Initiative, Persistence Fueled a Dream Job

Nearly every achievement starts with initiative, and initiative can be found in the smallest of details.

For this man, it all began when he was nine years old, sitting with his mother at a Pacers game at Market Square Arena in February of 1997. Toronto was the opponent, and Mom got the tickets through someone at work. They sat halfway up the building and arrived early. So early they were able to watch Reggie Miller warm up on his own long before the official pregame warmups.

While Miller put up shots, a few boys rebounded and passed the ball back to him. Then he went out and scored 25 points in just 30 minutes to lead a comeback from a 19-point halftime deficit for a 105-103 victory. The kid was hooked after that. He couldn't get Reggie Miller out of his head. He couldn't get the boys who helped him warm up out of his head, either.

Finally, a week or so later, he asked a question.

"Mom, how do I get to do that?"

Mom didn't have the slightest idea. She didn't pay much attention to sports, didn't follow the Pacers closely, but noticed the kids with Miller all were dressed alike, so she figured there must be some sort of system in place. But she had no idea who to contact or how to reach anyone working for the team. All she could think of was for her son to put something in the mail to the Pacers and hope it wound up in the right hands.

So, Matt Hayden put pencil to paper and wrote a letter.

Perhaps you've seen Hayden at a Pacers game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, or on television. He's the man, now 33 years old, who sits behind the team bench and passes out drinks to the players. He does most of his work behind the scenes, though, as the locker room attendant who manages the ball boys and performs some of the dirty work of keeping the locker room clean.

His story encompasses a wide swath of people in the Pacers' organization over the past two decades, including Miller, Paul George, David Craig and others, but it's mostly a story of enterprise, effort and perseverance.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention that Hayden has cerebral palsy, and that he was born 10 weeks premature, weighed less than four pounds at birth and spent the first month of his life in a German hospital. He walks with the aid of metal crutches that slow his pace, but not his dedication. All of this is relevant only to amplify the spirit he brings to his paid part-time position with the Pacers and the impact he has in his volunteer work with the New Palestine school system, of which he is a product.

Otherwise, he expects no favors and is just one of the guys.

It took more than one letter, though, for Hayden to get a foot in the door with the Pacers. It took, his mother Lori says, "letter after letter after letter." Somewhere along the line Matt learned David Craig, the trainer at the time, hired the ball boys, so he addressed each letter to him. Mom mailed them all but wondered if her son's dream was a waste of time and postage.

Matt wrote a lot of other letters to sports figures he admired. He got replies from players such as Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, and Tracy McGrady and from Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Some were form letters, some were more personal, some included an autographed photo.

Someone from the Pacers wrote back to say he couldn't apply for a ball boy position until he was 13 and couldn't begin working until he turned 14. That meant four years of waiting from the time he began his quest, but he kept sending letters to declare his love for the Pacers and desire to be part of them.

Finally, in the summer of 2000 after the Pacers had completed their run to the NBA Finals, Hayden received a telephone call. It was from Tom Jennings, an assistant to Craig, the Pacers' head trainer, inviting him to come in for an interview. Hayden had informed the Pacers of his physical handicap, so Craig knew what to expect. But he wasn't put off.

"We interviewed him like we would anybody else," Craig recalls.

Indeed. Lori Hayden, who was invited in to observe the interview and sat in a corner of Craig's office, recalls a serious conversation in which Matt was asked about his work ethic, his ability to perform certain tasks and his knowledge of the Pacers franchise. The most memorable moment occurred when newly-hired coach Isiah Thomas stuck his head in the open doorway and offered a cheerful greeting. Matt was sitting in an office chair without arm rests, and when he spun around and saw Thomas he was so starstruck he literally nearly fell out of it.

At the conclusion of the interview Matt offered Craig a handshake and said, "I hope I'll hear from you soon."

"Well, you won't have to wait too long, because you're hired," Craig responded.

It wasn't a token hire.

"As far as we were concerned, he met the criteria," Craig says today. "He belonged as a ball boy."

Hayden began working for the Pacers in February of 1998, after he turned 14. He only works home games, but there's far more to his life than that. He has an associate's degree from Ivy Tech in Business Administration, a bachelor's degree from IUPUI in Physical Education with an emphasis in sports management and a minor in the Kelly School of Business.

He spends school days at a New Palestine grade school helping to monitor the cafeteria. He spends afternoons with the high school sports teams. He's an assistant for the freshman and varsity football teams and the girls' varsity basketball team. When not working with a team he's attending a game as a fan.

He sits in on meetings with the coaching staffs, but his primary role with the teams is to lend a positive attitude and perspective to the players and act as a middle man between the players and coaches.

"I love having Matt around for what he represents and the adversity he's gone through in his life," New Palestine football coach Kyle Ralph said. "It's great for our young kids to get to know him when they first get here and learn his story and how to handle adversity. A lot of kids aren't going to have to go through that, but here he is every day with a smile on his face and energetic."

Matt's busy schedule forced him to put his workouts toward competing as a weightlifter in the Paralympics on hold, but he hopes to get back to them in a month or two. The goal is to qualify for the competition in 2024 and 2028.

Matt and his mother, who is retired from her career as a government employee at the Fort Benjamin Harrison finance center, also are in the early stages of forming a foundation that will benefit the New Palestine community and, further into the future, Indianapolis causes.

New Palestine already offers the Matt Hayden Award, an annual scholarship that Matt and Lori began with help from the football booster club. Applicants go through a rigid interview process with Matt and Lori and the coaches and must show how they have overcome an adversity.

"It's not easy to win," Ralph said. "It's one of the harder things we do around here, to be honest, picking the winner of that."

Many of the winners have legitimately cited Matt as an inspiration.

Uber and the Pacers Surprise Matt Hayden
April 12, 2017 - Uber and members of the Pacemates went to the house of locker room attendant Matt Hayden to surprise him with free rides to work for the next year.

He's received inspiration, too. After he began working for the Pacers, eventually becoming the manager of the ball boys, he took a healthy dose of it from observing Miller's disciplined approach.

"Watching him come in and work every day, that made me want to work harder," he says. "I needed to lead our ball kids the way Reggie wanted somebody to lead them.

"He was very vocal, in a positive way. He needed us to rebound, hustle...I made sure our ball kids did that."

Asked what other players he's grown close to over the years, Hayden has a quick and perhaps surprising answer: Paul George. They hit it off from the beginning of George's seven seasons with the Pacers. George handed Matt his cell phone one day and told him to put his number in it, so the two were never far out of touch. When George was laid up in a hospital after breaking his leg in the summer of 2014, Matt called him and George told him he was going to be fine. They have continued to communicate since George was traded from the Pacers in 2017, sometimes talking when George plays against the Pacers at The Fieldhouse and usually a time or two in the offseason.

"Him and I are very close," Matt says.

Lori drives Matt to and from nearly every home game, about a half-hour trip. He usually calls about 10:30 after his work is completed and tells her it's OK to come pick him up. One night, though, he called and said not to come get him yet, that George had invited him out to dinner with a group of friends at Moe's restaurant downtown.

Around 1 a.m. she hadn't heard from him yet so she drove up. Parked near the restaurant, she saw a large group of people on the sidewalk laughing and carrying on.

"In the middle of this group I see shining crutches," she says.

She called him on his cell phone. He said it was OK to come get him. She told him to turn around, she was across the street. That's how tight Matt had become with George.

Matt isn't old enough to have seen Mel Daniels play, but he got to know the former Pacers center when Daniels worked as a scout for the team. Matt and Lori have established a tradition of flying to attend a couple of road games each season (this year it's the swing through New York and Toronto after the All-Star break) and it seemed they often would run into Daniels in airports while traveling. He told stories of the old days. They talked before games in The Fieldhouse as well, and another friendship was formed.

Many of Daniels' stories involved former coach Slick Leonard, so Matt began seeking out Leonard at games. They grew close, too; so close that when Lori threw a party for Matt at a pizza parlor after he graduated from IUPUI, Slick and his wife, Nancy, attended. Slick told endless stories while Lori tried to make sure Nancy got enough pizza.

Matt and Lori, in turn, flew to attend the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies for Miller and Leonard. Through a chance meeting with a Hall executive the day before Miller's ceremony, Matt wound up positioned to be one of the first people Miller greeted when he stepped out of his vehicle and onto the red carpet.

It's gone on like that for more than 20 years now. The work is humble but important and the pay is minimal but valued. Ultimately, it's about the relationships, as viewed from all perspectives.

"It's been a fun ride," Matt says. "I hope it can last for a long, long time."

So does Lori, whose commitment to the venture is second only to Matt's because of the transportation she provides.

"The opportunities he's had with the Pacers has broadened his perspective on people," she says. "The kindness you show comes back. He's found that throughout the organization. I'm just happy he's associated with an organization that appears to be kind and accepting in allowing him to persevere in life.

"I want him to be independent and I would like him not to live in my home forever. But if he does that's OK, too. Whatever happens happens. The Pacers have given him an opportunity to grow and mature and become a little more independent. And the opportunities that have risen from this, like going out until 2 in the morning with Paul George for dinner, that's made him grow as a person, too.

"I'm open to any of it."

And then there's Craig, who was open to overlooking a young kid's physical handicap and recognizing all he could do.

"We all knew there were certain things he could do and couldn't do, but he had his heart in everything he did," Craig says. "He doesn't take advantage of his situations. He's very humble and a very hard worker. All of those things are an inspiration to everyone in the organization. He's definitely that person who doesn't accept his limitations. He's worked above and beyond those limitations to be the best he could be.

"He's an example for all mankind. I mean that."

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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