Friends remember Penn hoops alum Matt White one year later
His widow Garcia-Pellon's defense to negotiate outlines of plea at case status hearing Wednesday
March 25, 2014, 5:32 pm · Updated March 26, 2014, 12:36 pm·
Rick Talisman was in Abu Dhabi on a business trip on Feb. 11 last year when a routine email check revealed that something had gone very wrong nine time zones away. A friend had messaged him offering prayers to both him and the family of his childhood friend Matt.
“So I googled ‘Matt White basketball,’” Talisman said. “And lo and behold, here comes this article about Reyes having killed him.”
The news was as incomprehensible as it was true.
Matt White, 1979 College graduate and starting center on Penn’s 1979 Final Four men’s basketball team, had been stabbed to death at his Media, Pa., home, allegedly by his wife of 28 years, Maria Reyes Garcia-Pellon. Garcia-Pellon, who told investigators that she had caught him looking at child pornography, was charged with criminal homicide, possession of an instrument of crime and first- and third-degree murder.
Now, 13 months later, Garcia-Pellon’s lawyer, Kathy Labrum, is in negotiations with the Office of Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan, in hopes of both sides agreeing to the outlines of a plea at a case status hearing to be held at the Delaware County Courthouse Wednesday morning, leaving the entry of a guilty plea and setting up sentencing for the very near future.
“We are hopeful that the Court will agree to a sentence that recognizes the absence of any criminal intent on the part of Mrs. Garcia-Pellon,” Labrum said.
According to Labrum, Garcia-Pellon was suffering from schizophrenia at the time of the murder and is “totally mentally competent” when medicated. Garcia-Pellon has been staying at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, Pa., since last February.
Whelan said in February that investigators did not hear any reference to child pornography in their initial interviews with Garcia-Pellon, and White’s friends have been angered by the association between White and child pornography still lingering from her initial accusations.
“The whole story about what his wife said and all the things about why she had to do it and stuff, none of it ever made any sense to anybody who knew Matt,” White’s former Penn basketball teammate, Bruce Bergwall, said.
None of it makes any more sense now to White’s closest Penn basketball teammates and childhood friends, all of whom wrestle daily with the memory of Matt and the shock that still remains.
From ‘Leave it to Beaver’ to the Final Four
On Feb. 22, 1966, third-grader Bob Astrove walked from his new house at 7909 Park Overlook Lane to the bus stop and met Matt White for the first time. It was the start of a 47-year friendship.
Astrove and Talisman were White’s neighbors growing up in Carderock Springs, Md., a subdivision of Bethesda. They were classmates at Carderock Elementary School and Cabin John Junior High School.
“Have you ever seen ‘Leave it to Beaver’? That was our life growing up,” Astrove said. “We had the stereotypical happy childhood.”
It was a happy childhood that included plenty of sports from the very beginning.
“Basketball was never fun,” Astrove said. “We’d have to make it five-on-two to make it fair.”
White always won anyway.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that White, who eventually grew to be 6-foot-11, towered over his peers from elementary school on. As a wide receiver, first baseman, ping pong player and, later, drinker, White always used his colossal frame to his advantage.
“He could hold it better than the rest of us,” Astrove remembered.
White and his younger brother, Michael, were both adopted by Howard and Betty White, who already had a daughter, Sally. White’s father was a physicist who worked for the federal government, having been educated at the prestigious Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in Connecticut, the same private school that John F. Kennedy attended.
Howard White made sure his son was shipped off to Choate too.
“I always got the feeling at Choate he felt a little bit like an outsider,” Talisman said. “I think he felt a little bit awkward not being a preppy kind of kid in what was certainly a preppy school.”
Still, White was able to come home during academic breaks, including summers, and he excelled while starring on the Choate basketball team.
“That’s really where he developed into the athlete,” Astrove said.
Howard White had followed up his Choate education by attending Princeton, and Matt wanted to do the same. But longtime Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril wouldn’t guarantee White a spot on the team, so he joined the Tigers’ archrivals instead as a walk-on.
“He grew two inches and earned his way into the program,” White’s former Penn basketball teammate, Randy Eckman, said. “It wasn’t given to him.”
Bergwall was White’s backup in the frontcourt and had to deal with White’s physicality in the paint every day in practice.
“I knew I was basically in hand-to-hand combat with him every day,” Bergwall said. “He made basketball a contact sport.”
White went on to win two Ivy titles during his Penn basketball career from 1976-79, also earning first-team All-Ivy honors for the 1978-79 season. He remains Penn’s all-time leader in field goal percentage, shooting 59.1 percent for his career. The Quakers won five NCAA tournament games during his three seasons with the program.
The 1979 Final Four team’s first two NCAA tournament wins came in Raleigh, N.C., just 35 miles from Duke, which Talisman attended at the time. Talisman made the trip to Raleigh to hang out with the No. 9-seeded Quakers the night before they upset No. 1-seeded North Carolina, 72-71, in the second round.
“I don’t think they were giving a moment’s thought to [North Carolina],” Talisman said. “They were having a good time at the hotel not worrying about it much. Maybe that’s what helped them to win it.”
“His own guy”
White also didn’t give much thought to asserting his independence at a moment’s notice.
One night after practice, White’s teammates discussed going out to eat.
“We’d go, ‘Hey, Matt, where are you going?’” Bergwall said. “And he’d go, ‘I am so sick and tired of hanging out with you guys.’ And he’d go off by himself.”
Following a win at Cornell that clinched the 1977-78 Ivy League championship, White had somewhere even more pressing to be immediately following the six-hour bus ride back to Penn: the Great College Hall Sit-In of 1978, an 87-hour, 800-student protest inside College Hall decrying imminent budget cuts, many to Penn Athletics-sponsored activities.
“He went directly from the bus with his gear from the weekend and sat down in front of the President’s hall and joined in the sit-in,” Eckman said.
When he wasn’t trying to blend in with hordes of angry classmates, he was trying to squeeze his 6-foot-11 figure into his $500 Ford Pinto.
“It looked like it cost $300,” Bergwall said. “He parked it right in front of the house we lived in on 39th and Spruce, and it was just a piece of junk. It was just hilarious to see him in this thing. We could never understand how he got into it. But it was his pride and joy.”
“His cars were forever breaking down,” Astrove said.
And White was forever breaking things himself, so much so that Astrove bought a tiled coffee table in the mid-1980s just so White wouldn’t have any glass to break out of clumsiness when visiting. The Astroves kept that table ever since as one less thing White could wreck.
Still, White was a master contrarian according to the many teammates and friends who argued good-naturedly with him throughout their lives.
“He’d take any side of an argument as long as he could argue,” Astrove said.
Perhaps the only thing White enjoyed more than arguing was telling it like it was.
“I always thought of myself as being a pretty good basketball player,” Bergwall said. “I remember Matt very clearly saying, ‘You’re just about average on this team. If you want to get better, you better learn how to work on your skills and play a little harder.’ I never had a teammate talk to me that way.”
Of course, Bergwall knew that White was right.
“He was his own guy,” Bergwall said.
Life during and after Spain
After graduating in 1979, White played professional basketball in Spain for two years, returned stateside for another two years to earn an MBA from Wharton and then left for Spain again. He played once a week for Spanish pro teams based in Barcelona, Granollers and the Canary Islands, among others.
“I think he realized that the physical rigor of playing an NBA schedule could easily take a toll on your body,” Bergwall, who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1979, said of White.
White established many Spanish pro league connections during his time playing there, which he used to help jump start the overseas careers of several fellow Penn basketball alumni, including 2000 College graduate Michael Jordan.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity from him reaching out to his friends and using his relationships to help me get a playing job,” Jordan said.
White met Garcia-Pellon in Spain, and they married in August 1984. They had two children, Matthew Jr. and Ana.
After White retired from professional basketball, he took over his in-laws’ glass business, but the Spanish economy soon plummeted just as the dot-com bubble reached its zenith. By the new millennium, White was back in America trying to find a job, followed by his wife and kids several months later.
White cycled through several jobs after returning to the United States., including a job writing documentation for a company that wrote software for credit unions. But since he was over-educated, under-experienced and fairly well-compensated from his pro days, he mostly got to be a parent. He was a fixture at Ana’s Lafayette lacrosse games, watching her earn Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors in 2011.
“He never missed a single thing they ever did,” said Eckman, who was also the White family’s dentist.
White was just as much of a fixture at Penn basketball games, going out to New Deck Tavern before games and sitting right behind the scorer’s table at midcourt.
“We used to have the whole front row,” Eckman said. “[Former Penn basketball player] Stan [Greene], Bruce, Matt, myself. We were at just about every game, sitting there harassing opposing coaches and cheering Penn on.”
White cheered Penn on even after a Dec. 2009 stroke that initially left his right side paralyzed. But he fought back.
“He was not fully recovered, but he was recovering very, very well,” Bergwall said.
White did always remain close with his circle of close friends, watching the NFL playoffs and NCAA basketball tournament every year with Astrove, Talisman and mutual childhood friend David Trebach, routinely emailing them as well.
“We would email back and forth, just joking around, shooting the breeze about something,” Talisman said.
And it was via email a week before his death that White let his friends know he was worried about his wife, who had had a history of mental health issues.
“He wasn’t working, so he was keeping an eye on her,” Talisman said. “I don’t think he was worried that anything was going to happen imminently but he definitely wanted to get her in to see some doctors.”
“Over the week, he started saying, ‘I think she’s insane,’” Bob Astrove’s wife, Lyda, added.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, Lyda talked to Garcia-Pellon on the phone.
“Just to say, I hope she got to feeling better, and you know, what I did today,” Lyda said. “A lot of times I had seen her, we had gone to the Art Museum in Philadelphia and [I said] that we needed to do something like that again sometime.”
Astrove describes Garcia-Pellon as having a “flat” effect during that phone conversation.
On Feb. 10, Garcia-Pellon went to a friend’s house claiming that the Chinese were ready to attack. Labrum says that her client believed that Nether Providence Elementary School, where she worked as an instructional support teacher, was especially vulnerable to the Chinese.
“She thought that the Chinese were using computers to get into people’s minds,” Labrum said.
White then took Garcia-Pellon to Riddle Hospital in Media, where she was diagnosed as having had a psychotic episode and was given a prescription.
“I do remember Matt sending an email saying, ‘Valentine’s Day is coming up,’” Lyda said. “And he said something like, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to make it that far.’”
“I’ll see her someday”
Around 12:45 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 11, Garcia-Pellon grabbed a knife which she had concealed under her side of the bed and stabbed White in the neck after he had fallen asleep. The two struggled and White collapsed on the bed after saying, “I’m dying, I’m dying,” police said the next day.
“She hadn’t slept for five days,” Labrum said.
Labrum also added that her client’s therapist had recently died prior to the murder, so Garcia-Pellon had no longer been receiving either therapy or medication for her schizophrenic symptoms.
But now that Garcia-Pellon is mentally competent, according to Labrum, she has had to live with the reality that she killed her husband.
“She’s just devastated. They had a great marriage,” Labrum said. “When she’s in her right mind, [she’s] very sweet, very shy, religious. Just delightful.”
“My wife and I love her,” Bergwall said. “We feel terribly sad for her and the circumstances that transpired. That’s not the Reyes we know. And that’s the tragedy of mental illness.”
Bergwall, Eckman and the Astroves all feel sorry for Garcia-Pellon. The Astroves would even like to see Garcia-Pellon released immediately, provided that she continues to get the mental health treatment that she needs.
“I would like to see her out of jail with her family,” Bob said. “And I hope that can happen.”
“I’ll see her someday and tell her how sorry I am for everything,” Lyda said.
To feel like part of the family
Three weeks after White’s death, more than 200 friends and family members gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church in Swarthmore, Pa. to remember him. Every seat was taken. The entire Lafayette women’s lacrosse team and members of the coaching staff attended in support of Ana. Dozens of former Penn basketball teammates and coaches showed up to honor White’s memory. Talisman gave the eulogy.
“I tried to give them a sense of what a funny person he was,” Talisman said.
Members of the Penn basketball and Lafayette lacrosse communities not only attended White’s memorial service but also worked together to care for Ana in the immediate wake of her father’s death, since White’s brother was vacationing in China at the time of the murder. Several of White’s former teammates, including Bergwall and Greene, attended Ana’s lacrosse games and stayed in touch with Lafayette Athletics to make sure that Ana was getting support at such a difficult time.
“I was very impressed by the efforts of not only the athletic director [Bruce McCutcheon] and athletic department to clearly extend themselves to embrace and support Ana from what I could see,” Bergwall said. “They regularly made an effort to let us know how she was doing and stayed in touch with a number of us. When we attended games, they made us feel like part of the family.”
One of the most hurtful aspects of White’s death for his closest friends was Garcia-Pellon’s statement to investigators after her arrest that she had caught him looking at child pornography the night of the murder, triggering her to kill him.
“For me, it was bad enough to lose my friend, but then to keep reading on the internet that he was some sort of sex offender really doubled the pain of it all,” Talisman said. “It was not true.”
“She was not in any state of reality when that all occurred,” Eckman said. “[Reports linking White to child pornography] really put a black mark across his name.”
Nevertheless, White’s legacy remains for those who knew him best as one of natural athleticism balanced out by endearing clumsiness, quick-wittedness balanced out by an independent streak.
“He really was kind of the whole package,” Talisman said.
“I can honestly say I’m not healed,” Talisman said. “Almost a day does not go by that something doesn’t remind me of Matt.”
“Everything reminds us of Matt,” Lyda said.
“The coffee table,” Bob added.
With White no longer at his friends’ side come March Madness or Penn basketball season, they say that the tragedy has reminded them of what’s important in life.
But the lesson doesn’t get easier.
“I just think it’s a very, very unfortunate circumstance,” Talisman said. “Just something you have to live with.”