By Chris Williams, CycloneFanatic.com Publisher
Only four years ago, Matt Abdelmassih was a manager for the St. John’s basketball program. Now, this 26-year old who has literally no coaching experience at all, is an assistant in the Big 12.
Still, Fred Hoiberg has nothing but confidence in Abdelmassih and there are plenty of reasons why.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Abdelmassih and examine how he got to Iowa State, his strengths as an assistant coach, what he’s done, where he wants to go and much more. Enjoy this exclusive, CycloneFanatic.com interview with Iowa State assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih.
CW: You started your career as a manager at St. Johns. Then, you moved across the country to be an intern with the Timberwolves where you met Fred Hoiberg. How exactly did your close relationship with him come about?
MA: I don’t know. I guess one of my best qualities is somehow developing relationships with people really fast. There is a comfort level that is generated between me and another person. I talked to Fred prior to coming to the Timberwolves because I had a couple of phone interviews for the position. He was one of the people interviewing me. When I got to Minnesota, we worked directly with each other on a few occasions. My work spoke for itself. I worked really hard. It was a great family atmosphere that we had going on in Minnesota. It was led by Kevin McHale. We would hang out after work. We hung out after games. We sat around and talked about whatever, even if it wasn’t basketball. There was just a comfort level that grew between me and Fred. It got a point where I’d spend Christmas at his house. I’d spend Easter at his house. I’d go over and watch football games at his house. It grew into a friendship and it is as strong as something can be, for working with somebody. When we leave this building every night, it is like we are family. I am fortunate to have that with him.
CW: When he called you about the Iowa State job, was it a no-brainer for you?
MA: Yeah. I didn’t have any reservations whatsoever. I came here twice with him on scouting trips to Iowa State games. I always told him that I was enamored with the fans. It was tremendous. I always knew that he was a big shot here but I didn’t realize it really until we got here. Yeah, it was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to get back into college basketball. I knew that I could do a good job of recruiting. I never thought that I could have an opportunity one year into the job. I thought that I would have to wait it out and wait for an opportunity to present itself. I proved myself on the short stint that I had on the road with helping land two players (Tavon Sledge and Royce White) who I think can help us win. The confidence was there in myself but more importantly, the confidence was with Fred that I can do a good job. It is funny how things work out and patience really wasn’t a part of this. If you would have told me a year ago that I would only have to wait to be an assistant coach and recruit on the road, I would be like “hell yeah!” It is great though. I’m excited about the opportunity.
CW: How long exactly did you think you’d have to wait for this opportunity?
MA: I’ll be honest here. Looking at our staff, I thought that there wouldn’t be much movement and that I’d be in my prior spot for quite a few years. Was I content with that? Yeah, just because it is Fred. But he knew that I wanted to be in a coaching position so that I could recruit. I was dying to do it. The challenge of it is really what gets me going. It gets me some type of high to go out there and recruit. The challenge of it is fun. It just went so fast. This is who Fred is. He always told me that if there was a spot open, he would move me up. That’s how Fred is as a person. He put the confidence and the trust that if there was an opportunity, he would move me up and of course, the appreciation that I have for him is tremendous. It is still somewhat surreal. I still think that it is fake.
CW: When people say that you are only 26 and that you haven’t played before, how do you respond to the doubters?
MA: Anybody who really questions the fact that I am in this spot at the young age of 26-years old, I tell that person to talk to me for five minutes. After those five minutes, you won’t think negatively about me again. I feel like in the short time I have been in the business of college basketball, 90 percent of it is players. You have to get players. If you get players, your job is a lot easier. I know for a fact that I will be able to get players to Iowa State from New York, Alaska, Antarctica, I’ll be able to get them. I know that New York is my claim to fame. That is my wheelhouse. I am confident in New York. I am more excited about opening something else up. I know that some New Yorkers will come to Iowa State. We will be involved with some of the top players there. But experiences outside of New York, I am really looking forward to. I want to develop relationships. So for the naysayers out there, I will be the first person to admit that it is going to be a challenge to be able to yell at Royce White when he doesn’t execute the right way. But I am 26. I have no coaching experience. I will work my tail off to gain that confidence and experience. I am learning from one of the best and before you know it, I will fit into it fine. But for the first practice, I am going to be scared. That’s human nature. What I’m not scared of doing is going out and recruiting. Fred moved me to this spot to get players. He didn’t move me to this spot to turn Tavon Sledge into an all-league player. He told me to get players like Tavon Sledge to Iowa State. I will roll with that, learn a lot and be a sponge, like I have been ever since I got here. The naysayers can say whatever they want but I’m not going to let people down.
CW: Is it possible that the thing people critic you on the most, your age, could turn out to be a strength of yours on the recruiting trail?
MA: No doubt about it. I think that the youthfulness that I bring to this is huge. I can relate to a lot of these guys. From any personal battle that I have had, being around these kids there is such a trust that we have for one another. It goes to the players that we have right now. Dealing with these guys on a daily basis, there is a tremendous amount of trust that we have for one another. They can come to me with any problem and we can figure it out. I can put them in the past path possible to overcome those problems. I think that it is a huge benefit for me. Another benefit is that I am only a few years removed from New York. A lot of these players that we have a so called “in” on back in New York, I know who they are. I know their brother. I know their AAU coach really, really well. Being not very far removed from there and being young, only four years ago I was a manager at St. Johns and I worked AAU events. They still know who I am. That is huge.
CW: You mentioned wanting to branch out from a recruiting standpoint. Do you have anywhere specific in mind?
MA: To me, the northeast will always be a wheelhouse. Pennsylvania is a good state. There are a lot of solid basketball players there, specifically outside of Philly. New Jersey is an extension of New York. We will be players with some guys in New Jersey. I am looking forward to getting closer with people in Iowa too. It is our home state so I am looking forward to watching players that we are recruiting in the state. I want to know the people here. The people here are great and I know that they will be an extension of our success. We need them on our side so I’ll do whatever I need to do to help them.
CW: You’ve worked in the Big East before. Many pundits believe that it is the best league in college basketball. Now you’re in the new Big 12 with this grueling 18-game conference schedule. How do you compare the two leagues from a toughness standpoint?
MA: In my opinion, after traveling the different Big 12 cities this past year, there is no doubt that there is more support, more fan involvement and more home court advantage in the Big 12 than the Big East. If you go to Big East cities, they are cities. They aren’t small Midwest towns. There are more things to do in those cities. Just look at New York and St. Johns. Was attendance better this year? Yeah, of course, because they won. But it still isn’t what you think it would be because it is New York City. I know that there are eight million people there so people will ask why there isn’t more fan involvement. But in terms of style of play, clearly both leagues produce a lot of NBA players. That is a huge recruiting tool when you can tell them that they are playing in the best league for producing NBA players. Statistically, the Big 12 produces the most NBA players. With that being said, to me, I have a special place for the Big East. It will always be home. I would be the last person to ever concede that it is the best conference. I battle it with everyone on the staff. But, the Big 12 to me in terms of athletes and in terms of coaches, it is right there. It is right there with the Big East in terms of being the best conference in America. I still say it and I will repeat myself, we produce the most NBA players. That is what kids want to hear. Fans want to hear it and not that it is a measure of success for how good the conference is, but it speaks for itself.
CW: Tavon Sledge is around 5-foot-9. You helped get him here. I’ve heard about how explosive this guy is. Can you describe his game for me?
MA: He has got an unbelievable personality. He has that chip on his shoulder because he is the short guy. All of those people told him that he wouldn’t accomplish playing at a high level in college or even go to college. Because of the way Tavon plays, he’ll be a fan favorite. In my short life, he is the fastest guy I have ever seen play basketball. He flies around and the toughness he brings every night will be comparable to Curtis Stinson. He is going to be as tough as it gets, which is great because I think we have another tough guy in Tyrus McGee. To have those two guys possibly play together on the court will be tremendous for us. As far as athleticism goes, pick me a better athlete in the country than Tavon. He is 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-8, whatever the heck he is. He throws it down on people. He isn’t afraid to either. He will go right at your head. His shot has improved. His vision on the court has improved. I think he is going to be a tremendous asset to us. I see him playing a role in helping us win a lot of games. More than anything, he is a great kid.
CW: When I think of Stinson, I always think of his toughness. I hear that a lot about Sledge too. Is that a New York thing?
MA: When you recruit a New York kid, the first thing that you are going to know is that they might not be the best skilled or most talented when it comes to basketball, but there is nobody who is going to out-tough them. They won’t lose a fight. They will have the last punch. They will dive on the floor. They are going to work hard. It is that blue-collar mentality. To me, New York is a blue-collar city. Everyone has to work really hard to get where they want. Not that other cities aren’t, but there is a certain grittiness to New York. There is a chip on your shoulder and a pride that you have when you are from New York. That pride translates to the work ethic of these kids. All of the kids who have come from the east coast in the past, whether it be Will Blalock, Curtis, that will carry on with a kid like Tavon and future players.
CW: You’ve probably known Royce White longer than anybody in Ames. What type of growth have you seen from him since he got on campus?
MA: I can’t say enough about Royce. You know how there are times in life when you ask if something is really worth it? Even though this is my dream job, I think that is human nature. Sometimes you sit back and ask yourself if something is worth it. There are times when you have to deal with things and you think, ‘I can’t believe I have to deal with this.’ Royce is the person who keeps me going. When he first got here, did he have some issues? He did and he still does. He has a great heart. He is an unbelievable human being. Now he is a dad, which has helped him grow as a person. He is an inspiration to anybody who has gone through a tough time in their live and was given a second chance like he has been given. He has grabbed the bull by the horns and has run with it. He has done unbelievable in school. He causes no problems off of the court. On the court, he is working hard. Coach is working on his shot. One of the happiest times during my early life in this profession will be when that kid finally gets called out in Hilton to play a game. It has been a long road, even though it has only been a year. A lot of stuff has happened. We had to solidify to Jamie Pollard and the rest of the administration that we were taking this risk because we knew that he was a really good kid. When people have doubts about Royce as a person, I’d love for them to talk to him. He is one of the most engaging kids you will ever meet. He has a great personality. He is going to help us win games and more importantly, it is always a comforting feeling when you know you helped change a kid’s life. He has told me on a few occasions that we saved his life.