Long before Stephen Curry became a national icon, the greatest show in basketball, he was an inspiration and role model for Matt Hart.
Hart was a 12-year-old ball boy when Curry came to Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament as a freshman in 2007. His father, Dave, a former SUNY Buffalo State star, told his son to keep an eye on the skinny kid from Davidson.
Once the game began, Hart couldn’t keep his eyes off him. Curry scored 23 points in the first 21 minutes and finished with 30 in Davidson’s first-round loss to Maryland.
“I instantly fell for him,” Hart said Friday, a day after helping George Washington win the NIT title. “That’s how it started. I felt he was an underdog who wasn’t highly recruited. He proved he could perform on the biggest stage and he’s still doing it today, defying all the odds.”
That’s how Hart saw himself. A skilled but undersized player, he starred at Canisius High School. But at 5-10, he was considered too small for Division I. He didn’t get a single D-I offer. He went to Hamilton College, where he grew to 6-2 and was the nation’s top D-III sophomore scorer.
Hart took jersey No. 30 in college, a nod to his hero, Curry, and a reminder that you can’t bow to the expectations of others. He never stopped believing he could play at a high D-I level.
After two years at Hamilton, it was time to transfer. No Division I school offered a scholarship. But Mike Lonergan, the George Washington coach, offered him a walk-on spot on the advice of friends in the D-III coaching fraternity.
Lonergan, no fan of walk-ons, told Hart he could work out with the team while sitting out the 2014-15 season. But there were no guarantees. GW owed him nothing, and he would have to earn a position the next year.
“If I couldn’t play, I really tried to make the practices my games,” Hart said. “So I would always go as hard as I could and try to show everyone how this meant a lot to me.”
Hart earned the respect of his coaches and teammates while sitting out. He dazzled them with his outside shooting and his work ethic. He had moved his way up the depth chart when the ’15-16 season began. He made the dean’s list last semester.
He had defied the odds, as promised. Hart earned a spot in the Colonials’ regular rotation as a junior, as the eighth man for an NCAA contender in the strong Atlantic 10 Conference.
Hart played all 38 games, averaging 3.8 points in 8.8 minutes. He shot 42 percent from three-point range and led GW in free-throw shooting at 88.5 percent. Those were modest numbers, but it was a triumph for a kid who had been dismissed as a “D-I player in a D-III body.”
“Yeah. I think I showed people that I can do it,” Hart said. “I still have another year left to prove it, but I think there’s no doubt that I can.”
The transition to a high D-I program had its challenges. Hart joined a team with four seniors, three of whom had been regulars as freshmen and played in the NCAA tourney. Though his offensive skills were evident, his defense was lacking.
“I wasn’t really defensive-minded coming in, but I learned very quickly that I needed to make defense my No. 1 priority,” Hart said.
“Mike Lonergan was hard on Matt, really hard,” said Dave Hart. “But if Matt wants to be a 25-30 minutes player next year and then a professional, he needs to play major college defense. So Mike was teaching him the hard way.”
GW fell short of the NCAAs, like its A-10 cousin, St. Bonaventure. But after the initial disappointment, the Colonials treated the NIT not as a loser’s tournament, but an opportunity to make school history.
They ran off five wins in a row, culminating in Thursday’s 76-60 win over Valparaiso in the title game at Madison Square Garden on ESPN. It gave GW 28 wins, a school record, and their first championship in a post-season tourney.
Hart had his moments along the way. He chipped in with five big points in an upset of Florida in the quarterfinals. He also had five points in the title game, including a three-point shot that brought down the house and inspired comparisons with his hero.
Lonergan had four subs on the floor early in the second half with GW up by six. They were up nine when the ball came to Hart about 30 feet from the basket with the shot clock winding down. Hart buried the three-pointer, putting GW up by 12. Valpo never got within 10 again.
The shot was one of the ESPN’s top videos that night. The announcers talked about Hart being a walk-on. “He was out there on 34th Street,” said Fran Fraschilla. “That’s Steph Curry land!”
The look on Hart’s face after the shot told it all. “Pure joy,” as his dad said. All that belief and striving had culminated in that one fine moment on the big stage – in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“When I shot it, I didn’t realize how deep it was,” Hart said. “I kind of realized that was a deep one. That was just a cool moment.”
Some 30 family and friends were in the Garden to see it. Hart’s mom, Nancy, grew up in Brooklyn. His sister goes to law school there. Hart only wishes his biggest fan could have been around to see it. Joe Corey, the former Baker Victory coach who served as a mentor and believed in Matt when virtually no one else did, died a year ago.
“The shoes I wore all season have Joe’s initials stitched into them,” Hart said. “Every game, I think about that guy. I go out there and play for him. I know he’s watching me.”
Many major college players, ticketed to D-I from an early age, take the privilege for granted. But when you’ve overcome the odds, even a bit role can seem precious, the definition of one shining moment.
“When he started, he had nothing,” Dave Hart said. “He had his gym bag. He earned his way to a scholarship, to minutes on the court, to respect from the GW community. He earned his way to a team that ended up on the world’s biggest stage, winning the NIT in the game’s oldest tournament.”
Not bad for a long shot.