Former Baylor guard Matt Sayman anticipated finishing his college basketball career with a deep NCAA tournament run while building some lasting memories.
The memories from his senior year have lasted but not in the way Sayman envisioned.
In the summer of 2003, Sayman’s life was turned upside down after Carlton Dotson was arrested for murdering former Baylor teammate Patrick Dennehy. Former Baylor coach Dave Bliss resigned following NCAA rules violations, and the basketball program was left with only a shell of a team as only a few players remained.
Sayman was one of those players, and he wrote about his experiences in his new book titled “The Leftovers.”
Now in his fifth season as an assistant basketball coach at McKinney High School, Sayman said that writing the book has helped him heal from that difficult period.
“It’s an underdog story, but also a story of redemption,” Sayman said. “For me, it’s a story of a kid who had done things right and then went through adversity that was out of my control. No matter what happens to you in life, you have to handle it the right way. I didn’t handle it right, and I really struggled through the first half of that year.”
Sayman was set to be a role player for Baylor’s 2003-04 team behind starting guard John Lucas III. But after Bliss resigned and Baylor self-imposed probation that included an NCAA tournament ban, many of the top players left the program. Among those were Lucas, forward Lawrence Roberts and guard Kenny Taylor.
Since Sayman was a senior and the only scholarship player who had been at Baylor since his freshman year, he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. He became a spokesman for the program and said he always tried to project a positive image as Baylor dealt with the tragedy.
But the public image Sayman portrayed contrasted to the pain, hurt and doubt he was feeling.
“I felt a lot of pressure in trying to help keep the program going,” Sayman said. “It was a lot to put on a 21-year-old kid. It really shook my foundation and turned my life upside down. Every day there was a new revelation, a new domino falling over. Within a short span, I had lost 10 teammates and the whole coaching staff. So much changed in such a short period.”
Arrival of new energy
Baylor brought in energetic 32-year-old coach Scott Drew, who had one year of head coaching experience under his belt at Valparaiso. Drew and his staff were relentlessly upbeat and tried their best to reinforce a positive attitude in such an ugly situation.
But Sayman said he had trouble at first getting on board because his senior season was so much different than he had imagined.
“Coach Drew preached hope for the future, but I didn’t see a lot of hope,” Sayman said. “For the first time in my life, I felt myself questioning my coaches. It’s not like I wasn’t not trying, it just wasn’t authentic. One of our walk-ons called me out in practice. It wasn’t until the Purdue game that I bought in.”
With Baylor down to five scholarship players after seniors Terrance Thomas and R.T. Guinn were suspended for academic reasons, Baylor gave No. 21 Purdue a great fight before losing a 76-65 decision at the Ferrell Center on Jan. 3, 2004.
Sayman felt re-energized after seeing the passion that he and his team played with against the Boilermakers. When Thomas and Guinn were reinstated, the Bears continued to play with a lot of heart throughout Big 12 play. A team that many people thought wouldn’t win a Big 12 game finished 3-13 in conference play and came close to winning several others.
Though the Bears finished with an 8-21 overall record, Sayman said he never played on a closer team.
“Has there ever been a team so undermanned?” Sayman said. “We defied so many odds every night against All-Americans and great coaches. At one point we were angry after losing. It was incredible how Coach Drew and his staff kept us focusing on basketball and playing hard. It was a great David and Goliath story because we were the little guy doing things people wouldn’t expect.”
Though Sayman ultimately felt a great sense of accomplishment in his senior season, he said he fell into some destructive personal habits that year. He said he began drinking and had drifted away from his faith in God. But after years of struggle, he said his life began to change in November 2011 after he talked to a pastor and met the woman who would become his wife.
“In the last year and half, I’ve found a purpose, and I’ve been able to tell the story in the book,” Sayman said. “All the demons and drinking and bad habits are out of my life. For nine years, I always wanted to change and continued to fail. When I allowed God to work in me, all the feelings started going away. Now I can stand up in front of other people and talk in pride.”
Sayman believes the Leftovers set the tone for the success the Bears have experienced under Drew, who just completed his 10th season. The Bears have emerged from those rag-tag beginnings to a program that has won 20 or more games five of the last six years, along with two Elite Eight appearances and this year’s NIT championship.
“It’s not surprising but it’s awesome,” Sayman said. “I feel they’re the hardest-working group of coaches in the country. People wonder how they’re great recruiters, but they put in the time and build really great relationships with players. Ten years later, Coach Drew still takes the time to hug me when I see him. It’s really special.”