by: Ian Johnson
Part Two of an inside look into the collegiate career and personal hardships of a gifted and contemplative young athlete, delving into his years consumed by depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior, and a hopeless confusion as to why…
Read Part One of “Davidson” here!
In the fall of 2005, a few weeks shy of my senior year, the Davidson basketball program travelled to Europe for an exhibition tour. For two weeks across Italy and Slovenia, we learned European referees call a different game than American basketball referees. We also learned the proper way to pour Italian wine, that Tuscany was indeed as beautiful as advertised, and we did lingual calisthenics with Italian phrases and posed shirtless in the Alps. On our last night in Europe, in Treviso near Venice, the team and I ventured out on the town. Stumbling en masse back to our hotel room in the wee hours of the morning– well past curfew but not caring because this is what team bonding is all about — I held us up near a pedestrian bridge arching over an ancient canal where the streetlights made slightly nauseating cones of yellow on the weathered cobblestones.
I motioned for us to all huddle up. I draped my arms around my teammates to my left and right, and I felt a pair of arms lay across my own shoulders. I was twenty-one years old and a rising senior on the Davidson College basketball team. I’d seen three classes above me graduate and in just nine months I’d graduate myself.
“Guys,” I said, slurring my voice a little, “this is the time of our fucking lives.”
There was a riot of raucous responses. Someone got smacked in the balls. The guys laughed drunkenly because it felt good to laugh drunkenly.
“No, no for real man,” I continued, hushing everyone. “This whole fucking year is going to be the fucking time of our lives.”
Three years into my collegiate career, I’d done it. I’d defined and evicted enough of my sorrow to invite a sliver of joy into my life. I’d turned around that late-season despondency of my freshman year and vaulted myself once again to become one of the best players on the team. I knew before it officially began, that my senior year would be special.
If you have the credits, Davidson seniors can take one less class come final spring semester. I didn’t have the credits, and didn’t want a full course load come spring, so the summer before my senior year, I opted to pursue an independent study. I emailed a psych professor and inquired about my options. I proposed the topic of “Mental Illness in Sports” as my area of study, and after some back and forth, the professor agreed to take me on. We set up a syllabus, arranged the terms, and in early June I began to dive well, into myself, although I couldn’t have told you that back then.
I thought my independent study would simply be an interesting foray along one of sports’ outer lanes, conducted the way a pastry chef in his free time might play around with a wok, but it turned out to be, interestingly enough, a revealing exploration into the depths of my own psyche.
My professor and I met once a week in his office. We discussed my research, which occasionally read like a diary, and we considered my proposals, and the shape he hoped my term paper would take. By the end of the hourly meeting, the professor’s pen was always down, and he’d have me put my notes away, and he’d diagonally find a way to ask how I related to the material. He’d ask about my relationship to basketball, my relationship to Coach, and my relationships with my teammates.
Of course I related to the material for I lived the research. The self-sabotage and the depressive symptoms, the suffocating anxiety and the total assimilation of sport and self. I answered my professor’s questions as if he was some curious fan and not a practicing psychiatrist. I answered as if I was presenting my findings at an academic conference and not as someone clearly crying for help.
In retrospect, I realized our weekly meetings were therapy sessions and that my professor was doing me a favor. I don’t remember everything we talked about and our sessions allowed but a peek under the hood, but it was enough. By the end of the summer I felt lighter and there was a clarity to my vision that I had never known before. I suddenly connected more deeply with my teammates and I saw them as if for the first time. I saw them seeing me as if for the first time. It was wonderful. Even more wonderful was the curiously strange and unimaginably delightful sense of self I’d somehow fostered through that independent study (an apt term, indeed). It was a stability that grew from within, that existed no matter how well or unwell I performed on the court and no matter how provocatively Coach aroused my ire. To that end, to Dr. Cole Barton of the Davidson College Psychology Department, I owe an incredible debt of gratitude.
Around the same time as my sessions with Dr. Barton, or perhaps because of them, additional aspects of my situation shifted towards the positively as well. I had entered into a stable relationship with a girl I felt incredibly comfortable with. There might be no better form of non-professional therapy than pillow talk with a girl who knows how to listen. I lived with two teammates in an apartment near the admissions building, with a large living room and a big kitchen and spacious bedrooms (spacious by college standards anyway). For the first time, I wasn’t sleeping on a single bed in a noisy concrete-walled dorm room. I had real privacy and perhaps most crucially, I lived off-campus. How important this was to my mental health is hard to qualify, and how important my mental health was to the success of my senior season is impossible to underestimate.
In August of that same summer, just as I was finishing up with Dr. Barton, and following ten days of preparatory two-a-day practices, our team left for Italy. The trip was a coronation of the updated version of myself I’d managed to build, the version I’d managed to craft by letting go of all the things that had held me down, namely, myself. The transformation was enough for me to gather my teammates by that cobblestone bridge in Treviso and sincerely tell them, however drunkenly, that I loved them, and that this next year would be one we’d never forget for the rest of our lives, for all the right reasons.
I remember one day from that trip more than any other, a day we visited a ski attraction in the Alps that remained open in the summer solely for the views. It was a sunny day with clear lines of sight for miles. The coaching staff wasn’t with us and my teammates and I rode a cable car up to one of the peaks. It was magical. The air was spectacularly crisp, clean and cool. Snow-capped mountains stretched off into vanishing points on the horizon, with tiny crystal blue lakes dotting the way. But it wasn’t just the views that made the day so special, it was the camaraderie. My teammates bumbled around, all ten of us, radiating boyish excitement, and devoid of any figment of self-consciousness. We posed for endless pictures, including several shirtless (we’d had a good summer in the weight room), one of which still sits framed on my bookshelf to this day. We were a team, a unit. I didn’t doubt I was a part of it. I didn’t doubt I belonged. Fucked up as I’d been and still was, I’d opened up enough to be an accepted and accepting member of a bond that extended beyond basketball. As far as college was concerned, three-plus years after enrolling, I’d finally made it.
I averaged sixteen points and six rebounds my senior year, easily my best season at Davidson, and not just statistically. Other aspects of my life outside of basketball were just as good. I was no longer so dissonant with my dissonance. My contradictions were no longer so contradictory. I allowed myself to believe it was okay to be a star and I no longer self-sabotaged, not knowingly anyway. I no longer dreadfully counted down to practice. I still hated reviewing film and Coach still ripped into me, but I no longer relied on him so heavily to establish a sense of self. I even became close with some of my non-basketball classmates and I joined a couple of clubs. My roommate and I even smoked the field on our way to winning a months-long, campus-wide Beer Pong tournament. In the end, my presumption in Treviso proved prescient. I was indeed having the time of my life, indeed.
If you’re paying attention, you’ve noticed I’ve skipped the recapping of my sophomore and junior years. And the simple reason for this is: I’ve just been working up the courage. Those years, suffice to say, were rough. But let me start by telling you how our team did first.
Sophomore year we lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Junior year we lost in the semi-finals once again, but having gone a perfect 16-0 in conference play we were invited to play in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). There, we won two tough road games against VCU and Missouri State before losing to Maryland in College Park in the Round of Sixteen. Late in the second half against Missouri State, I knocked down a three-pointer from the wing, putting me over one thousand points for my career, a milestone perhaps remarkable considering I’d reached it while still a junior, coming off the bench for 95% of our games, and averaging less than twenty-five minutes a game. Perhaps even more impressively, I reached a thousand points in three years while playing with a retroactively diagnosed and comprehensively severe mental condition.
Despite the one thousand amassed points, my minutes dipped slightly, as well as my scoring and rebounding averages, from freshman to sophomore to junior year. I did, however, still show up for big games, particularly games on national television. I scored sixteen in a huge win at Missouri. I had nineteen against Bob Knight-coached Texas Tech on ESPN. And I dropped twenty-one on North Carolina.
Sophomore year I lived in a dorm room that was, amazingly, smaller than the one I’d lived in as a freshman. The compact space consisted of cinder block walls, bright, characterless wooden furniture, a tiny bed, and a torturous chair for someone who stands six feet nine inches tall. Guys on my hall partied several nights a week, and the nightly thump of music fluttered my eyelids like the water cup on the dashboard in Jurassic Park right before the T-Rex comes. My roommate situation had improved — I lived with a friend — but he wasn’t on the basketball team and I rarely saw him.
In contrast, my teammate Brendan Winters got better my sophomore year. His stats steadily improved, and as a junior he won Conference Player of the Year. Perhaps it was foretold. The Davidson media guide, the newspapers, anyone who previewed Davidson Basketball prior to the 2003-04 season — Brendan and I’s sophomore year — noted that Brendan was our leading returning scorer, having averaged 12.4 points as a freshman. That’s true, but another freshman also averaged 12.4 points — me. Nowhere was I mentioned as a leading returning scorer. This couldn’t have been a mistake. I noticed this. I internalized it. I ruminated on all that it might mean. Perhaps it was done to protect me, to save me from an expectation that I couldn’t live up to.
I returned to campus my sophomore year a few days before classes started. Not long after arriving, I trekked to the gym for a workout. I shot by myself in the empty, echoing arena. I remember feeling light-headed. I wasn’t out of shape, but for some reason I was dizzy. Some minutes into the workout Coach appeared at the lobby windows overlooking the near baseline. He walked down to say hello and I stopped my workout. He asked how things were going and whether I’d enjoyed my summer. We hadn’t spoken since June, as I’d chosen to spend my summer in Charlottesville and hadn’t returned his calls during the time I’d been at home. I told him it had been a productive few months. I took my shirt off, unprompted, to show him all the work I’d put into gaining muscle. I actually did this. I ripped my shirt off to show him my upper body.
Later that week we gathered as a team in the weight room for a post-summer assessment. At the end of hour, and to the disgust of most witnesses, it was revealed that my bench press max had decreased by fifteen pounds since we’d last been tested, barely four months earlier. My teammates had to keep taking weight off the bar until I could get it up. Everyone else who wasn’t injured had seen his max jump or at least stay the same. Brendan’s, for example, had skyrocketed twenty-five pounds. To say the least, the coaches weren’t thrilled, as adding weight and muscle had been their primary summer goal for me, laid out in no uncertain terms the previous May. Which begged the question, if not lifting, what had I been doing all summer?
It certainly wasn’t a lazy summer. No matter how sophomoric my shoulders, I still showed up at Davidson that August in incredible aerobic shape. I’d run Virginia hills in oppressive humidity. I’d gone to the track in the midday heat to run sprints. I’d gone to the gym and put myself through grueling on-court workouts. My jump shot was sharp, my left hook solid. My body fat measured around five percent. I might’ve been the most in shape guy on the team.
The truth was, I was in shape, but I hadn’t bulked up like the coaches wanted me to. Why not? Why hadn’t I devoted myself to increasing my strength like I’d devoted myself to increasing my endurance? And why hadn’t I called Coach back? He’d called my parents’ place at least once and left a message with my parents asking me to return his call. My parents delivered his message yet I never returned it.
As I remember it, I spent my free time that summer with my big clankers kicked up on the arm of the couch, doing what you’re doing now, reading. I read several books on World War II, a few on espionage, plus an assortment of escapist novels. Literature was a portal away from basketball, and, for that matter, life itself. It worked. I forgot what I wanted to forget while reading. To call Coach back would’ve meant activating all the systems I’d been trying to shut down, the systems I’d imposed rigid black-out restrictions on until the moment I had to trek back to school. So I ignored his phone call, pretending it didn’t happen.
I don’t get it, Ian. If life was so miserable, why didn’t you quit basketball? you may be asking yourself. Well, inquisitive reader, for one, quitting didn’t occur to me. As far as my self-narrative was concerned, I loved being a college basketball player and I loved playing for Davidson and being with Coach. Ask me and I would’ve told you without hesitation these very things. Two, after nearly a decade deeply immersed in basketball, from AAU to Oak Hill to Davidson, I’d become so wrapped up in the game that it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between “Basketball Ian” and “Non-Basketball Ian.” I was a basketball player, on the court and off. And even if the thought had occurred to me, to quit, I would’ve been too scared to follow through. Plus, a lot of people would’ve been disappointed as it would’ve meant starting my life anew, restarting and/or transforming my entire personality (all ten versions of him). To ditch basketball would’ve meant ditching what was most familiar, in a way ditching myself, as it was through basketball and pretty much only through basketball that I’d come to define “me.” Put another way, sticking with what was familiar, however wretched, was less scary than jumping into an ocean of the unknown. Plus, if I quit, people would’ve wondered why, and maybe they would’ve taken a closer look under the hood and started to see and identify the mess that I wasn’t ready to see and identify myself.
Hey Ian, got my hand up here, another question. Why do you think it was so awful? Was it basketball’s fault? As in, were you a victim of the system? Or did you bring to the game some pre-existing baggage, and all the game ever did was draw it out of you?
Okay, I think I understand your question. If I had say, joined the university choir instead of the basketball team, would I still be describing my collegiate experience the way I am?
The answer, I think, is a little of both.
Basketball was and is, by far, the highest profile sport at Davidson, and, along with football, is one of the two highest profile sports in the NCAA. The pressure to perform is built into the scholarship offer. Additionally, to succeed at the Division One level, requires a certain personality, an aggressive, sickeningly competitive, tough-ass motherfucker personality, one which, speaking now with the gifts of retrospection and from the enlightened side of a complete personal transformation, I now know isn’t a personality I fit all that congruently with.
Going all the way back to that first week on campus, I was faced with a choice. I’d assimilate my personality to fit what was demanded from me, or I’d fail. Failure was not an option. Failure is not an option. It’s cliche, but cliches are cliches for a reason. I didn’t even know how to admit failure was possible, which is ironic, because I was utterly failing to do the one thing that would’ve allowed me to really succeed: be myself.
You still haven’t really answered my question. Was it Davidson or was it you?
Hang on, I’m getting there. In the fall of my senior year I took a class called Clinical Psychopharmacology. Every week we studied a different mental illness and discussed the relevant psychopharmacological treatments. About halfway through the syllabus we got to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As the professor discussed OCD, I remember having the incredibly strange sensation that he was, in fact, discussing me. For that entire week I daydreamed about raising my hand in class and offering to serve as a real-life example. But by the end of the week I’d dismissed the temptation, and, aware that it’s natural for people to falsely see themselves in the medical descriptions they read about, had relegated to a lower shelf the idea that I might be suffering from OCD. Life moved on, and another opportunity to be seen for what I really was, closed.
In fact, as I would learn later on in my career, my symptoms were very much in line with OCD, and the roots of my OCD were put in place long before I donned a Davidson uniform. Briefly, I am genetically predisposed to experience the symptoms of OCD. My grandmother was a hoarder like you’ve never seen, and those unhealthy traits have been passed on to me. Growing up, I never learned how to express myself emotionally, and so when a number of negative influences and experiences involving family and relationships kicked in around puberty, my repressed brain handled things by ramping up my obsessions and compulsions in its genetically prescribed way. And when I moved on to college, still unable to handle situations in a healthy way, things only became worse.
The OCD that I was dealing with was intense and all-consuming, and compounded by hardships in my personal life. At Oak Hill I’d had my heart broken quite viciously by a girl I’d dated for little more than a few weeks. She’d been, to use another cliche, my first love, and subsequently was my first heartbreak. I didn’t know how to acknowledge the pain, and, unable to process the event, the repressed pain emerged in irrational fears and obsessions, which, under the influence of a disorder like OCD, can be especially intense.
Once, sophomore year, as I read alone one afternoon in my dorm room, I heard an authoritative knock on the door. It turned out to be a policeman looking concerned.
“Just checking to see that you’re okay?” he asked.
“Just fine, officer. Why do you ask?”
The night before I’d gotten uproariously drunk for no particular reason. I threw up off the balcony of a third-floor apartment, spattering the walkway below. Sometime later the policeman found me on the sidewalk, not far from the splatter, head between my knees, apparently unable to move. He’d led me back to my dorm, and now was back to make sure I was still alive. I could not recall him in the slightest.
I thanked him for his concern, let him lecture me a bit on safe drinking habits, and went back to reading. My lone memory in the blackout hours of that drunken night is sitting alone in some stairwell, head swimming, thinking about that girl from high school, about the massive heart ache she’d created, an ache that I was still repressing, as I wondered why and how she’d suctioned so much of my ability to love and trust from the once very trusting and loving but now largely depleted chambers of my heart.
Basketball is not played in an emotional vacuum. Ten players bring ten different life stories to the court, to the locker room, and to the film room. Some parts of the story we all know. Heartbreak, for example. Other parts are more unique. Either way, we hold on until we learn to let go.
Coach pushed us hard to work on our “acts.” That is, he wanted us to spend time in thought about how we presented ourselves to the world. “Have an act,” he’d say, as he told us how to deceive the defense. “Have an act,” he’d say, as we worked on our ball fakes.
I’d say I perfected my act. You would’ve never known I had spent most of my freshman, sophomore and junior years consumed by my obsessive compulsive tendencies, depressed and hopelessly confused as to why. I didn’t even fully comprehend that I was depressed and anxious. That’s how good my act was. Had you happened to bump into me in a hallway or at the Student Union I might’ve seemed relaxed, mellow, happy even. I was certainly curious, a lover of knowledge, and curiosity can come across as healthy. I knew how to behave “normally” in front of my teammates and coaches and I knew how to surfacely brush off a parochial tirade in the film room. I knew how to be goofy, provocative and how to draw attention to myself when I needed attention.
The summer before my junior year, I elected to stay on campus. Making up for lost time in the gym, I made it my mission to finally bulk up and make the weight room my summer home which I coupled with an insane daily caloric intake. Every night before bed I wolfed down two thick peanut butter sandwiches. A side dish for dinner was often a box of mac and cheese.
That same summer I interned with a local supply company. My second week there my supervisor handed me a packet containing thousands of phone numbers. Each number represented a supplier, potential supplier or a former supplier. I was to call each number, and, when I found the right person on the line, ask that person to get me a few specific pieces of information: tare weights or package dimensions or other mundane information that I can no longer remember. When I’d secured the requested info, I was to enter it into some database.
I spent much of that summer on the phone, often on hold, and in utter boredom. I’m not sure how much I learned, about the company or otherwise, in the two months I spent there. But leaving the small business complex on my last day I vowed never to work in an office ever again.
Some months later, at one of my games, I ran into somebody from the company, a guy who’d worked in a nearby cubicle and with whom I’d become somewhat friendly. He told me I’d somehow erred in requesting all those tare weights and package dimensions, that a good percentage of the data I’d entered was false, a percentage high enough for him to have to go back and redo the whole project, and that he was still working months later to correct my mistakes. He stared at me, bemused, as if looking for an apology. I could only shrug, somehow pleased with myself.
By the end of that summer I’d gained almost thirty pounds. That’s ten pounds a month if you’re keeping score. My neck bulged. My shoulders and chest blew up like a pop song. I’d also grown my hair out, turning myself into a kind of hirsute hulk.
During my pre-season athletic assessment I lay on the weight room’s bench press and enjoyed showing off my massive gains — including my body fat index, which had jumped to nearly fifteen percent. Despite all these “positive” developments, my junior season remained, just like the two before it, something to survive rather than embrace. Getting bigger, in a way, just meant I had more room to store what I would’ve rather gotten out.
Before the season started, my teammates and I played pick-up basketball games three or four times a week. The games were heated, as pick-up games often are. There were no referees and so we called our own fouls or out-of-bounds. One particular game was tied 6-6, playing to seven by ones. The ball was knocked out of bounds and I’d been the last to touch it but I pretended I hadn’t. Both sides argued vehemently for the ball. My team won possession, and next time down the court I hit a game-winning shot. I didn’t think much of it when we were celebrating our victory, but in the locker room afterwards I started to feel guilty. I had lied. It should’ve been the other team’s ball. By the time we were all sitting down to a dinner of flank steak and fries in the Commons, the guilt had ratcheted up to a point where it was nearly unbearable. I’d planned to hit up the library and do a little work after dinner, but I instead retreated to my dorm, where I forced myself to lay down and not move, so fearful was I that I’d jump out the window or slam my temple against the corner of a desk. This is how a strangled OCD mind handles things sometimes, and my fractured mental state led to a tough season on the court. It was more than a struggle most days just to show up to practice and I averaged just over ten points a game for the season.
The low point to my entire basketball career came later that year, during an afternoon practice at the dawn of our conference season. All the centers and forwards were at one end of the court and the guards at the other. As I waited in line at the elbow, Coach strode up and told me, quite calmly, to make a list of five schools that I’d be willing to transfer to. It was as close as I would ever come to breaking. I could feel tears rushing to the back of my eyes and it took a Herculean effort to not show it. But still I did not crack. Still I pretended nothing was bothering me. Coach followed me over to the sideline. He told me he’d be happy to make calls on my behalf. If someone at that moment had handed me a gun, I’m not sure what I would’ve done. I didn’t crumble that day, but my insides were about as pressurized as they could get. I would soon snap. How and when I would snap, was the question.
The moment arrived one day later that spring, a couple weeks after losing to Maryland in the NIT, and during a period of time when I was supposedly “free.” I was sitting next to one of my teammates in a computer lab and we were watching some compilation video on YouTube called “Non-Olympians,” that featured a woman tripping over her javelin mid-stride and a series of not-so-coordinated pole vaulters. It was funny. I laughed out loud. My teammate laughed, too. Yet while we were laughing, I looked at him and thought, Man, he doesn’t see, and I’ll never be able to show him. Him or anyone else. My act had become too good. I’d mastered the art of deception, to myself and to others. I was drowning in my deceit.
I grabbed my backpack and left the computer lab quickly. I had no destination in mind but I was obliquely aware that something was going to happen. Something that could make everything go away. I’d reached a tipping point. I had an explicit plan as to what I was going to do, which any mental health professional will tell you is a warning sign bigger than Paul Revere’s. I envisioned myself sitting on a dock at the nearby Lake Norman, a couple heavy cement blocks tied around my ankles, ready to jump in.
It was early evening when I fled out of the lab. The air was warm, the kind of perfect warmth where the only difference between outdoor and indoor air is the freshness, that sun-kissed warmth that feels like a Coke commercial. I remember standing outside the building and thinking how wonderful it was to feel a warmth like that. I walked slowly towards my car, keys in hand. I wanted to do it but I didn’t want to do it. Perhaps it was fitting to my disorder that even my ruminations on killing myself were contradictory. My self-analysis had wrapped itself too tightly around my own neck creating an analysis paralysis of my analysis.
In that moment I decided to give myself a chance, but in order to fully give myself that chance, I needed to do something I’d never done before: reach out. I needed to talk about something real, sincere and genuine with someone. Or try to talk, at least. I cycled through the contact list in my phone and I settled on one of our assistant coaches, Matt Matheny.
“I need to come over,” I said when he answered.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I drove to his house in a nearby neighborhood. Matt told me to sit in an easy chair in the living room and set a glass of water at my side. He sat opposite me and before I could give him an explanation as to why I was there, I began to sob, which was probably all the explanation he needed. They were the kind of sobs that suck your breath away and leave you gasping. Coach Matheny waited for me to catch my breath, patient and ready to listen whenever I was ready to talk. Later, he’d tell me that he thought I had a drug problem or that I was going to tell him I was gay. In the end, I had nothing of substance to say. I didn’t know what was wrong, only that something was.
“I’m fucked up,” was all that I could seem to get out.
Coach Matheny suggested I talk with my parents. I told him I would, but I never did. It had been hard enough to shape-shift myself just to be able to talk to someone, to admit that I was messed up, and to cry. In my mind, I ventured to consider that my efforts had made myself half-healed, and that what I had done was enough.
Less than a week later I was up late on the eve of my twenty-first birthday. I sat at the small desk in my even smaller dorm room, holding my pocket knife. It was old and had begun to rust in places. I pulled out the biggest blade and held its sharpened point to my heart trying to thrust it through my ribs. Nothing. I tried again, this time looking up towards the ceiling. I tried with two hands, my face clenched with effort, sweat cracking on my forehead. Nothing. I couldn’t even draw blood.
Eventually, I made it to my bed and fell asleep. My alarm pierced my black dreamless sleep a few hours later. That semester I was running an ongoing experiment for a psych class in which two mice served as subjects. Because of scheduling conflicts with basketball I had to hit up the lab early, when the sun was low in the gunmetal gray sky and when the campus was vibrating with a silent hum. I sat that morning, with the dawning of my twenty first birthday, alone in a windowless lab in the basement of the Psych Building. I was staring at those two white mice with their stringy pink tails and waiting for them to hit a lever and and release into their pudgy pink paws a dry morsel of food.
I remember standing up suddenly and removing the mice from their experimental cage and putting them back. I entered bogus numbers into my experiment’s log book, took off my lab coat and headed back towards my dorm room. A maintenance truck was parked near the curb as I walked home. A jogger emerged from his dorm and took off down the road, his sneakers spack-spack-spacking on the wet pavement. Campus was waking up. When I arrived back to my dorm room, I grabbed my car keys and headed for the parking lots.
“You got somebody pregnant,” is what my mom said when I called and told her I was coming home to talk.
I spent my twenty-first birthday at home with my parents and my mom made me mac and cheese with hot dogs. My parents listened as I tried to explain my sudden visit, but just like with Coach Matheny, I wasn’t sure what to say. If felt like if I could only get the narrative right, then all my problems would be solved. If I could just tell someone my story, then I was convinced the story would just go away.
My mother made me promise to visit the student health center and see a therapist, which I did. But I didn’t know what to say to my therapist either. I found him distant and uninterested. Once, he yawned enormously in the middle of our conversation. After that, I lasted two sessions more.
Finally, my last summer in college arrived and in early June of 2005, I emailed Dr. Barton about an independent study, the aforementioned independent study that saved my Davidson career, and quite possibly, the rest of my life.
Getting back to my senior year, a year which, as you may recall, I was having the time of my life. I had improved my grades and no longer did I feel out of place in the classroom. On the basketball court, I’d become the strongest player on the team, having shed the excess hulk-like bulk and settled into a playing weight that I’d keep until nearly the end of my professional career. I no longer felt dissonant with ideas of success and I felt comfortable being the leading scorer. As the oldest post player on the team, and its steadfast anchor, I felt a sense of urgency and a sense of responsibility, that I’d never felt in all the years prior.
And, I was having fun. Real, pure, honest-to-goodness, unfiltered fun for the first time in my life and I was loving it.
I can think of a few examples that have stuck with me that illustrate just how much fun I was having. For instance, at the end of every practice, Coach often selected someone to try to make five free throws in a row. The rest of the team would line up around the three-point line. Following every shot, we’d step forward to offer high fives or butt taps to the player shooting. Usually, however, it was high-fives and butt taps and furtive fingers rammed in the butthole, plus pinches to the scrotum. It got to the point that, whenever I shot, as soon as I released my free throw, I’d throw one hand over my balls and one hand over my asshole, in protection. But my teammates were sneaky. They knew how to get low and come in from underneath. I’d often shoot with a stinging ballsack. This happened day after day, player after player. Surprisingly or not, we’d go on to lead the nation in free-throw shooting that season.
Another instance that illustrates the brand of fun we were having was when we bussed to away games, the team manager passed around a clipboard, on which we’d write our dinner orders for after the following day’s game. Let’s say it was Domino’s. Let’s say you ordered a Supreme Pizza with no peppers and sides of Cheesy Bread and Cinna-stix. Your order, by the time it made it back to the front, would be a cheese pizza with extra peppers, with sides of “Cheesy-head” and “Cinna-dicks.” Ordering dinner became an exercise in ordering last.
The point to focus on here isn’t all our perille behavior. The point is that I finally felt like I was really and truly a member of the team. The entire Me, not just my body or my behavior. Back then I still didn’t know what “me” meant, and I still couldn’t comprehend how my body or my behavior could divulge itself from my being, but it didn’t matter. I was having the time of my life despite the difference.
I’m grateful to have had these personal realizations and I let others in on my thinking as much as I could. I did so in the huddle in Treviso. I did so in huddles in the basements of frat houses, when I’d gather everyone around — teammates, girlfriends, whomever — and deliver long-winded toasts as we chugged cheap beer from red plastic cups.
We finished the regular season 18-11, with a 11-5 conference mark, enough to earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament. It was a tournament which would be my graduating class’ last chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, and our last chance to see Davidson slotted in newspaper brackets across the country. Despite quality wins over Missouri, St. Joe’s, UMass and others, there would be no at-large bid. We had to win the conference tourney or we’d go home.
We played the Citadel opening round. Down seventeen in the first half, we clawed our way back and won. Watching film afterwards back in the hotel, Coach paused the tape somewhere in the first half, in the midst of our comeback. We’d just scored a huge bucket, plus the foul.
“Now watch Ian here,” he said, starting the tape again. My teammates and I watched as I threw my arm forward following the basket. I am not sure if I would call it a fist pump, but at the very least it was a close relative of a fist pump, but at the very least a close cousin. In essence, I was celebrating.
“That’s a lot of emotion from you, Ian,” Coach said, looking at me as if demanding an explanation. For what felt like seconds, or minutes, I couldn’t be sure, Coach rewound and replayed my quasi-celebration. Coach was correct, it was a lot of emotion from me indeed. In fact, my is-it-or-is-it-not-a-fist pump might’ve been the most emotion I’d ever displayed in a Davidson uniform. When I think back to the moment, it might’ve represented all the emotion I’d ever displayed in a Davidson uniform. No matter how much better I felt my senior year, I still, for whatever reasons, could not allow myself to emit anything but passive indifference on the court. If I made a dunk or pulled off a big basket, I was stone-faced. If I caught a wink from a fly-looking co-ed in the seventh row, I was extra stone-faced, when in actuality, all I really wanted to do was smile.
We beat Elon in the semi-finals and crushed Chattanooga in the final, securing the conference championship for Davidson and clicking our ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Brendan Winters was voted the tournament’s Most Valuable Player and because of my performance, I was elected to the five-player, All-Tournament team.
One week later, on Selection Sunday, our team and several hundred of our fans, gathered in the Student Union to find out who we’d play and in what region. When Davidson flashed on the screen as a fifteen seed, pitted against Ohio State, at the time the No. 4 team in the nation, most of the building hollered in anger.
Film from a local TV station shows this moment. The camera pans. Most of the room is on their feet, hooting and waving. At the end of the segment you see Brendan Winters and me. We’re still sitting, looking a little pissed. I certainly felt that way. A fifteen seed felt like a slap in the face. I thought we’d earned better.
A few days before we left for the game against Ohio State, I ventured into the Student Union, towards the rows of stainless steel mailboxes arranged like security deposit boxes in a bank vault. I stooped to open mine. I pulled out a couple immemorable letters wrapped in a magazine. The magazine was Sports Illustrated, and it was the annual NCAA Tournament preview issue. One player from each team in the tournament made the cover. Opening my own mailbox to see my own grimacing face on the cover of Sports Illustrated remains to this day the proudest moment of my basketball career.
A few days later, we left for Dayton, Ohio, to take on Ohio State. For those of you unfamiliar with Ohio geography, Dayton is but twenty minutes from Columbus, home of the Buckeyes.
My mother and father traveled to see me play. Standing in line at will call, my mother looked around at all the people dressed in red and white. She nudged my dad. “Wow, great to see so many people here supporting Davidson.” Several Ohio State fans overheard and gave her looks, thinking the comment was sarcastic. It wasn’t.
Despite holding a 29-25 advantage at halftime, OSU came back and scratched out a 81-75 victory. I scored twenty-six points and grabbed ten rebounds, the twenty-six a career high for me. Despite the loss, I was named Player of the Game.
When the buzzer sounded and the game ended, the first wave of tears were already sliding down my cheek before I could walk off the court. Sitting against a side wall in the locker room, I sobbed heavily. For several minutes, nothing but waves of pure emotion poured out of me.
No matter, my college basketball career was done. For better or worse, I would never again put on a Davidson uniform.
We came close to winning that day, so very close, but we weren’t quite ready. A few months later, after me, Brendan and the rest of the senior class graduated, Coach Mckillop would meet privately with a small group of boosters to discuss the arrival of a skinny, baby-faced kid from Charlotte named Stephen Curry.
A deep tournament run wasn’t in the cardss for Davidson Curry’s freshman year either. Davidson lost to Maryland in another almost-there thriller. But they were a thirteen-seed that game, and moving on up. The next year Davidson was a ten-seed,playing the likes of Gonzaga, then Georgetown, then Wisconsin and Kansas. You might remember the run.
A couple days after the Ohio State game Davidson’s president, the same one who’d addressed our freshman class four years earlier, emailed me to offer condolences on the loss and congratulations on my career. Years later, I remembered his speech on opening day, all those years ago. I considered whether I’d done what he’d instructed us to do. Had I found myself? Had I answered that most cliched of collegiate queries, Who am I?
Who was I? If “I” stood for anything at all it stood for Incomplete. I was still a work in progress.
But here’s the thing, change is constant, and one’s search perpetual. The important thing is to be around so you can keep trying.