Back in black and orange
By Grant Lucas
CORVALLIS — The sun casts its rays through the windows of Gill Coliseum, bringing some light to a Saturday morning that until now has been rainy and gray. It is 20 minutes before practice, and Matt Dahlen is right where he needs to be.
Already dressed in his matching black and orange basketball practice shorts and jersey, a white T-shirt underneath that mirrors the shine of his white Nike shoes, Dahlen is early for what will be a light, day-after-game workout for the Oregon State men.
The 6-foot-6, 205-pound junior sits on the edge of a padded bench seat. Dahlen is leaning forward, his forearms resting on his knees like kickstands. He looks around the vast old arena, from basket to basket and up at the banners, honoring the greatest players and coaches to ever come through Oregon State, hanging from the rafters above.
“It’s been crazy,” Dahlen says of this past week, when he went from hanging up his sneakers to taking them back down just before the Beavers opened the season. “It won’t hit me for a little bit. It doesn’t really happen very much.”
Dahlen was a Beavers walk-on for the past two years. He was there for Wayne Tinkle’s inaugural season, making a modest contribution (averaging 0.5 points, 0.6 rebounds and 0.2 assists in 13 games).
And he was there last season for Oregon State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990, again playing a minor role (0.1 points, 0.1 rebounds, 0.1 assists in nine games). And after the season, the walk-on was ready to walk away.
Dahlen had been battling soreness in both knees; an MRI revealed tendinitis and bone spurs, he recalls. He is scheduled to graduate early, next spring, with a degree in marketing. Dahlen was looking to save some of his athletic eligibility — and his knees — and play at a smaller school while he worked toward a master’s degree. He explained his intentions to the Oregon State coaching staff, expressing his gratitude for his two seasons with the Beavers. Then, he was gone.
The irony of what came next is not lost on Dahlen. He chuckles as he recounts the story. Tinkle explained to his then-former player that if he was looking to play elsewhere, the OSU coaches would gladly put in a good word. For several months Dahlen stayed in contact with associate head coach Kerry Rupp, who was helping him find a landing spot at a lower-tier NCAA program.
On Nov. 4, a month after the Beavers began practicing for the 2016-17 season and the day of their first exhibition game, Dahlen received a text message from OSU director of player personnel Joey Petschl that Rupp wanted to meet. Dahlen figured it to be a meeting about potential transfer destinations. Instead, Tinkle and his assistants were waiting.
The coaches had met earlier that Friday, Tinkle remembers. The consensus was that the Beavers were not deep at power forward — Dahlen’s position — and Tinkle wanted to avoid overworking star Tres Tinkle, the coach’s son, who was just a few months removed from surgery to repair a bone in his right foot.
Wayne Tinkle was quick to suggest reaching out to a familiar face. Dahlen arrived at the coach’s office in 15 minutes. He was informed that the opportunity for extended playing time was available, and that if he returned, this would be a season unlike either of Dahlen’s previous two. He was cleared to play by, and in uniform for, the exhibition game against Corban just a few hours later.
“We love Matt,” Tinkle says. “We’re a little thin at that position. He’s been with us for a couple of years, and we love what he stands for.”
“I just know what he (Tinkle) stands for. I know he’s true to his word,” says Dahlen, who had career highs in minutes played (14), points (three) and rebounds (six) in OSU’s 78-48 season-opening win over Prairie View A&M this past Friday. And he did it, he says, despite feeling lost on the court, “running around with my head cut off” because he did not yet know the plays well. “When he says there’s minutes out there, he’s not ‘BS’ing. He knows there’s no reason for me to come back and be a practice guy. I’ve done it for two years. It was just time to see if I could play.”
Dahlen can play. That much is clear. Living his lifelong dream of playing NCAA Division I basketball is proof of that. But having back on the roster the guy his fellow Beavers affectionately know as Matty Ice, an athlete who works hard on the court and in the classroom, is invaluable to Tinkle.
“We throw him out there, and he does everything right,” the Beavers coach says. “And it’s a message to some of our other new guys that are maybe struggling with that. On and off the court, in the community. … He knows how to play, he’s active and he’s going to give you a hundred percent. Those are the kinds of guys we want to put out there.”
Tinkle relates this season to his first at Oregon State, in 2014-15: inheriting a group of players unsure about the way Tinkle goes about things. Two years ago, he relied on a group of walk-ons, Dahlen included, to bring the energy every day. Matty Ice still does.
“He’s an everyday guy,” Tinkle says. “We talk about that. We need a team of everyday guys. Not when you feel like it, not when the weather’s nice, but every day. Matt embodies that. Quickly, in a week, I think some guys have taken notice.”
Dahlen has rarely asked for much. All he wants to is come to the court and continue living this dream life. “It’s a lot more interesting than being (just) a student, for sure,” he says. To be a walk-on who was asked to return to the Beavers basketball program — especially after being afforded the rare opportunity to be a Central Oregon player on a D-I roster — “was very humbling.”
Jeff Macy, Oregon State’s director of sports performance, has worked with NBA teams and with the Beavers. Dahlen remembers speaking with him recently, and Macy told him: “I’ve been doing this a long time. You basically signed a 10-day contract and you’re the first one off the bench. That (stuff) doesn’t happen.’”
Dahlen’s knees are fine now, he assures. The extended time off helped. He does not have an OSU game uniform with his last name on the back just yet. In the exhibition and season-opening games, he wore what is known as a blood jersey — an extra uniform kept on the bench during games and made available for a player whose original jersey gets blood on it.
The past week and a half has been a whirlwind for Dahlen. His decision to leave the basketball team last spring was a bit surprising, Tinkle concedes, but in no way is he shocked that Dahlen has quickly re-adapted to the game.
“It’s just the kid he is,” Tinkle says, “and the kind of competitor he is.”