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Sixers’ Matisse Thybulle does the little things on the court, in his life, in his community

Matisse Thybulle never thought he'd get to the NBA, and he's lived his life inside and outside the game like basketball was just one part of it.

The Sixers' Matisse Thybulle celebrates his three-point basket against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, December 10, 2019.
The Sixers' Matisse Thybulle celebrates his three-point basket against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Tuesday, December 10, 2019.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

SEATTLE — Stacey Stoutt has close to the perfect description of Matisse Thybulle.

Inside her office several weeks ago, the Eastside Catholic School athletic director said she often has a reminder for the former Crusaders standout and now 76ers rookie.

“He’s not ordinary," said Stoutt, one of the mother figures in Thybulle’s life. "Obviously, I think he’s extraordinary. But I say to him, just remember you are an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things.”

What’s ordinary about having deep conversations on quantum physics with his father just for the heck of it in his spare time?

What’s ordinary about driving around the University District of Seattle on cold winter nights to give sweatshirts and jackets to the homeless?

What’s ordinary about personally bringing thank-you letters, posters, and notes every year on the anniversary of the passing of his mother, to all the nurses who work on the floor she was on at the University of Washington Medical Center?

What’s ordinary about Washington basketball coach Mike Hopkins and UW’s assistant director of communication for men’s hoops, Ashley Walker, both fighting back tears of joy while discussing Thybulle?

“Matisse is the type, if you have a daughter, he’s a type of guy, you are like, ‘You know what? I feel good about him dating my daughter,' " said Jamal Crawford, an NBA free agent and Seattleite who mentors Thybulle. “He’s a high-character guy.”

Add to that humble and uninterested in the spotlight.

The Sixers’ super-rookie rarely talks about basketball away from the court. Nor does the NCAA single-season steal leader fully grasp the attention he’s receiving as a professional player.

He always will view himself as a guy who wasn’t highly recruited in high school or even among the most popular teenagers. Even now, the 22-year-old gets his most enjoyment being back in Sammamish, Wash., 21 miles east of Seattle, hanging out and taking pictures with the Lipsen brothers, Matthew, Joseph, and Daniel. More than just best friends, Thybulle refers to them as his brothers.

“The fame thing is going to be hard for him,” Stoutt said. “I know it is because he doesn’t feel that way. He’s never going to embrace that fully as a celebrity would. He just wants to be Matisse. Not Matisse Thybulle.”

Great stock

How to tell the story of a player so humble, caring, and giving? It starts with his father, Greg, and his late mother, Elizabeth.

Their personalities, passion, work ethic, backgrounds, and caring for others give you a better idea of who Matisse and his sister, Chloe, are.

Greg, 60, was born in Haiti. At the age of 9, he and his family were escorted out of his home country for political reasons. They were given hours to leave. So he, his older brother, younger sister, and grandparents packed up whatever they could and moved to New York.

“I grew up in Harlem and went to school at 153rd Street," Greg said. “That’s where I went to elementary school, high school was in the Bronx at J.F. Kennedy High School.”

Greg is humble, but spending just a few minutes with him makes clear he’s also academically gifted. So much so that his family made him follow his brother to the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he received an engineering degree.

These days, the mechanical engineer, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is the manager of a global staff that deals with crises for Hewlett Packard Enterprises.

And, there’s this: He has to be funniest engineer anywhere.

“My personality, I deal with humor,” Greg said. “That’s how I appreciate every situation, because growing up in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and leaving that country and going to New York and being raised in Harlem, you learn very fast, you needed two qualities.”

Greg, a former gymnast and track athlete, said speed is the first quality.

“You had to outrun the person that was going to beat you up, and you needed humor,” he said. “If you could make them laugh, you are good. Humor and wit.”

Greg said Chloe, 20, a senior at the University of Arizona, has his personality. She’s funny and quick-witted.

Matisse, however, has his mother’s dry sense of humor, Greg said. They are so logical. They analyze everything before making a decision.

“Oh my God, Matisse is his mother,” Greg said. “I mean even keel, very mild-mannered, unassuming. It’s like they are calming people. [When] you are around them, you gravitate to them, because they are so calming. But me and Chloe, you better get ready for some excitement.”

Matisse has both of his parents’ determination and his mother’s focus. Elizabeth Thybulle knew she could do anything.

“She was always that way,” Karen “Tutu” Sehrer, Matisse’s maternal grandmother, said of her daughter. “It was like she could go down a ski slope the first time and it was like she was a professional.”

She was that way in everything before she died on Feb. 2, 2015, after a two-year fight with leukemia.

Matisse wore No. 4 for the Huskies because it was his mother’s favorite number. He wears No. 22 for the Sixers because the No. 4 (Dolph Schayes) is retired.

Elizabeth was also one of, if not the, most intelligent people Greg ever has been around.

“Elizabeth was classified as a genius,” Greg said. “She was smart. Academically she was astute, sharp. I mean she was smart.”

She graduated with a business degree from the University of Puget Sound in Seattle in 1985. But looking to fulfill her passion for health, nutrition, and fitness, Elizabeth earned a degree in naturopathic medicine from the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Ariz.

“Matisse is a closet genius,” Greg said. “Chloe is too. But Chloe has to work at it. She has to put the elbow grease to it. Matisse came out with elbow grease.”

In addition to talking quantum physics with his father, the two have deep discussions about art from time to time.

“But he wants it on his terms," Greg said. "When he searches for knowledge, he searches. His knowledge doesn’t have a limit. He’s inquisitive.”

Matisse, who received a communications degree from Washington, enjoys reading, watching documentaries, and viewing YouTube. Learning is exciting to him. He enjoys sharing that knowledge with others. Matisse likes to get people excited about the things he’s excited about.

But ...

“I’m not a big fan of school,” Matisse said.

He never has felt that his intellect should be determined by a grade-point average. Since academics came easy to him, Matisse didn’t work hard in the classroom.

While his mother’s passion was medicine, he still doesn’t know what he would do outside of basketball. Some folks would assume photography, since Matisse often has a camera at his side, taking photos. But he thinks the attention he receives taking pictures is blown out of proportion.

“Like I don’t feel like I’ve experienced enough to know,” he said of a career outside of basketball. "I haven’t lived enough. I haven’t been exposed to enough to fully understand what I’m ultimately passionate about.

“Like I’m not someone that can work at a 9-to-5 desk job.”

Right now, he’ll tell you basketball is his passion. It’s what he spent late nights and early mornings working on at 24-Hour Fitness as a teenager.

But there’s no denying he’ll be successful in whatever he does after basketball.

“I think he’s just a guy that will make a difference in the world,” said Hopkins, Washington’s basketball coach. “He’ll make the world a different place. I don’t know what impact or I don’t what he’ll do or how he’ll do it. But that’s in him.

“That’s in who he is. He’s a just special breed ... He is built right. Strong education, family, a mom who was a giver, a dad who was driven, great positive energy, gave a lot to other people.”

A famous name

Matisse was born at 11:08 a.m. March 4, 1997, in Scottsdale, Ariz. His name was chosen for him seven years before his birth.

In 1990, Greg lived out his dream of seeing the world even though he had just met Elizabeth, the love of his life. He spent three months backpacking throughout Europe while she waited for him back in Seattle.

While in Paris, Greg went into an exhibit of Henri Matisse’s paintings.

“I went in and looked and I was blown away,” Greg said. “It was like looking at a beautiful car, a stunning woman. It just took my breath away. You didn’t have a choice. You have to stop, pause, look, and experience.”

Henri Matisse, the renowned French artist, is known for his use of intense colors along with fluid and original draughtsmanship. Matisse is regarded as one of the artists who helped with the revolutionary developments of visual arts in the opening decades of the 20th century.

“And all throughout I had to breathe, because I was not only taken by his art,” Greg said. “That name echoed in my head Matisse … Matisse … It was like, you know, if I ever had a son, or a child, not even a son, boy or girl, the name was going to be Matisse."

Mr. Extraordinary

Like Matisse, they did a lot of things for people away from the spotlight.

Elizabeth’s Funeral Mass was at Eastside Catholic on Feb. 14, 2015. Until then, most folks, including Greg, Matisse and Chloe, were unaware of the generous things she did for people in need. Some family members still don’t know the impact she made helping the less fortunate.

Elizabeth also did volunteer work in Haiti. And she would take Greg, Matisse, and Chloe with her to cook and serve meals for the homeless and needy once a month at a fire station in Issaquah, Wash.

Before Christmas Matisse and Chloe had to go through their toys and find things to give away to the needy before they received their presents. Elizabeth used to always carry granola bars to give to the homeless.

“I just felt like growing up it was just a normal thing, like almost expected to give back in whatever way we could,” Matisse said. “It helped that, like, my dad came from nothing. That always meant a lot to him.”

Matisse recalled how he didn’t eat a lot of food growing up, so he always had a little bit left on his plate. But coming from his background, Greg never wasted any food. So he would eat his meal and eat whatever Matisse didn’t finish to avoid throwing food away.

Matisse is now the one trying not to waste food. On flights to away games the rookies have to supply Chick-fil-A food for veteran teammates. After the Sixers arrived in Portland on Nov. 1, Matisse gave the extra food to homeless people in the downtown section of the city.

“Growing up, seeing things like that, it just made it for me now like it doesn’t seem like I’m doing much,” Matisse said. "I could be doing a lot more, honestly.

“It just feels like the little bit I do, it’s not to be expected, it’s just as a human it’s a quality people should have to find ways to give."

So no one close to the Thybulles was surprised when Matisse visited Freddy Curley, a 7-year-old who has Type-B lymphoblastic leukemia, in October at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His visit came one day after Freddy’s mother, Beth, left a heartfelt message about her son on Matisse’s Instagram page about his being one of her son’s favorite players. She was unaware of the rookie’s personal connection to leukemia.

Within hours, Matisse responded, and at 3 p.m. the next day, he was at CHOP hanging out with Freddy and the Curleys. Matisse and Freddy even played a makeshift game of one-on-one as Freddy lay in his hospital bed. Freddy won, 27-2.

When asked why he didn’t publicize his actions, Matisse said he and friends often laugh when athletes seek attention for doing good deeds. As he sees it, going to the hospital one time for a woman that reached out is nothing compared to going to the Children Hospital of Seattle every Tuesday without media attention like Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson does.

This is the same guy who looked out for his Washington basketball teammates who didn’t have a lot of money. This is the guy who kept old sweatshirts in the back of his Jeep Cherokee just in case he drove past a homeless person in need of warm clothing.

“This one time, he’d seen this guy a few times at a Safeway on the sidewalk,” Sehrer said. “Matisse got out. The guy could have been dead. He had nothing. Matisse spread a coat over him and left.”

Matisse even tried to organize a shoe-box giveaway through the Washington basketball team two seasons ago. He wanted to put gloves, socks, hats, and boots in the boxes to give to the homeless.

“Matisse wanted to prepare them for the winter,” Hopkins said.

The Huskies didn’t have enough time to make it happen.

Like Elizabeth, Matisse doesn’t like to speak of these deeds.

“That’s not who he is,” Hopkins said. “Sometimes, I know people say it’s too good to be true. Well, it’s true.”

The Huskies coach fought back tears when talking about the Thybulles one day last month inside his office.

Matisse considered transferring to Gonzaga after Lorenzo Romar was fired after 15 seasons as the Huskies coach on March 15, 2017. The Huskies hired Hopkins, a longtime Syracuse assistant, four days later.

Matisse and Greg had an initial meeting with Hopkins shortly after his hiring to see if Matisse would be a great fit for the new coach. Hopkins recounted a second meeting in which Greg informed him that Matisse would remain at UW.

He’ll never forget the way the father told him. Greg presented the coach with a card with pictures of Elizabeth and the Thybulles that remains on Hopkins’ desk.

“You know how proud he is, how great of energy his father has,” Hopkins said, fighting back tears. “He’s saying like, ‘I’m giving my son to you. But I need you to know a lot more about my son. This is his mother and this is his sister.’ There’s not a dry eye in the place. It’s just incredible.”

Nor did Hopkins have a dry eye when he accompanied Matisse to UW Medical Center on Feb. 2, 2018, the third-year anniversary of Elizabeth’s death. Unable to make it, Greg asked Hopkins to be his representative.

The coach was moved by the gratitude Matisse displayed toward the nurses for taking care of Elizabeth. So touched by his initial visit, Hopkins also accompanied Matisse during this past anniversary’s hospital visit.

Folks can also talk for days about how the Thybulles and Matisse have shown appreciation for people who been by their side during Elizabeth’s battle with cancer and since her death.

“On Mother’s Day after his mom died, he showed up at my door with flowers,” said Stoutt, who along with the Lipsen brothers’ mother, Maureen, have become mother-type figures to Matisse. "I’m sure Maureen received the same. All the other women in his life.

“You know it takes a village, that little cliche. But they recognize their village and they appreciate it.”

Like a mother checking in on a son, Maureen and Stacy both already have visited Matisse in Philadelphia. Matisse actually lived with the Lipsens after Greg relocated to Scottsdale several years ago.

Defensive stopper

The Thybulles also appreciate the people who helped shape his basketball career, especially Crawford, Washington assistant Will Conroy, and Rainier Beach High School coach Mike Bethea.

These days, general manager Elton Brand is being praised for identifying Thybulle as a solid piece to what the Sixers hope is a championship puzzle.

The Sixers promised Thybulle during the predraft workout that they would select him if available. And they delivered, moving up four spots in a draft-night trade with the Boston Celtics on June 20 to select him with the 20th pick.

Steal of the draft? The Sixers are 17-1 record when he plays 14 or more minutes. In fact, the Sixers already are comfortable enough with Thybulle to have him on the floor at crunch time of their last two games.

His averages of 5.0 points, 1.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.4 steals, and 17.9 minutes in 26 games played are misleading. Thybulle was shooting 59.5% (22-for-37) on three-pointers in the last 15 games. In his first 26 games as a pro, he is shooting 46.7% (28-for-60) from three, fifth best in the NBA.

The 2019 Naismith college defensive player of the year has the potential to be among the league’s elite three-and-D players.

On Tuesday, Thybulle had 13 points while making 3 of 4 three-pointers to go with a career-high five rebounds in 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets at home. He finished with a career-best plus-20 while logging 26 minutes, 20 seconds.

That performance came two nights after career highs of 20 points and five made three-pointers to go with three steals in a 110-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors. As a result, Thybulle joined Hall of Famer Allen Iverson as the only Sixers rookies to record five three-pointers and three steals in the same game since 1983. Iverson accomplished that feat twice — Feb. 5, 1997, against the San Antonio Spurs and April 19, 1997, against Boston.

“He really is an energy giver when he can make those types of plays,” coach Brett Brown said of Thybulle’s impact on both ends of the floor. “He continues to move up the food chain in relation to the confidence that I as a head coach have in him and that his teammates have in him.”

Having the confidence of his coaches and teammates wasn’t always the case.

The Thybulles lived in Australia twice when Matisse was growing up. Chloe was born there and Matisse has dual citizenship in the United States and Australia. While in Australia, Matisse participated in swimming and basketball. He continued to play both sports when they returned to the Seattle area in 2005.

“But before I got to high school [in the fall of 2010] my father said you have to choose,” Matisse said.

So he chose basketball. The problem is that Matisse could barely make a layup as a youth basketball player.

“I was like, ‘Matisse, you are not the greatest offensive player on the planet. OK, personally you [stink],’ ” Greg said. “But, bottom line, if you play defense, you can shut down the best player. You will always be on the floor with your defensive skills.”

That was the start of Thybulle’s development as a defensive stopper.

Greg convinced Matisse that defense was the cornerstone of basketball even though few want to focus primarily on it because it’s not sexy, Greg said.

“But what Matisse did eventually, after he figured it out like I did, he brought sexy back into defense,” Greg said.

He actually treated defense like a science project. Matisse learned the subtleties of defense. He learned that defense requires physics. Then he started displaying his own style, his own methodology, his own personal twist to defense. And as people found out, it’s definitely unique.

For Matisse, defense starts once an opponent drives past him and is heading toward the basket.

“This is when defense starts, what do you do?" Greg said. “Do you give him a pass, let him take a shot and hope that he misses it? You can chase his ass down and let him know, yeah, you passed me doesn’t mean you got a pass. You have to earn that shot.”

Seattle gives

The basketball community in Seattle is small and prides itself on giving back. NBA players and those playing professionally overseas or at big-time colleges feel an obligation to reach back to the younger generation. And no player has reached back more than Jamal Crawford, one of six Rainier Beach products who went on to play in the NBA.

“Every kid in the city has his number,” said Conroy, a Garfield High product who had stints in the NBA. "I don’t care, if you want to hoop, they can all reach out to Jamal and touch him and talk to him.

“For us, that was a big thing, because it was kind of like making them believe it’s real.”

Crawford has had a relationship with Matisse since the Sixer was in high school. It didn’t take long for the three-time NBA sixth man of the year to be someone in his corner.

Conroy met Matisse toward the end of his playing career. As a professional, he used to organize professional runs in Seattle on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer. Then on Fridays, he would set up workouts for the area’s top high school players.

“So Matisse came in,” Conroy said. “He must have been in the ninth grade. He was like a freak athlete, like the nicest kid, but didn’t want to step on nobody’s shoes, just a nice kid. So as he went on to the 10th grade I watched him play in high school.”

Being a superior athlete and lock-down defender, Thybulle accepted a scholarship to Washington over Oregon, California, and Gonzaga. Conroy, a former Huskies standout, became a Washington assistant before Matisse’s freshman year there.

It didn’t take long for Conroy to realize Matisse was different.

He recalls asking Matisse if he watched a Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors game. Conroy told him that game was crazy.

“He was like,' What are you talking about?' " the assistant coach. “ ‘Oh, no. I was reading a book.’ Or if it wasn’t that, it was, ‘I was out taking pictures’ or ‘I was out doing something. I was meditating.’ "

At the time, Matisse didn’t believe he could be an NBA player, Conroy said.

“I would tell him all the time when he was a freshman, I would say, ‘Matisse, all you have to do is make an open shot and guard and you can play in the league for years,’ ” Conroy said.

Matisse struggled with his confidence. He would even tell Conroy that he had to do more than just make open shots and defend. Conroy would tell Matisse that the way he could gamble on plays and get back in position was unbelievable and rare.

“So I think it started to get real for him going into his junior year,” Conroy said.

Confidence things

Before that season, Matisse, as he’s done since high school, played in the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am League. Check that, he didn’t just play. Crawford made sure this time that he was on his team and that Bethea was the coach.

Crawford would routinely tell Matisse different things — the confidence things, the mental side of the game, different things he would use as his game kept maturing.

“I think the main thing for Matisse, I had put things in his ear,” Crawford said. “I don’t care if you miss four, five shots in a row. If it’s the right shot, eventually it will turn around for you. So just mental breakthroughs.”

Bethea took it to another level, basically challenging Matisse.

Thybulle had been known as a role player during his first two seasons at Washington. Bethea told him during the pro-am that that had to change.

“I kept telling him, I said, 'When are you going to shed the label of Robin and be Batman?‘ ” he said. “I said, ’I don’t care if Jamal is on the team or whatever, I need you to be Batman. I need you to get in that mindset of being Batman and carry it over when you play next season at UW.”

The summer before his senior season, Matisse had 30 points at the half in a pro-am game, and told Bethea about it. He didn’t get the reaction he expected.

“I looked at him and said, ‘That ain’t [nothing], man!' ” Bethea said. “I said, ‘What can you do the second half?’ He kind of looked at me, but he took on the challenge.”

He finished with 60.

Now, Matisse is the three-and-D standout they all envisioned. He has come a long way from the guy that Greg told, “Personally, you [stink].”

But more than a basketball player, he’s a young man who’s humbly making a difference while touching lives.

“He’s kind of just normal,” Mary Lipsen said. “He’s not that NBA guy or basketball guy. Even around here [at the Lipsens’ home], he was the UW guy. But here, he’s just a chill guy.”