Lakers guard Matt Ryan had a unique path to the NBA, and it involved a cemetery




Boston forward Matt Ryan, second from left, stands for the national anthem before an NBA last March.
Boston forward Matt Ryan, second from left, stands for the national anthem before an NBA last March.  

Matt Ryan had a problem. Actually, he had quite a few. But this one - it had a solution.

At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic had already wiped out his best chance at finding a professional basketball job in the U.S., his pre-draft workouts and summer plans completely altered when his college career ended on a Sunday and the world stopped March 11, 2020, three days later.

Ryan had options - the economics degree from Vanderbilt, the good grades and the networks he established meant all he had to do was drive an hour south into New York City to join a big financial firm. It would mean a career - and it would probably mean saying goodbye to competitive basketball.  

Yet on this day, Ryan wasn't trying to figure out any of this. There was something more pressing.

If he was going to make it as a shooter in pro basketball, the shorter high school three-point line at the gym in which he worked out wasn't much use. The cones he put down in the corners and on the wings and at the top of the key kept getting in the way and were an ankle injury waiting to happen.

He needed to make himself a portable, movable three-point line.

"You wanna know what I did?" he said excitedly from inside the Lakers training camp years later. "You know those yoga mats. It was a very skinny yoga mat and I cut it into like seven skinny pieces and I put those seven markers around the arc. That's what I used for my three-point line.

"… Had to figure it out."

In the time between college and pro basketball, Ryan did whatever he needed to be ready whenever his phone finally rang. He worked a landscaping job at a local cemetery. He delivered food for DoorDash and Uber Eats.

And he shot - a lot.

The yoga mats worked - Ryan transformed himself into an NBA-caliber shooter who earned a two-way deal with Boston late last season. He scored his first points in the Celtics' regular-season finale and now is competing for a roster spot with the Lakers.

Matt Ryan (32) elevates between two defenders for a layup while playing for the G League
Matt Ryan (32) elevates between two defenders for a layup while playing for the G League's Maine Celtics last season.  

"I had to make that fake NBA line," Ryan said. "Most of the time, I was in there alone, so I was chasing all of my own rebounds, hours on end every day. And, I got better, got into great shape, turned into a shooter that could just constantly move and shoot on the move."

Ryan, a 6-foot-7, 25-year-old wing, was a late addition to the Lakers training camp with the team looking to find three-point shooting (Ryan hit 38% in the G League last season before joining Boston).

His story became a fun sub-plot in the NBA Finals when the novelty of a delivery driver in the league won over parts of the basketball internet.

The job at the cemetery came because Ryan knew the right people. His grandfather was running a cement monument business and had a contact at the local cemetery. Ryan, who was looking for a job in town that would be flexible, got hired.

His first days, with the weather around 15 degrees, were spent walking up and down rows of graves, cleaning discarded Christmas wreaths and decorations. It was so cold, he needed to wear leggings and pajama pants under his jeans.

Lunchtime and dinner were spent in his Jeep, running back and forth to a burger joint or the Mediterranean place in town, sometimes with his younger brother or best friend riding along because there wasn't anything better to do.

"I kinda got a little addicted," Ryan said. "I made $1,000 the first week."

The NBA money is a little better - if Ryan can somehow earn the 15th spot on the Lakers and keeps it, he'll have a seven-figure contract. After becoming a free agent this summer, Ryan worked out for the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets before signing with the Lakers.

"Two teams that want shooting around their superstars. I'm doing the best I can," Ryan said. "it's obviously an unbelievable opportunity. There's a roster spot open. I would love to be on the team and contribute in any kind of way, whether it's playing no minutes or playing all 48. Whatever I'm asked to do, I'll do."

Chattanooga forward Matt Ryan is fouled attempting a short-range shot during an NCAA game against The Citadel in 2020.
Chattanooga forward Matt Ryan is fouled attempting a short-range shot during an NCAA game against The Citadel in 2020.  

Ryan believes he can be more than just a fun training camp story. In the scrimmage open to the media Saturday, Ryan made a three and had another attempt blocked. He knows players who do what he thinks he can have had a lot of success around LeBron James in particular. Ryan spent some time picking the brain of one of those players - Kyle Korver.

"Everyone who is in the gym is here for a reason - and you've got to do what you're best at. I'm obviously not going to go try to dunk on AD [Anthony Davis]. I'm going to shoot threes," he said. "And I'm going to try and show I can do that with the best shooters in the league."

And he won't even have to worry about slipping on strips of a yoga mat.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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