Getting Personal: Matt Buchi

Getting Personal: Matt Buchi

Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, staff writer Paul Wood chats with MATT BUCHI, head coach of the men's wheelchair basketball team at the University of Illinois.

Matt, where are you from and how did you get here?

I grew up in Clarkston, Mich., a small town an hour north of Detroit. I was injured in a car accident when I was 9 years old on summer vacation with my family in North Carolina. It was an older vehicle that did not have shoulder harnesses in the back seats. The head-on collision caused me to fold in half and break the last three vertebrae in my spine and paralyzed me from the waist down.

Then what happened?

After six months in the hospital in North Carolina, I was transferred to a children's hospital in Detroit and shortly after was introduced back to my community and school system in Clarkston. A young man who was born with a disability and lived near me heard I was back and asked if I would like to come to a wheelchair basketball practice. There was a newly formed club team in Sterling Heights and was about a 45-minute drive to practice. We took the drive there, and as soon as I saw two kids in chairs push and collide into each other, I was hooked. I played throughout middle school and high school, winning the NWBA Junior National Championship my junior and senior year of high school. I also attended summer camps at several colleges but always at Illinois. I was recruited to play at Illinois, and after battling a very competitive division for several year, our team won my senior year in 2008.

What drew you to coaching?

As a young kid before my injury, I was not involved in any team sports. My time was mostly spent with friends in the neighborhood riding bikes, climbing trees and getting into mischief. Once I returned home from the accident, I saw wheelchair basketball as a great alternative to participating in physical therapy that was primarily focused on having me walk with braces. I was not interested in walking with heavy braces and equipment; it was much easier and faster in the chair. After being accepted to Illinois and playing under Coach Frogley, I knew that I had an interest in teaching but didn't know what I wanted to teach. Once I figured out that I could teach wheelchair basketball as a coach, it became very comfortable and exciting for me. When I coach, I see it as a communication puzzle: I have to figure out how to communicate with each athlete on a level they understand and connect with to make adjustments for their improvement. Every day comes with new challenges and opportunities to grow, both the athlete and myself.

You have a young team. What are some of the challenges?

You always have a few leaders who can help echo the words and phrases that we use, but with a young team, there can be big gray areas that the majority of them do not understand, and none of them want to be the one to say they do not know. The next step is building the trust that helps with being vulnerable of not knowing. We work on team-building exercises that challenge them and give them opportunities to fail in a safe environment, so they can learn from their mistakes. Lastly, it would be building confidence. Most of our athletes at this age and generation are really good and seeming confident because they grew up in a social media generation that is all about making you look like you are living your best life. I work at making a coaching relationship that allows the athlete to open up to me and their teammates about fears, dreams or experiences that may affect their future.

What's something few people know about you?

Most of my life is dedicated to my job as a coach. I currently am two classes away from finishing my master's degree in Recreation, Sports and Tourism. When I am home and have some free time, I like to build things. A few years ago, I was feeling the pressure of the job and needed an outlet, so I looked for hobbies to pick up. I am someone that if I am going to do something, it should be with a purpose, and it should help someone. As a young man, both before and after my injury, I remember building things with my grandpa, who is an incredible contractor, electrician and overall handy guy. He and I would build small projects out of wood and then give them to family members. Wood-working is a fun, creative outlet for me to build something that someone needs or would be useful. I have built raised cedar planter boxes for our office, so people with disabilities can plant veggies in our courtyard, and most recently, I built a set of "doggie ramps" for an aging dachshund that has a bad hip and cannot make it up the steps. I enjoy figuring out how to make it, the smell of the fresh-cut wood and the smiles I get when someone gets something I have made.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

When I am not working on something, I watch a lot of YouTube. Some of it comedic, some musical, could be a documentary or sports psychology. YouTube has an incredible amount of content that is constantly being updated and added to, so it keeps me watching.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I am not much of a paperback reader, but when I travel, I love to listen to audio books and take notes on things that inspire me. I have attended a few basketball clinics with an organization called Point Guard College, and they have many great coaches that have recommended a long list of books. Currently, I am listening to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth and "The Speed of Trust" by Stephen M. R. Covey.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I have been very fortunate to have been able to travel around the world teaching wheelchair basketball. In my early coaching years, I have traveled five times to Tokyo, Japan; I also went to Niamey, Niger, Africa, and Jerusalem, Israel, to just name a few. I have always wanted to travel to South Africa to experience the nature and history of the land and maybe go back to Australia to experience it more as a tourist because I have only gone as an athlete, which ends up being hotel to gym and back to hotel.

What's your favorite sports team?

I do not really follow professional sports unless Detroit is in it. I have always been and will always be a fan of Detroit. I really enjoy March Madness basketball and have studied coaching from coaches like Gregg Popovich.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

Selfishness would be the biggest thing for me. I always think about others because I am a product of my mother's upbringing. She always sacrifices for others and enjoys making others happy, so I have done the same. I try to press the same care and concern for others on my athletes, so they can think about how to help those around them before themselves.

What's your best piece of advice?

I am not sure I am wise enough to have advice to give to others yet, but some advice I received from a friend and fellow wheelchair basketball coach was about recruiting. We are always trying to find the best athletes to give ourselves the best chance to win, but he shared with me that when he was a young coach, he recruited nothing but talent and what he got were character problems. As soon as he made character his priority, he had problems he could handle. I think about that every time I talk to potential student athletes or I reflect on something our current team is struggling with. No matter what it is, I know that I have a great group of character guys that will always represent our program well.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

After leaving Illinois, I moved to Alabama to take over as head coach for the Alabama women's wheelchair basketball team. The atmosphere and system was not something I agreed with, and after being there a year, transitioning as an interim coach, I was given the opportunity to stay as an associate coach under the same leadership. I had the decision of committing to more time for a college position I wanted or giving it up for the unknown. I decided to stick to my standards of coaching and left for a different coaching opportunity. I eventually moved to Vancouver, Canada, to coach for a short amount of time, then to Stillwater, Okla., at Oklahoma State University. I was at another crossroads when the OSU program was going under, and the Illinois head coaching position opened. I took a chance and was hired at Illinois. I have always been looking for something to come close to what is here at Illinois and nothing really compares it. I am grateful every day that I get to wake up, go to practice and do what I love to do here in Champaign.

Do you have any regrets in your life?

You can never live in regret. Everything and every decision is made for a reason. I live with the mindset that I work to make myself the best I can be in as many areas as possible, so when life presents you with opportunity, you have the chance to do something with it. I have done and experienced so much so far, and I'm just looking forward to what else life has for me.

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