Matt Hart can’t say how many times he heard the expression in high school, when he was a kid with big hoop dreams and all the coaches could see was the thing he lacked: size.
“They’d say ‘D-I talent in a D-III body,’ ” Hart said with a rueful laugh. “I heard it many times.”
Hart was a very good player at Canisius High, a gifted shooter and passer and leader who understood the game at a high level. But he was small for his age. During his junior year, when most college coaches make up their minds up on recruits, he was 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds.
Canisius generously listed him at 6-feet; college scouts knew better. Height matters in basketball, and though Hart had talent and determination in abundance, he lacked the size and strength that D-I coaches fancied.
“I was disappointed,” Hart said. “I thought, ‘I’m not big enough.’ So I would try to figure out ways to make myself grow. There had to be a way. I did everything! I’d try to stretch myself out.”
“He has never had coffee, tea or Coke,” said his mother, Nancy, “because somebody told him caffeine stunts your growth. He will not touch it. He won’t drink pop!”
As a senior at Canisius in 2012, Hart made the All-Western New York first team. He didn’t get one Division I offer. But he never gave up on the dream. Neither did Joe Corey, whom I call the Godfather of Buffalo basketball. Corey, who coached at Baker Victory in the 1970s, taught me much of what I knew about local hoops. He introduced me to a young coach named Reggie Witherspoon. He told me Tim Winn and Brian Dux would be stars.
Corey told me for four years that Hart was a major sleeper. He looked past Hart’s slight stature and saw his huge heart and basketball IQ. He saw another Dux, who was slow to grow into his body but became a star at Canisius College and the MVP of an English pro league before an auto accident cut short his career.
“To me, he stood out like a sore thumb,” said Corey. “I saw the intangibles in him. I saw Brian Dux’s will to win, his heart. His last name is Hart, and he has more heart than anyone you’ll see in your life. No one works as hard. He’s a gym rat, a throwback.”
Corey told the local D-I coaches they should recruit Hart. No one saw what he did. Hart went to Hamilton College, a D-III school that competes in the highly regarded NESCAC. It was a top academic school where he could flourish on and off the court.
But he never forgot that coaches had called him a ‘Division I talent.” One day, if he kept working and his body caught up, things would change. “I knew I could play,” Hart said. “Just give me a chance. I’ll prove it.”
Hart was a star from the outset at Hamilton, one of the top freshman scorers in the country. Some D-I coaches began taking notice. He had shot up to 6-2. He considered leaving after his first year, but stayed at Hamilton. Last summer, he played in the Jersey Shore summer league, which included former D-I players and pros. The older guys tested him, but he held his own.
“The first few games, no one really knew who I was,” Hart said. “They only knew I was a 6-2 white kid who played Division III. So the first few games, I didn’t play much. Then only five guys showed up. I scored 36 points and had eight or nine assists.”
Last season at Hamilton, Hart led all D-III sophomores in scoring at 20.6 a game. Still, he yearned for more. He was the best player on a mediocre team in an indifferent community. Hart would look around at Hamilton home games and see 75 people in the stands.
Hart was utterly devoted to the game. He admits he could have spent more time in the library. Basketball had been his consuming passion since he was five. His father, Dave, was a hoop star at St. Joe’s and is in the Buffalo State Hall of Fame.
If he goes a day without shooting a basketball, Hart goes stir crazy. Last year, on Christmas Day, his regular YMCA was closed. It was snowing.
“So I started to shake,” he said. “I was doing pushups in the basement. I had to do something.” Hart called Modie Cox, the former UB star. Cox opened a gym in the city so Hart would have a place to work out.
Hart loved his coach and his team at Hamilton. His dad said it wasn’t the typical transfer, where the parties can’t wait to be apart. But as the body grew, he outgrew Division III. Two of his Canisius teammates, Adam Weir and Matt MacDonald, were in D-I. He was happy for them, but he felt he belonged, too.
So he left Hamilton. By now, a lot of D-I coaches were onto him. He says Niagara and St. Bonaventure wanted him. Fairfield and Holy Cross, too. None offered a scholarship. Hart, who has to sit out a year, would be a walk-on member of the team with a chance to earn a scholarship.
Only one D-I school, Hartford, offered a scholarship. Division I coaches aren’t allowed to scout D-III players in person. They have to rely on video and the advice of other coaches. Hartford’s John Gallagher saw enough to believe Hart could be a star in the America East Conference.
“He was the best pure shooter I saw out there,” said Gallagher. “I think he’d be a bonafide starter at our level, an all-conference player after the first year.”
Gallagher had a good shot until Hart got a call from Mike Lonergan, the coach at George Washington. Lonergan coached for 12 years at Catholic University and won a national D-III title. He spoke with a couple of his pals in D-III, including Trinity’s Jamie Cosgrove, and got glowing reports. He saw that Hart was a better athlete than he’d imagined. He was strong and quick and could dunk, and boy, could he shoot!
So Lonergan offered Hart the same deal as Niagara and the others: He gave him a spot on his 15-man roster. Hart would be part of the team. He would practice and attend home games, but couldn’t go on the road. He had a chance to earn a scholarship later.
“I didn’t promise Matt a whole lot, or his dad,” said Lonergan. “I think they liked that, because Matt’s got to prove himself. What I did promise was a spot on my team, and that’s a valued spot. I’ve never had walk-on tryouts in my life. So he’s going to get a spot and the rest is completely up to him.”
That was good enough. Hartford’s offer was nice, but Hart wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. George Washington went 24-9 and made the NCAAs last season after being picked 10th in the Atlantic 10. Lonergan is a coach on the rise. He just got a seven-year contract extension. If Hart had to earn a scholarship, he wanted it to be at the highest level possible.
“I feel he’s a pretty confident kid,” Lonergan said. “It’s a huge step to walk away. To leave and go into the Atlantic 10, he’s taking a little bit of a gamble. But I kind of like that about him; it shows me he’s very confident.”
Hart has the confidence that comes from knowing you’re physically up for the challenge. He’s much stronger than he was two years ago. He’ll start the summer session at GW a week from Monday. Hart will work out with the coaches and play in a high-level summer league at Georgetown while taking classes.
Sitting out a year of NCAA competition will be tough. Weir, who sat out last year at Canisius, told him as much. But the challenge begins now. He’s ready.
“I want to be there already, right now,” Hart said. “I want to get to it and show them. They’ve never seen me work out or play. That’s how I can separate myself - the way I work and stuff. I can’t wait.”
Lonergan is optimistic, but he says you never know with transfers. Time will tell if Hart is quick enough to guard A-10 players, or to get off his jump shot, or if he’s strong enough to make plays near the basket.
Gallagher, the only coach to offer a scholarship, doesn’t have any doubts. He also has no regrets about losing Hart. He spoke with Lonergan after Hart chose GW to congratulate him.
“I told Mike, ‘That’s a hell of a get,’ ” Gallagher said. “I don’t know if he realizes it yet. Matt makes quick decisions with the ball, which is very, very hard to teach in college basketball. I think he’s tougher than people think, and he’s way more athletic than anybody would give him credit for.”
Would you be surprised if Matt Hart isn’t a contributor for GW two years from now, I asked?
“He’ll play there,” Gallagher scoffed. “There’s no surprise. He’ll end up playing there. That kid will find a way on the floor. It’s like this: When I met my wife, I knew she was the one. As a coach, there’s kids you really like, but the ones you know, you know.”
I told Gallagher he said a lot of the things Joe Corey had been telling me for years. He said to give his number to Corey, so next time, Joe can call him first.