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Omahan turns life around in prison, then revives career

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Omahan turns life around in prison, then revives career

Matt Culliver was back in Omaha this summer, competing in the Metro Summer Basketball League. After his release from prison, the 6-foot-2 guard out of Omaha Bryan led Division II Texas A&M International in rebounding, steals and assists last season and was second in scoring.


Not long after arriving in Laredo, Texas, close to the Mexican border but far from home, Matt Culliver persuaded a local pastor to come preach at Texas A&M International about temptation.

Not always the biggest draw for college kids. But it was this time.

“He got almost everyone on campus to come,” said Bryan Weakley, the school's basketball coach. “It was a hit.”

Want one more?

Before Culliver could join the Dustdevils' basketball team, Weakley had to OK it with the university president. The coach made his pitch, laying out the risks and rewards. A few months later, Culliver and the man in charge of the school were meeting for lunch every other Sunday.

“Nobody believed me that I had his number in my phone,” Culliver said. “That's my guy.”

Another?

When you run a basketball court in prison, Culliver said, they refer to it as your compound.

Laredo is now “Matt's compound.”

It's all thanks to one more chance.

The point guard from Omaha Bryan was on the cusp of college basketball success once before. He was a burgeoning star in 2007 after two solid years at Iowa Western, a top junior college program.

That's when he blew his first chance.

“It's all glitter and gold at the time,” Culliver said. “But the Man upstairs, he can take it away from you just like that.”

Culliver was arrested on drug and firearm charges. Months after signing with Northern Iowa, Culliver was sentenced to five years in federal prison. At 19, his dreams of playing basketball in front of big crowds were crumbling inside a Minnesota penitentiary.

“There were nights I was so sick, I'd throw up,” he said, “because I was so disgusted with myself. I let a lot of people down. I just thought to myself, 'This isn't me.'?”

It stunned those in Culliver's corner.

Tim Cannon, his coach at Bryan, still changes his tone when he remembers getting the news.

“That was really tough to hear about,” he said.

The shock also reverberated at Iowa Western, where Culliver led the Reivers to a fourth-place finish at the national tournament as a freshman.

Iowa Western assistant James Bankhead said the staff never had trouble from Culliver. “Not one problem,” he said.

In prison, Culliver immediately went about changing the negative to a positive.

“I got myself together,” he said recently in Omaha, where he competed in the Metro Summer Basketball League. “I surrounded myself by people who wanted more. I'm not happy that I went to prison, but it made me better.”

Prison became his personal training camp. He worked out as often as three times a day, working on his body and his game. He also hit the books, working toward a real-estate license that he has since acquired.

His reputation grew on the inside. Teams from outside the prison would come in for games, showdowns that inmates hadn't won in years.

One featured former NBA player Chris Carr.

“We beat them twice,” Culliver said.

He was released in February of last year, a 24-year-old with a new perspective, hungry to make up for lost time.

He came back to Omaha with an eye on the future. He and Bankhead, who had stayed in touch with Culliver while he was in prison, began searching for options.

Clemson — which had recruited Culliver out of Iowa Western before he tore an ACL as a sophomore — was interested. Mississippi State and Kansas State inquired, too.

But interest waned once Division I programs learned that he had enrolled at Northern Iowa and taken a trip to Europe with the Panthers. That meant that a redshirt year as a D-I transfer would be required.

Bankhead's search eventually led him to Weakley.

After some in-depth phone conversations, the Texas A&M International coach extended an offer. Without visiting the Division II program, Culliver accepted.

In his first season, the 6-foot-2 junior led the team in rebounding, steals and assists and was second in scoring while starting all 27 games. He earned the league's newcomer of the year award and was named All-Heartland Conference.

More than that, Weakley said, Culliver was a difference-maker off the court.

“I feel the most important quality in a point guard is the ability to communicate,” Weakley said. “Matt not only has the ability to bring people together on the floor, but also they respect him a lot because of how he handles his life off the floor.”

Leadership is a skill that doesn't tend to go away, Bankhead said, remembering Culliver's stay with the Reivers.

“People just gravitate to him,” he said. “In the 17 years I've been at Iowa Western, he's one of my favorites.”

If Culliver keeps improving and puts together another decorated year in Laredo, Weakley said, he will have options to play professionally. Culliver has already been invited to next year's NBA pre-draft camp.

And he's already gotten a look at some of the world's best during summer workouts.

Culliver was on a team with NBA star James Harden and league journeyman Shannon Brown during the Phoenix Pro-Am in July. Their team faced a squad that included former Kansas standouts Marcus and Markieff Morris.

“I feel like I got my name out there,” Culliver said.

A year from now, he could be earning paychecks to play basketball. Or he could be a college graduate out looking for a job in the real world.

Either way, he's put himself in position to make the most out of something some can only hope for.

One more chance.

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