Matisse Thybulle Brings Name, Game and Artistic Frame to Philadelphia 76ers

LAS VEGAS -- Unique names are nothing new in the NBA. Nor is it at all unusual for the league to serve as a platform for those names to enter the newborn mainstream. Before Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Jalen Rose became basketball stars, their respective given names hardly existed within infant registries. Scroll through the league’s rosters nowadays, and you’ll find variants that were invariably inspired by those standouts.

Like Shaquille Harrison. And Kobi Simmons and Coby White. And Jalen Brunson, Jalen Jones, Jalen McDaniels; and Jaylen Brown, Jaylen Adams, Jaylen Hands and Jaylen Nowell, among others.

There had never been a Matisse in the NBA. A painting by French artist Henri Matisse hanging in an NBA player’s home, perhaps, but never one setting foot on the hardwood.

That is, until this year, when Matisse Thybulle suits up for the Philadelphia 76ers.

To have a unique name is pretty cool because it makes me feel unique,” he tells CloseUp360 after a Philadelphia Sixers game at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “So, like, I know when someone says Matisse, they're talking about me for the most part, and just like kind of embracing that—not necessarily having to be different, but just being myself and knowing that I'm uniquely myself, and part of that is just because of my name.”

There’s more about Matisse than just his name that makes him different from most of his peers in the league. But the incoming rookie has a long way to go to become an impact player on an Eastern Conference contender, let alone have an impact on how babies are named in the future.

Matisse Thybulle ball

Matisse Thybulle will look to be the first of his name to play in the NBA this season. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Sometime before March 1997, Greg Thybulle was backpacking through Europe when he fell in love.

Not with a person—his then-fiance, Elizabeth, was back home in Phoenix—but with an artist’s work and a name. The Haitian-born, Harlem-bred engineer was in Paris when he happened upon an exhibit of Henri Matisse’s paintings. Greg was so taken with what he saw that he couldn’t get the name Matisse out of his head.

When he returned to the U.S., Greg asked Elizabeth for first dibs on the name of their first child.

“She gave it to him,” Matisse says, “so I got Matisse.”

Such requests weren’t (and aren’t) exactly out of character for Greg. During his wedding in Phoenix, he asked the presiding justice of the peace to pause the proceedings amid the exchanging of vows. It was to request that Elizabeth remove her shoes, so as to complete their “shotgun wedding” with a wife who was literally barefoot and pregnant.

Greg and the judge laughed. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was none too pleased.

She, though, had plenty of pull in their household. After all, she and Greg moved from Seattle to Phoenix so she could study naturopathic medicine. And when the time came for the birth of their second child, Elizabeth made sure to secure naming rights.

She, too, was inspired by something (nominally) French. In 1988, the Thybulles moved to Australia so that Greg could help to establish a technical support center in Sydney. There, little Matisse took to a TV show called Madeline, a cartoon series about 12 girls in Paris. So, too, did Elizabeth, who took a liking to Chloe, Madeline’s deputy among the group.

“My mom loved it,” Matisse says.

So much, in fact, that she named her daughter Chloe.

The Thybulles lived in Sydney until Matisse was eight years old. Though many of his memories of Australia have long since faded, he can still recall some things about his former life in the country’s most populous city.

Spending time outside with his family. Going on road trips around the continent. And the scenery—especially the scenery.

“I remember growing up living 20 minutes away from the most beautiful beaches in the world,” Matisse says. “Sydney was such an incredible city, being able to go to the Opera House or just walk by the water.”

Or, in his case, spend time in the water. Matisse was struck by what he saw as the social esteem of lifeguards, so he went to camps where he learned to swim and save people from subaquatic threats.

The family’s move to Seattle in 2005 brought with it a new activity that piqued Matisse’s interest: basketball.

“I was at the age where I was starting to take, like, sports a little more seriously,” he says.

Once he reached middle school in the Seattle suburbs, he was faced with a choice. Since Matisse was starting to take sports more seriously, Greg insisted that his son pursue basketball or swimming, but not both. 

“My dad just told me to dedicate myself to one thing,” he says.

Matisse chose the former.

“I couldn't even tell you what my 12-year-old self's reasoning was,” he says, “but I’m happy with my choice.”

Matisse also found plenty to enjoy in Seattle. The similarity in culture between Australia and the U.S. helped to ease the transition. So did the natural wonders that surrounded him in the state of Washington.

The basketball there was pretty good, too. He came up through a happening hoops scene in the Seattle area behind eventual NBA standouts like Dejounte Murray and Allonzo Trier. He caught the attention of college coaches when, in his second varsity game at Skyline High School, he ably defended Bothell High School’s Zach LaVine.

Matisse transferred to Eastside Catholic School following his sophomore season. He did well enough along the way to earn a scholarship offer to the University of Washington, where he would get to play in front of his mom, dad and sister.

That all changed during Matisse's senior year of high school, when Elizabeth was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She initially fought the cancer into remission, but the disease came back to claim her life the day before her son's final high school game. He could barely carry himself onto the court that day, let alone recall the details of his performance afterward.

With his mother's memory close to his heart, Matisse went on to become a star for the Huskies. He was twice named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior after leading all of NCAA Division I in steals.

When the 76ers (by way of the Boston Celtics) selected him with the No. 20 pick this past June, Matisse once again met the emotion of the moment with his own truth. He bared his soul on national television, sharing fond remembrances of his mother while fighting back tears.

“I wish she was here to see it,” he said that night.

Matisse Thybulle

Matisse lost his mother, Elizabeth, to leukemia during his senior year of high school. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Matisse painted plenty of masterpieces as a defender in college, and acquitted himself well on that end during his stint with the Sixers during Summer League. His fellow newcomers named him the best defender of this year's draft class in the annual Rookie Survey on NBA.com.

But he doesn’t quite see his lockdown prowess as a form of art.

“I have a skill set and I found a way to use it uniquely in a way that a lot of people don't. You don't see it,” he says. “So I think more so it's a creativity thing than anything else—just being able to flow into my own creative way of getting out there and making plays.”

Nor does Matisse consider fine art to be the kind of personal passion that his name might imply. While he enjoys the work of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, of course, his namesake, Matisse is more inclined towards cameras than brushes and paints.

“Photography is my form of art,” he says. “I can't paint, I can't draw, but I feel like I have fun taking pictures.”

Nowadays, Matisse takes his Canon EOS 6D Mark II wherever he goes. While in Vegas, he brought his digital camera with him to a Sixers team outing at Topgolf, where he captured candid moments of his coaches and teammates—including some poses from 2018 first-round pick Zhaire Smith.

Since Summer League, Matisse has spent time back in Seattle, where he returned to the Crawsover Pro-Am to compete alongside fellow 2019 first-rounder Kevin Porter Jr. and league proprietor (and NBA veteran) Jamal Crawford.

“We feel like a lot of people sleep on Seattle and the talent that's out there,” Matisse says. “You forget that a lot of the great basketball players have come from Seattle, and coaches. Like, we got Lenny Wilkens, Jamal Crawford, Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Isaiah Thomas—the list goes on. To take pride in being a part of that is huge for us.”

Matisse has already brought his Seattle pride and his camera with him to Philadelphia, and will keep both close to him when the Sixers open training camp in late September. The same goes for the Nike sneakers he'll be wearing, after signing a deal with the apparel brand earlier in August.

"I have always played in Nike shoes and admired the many NBA stars that wear their products," he says. "I am proud to become a member of the Nike family. It's a dream come true."

Matisse will keep his own family the closest, from the memory of his mom to the love he has for his dad and sister, who's a student at the University of Arizona. And while All-Stars like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Al Horford will likely dominate the ball and the spotlight at the Wells Fargo Center this coming season, Matisse will seek out other ways to help the team and, perhaps, make a name for himself.

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Matisse's Photography

Matisse selected these three photos that he shot to share with CloseUp360.

Seattle and Mount Rainier

Seattle and Mount Rainier

University of Washington

University of Washington

Hoop in Seattle

Hoop in Seattle