A decidedly unique human tale is being told as Terri Mateer unleashes her one-woman show, “A Kind Shot,” at TBG Studio Theatre. It’s recounts one wild roller coaster of a life, which sees this big beautiful Amazon as, variously, basketball star here and abroad, model, survivor of sexual trauma, and designer of Michael Jordan’s headboard.
“This show is based on events in my life,” she told me, “but there’s been some tweaking to protect the guilty [laughs]. My father passed on when I was four, and then my mom took over. We had been living in one of the Navy barrack complexes in Virginia and she moved us to Rutherford, New Jersey, where we lived with my grandmother. My mom was really partying, so we then moved to Connecticut and, finally, Vermont. I went to lots of different schools and was always the new girl and the tallest.”
Tall could be an understatement, for Mateer was six feet by the time she was in the fourth grade.
Terri Mateer: The long, strange journey of a jock
“I went to a farm camp in the summer and one of the co-owners, Ed, was a former Los Angeles Laker. I used to be sort of a loner and he would see me on the rope swing for hours, pulled me off of it, and taught me basketball, saying, ‘You’re gonna be really good at this.’
“He befriended my mother, and we moved in with him. He taught me how to play for hours and hours and he became my father figure. I call him ‘Ed’ in my show but I remember waking up one morning and he was gone, without a goodbye. I was sort of used to this kind of thing happening in my life by this time.
“I was going into the eighth grade in Brattleboro, and the first day I had my mother sew me a special outfit because I thought that’s what you wore your first day of school. It was a matching vest and skirt, but everybody was sloppy, and I was 6’1”, my hair was really long, and I looked like a schoolmarm. A kid asked me if I was a teacher and became a good friend, but then I met this girl named Ann Wheelock, who said, ‘We need to get you into basketball,’ and the team was undefeated. My very first game, they told me, ‘You are gonna be the center. You will stand in the middle, you will block the shot and get the rebound. I didn’t even know to put my arms down, so the whole game I’m running around with my arms up. This girl from the other team was dribbling and ran into me, looked up at me, and I hit her ball and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ [Laughs.] I don’t know if I really had a natural aptitude, I was just a hard worker and was big.
Not a natural jock by any means to begin with, basketball was a sport that especially eluded me. The required coordination seemed a gift from the gods never bestowed on me.
Mateer’s advice: “You’d be surprised that it’s not as difficult as you might think. Start playing defense in pickup games. Most people don’t want to play defense, but you earn your stripes that way. I wasn’t even the tallest on the team: there were two other six-foot girls and another was 5’11”.
“Our team went undefeated which got a lot of attention and local press. In my senior year I played in the all-star game, and by then I got letters from schools but I had no guidance. All I wanted to do was study architecture and play basketball. For a poor kid like me, there were very few schools who offered scholarships for both things, but I managed to wind up at Rollins, in Florida.”
From there, Mateer went to France, where she played in FIBA, the International Basketball Federation.
“I was shocked that they were so into the sport over there. Lots of guys who can’t make a pro team here go there, and on the girls’ team three foreigners were allowed to join. So it was me, a French Canadian, and a German, but only two of us could play in any one game at the same time.
“This was in the very middle of France, in a town near the mountain where Vichy water is produced. A lot of people on the local team lived there as well, and it was a part-time gig for them. Practice twice a week, and some of them were moms. I was playing with 40-year-olds who at halftime would go and talk to their kids, smoke a cigarette, and swig a beer. All so new to me, I was like an Olympic athlete playing with all these oochie-Puccis, you know what I mean, thinking, ‘How great is this? We can play until we’re in our 50s.’ It was awesome! We’d play these teams and the girls would look like supermodels, one was like Iman, kicking our ass, and I’d think, ‘Oh shit!’
“I’d move back there in a heartbeat. One of the ways I learned French was helping them to translate their rulebook into English. I even took classes where I learned architecture, although their system is totally different from ours, with the plumbing on the outside.”
When she got back to the States, Mateer’s next performance stage would be the legendary Cage, the basketball courts on Manhattan’s West Fourth Street.
“And that’s when my game got even better and where I ran into Ed again. We began to get crowds, watching this girl play with all these black and Hispanic guys. He said, ‘You might want to doll it up a little.’ I would then wear a spandex dress over leggings before anyone else was wearing them. I would kill these guys. In a dress.”
Mateer next began dressing up for modeling gigs, also courtesy of Ed.
“He was a photographer, as well. This major human thread in my life, from my basketball years into my modeling ones. His photos were really influenced by Helmut Newton, my hero. He helped me put together a portfolio. I did a lot of tests but not that many jobs as I was so tall and not a size eight but 12.
“I did get a couple things. I did some test shots for a Borghese mud. I stripped bare, and Ed shot me like a beautiful statue, totally nude, covered in mud. I was hired for a gig where they wanted me to also fall down some stairs and I’d been training on how to do that from this stunt coordinator, who was also Robert De Niro’s bodyguard. They were paying $2,500 which was huge money in those recession days, when there wasn’t even a dime on the street.
“But we got a call from the Borghese people, ‘There’s a problem because in the crotch area, it looks like you have a penis!’ The shadow of the mud indeed made it look that way! They said, ‘Because of insurance reasons, we need to know if you’re a girl. Can you come in?’
“I said, ‘And drop my pants? Okay.’ This was $2,500, mind you.
“So, the next day I get to the set and they want me to fall off this landing like 40 feet high and land on a bunch of cardboard boxes. They dress me in a blonde wig, which was too small for my big head and slipping off the top, cowboy boots, and this denim shirt. It was ridiculous but I’d get that money and a SAG card.
“They call ‘Action!,’ and I fall and as soon as I hit that cardboard, there was all this weird energy, and someone instantly grabs my arm. Done, perfect, in one take!”
Mateer’s life has since calmed down considerably. Her architecture dreams have been met with her present day career as a landscape artist . She lives a nicely rusticated life up in Woodstock, “with my husband, Brian Mateer, who’s a carpenter and surrealist painter and makes beautiful work and is wholly supportive of all I do. I met him in Orlando, and in 30 days we got married. It’ll be 20 years this summer. We have two cats but no kids.
“I never have had any interest in kids, never saw them as cute, and all that crying in the night? I need my sleep. I like other people’s kids, like I like other people’s horses. I like my freedom above all, and have other things to do, like survive [laughs].”
A KIND SHOT | TGB Studio Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., Third fl. | Feb. 3, 10, 17 & 24 at 6:30 & 8:30 p.m.; Feb. 3, 11, 18 & 25 at 4 p.m.; Feb. 23 at 8:30 p.m. | $20 at akindshot.com or 800-838-3006