Basketball charity hopes to rebound

On Sept. 24, 2011, NYPD Finest 1 was scheduled to shoot for its fourth win in the Detective James W. Matthews Sr. Scholarship Foundation Law Enforcement Basketball Tournament. Begun in his father’s memory, Connecticut Corrections Officer James Matthews Jr. wanted to create a legacy in remembrance of a great officer and a great man. Several teams were slated to make the trip to Hartford (Conn.) to play in support of the non-profit organization.

Unfortunately just days before it was scheduled to begin, and after much consultation with Hartford Chief of Police Daryl Roberts, Matthews Jr. made the tough decision to cancel the tournament. For only the second time in 12 years, and on the one year anniversary of his mother’s death (her illness created the need to cancel it the first time), the tournament court would be silent.

Lighting the foundation’s fire

Det. James Matthews Sr. was the first African American to make detective with the Waterbury (Conn.) police department. He served 25 years before retiring and becoming head magistrate. The way he conducted himself professionally and privately influenced many people, the community and his only son.

“When you have a father, especially one who felt like how my father felt about the police department, it was a blessing,” Matthews Jr. states. “My father was my best friend. When he wasn’t working, all my youth, what I remember was being with him. He was an old school type of guy. He grew up in North Carolina. His word was his bond. As his son, I always had to carry myself in a certain manner because of the love and respect I had for him. I didn’t want to let him down or embarrass him. Being the son of Detective James Matthews, I felt eyes were upon me. Every police officer at the time knew I was his son.”

Matthews Sr. influenced other members of the family as well. “Growing up around James taught us discipline, how to manage our time and also how to be graceful and not put yourself above others,” explains Sidney Trotman, Matthews Sr.’s nephew, a Connecticut corrections officer and vice president of the Matthews Scholarship Foundation and Tournament. “He believed in sitting down and having family dinners. He was letting us know be your own person, don’t do things that are going to get you into trouble, help others, make yourself proud and that will automatically make your parents and community proud.”

Matthews Sr. suffered from diabetes and watching his father deteriorate had a profound effect on his son. In 1992, after his father passed away, Matthews Jr. moved back to Waterbury. “I noticed a lot of officers didn’t really know my father,” he explains. That lit the fire that became the Matthews Foundation and Tournament. “This man made history with this police department and these guys don’t know about it. I wanted to do something to keep his memory alive.”

The basketball tournament, the main fund-raiser for the scholarship fund, was originally open to the public. “It was a small little seed that grew,” Trotman says. “We started with a 3-on-3 with law enforcement mixed in. We took baby steps. It could have been any sport; we just chose basketball. We listened to the teams and we listened to people. We switched to law enforcement.” The tournament is open to any public safety member — security, EMS, fire, police, sheriffs, bail bondsman, etc. Matthews Jr. recalled one year Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch played.

Several years ago, the tournament moved from Waterbury to Hartford with strong support from the now-chief Roberts.

“We moved it five or six years ago and I’ve been involved since I was assistant chief. It’s a positive for young people in the community. In an urban environment, it gives them something to look forward to.” The cancellation of the tournament and the future of the fund weigh heavily on his mind.

True basketballers

Since its inception, the Matthews Basketball Tournament has become popular among law enforcement and promotes as a high-end competition. “It’s very competitive because the bulk of participants are officers from New York,” says Matthews Jr. “When people come to play, they know they are going to play NYPD and NY corrections teams. These are true basketballers.” The high level of play makes the tournament unique and attractive to players.

Teams hail from all over the country. Most come from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Baltimore (Md.), Dallas and Houston. Matthews Jr. would like to see more teams and jurisdictions compete. “We’ve done fairly well over the years. We’ve had some good years and some bad years.” Unfortunately this year’s financial hardship extended to the court. “Teams weren’t able to pay until the day of the tournament,” says Matthews Jr. “But the fees for the gym and the referees have to be paid in advance. As a non-profit, we just weren’t able to do it.”

Financial blow

The cancelled tournament delivered a financial blow to the foundation. Each year tournament money funds several scholarships for community youth. “We give out scholarships to students to go into criminal justice,” says Matthews Jr. “We try to help those in financial need. We try to target those in less fortunate households. Every penny helps.”

In years past, the organization hosted a mentoring program for local middle schools utilizing officers from the Connecticut State Police, Waterbury Police Department and Connecticut Department of Corrections. “That changed the mindset with some of the kids. At the end, some of [them] say I think I’ll be a police officer or a corrections officer. When I talk to the kids who got scholarships, we talk to them about carrying themselves in a professional manner, respecting the community and not abusing authority. To get the community involved in the tournament is a hard sell, but I try;” Matthews Jr. says. “The truth is not everybody is law enforcement friendly.”

Chief Roberts agrees the foundation and the tournament are good tools. “It creates a connection and a positive relationship,” he states. “They see us as the bad guy. But with the tournament they get to see police officers as human beings. A child sees me as an officer that plays ball. It builds positive relationships.”

The amount of the scholarships depends on how much money is raised during the tournament and how much expense has been off-set by sponsors. “The years we have a sponsor are good years,” states Matthews Jr. He worries about what they’ll have to offer this year. No tournament means no scholarship.

A getaway & release

“One time I was thinking about not doing the tournament and one of the guys from NYPD who was in 9/11 heard that,” explains Matthews Jr. “He pulled me aside and said they look forward to coming to this tournament every year. It’s a release for them. It gives them a little time away from the job. It gives them a chance to network with different officers around the country. It’s a little time away from home. Just to get away. To do something they like to do for recreation.

“The tournament benefits the scholarship fund, but also the officers. When he brought it to me that way, I stood back and said I have to keep this going.” Even with the cancellation of this year’s tournament, Matthews Jr. is optimistic about the future. “We will continue to move forward, hoping for a sponsor for next year,” he says.

Uncertain future, rebound hopes

Matthews Jr. dreams of the day when the foundation is self-sufficient. “To be able to help without struggling to help. I’d like to find a sponsor that will stand by us and believe in what we’re doing and support us financially. I’ve been blessed a couple times to have sponsors. My dream was to have NIKE join forces with us and start a law enforcement league.” Two local sponsors have stood behind the Matthews Tournament for a number of years: Loehmann Blasius Cadillac-Chevrolet and Frankies Restaurants. “[They] helped us keep our neck above water and I’m grateful for that,” explains Matthews Jr.

Trotman agrees sponsorship would be a big help for the organization. “I hear Jimmie struggle for sponsorships,” he says. “We are constantly on the phone letting them know this is not a fly-by-night operation. Anything can help.”

As a child growing up, I watched my father always help others,” Matthews Jr. says. “Here it is 30 years later, I could be in the mall, I could be in the store and somebody there mentions my name and people say are you Jimmy Matthews’ son? Then I will get a story about how my father helped them or someone in their family. My dad touched so many people as a police officer in the city of Waterbury. I never heard one person speak badly of my father. Not once. That’s a special person that can touch people’s lives like that.”

Law enforcement professionals wondering what they can do to help can register their teams and come play in the tournament. Others are encouraged to come out and watch. Sponsorship could help this organization continue to provide benefits to the community and law enforcement personnel.

“I’m proud to host it,” Roberts says. “Come out and support the game and bring a young person. Sit in the stands and cheer. Get involved.”

 

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000 and previously worked for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department for almost eight years. She has a master’s in criminology and criminal justice from Indiana State University.

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