment, it works. The NBA won’t come unless you master this moment. If you want the NBA, you have to stop thinking about the NBA.”

It was that shift in mindset that allowed Matthews to become the player he is today for Michigan. Instead of sulking through his sit-out year, he decided to improve every aspect of his game that Michigan coaches viewed as a weakness. He stayed after practices with Beilein to rebuild his shot from the wrist up. His offensive rating went from a dismal 92.7 as a freshman at Kentucky to a respectable 103.0 with the Wolverines during the regular season. And although Beilein relentlessly labeled him “Turnover Matthews” for his frequent miscues in practice, he reversed his assist-to-turnover ratio from a negative with the Wildcats to a positive now.

“He’s just bought in,” Beilein said. “I mean, it’s incredible what a calming influence he is and what a great example he is for the Jordan Pooles and Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks, who are looking at him saying: ‘I was highly recruited, too.'”

Matthews’ growth is evident in the way he has thrived even at difficult times this season. In December, he lost his grandmother but scored 20 points in his first game after the funeral. In February, in the thick of Big Ten play, he hit a wall many players do when they are experiencing heavy minutes for the first time in a major program. But he didn’t let the eight points a game he averaged that month discourage him. Instead, he finished the regular season a pair of impressive performances against top-10 teams in Michigan State and Purdue, and he has been Michigan’s leading scorer (16.6 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.8) in the NCAA tournament.

“I feel like this is all part of life,” Matthews said. “It’s not even just about basketball. Life will give you ups and down. Life will give you weird turns that you were not expecting. You have to keep it moving. I think it showed my character that I was able to fight through adversity and find a way forward through everything.”


In August, before the season began, Matthews decided he was done with social media. He didn’t do this to become more focused; it was just that Twitter and Instagram no longer interested him. He was tired of scrolling through his mentions and wondering whether or not he should reply to the eggs. “I guess I’m an old soul,” he said.

Matthews and John Calipari embraced during the 2016 SEC tournament.Matthews and John Calipari embraced during the 2016 SEC tournament.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

There have been a couple social media shout-outs that have penetrated his social media shield during this NCAA tournament run, but only because his freshman teammate, Jordan Poole, pointed them out to him. The first was from Wade, who referred to Matthews as his “young fella” and as “family” in a Snap, while he was watching Michigan take on Texas AM. And the second was from Kentucky coach John Calipari, who congratulated Michigan for making the Final Four and called Matthews “a terrific player and a great young man.”

Matthews didn’t reply to Wade because they text and FaceTime all the time. But he did respond to Cal, thanking his former coach and saying that he loved him.

“It was a respect thing,” Matthews said. “I wasn’t going to leave it out there as a dead end. I just got out there, gave him my appreciation for what he said to me, and kept it moving.”

It was that same social media abstinence that kept the Sister Jean phenomenon from reaching Matthews’ phone, and it was why he responded honestly that he’d never heard of her after Michigan had won the West Regional. On Friday, in the same press conference that had begun with the awkward Kentucky exchange, Matthews was asked to name the Sister Jean of Michigan basketball. He didn’t hesitate. “Greg Harden,” he said. “I call him Mr. Miyagi, or Yoda.”

Harden, who had slipped into the back of the room unnoticed, burst out laughing. And on Saturday night, after Matthews turned in Michigan’s only memorable performance (17 points, five rebounds) besides Mo Wagner’s in the win over Loyola, Harden was there again to congratulate him and remind him of how he’s gotten to this moment by remaining in the present through every practice, film session and game of the season. And now, Charles Matthews knows he is just 40 minutes away from being remembered forever as a Michigan man.

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