This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Michigan edition.
Every day after school, Matt Costello would head to the gym with his teammates on the Bay City Western freshman basketball team. They’d run through a typical practice, running plays, working on fundamentals and scrimmaging.
And Costello would dominate.
After that practice was over, Costello would head over to the varsity practice and do it all over again. He’d bang inside with players every bit as tall and often 30 to 40 pounds heavier. They were older, stronger and more experienced.
And Costello would dominate again.
“His work ethic and his determination are like nothing else I’ve ever seen before,” says varsity coach Chris Watz.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound senior forward is the nation’s No. 85 player in the ESPNU 100, he’s the reigning Gatorade State Player of the Year and he’s signed with Michigan State.
How did a scrawny kid from Bay City become a major basketball star? By taking everything one step at a time.
Watz says Costello was always taller than his peers, but what made him stand out is that he never appeared to be as awkward as his frame suggested he might be. “He was never that tall, skinny, clumsy guy,” Watz says. “He was so fluid in his athletic ability.”
But when Costello arrived at Bay City Western, Watz was afraid of putting him in situations he wasn’t ready for. So Costello accepted a role on the freshman squad, quietly biding his time as he dominated opponents outmatched both by his size (he was already about 6-foot-7 by then) and technical ability.
All the while, Costello was pulling double duty. He’d go to class all day, head to his freshman practice or game and then make the trek to the varsity practice.
“It was pretty tiring,” he says.“I never went up against anyone who was that strong before. There were a lot of football players who also played basketball. I got beat up pretty bad. But that’s what was nice. Every day I got pushed.”
Costello stayed patient, and he adjusted quickly. Watz says that after just a few practices, it was clear nobody on the varsity squad could stop him, either. The coach knew he couldn’t hold his prized freshman back much longer. He promoted Costello to varsity.
Step by step, he had earned his stripes. First he was practicing with the varsity team, then he was earning playing time. By the end of the season, Costello was starting, and he led the Warriors into the playoffs that season. He’s never looked back.
Teams change with every passing season, even with a constant presence like Costello. This season, with Western having lost four of its five starters from last year’s Class A state semifinal team, Costello knows the Warriors will need to have a new identity. Last season he spent much of his time in the post; this season he acknowledges he’ll take on an even larger role. He may even run the point from time to time.
Sure, the thought of a 6-foot-9 forward carrying the ball up the court is an image to behold, but, as Costello says, “Magic Johnson did it pretty well.”
Unlike Magic, there’s little chance Costello will be running the point for Michigan State when he gets there next season. But just like everything else in his life, Costello made the decision to join the Spartans step by step.
And he didn’t do it alone. Costello assembled a team of advisers — his parents, his twin brother, his older sister, his youth pastor and Coach Watz — to talk through the process. Every time he made a visit, talked to a coach or researched a school, he’d bring what he learned to the group, and they would all talk about what was best for him, even if it went against their rooting interests.
“It’s funny,” he says. “A group full of Michigan fans encouraged me to go to State. That’s when I knew it was the right school for me.”
One of the first things Costello did after committing to Michigan State was talk to Spartans coach Tom Izzo about the next step in his development. Izzo isn’t one to mince words.
You need to get better, he told Costello. You’re a scrawny little kid. You need some beef on you. You need to get down a hook shot. Right and left. It needs to be your go-to move. You need a pick-and-pop. You need to be able to set a good pick, roll out and hit that jumper every time.
For a player who’s dominated just about every opponent he’s faced since his freshman season, Costello is definitely looking forward to the new challenge, and he’s working on each individual element until he gets it right.
And he knows what player he’d most like to emulate when he gets to the next level.
“I want to be like (former UNC star and current Indiana Pacer) Tyler Hansbrough,” he says. “He embodies everything that I’d like to be able to do. He fights hard, he can finish and he rebounds. That’s one person I really want to be like.”
One step at a time, he’s getting there.
Christopher Parish is an associate editor with ESPNHS Magazine. You can reach him on Twitter @CParishESPNHS.