Steven Adams is far from the only would-be Kiwi basketball hero in Oklahoma. The state’s second New Zealand import, 6-foot-10 power forward Matt Freeman, has recently signed on to be a Sooner at the University of Oklahoma. It’s a great win for the North Shore teenager, and an even bigger one for New Zealand basketball.
During his time at Westlake Boys High, Freeman was a member the New Zealand Breakers’ development squad, his secondary school team and New Zealand Under-18s. Freeman became the belle of a number of American universities international recruiting efforts at the Adidas Uprising Summer Championship in Las Vegas last year, where 25 college programmes were present.
After defeating Argentina as part of the New Zealand team competing in the FIBA Under-18 3×3 World Champ finals in Hungary last year, the North Shore 18 year-old cemented his status as a college must-have. Soon after Freeman received offers from six marquee programs in the U.S., including Tennessee, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt.
Redshirting out the season ahead of his official freshman year, Freeman is already making waves, catching the eye of ESPN’s recruiting expert Jeff Borzello and working on his physicality ahead of his start next semester. Hanging out with Matt Freeman at an arcade in Auckland CBD, Matt’s physical presence doesn’t go unnoticed, though this appears to be something he’s completely at ease with. Speaking with a degree of confidence and self-assurance remarkable for any teenager, Matt attacks the hoop of the mini basketball game with the same perseverance he applies to the court. Setting himself up for low expectations (“this game is actually really hard”), it doesn’t take long for his ferocity and physique to attract the attention of the punters around him. Several whisper: “is that dude, like, professional?”
However, for Freeman, no school could match what the Oklahoma Sooners could offer. The college’s sporting record and family atmosphere made it Freeman’s first choice. Recently the Sooners made it to the Final Four of the 2016 NCAA basketball tournament.
Freeman himself doesn’t want to get caught up in any of the fandom that comes with the sport. His New Zealand upbringing, where basketball fandom is fairly niche, has kept him humble and focussed. He’ll tell anyone that will listen how hard he’s working and how hungry he is (he once ate fish ‘n’ chips and pancakes for breakfast in one sitting). His unwavering ambition has all the endearment of a child talking about what he wants to be when he grows up. Which is what Matt is, just a really, really big kid. He believes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’ll go all the way and he’s probably right. Even so, with a week-old tattoo on his chest that reads “Aotearoa”, it’s clear he’s unlikely to forget his roots.
VICE Sports AUNZ caught up with Matt to discuss comparison, college life and the pressure of proving yourself.
Hey Matt, tell me a little bit about what’s it like as a freshman in a top tier basketball school.
It’s super intimidating when you get there. There’s a lot of having to prove yourself, you’re dealing with all these older guys who have been in the programme for so long. To come in and be the fresh blood you have to show those guys you’re there to compete.
I can imagine there are a lot of egos involved, how has been navigating that?
It can be. I mean I get it, sometimes when you know you’re good, you know you’re good. But for me it’s always like, I’ve never wanted to settle I’ve always wanted to be better.
Have you had run-ins with the boys in the team?
Yeah, sometimes you get into it. You get in tussles with guys on the court.
What went down?
On the court, especially as a freshman you don’t want people to take advantage of you. Sometimes that means pushing back if someone is pushing you around. You can’t let them do it. You have to show them you’re not there to take crap.
How would you describe New Zealand’s relationship with basketball? Do you think it’s evolving?
Yeah, it’s changing immensely. Especially over the past few years with Steve Adams and stuff, it’s been put on the map. The talent pool of New Zealand has also increased so much over the past few years. That’s come from relationships built overseas, and our coaches have improved so much. That’s what’s fuelling the younger generations.
You’ve been labeled the next Steven Adams a couple of times. What’s it like being compared to a player like him?
I think all New Zealanders who have any potential to be good at basketball are going to be compared to Steve Adams, just because he’s the New Zealand god of basketball.
The ‘Lorde’ of basketball?
Exactly. No one has done as well as he’s done. For me it’s just like, me and Steve play such different games. I want to learn off him and learn what it takes to get there – but I always want to be my own player.
So you guys have a relationship? It’s kind of serendipitous that you’re both in Oklahoma.
Yeah! We keep in touch, definitely because we’re in the same city. He’s been heavy in season, so we haven’t been able to catch up. It’s great having him so close though.
Matt Freeman chilling out in Auckland. Photo: Frances Morton/VICE New Zealand
For someone that doesn’t know, what’s the progression at college-level sport? When do you begin starting?
I got there half-way through the season, so I redshirted out the season. My freshman playing year is this coming season so I’m going to have four years left of playing time. In terms of minutes and playing time it’s up to you and if you’re willing to work for it or not. It doesn’t matter how good everyone else is, it’s how good you want to be.
So it doesn’t matter how young you are? Would a freshman start over a senior?
Age doesn’t matter at all, it only matters if you’re ready to compete and improve. You got to play who is going to win the most games.
Your team has already been incredibly successful, especially in making it to the Final Four of last season’s NCAA Tournament. What was it like getting to see something like that first hand?
So surreal. I’ve watched the final four on TV for so many years now and not until I got there did I realise how much of a big deal it is. It’s just hundreds of thousands of people watching this tournament, I mean it was bizarre to see in the first few months that I’m there. It’s so good getting to see first-hand what it takes to make it that far.
You mentioned there have been a few kids have been dropped from the team for classic teenager mistakes like bar fights or failing a class. What’s it like to balance athletic commitment with the college experience?
Yeah, it’s definitely hard to balance social, academic and sports life. I’ve always wanted to have it all, but you’ve got to know when you have to sacrifice something. Something that I’ve realised is it’s not just how you play, but how you perform off the court as well at school and in the wider community. I don’t want to fail classes and it’s been tough to lose teammates to that kind of thing. It’s an eye-opener. We’re treated as professionals and if we don’t perform in all aspects of college we will get dropped.
That’s a huge amount of pressure for an 18 year-old.
It really is. But you know it’s something I’ve always been prepared for. Coaches want players that are going to reflect well on the team, they want all-rounders. I have to block everything else out and focus on my own game.
Matt Freeman shooting hoops in an Auckland arcade. Photo: Frances Morton/VICE New Zealand