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Matson's legacy lives on at Orange Lutheran
ORANGE – Tom Howard has a lot of fond memories of his late friend, Tony Matson.
But maybe Howard's favorite memory also is one of his first. It was the summer of 1999 and Matson had just been hired as the Orange Lutheran girls basketball coach. He and Howard, whom the school had hired shortly before Matson to coach the junior varsity girls, started meeting each morning to play pickup games with other coaches before practice.
During one of those two-on-two games, Matson tried to stop Howard from making a winning shot by giving his new friend a two-handed shove — a very hard two-handed shove.
"He's a big dude," Howard recalls. "I release it, and I go flying and I'm sliding back on the ground and the ball goes in (the basket).
"Tony takes the ball and chucks it across the gym and storms out. He doesn't say a word. I'm lying there on the ground, and we all went, 'This dude is competitive.' He comes back in afterward and goes, 'Sorry about pushing you.'"
The most telling part of the story, Howard says, is what happened next.
"We kept playing."
Matson was the most competitive person Howard had ever met, all the way until Matson died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009. The competition and Matson's memory live on with Monday's fourth annual Tony Matson Memorial Classic, with Orange Lutheran serving as host.
The five-game showcase features four girls games, including Orange Lutheran vs. San Clemente, and a boys matchup between Orange Lutheran and St. John Bosco of Bellflower, with all proceeds going to the Matson family.
Heidi Matson, Tony's surviving wife and a single mother of three daughters, remains as humbled now by the event as she was four years ago.
"It's a very powerful experience to have the community around you not forget and to continue to care about our experience and our family as well as the good that Tony brought to the school," Heidi said. "We don't expect it, we don't deserve it. It's just out of the kindness of peoples' hearts."
RIVALS COME TOGETHER
A few months after Tony passed, Heidi was sitting in her office when she received an unexpected phone call from Jeff Sink, whom Tony had worked under as an assistant for the Brea Olinda girls basketball team. Sink had spoken with Mater Dei girls basketball coach Kevin Kiernan about putting together a one-day showcase to honor Tony.
"When Tony passed away, it was a shock," said Kiernan, the father of young children himself. "It affected me in a way that I can't describe. I just wanted to do something. I know how much he did for those kids at Brea and Orange Lutheran."
The big draw that first year was a matchup between powerhouses Brea Olinda and Mater Dei. The fact that Sink and Kiernan, whose teams played in the same division and had CIF section and state title aspirations, were even willing to play one another was not lost on Heidi.
"These competitors coming together and being willing to put their egos on the line to play a game to honor their friend and care for our family, it's more than a great day of basketball," Heidi said. "One of them was willing to lose. It was a sacrifice and act of love."
Heidi said the love and support has been constant over the past four years, from the Orange Lutheran community, the family's spiritual community, and the girls basketball community.
Mater Dei was host for the Matson Classic again in 2011 before handing over the reins to Howard and Orange Lutheran. While Sink moved on to coach the Brea Olinda boys, Kiernan has continued to take on an active role in the event.
"I'll play in it every year, no matter what," Kiernan said. "We're dedicated to making it a yearly event."
'COMPLETION OF HIS LEGACY'
Matson coached at Orange Lutheran for 10 years, winning five league titles and reaching the CIF-SS finals while earning the Register's Coach of the Year award in his final season. Howard had become Matson's top assistant by that point.
"I loved being Tony Matson's assistant," said Howard, an Orange Lutheran alum and on-campus Theology teacher. "I loved working with him, the friendship that we developed over the years."
Howard also saw Matson evolve, his "tough-guy exterior" giving way to a caring man who had built deep relationships with his players. In the wake of Matson's death, Howard was initially unsure whether to pursue the position. His No. 1 priority became consoling the girls in the program.
In time, that led him to believe he was the right person for the job.
"I felt like it can't be an outsider," Howard said. "It needed to be somebody who knew the program, who knew the girls, and who knew the school.
"That started to hit me more and more. I want to continue his legacy. I felt like the continuity was important for the girls. We're in this together."
Howard got the job a few months later, at 34 years old, the same age Matson was when he arrived at Orange Lutheran. In Howard's second season, he guided a Lancers team, starring two seniors who played under Matson, to the CIF-SS Division 3A title.
"It was amazingly gratifying, to be able to win it with players that he directly coached," Howard said. "I felt like it was a completion of his legacy."
Two years later and Orange Lutheran remains one of the county's premier programs. The No. 3 Lancers enter the weekend 16-3, already having matched last season's victory total. After suffering a lopsided loss to top-ranked Mater Dei last week, Howard summoned a few words from Matson during his postgame speech.
"He would always say after losses, 'I want to play again right now,'" Howard said. "Right away I said, 'We're going to go play them again. Let's embrace the challenge.' Tony never shied away from a challenge. It's certainly a lasting influence of his."
And so they play on.
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