Meet Mr. Nice : Last Man on 49ers Team Is a Shy Sophomore Who Considers It an Honor Just to Suit Up to Sit on Bench

Times Staff Writer

A quiet, shy sophomore pursuing a dream walked into the California State University, Long Beach, gym last October and made the 49er basketball team. Ever since, Mike Matsuno has been in heaven.

Matsuno, a 6-foot-3 guard, has played in only five of 22 games this season, scoring four points, but for now that does not matter to him.

“Ever since you’re a little kid, you watch (big-time college basketball) on TV . . . just to be part of it is something special,” Matsuno said last Saturday at a Stockton motel before a game at University of the Pacific.


Like the other 49ers he still is in awe of, he wore a stylish blue sweat suit. He is always with them now, at airports and restaurants, in arenas and rented vans. He is one of them and can’t get over it.

“He’s excited about being on our team,” Coach Joe Harrington said. “He’s everything that’s real nice about college athletics. He doesn’t get publicity but he’s the kind of guy who makes the program better. And he’s a good student.”

It is a thrill for Matsuno, the 11th man on an 11-man team, just to practice against the regulars. “I can say I played against Morlon Wiley and he used to shoot jumpers in my face,” he said with a laugh.

Plays for the Love of It

Matsuno did not enroll at CSULB on a scholarship and may never get one.

“He’s doing it for the pure love of the game,” said Harrington, who believes Matsuno is the team’s most popular player--he has a contingent of rooters at home games.

But Matsuno, of Japanese descent and one of the few Asians in Division I college basketball, is working hard to become more than just a novelty. His play in practice--"every practice is a challenge for me because we have a lot of great athletes"--has won the respect of his more talented teammates and his coaches.

“He’s improved so much it’s incredible,” Harrington said. “He’s going to play some before he leaves here if he keeps at it.”

Seth Greenberg, Harrington’s associate who sees Matsuno as someone who is getting a chance to be Walter Mitty, also is impressed: “He’s a neat kid, like the nicest human being in the world. He thinks it’s an honor to be on the team; we perceive it as an honor to have him.”

The players call Matsuno “Mike Nice.”

“He’s quiet and funny. All the guys like him,” said John Hoffman, one of Matsuno’s companions on the bench. “If he gets in a game, we try to get him the ball so he can at least get a shot off. If he scores (the crowd) goes crazy.

After watching Matsuno in a three-on-three student tournament in October, Harrington asked him to try out for the team. He was the only one of about 40 prospective walk-ons who made it.

“I was so happy, it was like a dream,” said Matsuno, who will be 20 on Feb. 27.

He was a basketball star and captain at Lowell High School in San Francisco. In his senior year, playing against inner-city teams, he averaged 14 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists a game. He was known as a fierce competitor--"I’d always get into fights, even in pick-up games; I hated to lose.”

He said he could have played at UC Davis, but “I didn’t think I’d be happy there, and I wanted the experience of living away from home.”

Lowell Coach Dave Low said he was surprised that Matsuno tried out for the 49ers. “We’re an academic school and normally don’t have a lot of kids recruited for athletics,” Low said by telephone. “But I was overjoyed when he decided to do it. He has a great attitude. He’ll come and visit us when he’s back in the Bay Area.”

Met Varsity Players in Dorm

Matsuno’s playing time as a freshman at CSULB was confined to a basketball class and the playground behind the campus dorms. He attended 49er games and tried to envision what it would be like to be on the court.

At the dorm he became friends with 49er center DeAnthony Langston and point guard Billy Walker. “Dee and Billy would tell me to come out for the team,” Matsuno said. “I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ But you only go through life once, so I thought why not try it?”

“He was in fantasy land when he met Billy and me . . . he had seen us on TV,” Langston said. “And he was in fantasy land when he made the team.”

But the reality of the demands that basketball makes on a player’s time caught Matsuno, who plans to major in communications, off guard. His grade-point average, which had been 3.4 the previous semester, dropped to 2.8 last semester.

“A lot of people don’t know how tough practice is,” he said. “And there’s all the weightlifting we have to do. When I first started I felt like going to sleep when I got back to my room. But you adjust. Now I don’t get tired anymore. I’m going to start pushing myself academically.”

The two baskets the 175-pound Matsuno has scored were in December against Chaminade University of Honolulu. Both times the crowd in the 49er gym went crazy.

His low point came at home against Pacific when he was dunked on by Domingo Rosario. “Welcome to the big leagues,” Matsuno was told by teammate Marco Fleming.

Matsuno knows his role on the team and does not complain. “I go into each game with an open mind, knowing anything can happen,” he said.

“He’s a great practice player,” said Greenberg. “He has an excellent basketball IQ and is very coachable. He listens and hears what you’re saying. (But) he has to improve his shot.”

And so Matsuno waits for his time to come and thinks about the future.

“I hope to do a lot more before my career is over,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to learn. I have to get stronger and have more confidence in shooting. I’ll be ready next year.”

Matsuno, as usual, did not play last Saturday night at Pacific. His father, Kinya Matsuno, had come from San Francisco and made sure he was there early to see Mike warm up. “It’s a big thrill for me,” Kinya said.

The next day, as the 14-8 Long Beach team gathered at the Stockton airport, Matsuno sat laughing with teammates Rudy Harvey, Morlon Wiley and Andre Purry.

What he had said the night before--"I really feel part of the team"--was true.