BLUE HILL, Maine — On the basketball court, one of Max Mattson’s primary responsibilities is to track down errant shots.
His 6-foot-6-inch frame helps the George Stevens Academy junior do this, but Mattson also relies on a rebounding fundamental: Keeping the ball alive.
“Sometimes when I go to get rebounds I tip it up so I can go get it with both hands,” he said recently.
Mattson’s overall contributions — scoring, rebounding and blocked shots — helped George Stevens win the Class C state championship last winter. The 17-year-old forward routinely grabs more than 10 rebounds a game.
Amazingly, he does so with only six fingers. In 2008, Mattson lost four fingers on his left hand in a woodsplitter accident, when he was just nine.
Even so, his perseverance, faith and love of the sport have helped him adapt and emerge as a pivotal figure in that effort and GSA’s pursuit of a second straight title.
“I just admire Max because I think most people might have said, ‘I won’t be able to do that,’ and given up,” said his coach, Dwayne Carter, whose team is 6-0 and ranked first in Class C North.
It helps that Mattson comes from a basketball background — his dad, Matt, was a standout player who later coached GSA to the 2003 Class C state title and now is an assistant for Carter.
But his defining trait is resilience.
“His determination, his inner drive, is what I admire most about him,” said Carter. “He tries to be the best no matter what he’s doing, whether it’s a running drill or anything else. That’s the type of kid he is.”
One tragic moment
It was Aug. 30, 2008, a foggy Saturday morning Down East, and like many other Mainers Matt Mattson and his two sons, 9-year-old Max and 7-year-old Caden, were using the day to get a head start on winter, with Matt splitting wood and the youngsters helping out their dad.
In an instant, tragedy struck.
“We were splitting the wood four ways, so the woodsplitter had a cross-shaped end on it,” Max said. “I reached in to poke a little piece of wood out from the cross piece and this other piece of wood came in and crushed my hand up against the blade and chopped my fingers off.”
The full extent of the damage couldn’t immediately be seen because Max was wearing gloves, but Matt Mattson rushed his son to Blue Hill Memorial Hospital and a quick check mandated more significant treatment.
The fog of the day prevented a LifeFlight helicopter from flying to Blue Hill, so Max was rushed by ambulance to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor before being flown to Boston Children’s Hospital.
The youngster spent the next seven days in intensive care after enduring an initial reattachment surgery lasting 24 hours as doctors sought to restore life to Max’s fingers.
Additional surgeries ensued as the family traveled back and forth to Boston for more than a month. One resulted in the amputation of Max’s left ring finger; a final procedure on Oct. 3 removed the remaining three fingers.
Max was left with just his thumb and about one inch of his index finger.
“One time when we went back they said if the fingers weren’t alive they were going to have to amputate them all,” he recalled. “When I woke up after surgery I wanted to look at my hand so I pulled my cast up.
“It was a shorter cast so I knew they had amputated them.”
The comeback begins
Baseball was Max Mattson’s favorite sport at age 9, but soon after the final cast was removed from his left hand came the start of basketball season.
“I think somewhere in me I knew things were going to be different,” he said. “But I thought God had a plan so it was all going to work out.”
And no way was he going to forego playing for the third- and fourth-grade travel team with his buddies, several of whom are now his teammates at GSA.
“Max is such a happy-go-lucky kid and that’s just the attitude he had the whole time,” said his mother, Amy. “Matt and I as parents were unsure what life was going to look like at that point, but we were determined that it was going to be normal.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t grieve, we grieved about how life was different, but he was just a 9-year-old kid. He didn’t know anything different other than it was time to go play basketball. Had he been a teenager, I’m sure it would have been different.”
Max still felt some pain where his fingers had been removed, so his mother crafted a specially padded glove he could wear on his left hand while playing basketball.
“I didn’t jam my fingers that much, surprisingly, because I wasn’t that good when I was 9 years old,” he said. “I was tall but I couldn’t run and chew gum. I was too big for my own good.”
The family only briefly considered a prosthetic solution.
“I don’t think it would have worked anyway, because the way my fingers were, they’re kind of all webbed together where they were cut just above the [top of the palm], they’re all kind of stuck together and I wouldn’t have been able to put anything on top of it,” said Max.
And as other tasks came up that normally required the use of fingers on both hands, Max adapted, typically by figuring out a different way to do it.
“I really can’t remember any time when I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this,’” he said. “Obviously there were some things I’d start doing and then I’d stop and think, ‘I can’t do this,’ little things like tying my shoes. It took a while the first time, but the second time it didn’t take too long.”
Passion for basketball
As Max Mattson soon determined that baseball lacked the constant activity he sought, basketball grew more prominent in his athletic life.
A growth spurt during middle school coincided with a boost in confidence that helped him establish his presence near the basket, and he has continued to develop his skills during his high school and AAU seasons to capitalize on that potential.
“Max has a very high basketball IQ,” said Matt Mattson, who has coached many of his son’s offseason teams. “I think he comes by some of that naturally because he’s been a coach’s kid ever since he started playing when he was 4 or 5 years old and I was coaching varsity and he was at all the practices.
“He’s really in tune with how coaches think, so he plays very intelligently.”
That’s evidenced by his determination to tip rebounds with one hand until he can gather them with both hands.
“That probably started in sixth or seventh grade when I really started working even more on my game,” he said. “I was pretty big, but if I couldn’t grab a rebound at first I’d tip it with my left hand so I could grab it with both.”
Max also has devoted considerable time to dribbling as well as developing a left-handed hook shot — both skills aided by his large palms — to round out a skill set that leaves most opponents unaware his hand is anything less than fully operational.
“Everything I work on now, the 15-foot jump shot, shooting the wide-open 3 or making a couple dribbles left-handed to go by someone, are things I’d have to work on even if I did have all my fingers,” he said.
“Most people don’t notice that I’m even missing fingers. We’ll be in a game and someone will say the ball went off my hand and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t even have fingers on my hand, I can’t reach it,’ and they’ll be shocked and say, ‘I didn’t even know.’”
The role model
Max Mattson has nearly half of his high school basketball career remaining, but he wouldn’t mind continuing to play well beyond graduation day.
“It would be nice to play basketball in college,” he said. “If I get a scholarship to a [Division I] school I wouldn’t turn it down, but anything other than DI I’d be going to school for the school and then be trying out for the basketball team.”
That he thinks about testing his basketball skills at the collegiate level one day is just one more reflection of his continuing determination not to let an injury get the best of him.
“I remember [GSA teammate] Taylor [Schildroth] passing him the ball when he was in fourth grade and Max wearing the batting glove on his left hand that his mother made him and the ball going right through his hands,” said Matt Mattson.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be a struggle,’ but now I see him catch rocket passes from bad angles or alley-oops and make ridiculous plays. Max can do whatever he wants to do in basketball, but there are other things he wants to do, too.”
Indeed, Max Mattson sees his athletic accomplishments as one example of overcoming adversity that he can share with others, particularly younger kids in his community.
“I just like to go out there and shine the light of Jesus on the court,” said Mattson, who is largely home-schooled but takes two courses as a part-time student at GSA. “I want to be there to encourage kids to persevere through all the hardships and trials they come up against, to tell them that if they put their mind to it, they can do it.
“I know it.”