The spotlight is about to shine on one of the more unlikely starting players in the NBA Finals.
Australian native Matthew Dellavedova is expected to start for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night in Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. He will replace injured all-star point guard Kyrie Irving, who had season-ending surgery Saturday to repair a broken kneecap.
Dellavedova is an undrafted 24-year-old, who played Division 1 basketball at St. Mary's — a small liberal arts college near Oakland, Calif. Among those who'll be cheering on Dellavedova is his adviser and psychology professor at St. Mary's, Mary True.
True remembers seeing great things from Dellavedova in his four years playing for the Gaels; he finished his career as the school's all-time leader in scoring, assists and three-point shots. True says one of those three-pointers beat rival BYU and was immortalized as the "Dellavedagger."
But True says "Delly" was a standout in the classroom as well. And it's his performance there, and his fascination with psychology, that makes her believe he'll be fine when he finds himself on the global stage of the NBA Finals.
'The Real Deal'
"What really caught my eye was, at the first test in my psychology class, Matthew stayed longer than anybody else," True says, as she sat in the sun-splashed living room of her Oakland home this week. "I used to do that. I'd read over my answers over and over again, and he did, too. And I thought, 'This is a serious student.' "
Soon, she says, a nice connection started between them. True was on a plane reading the book How We Decide and flagged a part about football quarterbacks and how you can't really know who's going to be a good quarterback or not. True knows little about basketball, but she grew up in hoops-crazy Indiana, and she says something must have stuck.
"I thought, 'I think that's what Matthew does, because isn't the point guard a basketball quarterback?' " she says.
Dellavedova later confirmed that was the case and True gave him the book to read. He thanked her and said he had a book for her, too — one that had a lot to do with work ethic being as important if not more important than talent. A book, she says, Dellavedova studied when he attended the Australian Institute of Sport.
True says after that, they began trading books and "almost every time he'd see me, he'd ask, 'What are you reading?' " He also emailed her his favorite TED Talks and video clips related to psychology. True was impressed by Dellavedova's curiosity and "voracious" reading.
"He's the real deal," she says.
The Importance Of Gratitude
Much of Dellavedova's interest in psychology dovetailed with his athletic development. True says he was interested in concepts about motivation and perseverance — what makes and keeps people high achievers.
"He could teach a course on motivation," True says, adding, "I don't mean that lightly. He has read almost everything I've read about it."
But she notes Dellavedova's curiosity took him outside the world of sports as well. She says he sent her a TED Talk about new research by social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson on productivity and happiness and how the two are linked. The research focused on gratitude.
True recalls the talk's message: "If every night you remember three things you're thankful for, you'll train your brain not to look for what scares you, but to look for what you're grateful for all day long."
Getting The Whole Picture
A day before he was expected to start in the NBA Finals, Dellavedova grinned when asked about his connection to Professor True and psychology.
"I think it helps a lot," he says of his continued reading: "Definitely on the court and life in general."
Of course, having an interested and active mind isn't always the best thing in high-level sports. Elite athletes have to be able to turn off the mind, or at least keep it from interfering with peak physical performance.
"It's something all people need to learn," says Dellavedova. "I think it's something you get better at [over time]."
So far during these playoffs, Dellavedova has shown the ability to fully engage in the battle of high-level post-season basketball. But in the mind of critics, he's sometimes engaged too much. Some have labeled Dellavedova a "dirty player" after incidents in games against the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.
Not surprisingly, Mary True is among his defenders.
"As a scientist, I think it's unethical to cherry pick the data," she says, adding, "it sure seems to me that's what [his detractors] did."
Painting a negative picture of Dellavedova because of isolated incidents "is not good science," True says. "Would you like someone to go over your life, pick [a few] moments and define you that way?"
True prefers to define Matthew Dellavedova in broader terms: Yes, the tenacious and motivated basketball player, but also the voracious student whose curiosity didn't end when classes finished. She last saw Dellavedova in February, during the NBA's All-Star break. He brought his parents to campus and took them around, obviously to see the basketball coach, but also to see True.
"I was most impressed [he brought them] to see his professors," she says. "We all sat around for an hour and talked."