Building trust: Pilgrim finding peace after pain
BY JIMMIE TRAMEL World Sports Writer
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
3/02/10 at 10:11 AM
STILLWATER — Matt Pilgrim scored 18 points against Kansas and was a perfect 8-of-8 from the field in Oklahoma State's first victory over a top-ranked opponent in 21 years.
It's not his most significant accomplishment this season.
This is: He learned how to have fun again.
Pilgrim, a transfer from Hampton and Kentucky, got a phone call a week and a half before OSU's exhibition opener. He was told that his best friend, former Hampton teammate Theo Smalling, was the victim of an accidental shooting.
Smalling was in the parking lot of a Hampton, Va., nightclub on the weekend of his 22nd birthday and took a bullet in the abdomen because a buddy mishandled a firearm. Hampton lost its team captain. And Pilgrim lost the kind of friend he could talk to about anything.
Because the friend was gone, who could Pilgrim talk to about this awful thing?
Pilgrim didn't spill his guts to family members because he didn't want them to worry. The first-year Cowboy didn't want to lean on his new teammates and he chose not to seek counsel with Travis Ford, figuring the coach had plenty on his plate already.
Described by others as independent and introspective, Pilgrim kept everything bottled up inside. Sound like a recipe for angry young man?
Pilgrim knew he had to shed his feelings before they consumed him. He recalled pushing a teammate in practice and the teammate responded by saying "was that necessary?"
Pilgrim was wrong and he knew it. Something had to change.
"I just had to make it fun again," he said, indicating that college basketball careers and life are short, so you better enjoy both.
Pilgrim said basketball began to get fun again when OSU upset Kansas State. He has since become, from a shooting standpoint, the Cowboys' hottest player. He is 36-of-42 from the field over his last seven games, helping his team move above the NCAA Tournament cut line.
Ford said Pilgrim, when his mind-set is right, is one of the Big 12's best big men. "I still don't think Matt Pilgrim fully understands how great he can possibly be as a basketball player," the coach said.
Does Ford buy the theory that fun has been the key to Pilgrim's surge? "One hundred percent. Absolutely. That's hitting the nail on the head for him. Third school in three years. Been through a whole lot. We're asking for consistency in his game and there hasn't been a lot of consistency in his life. So absolutely, that's everything. He fully trusts us now and trusts his teammates."
If Pilgrim had trust issues when he came to Stillwater, they were likely merited.
When Pilgrim was a kid, adults told him he would never get out of the neighborhood. He said a prep school coach once told him he would be working in a barber shop someday.
Did they really believe those things? Or were they trying to motivate him?
Pilgrim wants to amount to something. He said he wants to get a degree and work at a rec center (no matter what the job pays) in his hometown of Cincinnati so he can help kids.
"I love the guy," Ford said. "Matt Pilgrim wants to succeed very, very, very, very badly. He wants to do well for people. Now I think he's starting to figure out what that is. How is he going to do that? You can just see it through his attitude, which is reflected in his play as well."
Pilgrim's older brother, Mike, was a college player who bounced from school to school. Pilgrim wanted stability.
But after two seasons at Hampton, he hungered to know if he could play at a higher level. He transferred to Kentucky, sat out a redshirt season and picked up a new reason for mistrust when a coaching change led to his scholarship being pulled.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I've been the best person during my whole college career because I haven't," Pilgrim said. "But I felt like something was really taken away from me after I worked for it. It was just hurtful."
Pilgrim came to OSU as an outsider who was older than other newcomers. He kept to himself, but not so much anymore, according to Ford.
One of the people Pilgrim warmed to was Marilyn Middlebrook, associate athletic director for academic affairs.
Middlebrook said Pilgrim is "not the tough guy everybody sees." He's a thinker who perhaps thinks too much. She also said Pilgrim is a "why" person who must understand "why" about everything.
Of course, Pilgrim struggles to understand why his friend died. He thinks about Smalling often. But Pilgrim believes the tragedy made him a better person.
"I look at everybody in a different light," he said. "I just try to be cool with everybody because I don't know what they are going through."
Maybe the biggest sign that Pilgrim is enjoying himself came after a recent victory over Baylor. Pilgrim climbed into Gallagher-Iba Arena's bleachers to celebrate and put on an orange and black wig that he borrowed from a student. That, said Middlebrook, is a guy having fun.
"When you experience success," she said, "the whole picture changes."
At Texas A&M
8 p.m. Wednesday
Jimmie Tramel 581-8389
Oklahoma State's Matt Pilgrim dunks over Oklahoma's Cade Davis in Stillwater on Feb. 13. Pilgrim is finally hitting his stride after a rough year. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World