Bennedict Mathurin found NBA path in Mexico after brother's death

Bennedict Mathurin found NBA path in Mexico after brother’s death

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NEW YORK — Dominique Jeune was riding his bicycle home from school, but he never made it.

That Tuesday in September nearly eight years ago is seared into Bennedict Mathurin’s memory and inked on his left forearm. Back then, a 12-year-old Mathurin and his 15-year-old half brother, Young, were inseparable. Jeune was serious and a head taller, and he didn’t go easy in their one-on-one basketball games. Mathurin was a little more physical, and already imbued with the stubborn confidence that carried him to the Barclays Center stage Thursday and made him the first graduate of the NBA’s Latin America Academy to be selected in the draft.

Mathurin never had a relationship with his father, Felix, who died in 2013, but he didn’t bother him. He had Jeune, who Mathurin viewed as his twin. They would play-fight constantly, spend long afternoons at a local park and savor their Haitian mother Elvie Jeune’s chicken, rice and beans. The boys and their older sister, Jenn Mathurin, lived in a modest apartment and looked out for each other while Elvie worked long hours as a nurse to support the family in Montreal-Nord, statistically one of Montreal’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

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Now 20, Mathurin recalls Jeune’s tragic head injury with a steady gaze and clipped sentences, unrolling his shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo bearing Jeune’s name and the dates of his birth and death.

“A car hit him,” Mathurin said during an interview at a midtown Manhattan hotel on Wednesday. “I was at home. He just didn’t come back from school. My mom was wondering what happened. She received a call. She went to the hospital. She found him. It was hard for my mom, my sister and my whole family. We didn’t move on easily. It took a couple years to get used to it.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Mathurin’s name as the sixth selection in the draft by the Indiana Pacers, and the 6-foot-6 wing, who spent two seasons at the University of Arizona, opened his red and black suit jacket to reveal a photograph of himself, Young and his sister when they were children. Mathurin’s mother hugged him and gave a Haitian flag over his shoulders.

There was never any doubt that Jeune would join Mathurin onstage. After all, Mathurin wore Jeune’s name on his shoes at Arizona and appends the “#domixworld” hashtag to many of his tweets. While standing on 6th Avenue the day before the draft, Mathurin turned his head to the right and assured his company that Jeune was there next to him.

“Everything I do is for my brother,” Mathurin said. “He’s always with me. We did everything together. I had one chip on my shoulder already, but [his death] put another one. I’ve got chips on both shoulders now. Whichever way people bump into me, they’re going to hit one of them.”

A few years after Jeune’s death, Mathurin hit a growth spurt. Standing 6-foot-4 at age 15, he believed for the first time that professional basketball was a realistic possibility. He still wasn’t much of a shooter, but he was powerful and naturally athletic, having played football and hockey as a child. Mathurin felt an added pressure to provide for his mother and sister, to be the man of the house even as a teenager.

“It was a pretty rough neighborhood,” Mathurin said. “It wasn’t easy. There were people who chose the wrong path. A lot of people died. Drugs. Guns. Shootings and violent stuff. I’ve always been around it. That really shaped me as a person. I learned to be grateful. My family kept me focused on the things I wanted to do. Basketball is really what saved me.”

The crucial link came in 2018 via a cryptic piece of advice from the head of Mathurin’s Quebec provincial team: “If a train comes, just take it.”

Within weeks, Mathurin was invited to attend the NBA’s Latin America Academy, which was then based in Mexico City. The new program, which provided focused basketball instruction, high school academics and life skills to a select group of teenage prospects, was one of four global academies established by the NBA to develop international talent.

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Academy attendees receive a full scholarship, room and board and guidance on everything from financial literacy to diet, nutrition and strength and conditioning programs. Mathurin traveled the world to compete against the NBA’s other academies and in various international competitions, helping to prepare him for college and the NBA lifestyle.

Many top Canadian prospects, like Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, attended high school in the United States. But Mathurin’s family liked that the academy was a controlled environment that could be a step away from the potential pitfalls of Montreal-Nord and a big step toward the NBA.

“We were told the campus was super safe and he was going to be able to focus,” said Jenn Mathurin, who played four years of college basketball at North Carolina State. “He was all the way in Mexico on a secure campus. He couldn’t really get in trouble. It was a no-brainer.”

Mathurin was the first Canadian invitee at the Latin America Academy and, at age 16, he set about learning Spanish, his fourth language after English, French and Creole, and adjusting to life without his mother’s cooking.

Academy staffers remember Mathurin arriving as a shy and quiet teenager who was nevertheless eager to prove that he not only belonged, but was the top dog. At one practice, a coach asked the team who was the best shooter in the gym. Every player, except one, named Hyunjung Lee, a South Korean guard who attended an NBA academy in Australia and went on to play college ball at Davidson, where he shot nearly 40 percent on three-pointers over three seasons.

The lone exception was Mathurin, who nominated himself and stood tall when confronted by a gym’s worth of quizzical looks. In Mexico, he refined his outside shooting and transitioned from life as an energetic power forward to a prototypical wing and a more vocal leader. Two seasons at the academy prepared him for the University of Arizona, which he chose over his other finalist, Baylor, because he would have a larger role as a freshman.

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“For Benn to take a nontraditional path and take that leap of faith with an unproven program, it means the world to us,” said Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s head of elite basketball. “We want the academies to open as many pathways as possible, whether players go on to college, the G League or professional leagues overseas.”

A breakout sophomore season at Arizona sent Mathurin racing up draft boards: He averaged 17.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists, and he helped Arizona to a 33-4 season that ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Houston. Mathurin completed his collegiate career as a 38.5 percent three-point shooter, and he claimed Pac-12 player of the year honors.

Mathurin’s favorite NBA comparisons are Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Boston’s Jaylen Brown, as they combine powerful offense with fierce defense, though he hastened to add that he is, “a little bit better of a shooter than Jimmy.” During his pre-draft interviews with teams, Mathurin assured executives that questions about his defensive energy and focus are misguided, noting that he “can really guard.”

Perhaps because he survived an unthinkable personal tragedy and then thrived thousands of miles from home, Mathurin seems eager for new and bigger tests. His professional goals are as lofty as possible: Win the 2023 Rookie of the Year award, an MVP and a championship en route to induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Asked if that might sound a bit ambitious given that he hasn’t stepped foot in the NBA yet, Mathurin brushed off the notion that doubt should impact his vision. Despite Jeune’s accident, he has no fear of bicycles. Despite his initial culture shock in Mexico, he’s now learning his fifth language: Portuguese. And despite his skyrocketing draft stock in recent months, Mathurin promised that he would “bring my heart to the Pacers” and said that he will always remember the names of the five players selected ahead of him.

Before slipping off to his hotel room to make his final preparations for the draft, Mathurin said that there was one test, maybe the biggest of all, that he was particularly looking forward as a rookie: His first game against Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James .

“A lot of people say he’s great,” Mathurin said. “I want to see how great he is. I don’t think anybody is better than me. He’s going to have to show me he’s better than me.”

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