All-Court Wonder

Having played everywhere, basketball's Matt Stehle can do everything.

Last winter, in the waning minutes of the Harvard men’s home basketball game against Princeton, a tight contest with several lead changes, Princeton’s all-Ivy guard Will Venable drove the lane — but bumped into power forward Matt Stehle ’06, who had stepped up, established position, and so took the charge. Stehle hit the floor, the referee whistled the offensive foul, and the ball went over to Harvard. It was a small thing that wouldn’t appear in any highlight film, but Stehle’s move dramatically reversed momentum at a crucial point; instead of Princeton taking a shot to tie the score, Harvard sank a basket at the other end to build its lead, and eventually won, 61-57. The victory was huge, since the Crimson had not beaten the Tigers since 1999 — every Princeton game is a big game. “That play showed the hustle Matt brings to the court,” says his teammate, center Brian Cusworth ’06. “And his intensity and drive to win.”

Last year, the versatile Stehle ranked among the top 10 in nine of the 12 statistical categories recorded by Ivy League basketball.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

For Harvard basketball, one win looms above all others: capturing the Ivy League championship, a quest that has become a kind of Holy Grail in Lavietes Pavilion. In the 50 years since the Ivies first tipped off in the 1955-56 season, Princeton has won or shared 25 Ivy crowns and Penn 23. After that the drop-off is precipitous: Yale has been on top four times, Dartmouth three, and Cornell, Columbia, and Brown have one title each. Only Harvard has been shut out. “The goals I set for myself and the team have not changed since I’ve been here,” Stehle (STAY-lee) says. “There’s only one goal: to win the league title. Harvard has never won and to be on the team that did it first would be incredible.”

This might be the year. Although Harvard graduated its entire backcourt in June, it boasts the top two returning scorers and rebounders in the Ivies: the six-foot, eight-inch Stehle and seven-foot Cusworth, who finished one-two in rebounding and fourth and sixth in scoring, averaging 8.9 and 8.4 boards and 13.7 and 13.4 points per game, respectively. “We are solid at numbers 4 and 5,” says head men’s coach Frank Sullivan. (Basketball nomenclature uses the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 to designate the positions of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center.) Furthermore, says Sullivan, seniors Zach Martin and Michael Beal “have gotten things done.” And a skillful class of freshmen recruits includes three players — Eric Groszyk, Andrew Pusar, and Drew Housman — who each scored more than 1,000 points in high school.

The six-foot, eight-inch Stehle throws it down. A power forward, he's the league's top returning scorer and rebounder.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Then there is Stehle, the team’s captain, a First Team All-Ivy selection for 2004-05, and an amazingly versatile player. Consider the variety of numbers he put up last year. The Ivy League keeps 12 categories of basketball statistics. Stehle ranked among the top 10 players in nine of the 12 metrics, including scoring, rebounding, offensive and defensive rebounds, assists, steals, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, and blocked shots. (Cusworth led the league in blocks.) “I don’t think there’s one area of the game I particularly excel at,” Stehle says, and perhaps he is right — because there’s no one area of the game he doesn’t excel at. “Matt can play strongly down in the post as well as attack from the outside in a perimeter position,” Cusworth says. “And he knows the game: Matt always ends up in the right place at the right time.” Sullivan adds that Stehle “beats bigger players off the dribble, he drives the ball to the bucket, hits three-point shots, and sees the court as well as a point guard.”

That’s probably because Stehle once was a point guard, as a five-foot, 10-inch high-school freshman. In his varied basketball career, he has played every position from 1 to 5. “Matt grew up as a backcourt player who had this growth spurt and had to play the front court,” Sullivan explains. As a guard, the left-handed Stehle developed excellent passing and ball-handling skills and so, unlike most big men, he’s perfectly comfortable dribbling the ball or bringing it up court. “I’m not very athletic,” Stehle explains. “I can’t jump high, I’m not strong, I’m not the quickest guy out there.” But that is statistical athleticism. What’s more important, Sullivan says, is that “Matt is one of those special players who has the instinct to play the game.”

That instinct germinated in Newton, Massachusetts, where Stehle grew up as the eldest of three brothers. (He’s the first Massachusetts native to captain Harvard basketball in more than 50 years.) Father Ted, who works for a paper-products manufacturing company, swam in college. Mother Mary Ellen, who was an attorney until her third son was born, played basketball in high school. (She now teaches elementary school.) Two uncles, Brian McAndrews ’80 (track and field) and Chris McAndrews ’86 (baseball), lettered at Harvard.

At Newton South High School, Stehle captained both the basketball and golf teams, and had a fine basketball coach, Joe Killilea. Newton South compiled a 59-9 record during Stehle’s three years on the team, winning two Dual County League titles. As a senior, he was Southern Massachusetts Player of the Year and Dual County League MVP.

Coach Killilea lived on the same street as Harvard’s Frank Sullivan, and invited his neighbor to a game. Soon, Stehle was on his way to Harvard, where he’s considered a possible academic all-American this season. Over the years, Sullivan has literally watched Stehle grow. “He was a weak, skinny player,” Sullivan says. “Now he’s as strong a physical presence as any player in the league.”

Even so, “Humility is his calling card,” says Sullivan. Indeed, it is difficult to get Stehle to take credit for much of anything. But others pick up the slack. “Matt’s a very organized, disciplined guy,” says Sullivan. “He embodies all the personal qualities I hope my athletes would model.” Cusworth says, “Matt makes everyone on the team better with his unselfishness. He leads by example, not by telling people what to do.” Stehle’s multiple talents and high-impact play make him a legitimate preseason candidate for Ivy League Player of the Year, an honor won only once by a Crimson player, Joe Carrabino ’84, in the 1983-84 season.

A government concentrator, Stehle enjoyed a job in asset management in Spokane, Washington, last summer. His postgraduate plans remain undetermined, although they will likely include a return to golf, in which he has carried a handicap as low as eight. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says, grinning. “It’s a lot easier on the knees.”                       

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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