An Iowa State of Mind

Written by Alex Gookin, photo provided by the Athletic Department


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Matt Abdelmassih was eating breakfast in Chicago when he got the call. His boss, Fred Hoiberg, had given him and a few others tickets to see the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers face off in an NBA playoff game. Matt knew that Fred was interviewing with Jamie Pollard about a possible college head coaching job at Iowa State.
“Hey, where are you at?” Hoiberg asked.
“Just eating breakfast, what’s up? Everything cool?” Abdelmassih said.
“Well, how do you feel about moving to Ames?”
Abdelmassih laughed, knowing Hoiberg — his best friend and partner-in-crime at the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves — was messing with him after finishing what he thought was the first round of interviews. But he wasn’t.
“No, I’m serious, man.”

At first glance, Matt Abdelmassih may have just looked like another body on the floor for the Cocalico High School men’s basketball team in Denver, Penn. His short stature had him staring at the chests of many opponents, and he wasn’t gifted with the blazing talent of others like Muggsy Bogues to make up for it. He just wasn’t that good at basketball, and he knew it.
But that didn’t stop him. He was a student of the game, borderline obsessive. He spent his time talking with coaches, acting almost as a student assistant, studying the game and expanding his knowledge for all four years of school. He was far from the most talented basketball player on the team, but he was determined to become the most successful in the world of basketball.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Abdelmassih had his sights set on college in his home state, and he wasn’t going to settle for anything but his dream school: St. John’s.
“It was the only school I applied to, and if I didn’t get in there, I said I wasn’t going to college,” Abdelmassih said.
But his hard work and persistence paid off, landing an acceptance letter from his dream school. His continued persistence also landed him his dream job as a Division-I college basketball student manager.
It was there he expanded his knowledge under head coach Norm Roberts — considered Bill Self’s top recruiter at Kansas before taking the St. John’s head coaching position.
Video. Travel. Camps. His responsibilities grew as he absorbed every bit of information he had around him. Every coach, every player, every available source was used to the fullest extent.
“I really was a pest, I was annoying,” Abdelmassih said. “I was relentless in the fact that I didn’t want one person to say no, and if they did, I just kept going and going and going. That’s kind of who I am, I don’t take no for an answer and try to figure it out.”
And that’s where he gained his trust — through hard work, maybe even a bit of stubbornness. Forcing his foot in the door everywhere he could, he was trying to move up the professional ladder before even getting out of college.
“It’s the East Coast demeanor that I have,” Abdelmassih said. “It’s relentless, it’s blue-collar. The only way I got where I am is because I work. I try and outwork everybody.”
And he did. After interning for a season at the Minnesota Timberwolves, he caught the eye of Fred Hoiberg, who at the time was director of basketball operations.

Darting in and out of offices at the Sukup Basketball Complex on the west side of Ames, Abdelmassih hurried around, asking for a favor from the receptionist and relaying information to another assistant.
“Just give me a few minutes, then we will hammer this thing out,” he said to me as he whizzed around like a stockbroker on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
I was early, so I told him I was in no rush. I sat down in the dimly lit, modern lobby area and glanced down at a magazine cover.
“All right, let’s do this,” he said.
“You’re ready?” I asked, wondering how 10 seconds was enough to finish what he was doing.
Without answering, he zipped into his office and sat down in his chair as I hustled behind, not used to the pace of a “New York minute.”
Dressed in cardinal and gold warmups from head to toe, Abdelmassih leaned back in his leather rolling chair behind his desk with his foot propped up next to his computer. He let out a big sigh and settled in.
“My ultimate goal was I wanted to be a front office guy in the NBA, and my dream job is to be the general manager of the New York Knicks someday,” Abdelmassih said, a picture of the Statue of Liberty wearing an Iowa State jersey sitting on a shelf over his shoulder.
His dream job is still in the works. But at 29 years old, his résumé is as stacked as they come.
With four years of experience as student manager at St. John’s, his goal of working in an NBA front office had a solid base. After applying for an internship with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he went through a few interviews before meeting the person who would send him from the Empire State to the Midwest.
“Once Fred got involved in the interview process, it was over,” he said. “I think he appreciated the sincerity I had. I flew out there over in the summer of 2007, and the rest is history.”
Video operations, free agency, draft prep. His years of experience as a college assistant paid off, and his pedal-to-the-floor work ethic propelled him even higher.
He developed a unique relationship with Hoiberg, with both quickly moving up the ladder as Hoiberg was promoted to vice president of basketball operations and Abdelmassih serving as his right-hand man as basketball operations assistant.
Hoiberg and Abdelmassih weren’t just co-workers; they were friends. He quickly learned about Hoiberg’s love for his alma mater, and even sent Abdelmassih to Ames to watch a couple of basketball games.
But Abdelmassih didn’t think much of it. He was having the time of his life, achieving his ultimate goal as a kid in his mid-20s.

“Come on man, don’t mess with me,” Abdelmassih said, trying to wrap his head around the possibility of leaving the NBA for Ames, Iowa.
“I’m serious, I was offered the job,” Hoiberg replied.
Just days later, Hoiberg was at the news conference announcing his hiring as head coach of the Iowa State basketball team. The only guy Hoiberg brought from the Timberwolves staff was Matt Abdelmassih.
What happened over the next four years is well documented: Three NCAA tournament appearances, a Sweet 16 appearance and a Big 12 Tournament Championship.
Behind the scenes, Abdelmassih was doing his part to better the team. Transfers like Royce White, Deandre Kane and Bryce Dejean-Jones are all products of his recruiting, an unconventional tactic that has received national attention with its success.
“He’s a funny guy and it really drew me to him,” Dejean-Jones said. “You can tell he really cares about his players, and that was a big thing for me.”
But Abdelmassih’s move to Ames didn’t change his East Coast demeanor, giving a quiet, mild-tempered Hoiberg a means business kind of recruiter who has developed into one of the top recruiters in the nation. It’s an Empire state of mind — with an Iowa State twist.
“I’m very straightforward,” Abdelmassih said. “You’re not BS-ing these kids, you’re not BS-ing their families, and when you’re straightforward, it’s amazing how much people really appreciate that.”

Leaning back in his chair, he checks his phone as I ask him another question. He wiggles the mouse to his computer to wake up his screen, glancing quickly at his email inbox.
In the back corner of the room, a window overlooks the practice court where several ISU players — many there because of Abdelmassih’s efforts — are shooting hoops despite the team’s official practice not starting for hours.
“Fred’s responsible for so much of where I’m at today, but I also like to think that he gave me the opportunity because he knew I could do it on my own and knew that I could take and run with the opportunity and turn it into a really big-time personal success for me.”
And at the rate he’s going, there’s no telling where Abdelmassih’s success could take him: a premiere college job, an NBA job or maybe, just maybe his dream job as GM of the Knicks. But ISU fans shouldn’t fret. Abdelmassih’s life in the fast lane doesn’t appear to be taking an exit back to New York — or anywhere — for a long time.
“Not in a million years, if someone came and offered me triple the amount of money that I’m making now, I would never think about leaving a guy like Fred Hoiberg,” Abdelmassih said, taking his foot off the desk and leaning forward in his chair.
“When you are around good people that you consider friends, that you consider family, there’s no price tag to that. Wherever Fred goes in life, whether it’s being at Iowa State for 15 years or being somewhere else, I hope I’m blessed enough that I can keep going on the journey with him.”

Written by Alex Gookin, photo provided by the Athletic Department