A ball and a hoop. What more could an 8-year-old want?
Matthew Gooch rushes outside to the long driveway off Georgia Avenue. It's 2003.
He dribbles and he shoots, he dribbles and he shoots. Sometimes he pulls his Lego table in front of the rim and uses it for a launching pad — he wants to dunk. He saves his best for Mom, challenging her to the simplest of shooting competitions.
She's a small-town girl with a big family and a free spirit. Half of her 41 years, she's been a nurse here in Norfolk. She saves her best for her four kids, always buying one present too many, always testing her Rollerblades against theirs, always letting Matthew win in basketball. Well, maybe not letting him ...
He is her baby, a third-grader, ornery but charming. Soon he will move back to her hometown without her. He will find a job in Grandpa's store and a mentor in a recovering alcoholic. He'll cruise Main in his tricked-out pickup and run through the Devaney Center halls after everyone has gone home.
But over and over, his mind will flash to the last time he saw her in the house. He'll try to tile over it with memories of the driveway, when her voice and his ball, bouncing against the concrete, were the only sounds in his head.
The boy makes shots off the backboard, even off the house. But when he really needs a basket, when it comes down to crunch time, Matthew goes to the corner. This is his best spot. This is how he wins. Swish.
Your turn, Mom. Last chance.
* * *
Nine years and 40 miles down the road in Howells, Chris Risch orchestrates a house that never goes quiet.
She and her husband had three kids. She raised three more, including a 6-foot-4, 205-pound nephew. That's not the only reason Matthew is hard to miss.
“He's a kid that can't sit still,” she says. “There's always little projects going on.”
This is what lights Matthew's fire: Taking things apart. Putting them back together. Looking at a pile of pieces and envisioning the whole.
Take his '92 Chevy pickup, which he turned into a poor man's Batmobile.
First he drilled holes in the bottom of the seat frame to mount 20-inch blue neon lights. He put a couple of 6-inch lights under the dash.
Then he added a CB and PA system, so he could drive around and share his pop music — or talk to pedestrians.
Linette Brester, whose son is among Matthew's best friends, was out for a walk with her family when she suddenly heard a deep voice.
“Hello, Brester family.”
Matthew wired a brake controller so he could pull a trailer. He installed a CD player — “It took quite some time for me to figure that out.” He bolted a bench to the truck's bed — with seat belts, of course — so three more friends could explore Howells with him.
Is all of this legal? Ehhhh.
“I'm pretty tight with the town cops,” he says.
Everybody in Howells knows him. You can find him on weekends at Baumert Furniture Store — Grandpa opened his doors before Mom was born; he still runs the show at 83.
On cold mornings, Matthew clears snow-covered driveways — who needs a shovel when you can hook a blade onto your four-wheeler? On hot nights, he walks shirtless around town with a buddy — “the naked mile,” they call it.
But on Friday nights, most of the school year, you can find him in uniform. He's all-state in football and basketball. One of the best athletes Howells has ever produced. Strong. Explosive. Poised.
The kind of kid who, even during a tight game, chats with an opponent at half-court. The kind of kid who, when asked for his statistical averages, shorts himself a point and a rebound. The kind of kid who draws a crowd after a game because he gives out hugs. They used to feel sorry for him. Now he's just Matt.
“His demeanor on the floor is why people have so much respect for him,” says George Blum, a longtime family friend.
One retired farmer put it like this: “You just can't help but like him.”
This season, his fan base looks a little different. Howells and Dodge, two fierce rivals separated by six miles on Highway 91, consolidated.
They're trying to do something neither town has accomplished in 30 years: win a state basketball championship.
Last season, Howells came maddeningly close, losing a four-point lead in the final two seconds at the Devaney Center.
“I probably watched it a million times,” he says. “We could've cut the net down. ... But it's gone now. It's time for a new year. I'm ready.”
The opening night of his senior season, 2012-13, Howells-Dodge beats Pierce.
The Jaguars are 1-0.
* * *
He remembers lunch runs with Mom — she liked Chinese. He remembers swerving in front of strangers on his bike — she scolded him. He remembers his brother shoving him into the wall at the Norfolk swimming pool and chipping his tooth — Mom didn't like that, either.
He remembers shorts. She wore shorts all the time. Summer, winter, didn't matter. When they had snowball fights, Matthew targeted her bare legs.
Matthew Gooch with his mother, Kathy, after his first communion. Matthew, the youngest of four children, knew little about his parents' domestic problems, which started before he was born.
People tell him about Kathy Gooch and he forgets a lot of it. Willingly. He prefers his own memories.
Being the baby of the family meant a lot of one-on-one time with Mom after Tyler, Jessi and Paige went to school. Being the baby also meant that Matthew knew less about his parents' problems, which started before he was born.
Sometimes he woke up at night and heard them fighting. Sometimes he was shooting hoops in the driveway and saw Dad's car pull in. He grabbed his ball and went inside.
“For a long time, I know I was scared of him. I don't know why.”
Jim Gooch's domestic abuse began as bullying. Over the years, fueled by his alcoholism, it intensified. His death threats against Kathy and the kids were widely known among friends and family.
She was scared to stay with him, but even more frightened to leave.
She and the kids regularly retreated to Howells. Loved ones tried to persuade her to leave Jim. They even arranged a safe house for her. At the hospital, co-workers filled her locker with brochures on domestic violence services.
“The victim has to make that silent decision to go,” says Chris, Kathy's youngest sister. “She had everything ready, but just couldn't do it. ... She just needed that one more nudge to get out of there.”
Jim monitored Kathy's calls. He followed her when she left the house. Eventually, he refused to let Kathy go to Howells.
If anything happens to me, Kathy told her sister, I want you to take the kids.
Late in 2003, Jim reached out with kindness to Kathy's family, something he rarely did. He demanded that Kathy buy all the kids' presents — weeks before Christmas. Then he filed for divorce. What was he planning?
On the night of Dec. 17, Jim was at the 1½-story house at 600 Georgia Ave., watching TV with Kathy and the kids. Time for bed. “Give your mom a hug and tell her you love her,” Dad said.
Matthew was upstairs with his siblings for 30 minutes, maybe an hour — even at 8 years old, he liked to stay up and talk.
He heard her scream. He heard what sounded like a hammer against a wall. He looked out the window and saw Dad's taillights. Something was wrong, they knew it. They rushed down the stairs.
“It's almost like everything just froze. It's just like, do we wanna look? Is this as bad as we think it is? As soon as we turned the corner, we just started screaming.”
Matthew saw her lying on her bedroom floor. Her eyes were open. He approached her, knelt down and tried to close them. They opened again.
“It's like she wanted to see us one last time.”
At the police station, Matthew's siblings answered questions about the 12-gauge on the couch and the puddle of blood. An officer led Matthew downstairs and handed him a stuffed animal. A black gorilla with a maroon tie.
It was late when they arrived in Howells.
Nobody knew where Dad was. Did he flee? Was he hiding? Police guarded Grandma and Grandpa's house. Matthew didn't want to close his eyes.
“We thought he was gonna come for us. We thought we were next.”
* * *
Jim Gooch did not come for them. The morning after he sped away from the house on Georgia Avenue, he hanged himself from a tree in the country.
Matthew didn't go home again. Relatives delivered his stuff to Howells.
A week after the murder, he opened Mom's presents. Friends and strangers dropped by with more: videos, clothes, toys. A friend of Paige's delivered four ceramic Christmas trees, each accompanied by an angel ornament.
Everybody, Aunt Chris says, tried to fill the void. But the heaviest burden fell on her. If anything happens to me, I want you to take the kids.
Matthew spent the first couple of months at Grandma and Grandpa's while Aunt Chris and Uncle Daylin remodeled. A three-bedroom ranch became five, with the boys downstairs and the girls up. (Matthew's brother, Tyler, moved in with another uncle and aunt, who had older sons.)
Matthew joined the third-grade class at Howells. Basketball helped him fit in on the playground.
After school, he embraced small-town freedoms. He watched his uncles working on machinery and he grabbed a wrench. He didn't just want to ride in the car or the tractor. He wanted to drive.
“As soon as he could get in that lawn mower seat, he was in it,” Chris says. “And we couldn't get him out.”
Still, he couldn't shake that night in Norfolk. It replayed over and over in his mind. He kept thinking about the blast. And walking down the steps. And turning the corner.
“That's always the image that comes to my head.”
One day, he stormed out of a classroom in tears. At night, he woke up scared. He wanted drapes on his windows. Loud noises made him jump. Soft ones, too.
“He'd be like, 'Did you hear that?'” Aunt Chris says. “And I didn't hear anything.”
Matthew didn't want to talk about his Dad. Even hearing his name made him angry.
So did hearing a friend complain about overbearing parents.
“It's just like, I would trade places with you in a heartbeat.”
He reached high school, hit a growth spurt and became one of the best athletes in school. But the slightest mistake set him off.
Everybody knew when Matthew was upset. He sat alone on the bench and dropped his head.
* * *
He remembers Dad's country music and trips to McDonald's. He remembers huddling around a TV on Monday nights — Dad, brother Tyler and him — to watch WWF wrestling.
Jim Gooch was a supervisor at a juvenile center in Madison. Friends knew him as fun-loving and considerate. The kind of guy who gave away his best baseball cards.
In the '80s, he played basketball at Wayne State College. Matthew remembers one of his dad's buddies praising his jumpshot: “That's Jimmy with the J.”
But for a kid who carried his father's mistakes every day, Matthew didn't really know the man. He never spent much time with him. He started looking for more pieces.
His brother told him about his parents' marriage. The sources of conflict.
Matthew went to Kansas City — where Dad grew up — to see his family. He brought home a press guide to the 1980-81 Leavenworth High basketball team.
As a senior, Jim was 5-10, 165 pounds — same size Matthew was as a freshman. In the black-and-white photo, Jim is dressed like a cowboy, holding a saddle, wearing a hat, a shiny buckle and a huge smile. Same big nose as me, Matthew says.
He brought home another piece of his dad — a coat. He wasn't sure what to do with it, so he hung it in the closet.
In the summer of 2011, Grandpa assigned Matthew and George Blum, the longtime family friend, to install a kitchen floor at Leigh High School.
George had been working for Mr. Baumert for years. Kathy once asked him to look out for Matthew. Give him a male influence he didn't get from his dad.
Now the kid was 16 and George recognized a chance to reach him. In the kitchen, they began pasting tiles. George told Matthew about the Jim Gooch he knew before Matthew was born. A kind, tender man.
Another tile ...
He told Matthew about anger and forgiveness. Seven years ago, George said, I quit drinking. I oriented my life around God.
Another tile ...
Before I could recover, the hardest thing I had to do was forgive myself. If you want to get over this — if you're ever going to be happy — you have to forgive yourself. And even harder, forgive your dad.
All week, they took apart the past and put it back together.
George didn't notice an immediate difference. But as school started, he watched Matthew on the football field and on the basketball court. He saw a kid who held his head high, even when he made a mistake. He saw a kid leading teammates with a smile.
“It kind of hit me that I just have to keep going,” Matthew says. “I finally came to peace with it.”
Sometimes when he's in Norfolk with a friend, Matthew drives by the house on Georgia Avenue. That's where my basketball hoop was.
He still doesn't talk much about Jimmy Gooch. Most of his extended family — Mom's siblings and parents, especially — aren't ready to forgive. Matthew doesn't push them. But he doesn't hide anymore.
After a game, he walks into the locker room wearing his Howells-Dodge jersey. He walks out wearing his father's old Kansas Jayhawks coat.
“Just can't get rid of it, I guess. I don't have a lot left. This is one thing I can wear and people can see it and know that he's still my dad.”
Matthew Gooch with his aunt, Chris Risch, after a pep rally for the tournament-bound Howells-Dodge High School boys basketball team March 7. Risch had promised her sister to look after Matthew and his siblings if anything happened to her.
On Feb. 20, Matthew turned 18. The same night, in the subdistrict final, Howells-Dodge was about to lose its perfect season.
After rolling through the pre-Christmas schedule, the Jaguars won a nail-biter with Humphrey St. Francis. Then, in the span of one week in February, three opponents pushed them to the final possession. Every time, they held on.
But now they were down 16 points with five minutes left. They rallied again. In the final 10 seconds, down by one, Matthew scored with a jump hook. Then he blocked the opponent's last shot. Teammates and their moms sang “Happy Birthday.”
The Jaguars beat Randolph a week later, securing a flawless regular season, 26-0.
The next night, the house in Howells is quiet. Matthew is at the table, barefoot and needing a shave, sitting beneath a dangling wire. Uncle Daylin started remodeling the kitchen a few months ago. The walls aren't yet finished.
“Sore subject,” Matthew says. “We don't talk about the kitchen in our house.”
Matthew's projects are on hold, too.
His pickup's transmission failed, so he traded it for two older trucks. He figures if he combines the parts that work, one might run. Someday.
“He makes the house very interesting,” Chris says.
She joins him in the kitchen, where Grandma's cherry pie sits on the counter. She mentions last night's win. Coming home, she told Grandpa and Grandma how much Kathy would've loved these moments. Chris barely says a word during games. Her sister, she says, would've been “the loudest one” in the gym.
“The embarrassing one,” Matthew says.
His smile reveals the slight chip on his front tooth. Some pieces of the past he'll never repair. He wonders what these nine years would've been like with Mom and Dad. He wonders if they would've pushed him to be better in sports.
He's good enough to play college basketball. But his last game, he says, will be in Lincoln at the state tournament.
He will graduate and enroll at Southeast Community College in Milford, study electromechanical technology and learn to fix industrial machinery. He'll leave behind Grandpa's store and his old pickups and the hoop in the driveway, where Aunt Chris' “wicked bank shot” has beaten him too many times.
He'll take his CDs and T-shirts and basketball. And one more thing. It sits on the top shelf in his bedroom closet, next to a remote-control car. An old gift from a stranger.
A gorilla with a maroon tie.
* * *
State championship night.
His three siblings sit in the front row at the Devaney Center. George Blum is there. Five days ago, he had surgery for an aneurysm, his second procedure in three months. But he wasn't gonna miss this.
Santa is Uncle Daylin Risch, who helped raise Matt Gooch the past nine years.
The Brester family is there. So is the retired farmer, Don Flamme. So are Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Chris and Uncle Daylin and, well, just about everybody he knows.
The first quarter is a disaster. Paxton, also undefeated, jumps out to a 13-6 lead. The Jaguars look overwhelmed.
Then Matthew scores in the paint. He blocks a shot. Five seconds later, another swat. He's been good all year, but he saves his best for tonight. Every time he makes a play, fans chant “Goooooch!” They say it a lot — he dominates the game.
By half, the Jaguars grab the lead. By the third quarter, they've scored 17 straight points. Matthew hits a 3 to go ahead 35-21.
Six months ago, Howells and Dodge had never played a game together. Now they're running away with a D-1 state championship. In the final seconds, people who once stood as rivals chant in unison. “We are H-D. We are H-D.”
Matthew leaves the court with 10 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
Howells-Dodge 49, Paxton 34.
The announcer directs everyone to the exits: “You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.”
Howells-Dodge isn't ready to leave. Jaguar fans will be here another hour, mingling on the court like they own it.
Matthew will greet Aunt Chris with a hug. He'll hold his nephew and niece and joke with his brother about the dunk he missed in the first half. A stranger will tell him he should go to Nebraska and play defensive end.
When they finally go, he and his teammates will check into the Cornhusker Hotel, devour pizzas and stay up till 4:30 a.m.
Sunday they will navigate a winter storm and roll into Howells midafternoon, escorted by police cars, firetrucks and an ambulance. A championship parade.
And early Monday — a snow day — Matthew will take his four-wheeler and blade and clear Mr. Flamme's driveway.
But before all that, there's a net to cut down. After his teammates detach little pieces for souvenirs, the star is called to the basket.
Your turn, Matthew. Last chance.
He's used to taking pieces and putting them back together. This time he grabs the scissors, climbs the ladder and snips the nylon in seven places — until the net breaks free from the rim. He raises it high to the crowd.
The broken threads feel whole in his hand.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/dirkchatelain