Local high school basketball player lights up the court after dad's death

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Matt Kalaf (WTVD)

The video of Matt Kalaf shooting lights out for Neuse Christian Academy has gone viral on Twitter and has been picked up by multiple national outlets.

That he was making shots isn't really the story though, it's everything that led up to his performance.

Neuse Christian Academy's season and Matt's high school career ended with a buzzer-beating loss in the state tournament last week. That's the kind of result you'd normally call heartbreaking. But Matt knows heartbreak much bigger than basketball.

"It still doesn't feel real. I've known people that have had their parent pass, and my dad's dead," Matt said. "It doesn't even feel real, still to this day. It's unbelievable."

Just 18 years old, Matt had already dealt with more than his share of pain. He lost his little brother Andrew eight years ago to a sudden heart ailment. Then, on Feb. 9, right after a game, tragedy knocked again.

"My mom called me and said that my dad was dead on the ground, so I had to go home and find my dad dead. It was probably the most painful experience I've ever dealt with in life," Matt explained.

Matt's dad Bill was just 49, and a former flame-throwing pitcher. Bill had lived through his son, relishing his every success on the court. For Matt, the memories are countless.

"My dad worked really hard and every day he would come home dead-dog tired and he would still go outside and shoot with me until it got dark," Matt recalled.

Two days after his father's death, it was time to hit the court again. Neuse had a conference tournament game with archrival Cape Fear.

"I had texted (Matt) just to be courteous and say 'do you want to play?'" said Matt's coach Scottie Richardson. "And his text back was 'what kind of question is that? I'm playing.'"

He played, alright. Normally a 12-point scorer, Matt decided he needed to do a little more than that.

"Every huddle we said '1, 2, 3, Bill!' Which was my dad's name, so that was really touching," Matt said.

"I was feeding him the ball, he was like 'Tre! Trail! Trail! Trail!' And I was like, 'dude, you're not even past half court yet!' And I would pass it," said teammate Tre Doughty.

Matt wound up dropping 6 2nd half three-pointers on his way to 26 points.

"Every time I got it, I was just letting it go," Matt recalled.

This isn't Hollywood, unfortunately. Matt's team still lost the game. Cape Fear, though, showed their support in the handshake line.

"The locker room scene after the game, when the game's over, was like anything I've ever seen," Richardson said. "Everyone was in tears and everyone had their arms around Matt. It was just special. It was bigger than the game, it was much bigger than the game."

With his season and his high school playing career at an end, real life is settling in for Matt. It's now more than ever that he'll need his friends and teammates. Doughty knows the pain, having lost his mother at an early age.

"I just told him that God gives his strongest battles to his strongest soldiers, and the reason why he's giving you all these battles, it's because you're strong," Doughty said.

"Everything happens for a reason. It's all part of God's plan, so I've just got to stick to it and keep making my life good and make my dad proud and my brother proud," Matt said.

To donate to Matt's college fund, click here.
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