By Bill Reynolds '68
Journal Sports Writer
PROVIDENCE — He was 9 years old when his brother Christopher was born with Down syndrome, a chromosome disorder that often includes developmental difficulties.
Not that he understood the ramifications of it then.
That would come a few years later, when he began to understand how his brother’s reality affected everything, his family, himself, everything. By then he knew his brother had challenges other kids didn’t have, and that was just the way it was, and always would be.
“I always saw myself as my brother’s keeper,” he says. “That’s my responsibility.”
He also began to see how other people viewed his brother, how they would look at him and know he was different, how they wanted to know why.
“I think it made me more sensitive to other people,” he says.
Matt Mullery went on to be a high school basketball star in Millstone, N.J. He was All-State and the all-time leading scorer at his high school. And his brother always went to his games. Just as he did to Matt’s AAU games, going here, there and everywhere. Christopher is 13 now and loves sports, both playing them and traveling with his parents all over the Northeast to attend his brother’s games.
“Christopher’s really into it,” he says. “He knows what’s going on, and he wants us to win.”
Matt Mullery has become one of the best players in the Ivy League, a 6-foot-8 inside player who can score with his back to the basket with either hand, no small thing in a college basketball world where most big guys want to face the basket and shoot jump shots. Last season, he was first-team All-Ivy, All-Region, and was honored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches for excellence on both the court and in the classroom. All that, and he tutors classmates in math and calculus, too. Brown coach Jesse Agel calls him the “ultimate student-athlete.”
This year, Matt Mullery is one of 30 finalists in the country for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, which honors a combination of basketball, academics and community service. Last year, he broke the Brown record for most blocks in a season, and had 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same game, the first time that had happened at Brown in 35 years. He already has had a great college career, and that’s even before Brown’s Ivy League season starts Friday night at Yale.
But one of his brother’s gifts to him is that he has put basketball in perspective.
“I play basketball because I love it,” he says. “But I know it’s just a game. Being around Christopher has taught me that.”
His brother also has taught him the importance of family, the importance of things that endure, even on those nights when your shot doesn’t go in, and in those seasons that don’t always end up the way you want them to. His brother also is Matt’s only sibling, so he knows that he always is going to be the one to watch over him, make sure he’s all right.
“I love my brother more than anything,” he says. “I don’t see it as a burden at all.”
Matt Mullery also has come to know that he shares a certain bond with people with special needs and their families, too, for they walk the same terrain.
It is this awareness that caused him to be a key part in bringing in roughly 100 Special Olympians to Brown’s Pizzitola Gym Wednesday night for a basketball clinic. A year ago, the Brown basketball team had done a similar thing on a smaller scale when Agel had wanted to do something for the community. Last fall, Mullery got in touch with Special Olympics and became the liaison between that organization and Brown. He wanted to run another clinic and wanted to do it bigger.
“Last year was such a success,” he says. “We were thrilled with it, and they were, too. And when you do something like this you realize how much those kids like it. They love sports, and they love being around athletes. They’re so thrilled to be here, so enthusiastic to be a part of it. It’s a great thing to be around. It’s a great thing to watch. And I want to do anything to bring that level of fun for anyone.”
He paused for a beat, and when he starts to talk again his words come out slowly and with resolve.
“There are certain things that define you,” he continues, “whether you realize it or not. They shape you.”
There’s no question Mullery has been shaped by his brother’s reality. He says it made him mature quicker, made him realize that life can sneak up on you once in a while.
It’s a lesson he’s learned from basketball, too, one that was reinforced a week ago when he won a game against Wagner on a last-second drive, then sprained his ankle in the opening minutes against Army and hasn’t played since. Life has a way of throwing you curveballs, and it’s what you do with those curveballs that define you.
The lessons he carries with him in the last two months of his college career.
The lessons he’s learned from his brother, even if his brother may not always be aware of them.
“Basketball is my passion,” says Matt Mullery, “and I love playing. But I’m not going to have basketball forever. But I’ll always have my brother.”