Unwavering Desire to be a National Basketball Champion: Interview With Matt Kennedy
A walk-on, Matt Kennedy‘s road to becoming a Big East National Champion for the Division 1 Villanova Wildcats is not typical.
High School Career
He was “very very small” in high school. He tried to make the JV basketball team freshman year and got cut. He tried to make the varsity team sophomore year and got cut. “That was a key time for me in the sense that I tried to do something basketball-wise and fell short two times in a row,” said Kennedy.
After being cut twice in high school Kennedy had to decide if he should go back to playing other sports and just enjoy basketball, or if he should continue playing basketball, go for it, and try to make it his one sport. Basketball was always his go-to escape for as long as he could remember. Luckily, he grew, and with a lot of hard work, Kennedy became stronger and faster, which helped him his junior and senior years.
“My senior year in high school I had an upward curve of getting better quickly, but I wasn’t a sensation that every coach in the country wanted. I thought I could potentially be a walk-on somewhere. He knew the Wildcats were incredibly good, talented individuals, and that it was going to be a challenge, but he thought as a walk-on he could reach that level. At the same time, Kennedy knew that he wasn’t going to go to the NBA, so he wanted to get a good education and do what he was passionate about academically, business-wise. To him, going to Villanova was the perfect fit.
Kennedy’s high school coach Rico Reed had coached Dante Cunningham, a former Villanova player who led the team to a Final Four and now plays in the NBA. Coach Reed had a connection with Jay Wright, Villanova’s coach, and that opened the door for Kennedy to meet with Wright once when he visited the campus.
Originally, Kennedy was waitlisted at Villanova and had put a deposit down on the University of Miami. Then in June Kennedy received a call from Coach Wright asking him to be a part of the Villanova basketball program. He used being waitlisted as a motivator. “My freshman year at Villanova I didn’t dress. Same with my sophomore year.” It was a very natural progression into his junior year, the first year he dressed, had a jersey, and played in games. “Some people don’t understand the role of being a walk-on. They think you just show up at practice and play in games sometimes. But in our program, it’s a valued position in the sense that everyone has the same status, but just different roles.”
The Role of a Walk-on
The walk-on role itself is sort of a hybrid between a coach and a player. Sometimes you get to play in the games, and a lot of times you’re taking a backseat to where you’re trying to get the coach’s message across. When talking with Kennedy about what the role of a walk-on entails, he spoke with great passion. “It’s not just the fact that someone is a better shooter than you or taller; every little detail is at another level. I worked to gain the trust of the players and coaches and prove that I could hold my own.”
Being a walk-on can be a thankless job. “Our role isn’t to go out and hit the game winning shot and score 30 points, it’s to make sure that we’re all locked in on what we’re supposed to do playing basketball for Villanova during games.” Don’t get him wrong, Kennedy would like to be the guy scoring 30 points on ESPN, but he appreciates how special it is to be part of his team in a walk-on capacity.
“As a walk-on, you struggle to find balance. I was recently inducted into Beta Gamma Sigma International Honor Society. My roommates, Kris Jenkins (#2, forward) and Phil Booth (#5, guard), have different perspectives than me. Their goal is to play basketball and make it to the NBA.” Kennedy wants to help make his team as good as they can be, but knowing the NBA isn’t in his future, he has to think about off-the-court goals. He has to do his homework, study, and get an internship. During the season the team travels like crazy, sometimes returning to school at 5 a.m. and then having to take a test in class. “It can be a juggling act at times.”
“I like the team aspect of basketball. When you get to the Division 1 college level, it’s a job basically, so to have a group of guys that you like being around, that make it enjoyable is great.” Kennedy believes that you have to be able to be well-rounded in basketball. You can’t just be good at a single thing – like shooting –because if you’re good at just one thing, it can only take you so far.
“Our team follows a pyramid — play hard, play together, play smart, and play with pride. If we do these things for 40 minutes during a game, we consider our team successful regardless of the outcome.”
Getting a Jersey
At the beginning of this year when Kennedy found out he would be dressing, it was a moment he will never forget. “They hung a #35 jersey in my locker and that’s how I became #35. I was very excited to be selected to play!” He knew being selected meant that he had gained the coach’s trust by being given the opportunity to be a walk-on, to play, and travel full-time. He took it as a challenge to not be complacent, like “oh, I’m a walk-on now. I’m a junior. I can just relax and enjoy it.” He always tries to learn from games, experiences, and push himself.
A highlight game moment of the season for Kennedy was when they played Creighton on New Year’s Eve. At the time, Creighton was ranked #10 and had a big fan base. “We went out there and everyone thought we were going to get our first loss of the season, but we went in and got a big win. It was great to go into someone else’s house and steal a big win.”
A difficult time for Kennedy this season was when they lost to Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but not for the reason you may think. “It was the realization of the end of our team being together forever.” The seniors will all be graduating and the assistant coach took a head coaching job elsewhere. After everything that we had been through and the realization that it was over — that was a hard pill to swallow.” In the locker room after the Wisconsin game, Kennedy was in shock at their loss. Darryl Reynolds’ (#45, forward), locker was next to his. Reynolds was asked by a reporter what he was going to miss the most — the facilities, traveling first-class, the gear? Reynolds looked over at Kennedy and with tears in his eyes replied to the reporter, “the relationships, you can never replace the relationships I have with my brothers.” When Reynolds told the reporter that, it all hit home for Kennedy. Being part of Villanova basketball is not just winning games, it’s also a special brotherhood.
Life After the 2017 Tournament
After the season ended, Kennedy returned home to Virginia for spring break and visited his high school. A lot of people asked him what Coach Wright and the Villanova program are really like? “What you see — the coach and the players are genuine. We just want to be the best team we can be. At the end of the day, it’s a big program, we’re competitive and there are high expectations.”
They also asked Kennedy what’s it like to play in the Garden? “There are perks to playing at Madison Square Garden in front of thousands of thousands of people, but if you don’t think of it as bigger than you and you don’t want to be part of a successful group of people, then being a walk-on may not be for you. It was a hard pill for me to swallow. At first, you feel like you’re doing so much for so little, but in the long run, it’s the opposite. You’re doing it all for a big-time program, to be a part of something special. If you are passionate about it and enjoy it, then you can be a good walk-on, but if you’re more in it for the recognition and hype, then you’re going to struggle to be a good walk-on.”
“As a non-star player, I may not be a huge ambassador for the program, but in a way, I’m an ambassador for basketball outside of the program through my internship and being inducted into the business honors society. Academically, I’m an ambassador.”
On April 24, basketball practice at Villanova already started for next season. Kennedy has an internship at Goldman Sachs this summer, so he’ll be up in NYC and join his team’s workouts after his internship concludes. Everything fell into place this year for Kennedy — academically and his opportunity as a walk-on. “I just keep trying to get better in everything I do and never look back!”