It was a moment no one in the gym will ever forget.
Matt “Matty Cools” Newman, a Rumson-Fair Haven High School student who has autism, got a spot in the varsity basketball team’s starting lineup for a game against Holmdel.
Not only that, but he stole the ball shortly after tip-off and scored a layup.
“I loved it,” Matty Cools said.
So did everyone else. Video of the sequence went viral. Eli Manning sent him a New York Giants jersey signed with a personal message. Matty Cools, already everyone’s favorite teammate, achieved full-blown celebrity status at his school and throughout the Shore Conference.
Of course, there’s so much more to the story.
There are the parents who adopted Matt at two months old and helped him find a life-altering connection with sports.
There is the coach who quite literally pulled him into the basketball program, where he was embraced from the start.
And there’s the Holmdel player from whom Matty stole the ball. His sportsmanship deserves a spotlight.
In a school year marked by a football hazing scandal at Wall High School, this is your reminder that, done right, scholastic sports can be elevating and inspiring. This is far from the only example out there. But it’s a spectacular one.
‘With the inclusion, he just blossomed’
Ed Newman spent his formative years steeped in sports. He played basketball at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen and lacrosse at Rutgers University. As he and wife Mary Newman raised Matt, the TV in their Rumson home often was tuned to hoops. For a long time, they didn’t know if anything was getting through.
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“When he was 5 years old, he was in still diapers and he wasn’t responding,” Ed Newman said. “We said, ‘This is going to be a hardship the rest of his life.’”
That changed after kindergarten.
“He loves school,” Ed said. “With the inclusion, he just blossomed.”
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As an eighth grader, Matt accompanied Ed to the Rumson-Fair Haven boys basketball team’s NJSIAA sectional championship game. After the Bulldogs won, Ed introduced Matt to the head coach, Chris Champeau.
“I took him by the hand, we went into the locker room and guys were jumping up and down,” Champeau said. “His eyes lit up. I could tell he was so fired up, the light was on, and from that point forward he was part of the program.”
Matt had just entered a whole new world.
“He came out of the locker room and said, ‘I’m the manager of the basketball team for the next four years,’” Ed Newman said.
He even got a nickname.
“We had a kid on the team called Matty Ice,” Champeau said. “So I said, ‘We have a Matty Ice, but you’re cooler. You’re Matty Cools.’”
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Everyday is Christmas
Matty Cools doesn’t just hang around the team. He runs the first phase of each practice. It starts with a “Jeopardy!”-style quiz for the players. Matty comes up with the questions and moderates the proceedings, hitting a buzzer for wrong answers (prompting a wind sprint by the errant responder).
He also runs a “kangaroo court” before each game that determines where the team’s subs sit on the bench. This is a big deal, because Champeau carries an unusually high amount of players on the varsity roster. He doesn’t cut any seniors; this year there are 19 of them.
“I feel like the more guys that can be involved in the program, the more guys that can have something good going on in their life instead of playing video games or whatever,” the coach explained. “Keeping that many guys not only gets them exposed to a kid like Matty Cools; it also gave Matty Cools a lot of kids he could build his network (of friends) with.”
Regarding the bench order, it’s based on enthusiasm. The most excited subs sit closer to center court, where the action is. Matty is the arbitrator.
“I bring a lot of enthusiasm to the team,” he said. “I like getting the team pumped up. Everyone gets me pumped up, too.”
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Matty isn’t a one sport guy. He runs cross country in the fall and track in the spring, and he’ll be joining the cross country team at Brookdale Community College in Middletown in September. Whatever he does, it’s with pep in his step.
“Every day is Christmas for him,” Champeau said. “He’s so happy to be there. He lives life the way we say we should live life.”
That kind of attitude is contagious.
“People in the beginning were like, ‘That’s so nice what you guys do for him,’” Champeau said. “But in reality, what he does for us is tenfold.”
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As usual, the Bulldogs are good. They’re 16-2 and the postseason awaits. The most meaningful regular-season game, though, took place Feb. 5. That was Senior Day, a rite of passage when every senior is feted during a pregame ceremony.
“Matt’s been talking about Senior Day since he was a freshman,” Ed Newman said.
Holmdel was the perfect opponent. Like Champeau, Hornet’s coach Sean Devaney sees the big picture. In 2018 Matty Cools’ predecessor as Rumson-Fair Haven’s manager, Jack Velcamp, scored a bucket against Holmdel on Senior Night. Velcamp has dwarfism; he stands 4-foot-2.
As happened then, Devaney prepped his team for its role in Matty Cools’ moment.
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“Coach tells us all the time, some things are bigger than basketball,” Holmdel guard Saverio Bodnar said. “This is one of those things.”
Drew Pollock, another Holmdel guard, was handling the ball when Matty took it from him, igniting his scoring sequence.
“Growing up, a lot of people dream of playing varsity basketball and hitting a shot,” Pollock said. “I’ve been able to do that. But if I can help make someone else’s dream come true, to me that’s just as rewarding.”
Pollock is not an obsessive social media user, but he knew he was going to be “the kid who got the ball stolen” in a video watched by tens of thousands of people. How mature is this young man? He was rooting for it to go viral.
“It’s something that he’ll never forget — and we won’t forget it either,” Pollock said.
Ed Newman could not thank Holmdel enough for its sportsmanship toward his son.
“It was great to see him fulfill a dream of making a shot in a varsity game,” the dad said, adding that Pollock, “Should be (Shore Conference) Player of the Week.”
Champeau seconded that sentiment.
“I heard the kid say it was the best turnover of his life,” he said.
Rumson-Fair Haven won the game by 15 points, but that wasn’t the story.
“Our team is about more than wins and losses,” Holmdel’s Bodnar said.
What a message.
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Postscript: Eli’s jersey
On Wednesday, Matty came home from school to find a special delivery. It was a No. 10 New York Giants jersey, signed and sent by Eli Manning.
“To Matty Cools, Let’s Gooooooooo!” it reads, followed by the initials “AO3.”
That stands for “Attitude on 3,” which is the Bulldogs’ huddle-breaking rallying cry.
“I was so surprised and excited,” Matty said of the gift.
Manning, who shares a mutual friend with Ed Newman, has been following Matty Cools’ journey from afar.
And what a journey it’s been.
“Me being part of the basketball team is amazing,” Matty said.
Not just for him.
“Basketball has given us a platform for someone like Cools to really develop in his life and at the same time, he’s not the only kid who’s developing,” Champeau said.
Over the past four years, the coach said, “I’ve had 100 basketball players go through the program — and every one of them is a better person because Matty was there.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at email@example.com.