by: Ian Johnson
Stepping into the spotlight of Division I NCAA Basketball carries with it unexpected burdens. An inside look into the collegiate career and personal hardships of a gifted and contemplative young athlete…
I didn’t watch a lot of college basketball growing up. Besides the NBA Finals in the Jordan-era, I didn’t watch that much basketball, period. As a kid, my family had one of those low definition televisions with a super convex screen and a button for each channel that made a crunchy noise when you pressed it. We didn’t have cable, and it was only with a patient arrangement of the television’s rabbit ears that we could pick up a single station, NBC.
Not only did I not watch a lot of college basketball, I didn’t keep tabs on it in other ways. I filled out an NCAA tournament bracket every March, back when you had to clip one out of your local newspaper, but I didn’t really follow the regular season. In high school I read the sports section every morning, but mostly skipped the little blurbs allotted to the NCAA Top 25 recaps. I preferred the NBA.
So, when prior to my freshman year at Davidson College in North Carolina, where I had been offered a scholarship, an assistant coach called and with a begrudging reverence in his voice, said we would, only a few months from now, open the season on national television at Cameron’s, I remember wondering, who’s this guy Cameron he keeps talking about? Some extolled recruit? Cameron, of course, is not actually a person (any longer), but the vaunted Cameron Indoor Stadium, storied home of the Duke Blue Devils and in November 2002 my team opened our season, and my collegiate career, under its messianic domed roof.
Warming up before the game, I heard someone shouting in my direction the names of my sisters, and then some not-so-messianic things he’d do to them. I scanned the Duke student section and spotted, amid the sea of blue, a guy I’d gone to high school with. We locked eyes. He glared. I frowned.
That I was then playing basketball on a bigger stage than my high school gymnasium hit home in that moment. The feeling was at once both exciting and disconcerting, knowing I’d stepped up (or been recruited up to) another level. It was exciting because I was a small cog in a much bigger sports machine, where the venues were household names, the atmospheric buzz was palpable, and I would even have to navigate a snake pit of television wires just to get to the court. That was some ripe shit, but me being me, it was also just a little unnerving, like when an underage kid sneaks into a cocktail lounge — you know you’re doing something supposedly grown-up, but you don’t really understand how it all works, or why it works the way it does.
“This is it,” one of our assistant coaches said in the locker room a few minutes before tip-off. “It’s real now.”
I started the game on the bench, my damp hands incessantly gripping a towel. I didn’t bother to think when, or if, I’d get to play. I just hoped it looked like I belonged. So when one of our starting big men, an Irish guy a year ahead of me named Conor Grace, picked up two quick fouls in the game’s first few minutes, Coach pivoted towards me and pointed.
Arriving at Davidson College in the fall of 2002, I had no idea how to define myself. This apparently wasn’t anything abnormal. Finding yourself was a big theme at the freshmen-only, eve-of-first-day-of-classes assembly, where Davidson’s president described the upcoming four years as the perfect time for self-discovery in both the academic and emotional sense. It was an inspiring speech, but the president declined to demonstrate how to set our feet on the starting blocks. Nobody showed us the end of the thread. Nobody provided a tangible first clue to the question of Who am I? It was implied that that was a question we could really only answer for ourselves.
I knew who I wanted to be. First, I wanted to be “smart,” but by the end of the first week or so of classes it was clear that being book smart in college is a little different than being book smart in high school. I spent good portions of my classes rehearsing things I could say, but rarely could I summon the courage to actually speak up. It was easier to remain ambiguously silent.
So maybe I wasn’t as smart at Davidson as I had hoped to be, but I was still an athlete, and being a college athlete is a prestigious and self-enhancing feat to say the least. Of the four hundred and fifty students in my freshman class, only four of us had scholarships to play basketball. Wasn’t basketball the most hyped sport on campus, and wasn’t I the most hyped of the four incoming freshman? Hadn’t I gone to the prestigious basketball mecca of Oak Hill?
It’s true that everything restarts in college, and identifying as a much-hyped recruit only meant I’d have that much more to prove to people. I knew that there’d be that much more resistance from the upperclassmen whose positions I was penciled in to take on the team. Until I dug my own trench in collegiate soil, until I earned my locker space, until I proved myself on the court and off, I’d remain to the upperclassmen, and to myself, just some shy, skinny kid hanging out on the doorstep of manhood, peeking in the side windows, wondering if anyone would answer if I knocked.
There were however a bevy of lessons that I didn’t manage to learn early in my Davidson career, such as the ability to tell my roommate that he should get a different alarm song than “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” because “WMGGW” can get really annoying when it emerges daily from scratchy computer speakers sitting at just about ear level. Or how to tell your roommate to lock the door when he masturbates and how to talk to girls when most of the girls you know are way smarter and more mature than you (hope they like basketball!). And how to be six-foot-nine and sleep in a bed designed for someone five-eight (angles), how to utilize empty Gatorade bottles to avoid having to trek all the way to the bathroom to pee at night, and how to make it all the way up to the fourth floor of your dorm when you’re so tired and overwhelmed that the second floor landing seems just about as comfortable as your bed.
I did learn that during lunchtime at the Commons, Davidson’s main cafeteria, there’s a thirty-second window between arriving early to no line and arriving tardy to a five-minute wait. I learned that visiting professors are tough graders whose classes should be avoided if possible, especially by incoming freshmen with intelligence insecurities. I learned that if both eyes are half-closed while trying to study, closing one eye does not mean extra lift for the other eye. I learned that sometimes you avoid talking to the people you get along with best, simply because they’re whom you get along with best. I came to understand that just because you can talk about some fad book and speak Latin doesn’t mean you’re intelligent and that defining intelligence is as nuanced and varied as trying to define “time” or “love.” I realized quickly that defining “athlete” presents the same challenges and that thinking of oneself as a basketball player, and/or thinking that others are thinking of you as a basketball player, can make you act in certain stereotypes even if you know they’re stereotypes, even if you normally wouldn’t act that way and don’t even want to act that way.
I learned that even if it tastes like tangy fruit juice, the burn as it goes down your esophagus probably means you shouldn’t drink it like you would a glass of Hawaiian Punch. I learned that intimacy isn’t guaranteed when you get naked with someone and that certain people like to fake-laugh in photos, to give off a certain kind of impression. I learned that just because you were high school teammates with Carmelo Anthony doesn’t mean you need to pretend he’s still your homeboy and that when you notice a girl has left her earrings in plain sight on your desk it was probably deliberate and you probably shouldn’t go calling her name down the stairwell at two in the morning to try and give them back.
You realize that this kind of education is just as important, if not more important, than the kind you get in the classroom and that you’re pretty sure this is what the college president meant in his speech when he talked about self-discovery. I figured out in time that self-discovery works by observing others act in ways you don’t want to think you could act and that you can’t define self without the context of the self, and that you can’t define self without other selves off of whom you reflect. In reality, it’s possible that you’re way worse than the girl who fake laughs in photos, at least in terms of social stagecraft anyway, and that you might be the most talented thespian of them all, and most of your existence feels a little phony since you pretend all the time to be someone, a someone you can’t or don’t want to define because trying to define yourself might mean realizing some horrible things you’re not ready to accept.
So there was a lot to learn, both on and off the court, and a lot to keep wondering about too. Like, just who was the “I” that wanted to make sense of “me,” like the president had alluded to. That was some fringe metaphysical shit I was trying to unravel at the time, but isn’t that what college is for? To figure all those unknowns out? To live through and survive such tormented and cliched existential crises?
The Duke-Davidson game from November 2002 was good enough to be the lead-in to the 11pm edition of ESPN’s Sportscenter. Davidson had been the underdog and we had given a solid performance. My teammates and I brought the game to within six points with a minute to go, with the ball, but we missed our threes and Duke made their free throws to finish us off.
I however, had played beautifully. It was my first performance on the national stage, and free from expectations. While I was focused on winning, I didn’t care about winning. Or losing, for that matter. Everything seemed harmonious, like I was dancing with nine other partners. My body reacted with little to no interference from my mind. I was blank. My mind was so vacant, in fact, that it didn’t really feel like me playing the game. With thirty or so seconds to go, I remember looking up at the scoreboard, noticing the number next to my last name, and thinking Wow, that’s a lot a points! It kind of felt like identity theft, taking a step back from my performance.
That first game clad in Davidson red remains one of my best performances ever, at least circumstantially. I scored twenty-three points and grabbed six boards against a top-five ranked Duke team at Cameron on national television and in my very first collegiate game. Ten or twelve of those points came via a slightly unorthodox left-handed jump hook, the debut of what would come to be known as (in Davidson circles) “The Spoon.” I earned a good chunk of personal airtime. The announcers repeatedly commended me. In a particularly memorable moment of veneration, Brad Daugherty, who called the game for ESPN, exclaimed, following a montage of several of my baskets leading into commercial and in reference to my jersey number twenty-two, “The double-deuce is on the loose!
From Duke our team traveled to Annapolis, Maryland to play Navy. I scored fourteen points in our first win. Through two games, I was averaging around eighteen points. A lot of people, apparently, had watched the Duke game on television; returning to Davidson from Annapolis, I clicked open my inbox to find it flooded with superlative-filled messages. At my classes that Monday, girls seemed to recognize me. Some even smiled at me. Back at the dorm, my roommate stopped masturbating long enough to wave with his free hand. Admirers jam-packed my dorm room’s dry-erase board with congratulatory messages. And upon returning to practice the coaches yelled per usual, but there was a different feel to it. Later that week sports commentator Dick Vitale released a national list of five freshmen to keep an eye on. The list included JJ Redick, Shelden Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and me, one Ian Johnson of Davidson College.
Towards the end of 2002, in December, we played UNC-Charlotte, our crosstown rivals. The morning of the game, the Charlotte Observer ran a feature on me. They’d quote-hunted with Coach Smith at Oak Hill. He’d told them I’d averaged six points and five rebounds a game during my tenure and that I’d led the team in charges taken. As far as I knew, we didn’t keep charge statistics at Oak Hill. And best I could remember, six and five seemed a little high.
I scored nine points against UNC-Charlotte, including a melted butter, so-good-it-looks-easy post move that statued their big-time center. In film session the next day, Coach McKillop wound and rewound the play, lauding it. I watched and rewatched, though watching it felt like watching a video game. Not that the move was that good, but rather it felt like I was watching someone else perform it. I stared at the screen, trying really hard to believe the good things Coach was saying about me. I’m not trying to sound self-deprecating, but in that moment I couldn’t figure out what was so great about what I’d done. The move, like most of my playing time at Duke, involved no “me” processes whatsoever, no conscious control. I’d simply been riding the riptide of thoughtless momentum that would propel me through much of those early weeks of the season.
Over Christmas break we traveled to Tucson, Arizona for a seasonal holiday tournament. We faced host Arizona (who, like Duke, was a Top 5 team) in our opening match-up. Their roster included Luke Walton, Andre Iguodala, Channing Frye, Salim Stoudamire and Jason Gardner. I scored twenty-one points in a tough loss. A couple days later we played Florida State in a game that would decide third-place in the tournament. We lost again, but I played well enough to land on the All-Tournament team. I stood in front of thousands of people and received a massive silver plate. I stood next to future NBA stars as people took our picture.
After Tuscon we had a few days off for Christmas. I went home to Charlottesville, Virginia. Besides my mother, who didn’t seem to care, everyone else I spent time with seemed really impressed with the start of my collegiate career. I’d impressed myself too, though I kept waiting for someone to scream “Cut!” and take me by the hand and lead me from the set, informing me that I was accidentally starring in the wrong movie. It was surreal. Everything — the success, the adulation, the spells of empty mind — simply felt out of character to me.
Sometime just after the New Year, 2003, at the dawn of our conference schedule, the coaching staff requested my presence at the gym. When I showed up, three assistants walked me into the empty John M. Belk Arena and we all leaned against the scorer’s table.
“Look up,” they said. “See the jerseys?”
I looked up to the arena’s rafters, at the five numbers the school had retired to date, 21, 4, 6, 7, and 33, the oversized uniforms spaced evenly across a red beam. Besides the brief mentions in our media guide, I knew nothing of their names or careers. The most recent retiree had been in 1975.
“If you want it and work for it,” the coaches continued, “you’ll see the double-deuce up there one day.”
I nodded and did my best to look inspired, although the coaches might as well have been telling me the cafeteria served flank steak on Tuesdays. If I stood in line and held out my plate, they’d scoop some on.
Sometime in February of 2003, towards the end of our conference season and not long before our conference tournament in early March, I showed up at the gym on a day off and found my locker festooned with newspaper clippings from early in the season. Highlighted in the articles were statements that various reporters and coaches had made about me, particularly my lefty jump hook. In the middle of the clippings was a handwritten note from Coach: “Where has this guy gone?”
It was a fair question.
Our conference schedule wasn’t as tough as our non-conference schedule. The crowds were smaller and quieter, and the opposing rosters were no longer stacked with McDonald’s All-Americans. If we played on television, it was regional. By the time we started conference play I knew our offense, or had at least memorized the plays. I knew my teammates better, their tendencies and strengths, and I knew what the coaches expected of me.
In other words, things should’ve been easier, but somehow they weren’t. As January turned into February, I was no longer the subject of feature articles. I was no longer on any of Dick Vitale’s “Who-to-Watch” lists. And I no longer averaged nineteen points per game. I had yet to join the team’s starting lineup, despite being way more talented than our starting big guys. No longer was I even a part of the immediate rotation. The coaching staff had stopped taking me aside to plant in my head ideas of eternal glory, and they had probably regretted doing so in the first place. I spent more and more time on the bench, gripping my towel. Additionally, Coach no longer exalted my post-moves in film sessions, rather, he did quite the opposite, and just as passionately.
As the month changed, I no longer felt out of place, either. I no longer saw myself as a victim of identity theft, and I no longer felt like I’d been accidentally cast in the wrong movie. The script had been corrected, the first act rewritten, and I’d been properly recast in an ever-lamer supporting role, slowly fading to black.
So, where had that guy gone? The answer was nowhere, as that version of me had never been truly real in the first place.
The beginning of my Davidson career was like jumping blindly into an unknown body of water. At first there’s only the awareness of being wet. It takes a split second to determine if the water is cold or hot, salt or freshwater, mucky or clear, or deep or shallow. The first month and a half of my first season, I’d played free from expectation, personal or otherwise. I was only aware that I had jumped in the water. But then I started to think. I became self-conscious and my thoughts caught up with me. That’s how things started to unwind for me, when my thoughts caught up.
As the season ticked along, contradictions flared. I wanted stardom at the same time I wanted to run from it and I believed my own hype even as I reacted against it. It was paralyzing, the way different parts of me sparred for supremacy. Every day, every game, and every practice became a battle to get out of my own way. I continued to self-analyze as my career progressed, my analysis growing ever more elaborate, metaphysical and alarming. Whose way was I getting out of? I was a mess of competing selves. The more I analyzed, the worse I played. Analysis Paralysis, is a fitting term for this.
I grew more attached to memories of my earlier performances, and I played later games only to live up to those early successes. Everything I did I compared to the twenty-three I put up against Duke and the twenty-one I dropped against Arizona. I kept moving further and further away from everything that was happening in the now, drifting farther and farther back in the schedule, as if by retreating, I’d eventually get back around to the front.
All this leads me to say that, as glorious an experience as it was, scoring twenty-three points against Duke on national television in my first ever college game might’ve been the worst thing that could’ve happened to the rest of my Davidson career. It was quite the personal accomplishment, but, at the time, the greater the accolade, the harder it was for me to move on.
Case in point: before the holidays, just before our trip to Tucson, we played a Division III team. Davidson’s game-day media guides list each player’s career highs and my career high for points at the time was my twenty-three against Duke. Against the D-III school, I’d scored twenty-one with ten or so minutes left to play in the game, but I stopped shooting because I didn’t want my season high to come against a D-III school, as opposed to Duke. These were conscious thoughts I had in the midst of gameplay. A player in the moment would’ve simply balled-out and kept shooting, unconcerned with any impressions he might give off in some pre-game magazine.
Perhaps in no other profession besides porn are one’s performances so exquisitely scrutinized on tape as they are in sports. The Davidson basketball team’s film room is a big windowless box. To get to it, you walk through the team room, which itself is windowless and accessed only from a windowless hallway. Getting to the film room is kind of like descending into an underground bunker as the arena itself is dug into the campus’ landscape.
The film room’s walls were white-painted cinderblock and dotted with framed photos from championship seasons. A big projector screen would pull down in the front and a diagram of a half-court was sketched into the gray carpet. In a typical post-game session, players filled two rows of chairs closer to the screen, the assistant coaches hung out in the back, and Coach Mckillop would assume a stance in front of everyone, remote in hand, ready to begin analysis.
Coaches yell. Coaches scream. Coaches can get very personal when they yell and scream. Coaches can be intense. Coaches can be very calculating. Coaches can play mind games. Coaches can be intense and yell and scream anytime they want, and nobody, particularly not a player, is going to tell the coach not to do what the coach wants to do, because the coach is the coach and the player plays for the coach.
I don’t think it’s particularly revelatory to say that Coach McKillop sometimes fit this description, that he occasionally raised his voice to high decibels and was occasionally quite piercing in his criticism. By now it shouldn’t be particularly revelatory, either, for me to say I struggled with his fiery brand of critique, that I took everything he said very, very personally and analyzed it to the extreme.
Coach McKillop is, perhaps, the most intense man I’ve ever met. He tended to operate on two extremes. For instance, while playing, a box-out was “absolutely fantastic” or it was “simply atrocious.” An outlet pass was “outstanding” or it was “awful.” There was little in-between. His vocabulary just didn’t include the words “not bad” or “okay.”
The lower the low points of my season dipped, the more I tended to hang out on a particular extreme of Coach’s spectrum of analysis. Not used to the high volume, the utter seriousness, the feeling like my soul had been scraped out by words, and not knowing how to handle him, I forced myself not to react. No matter if Coach’s delivery felt like a baseball bat to the back of the neck, I never allowed him to see the impact. Not ever. So, as he stood next to the pull-down screen dissecting games, I sat, stone faced, stomach churning, armpits on fire, and maintained as perfectly passive an exterior as I could. I don’t remember this being much of a conscious choice. It wasn’t my film room “strategy.” It was just my style. I didn’t know what else to do.
Still, no matter how uncrackable my wall, it was difficult not to internalize the things he sometimes said. Coach was Coach with a capital C. He was respected in the community, on campus, around the conference and the country. No voice was as authoritative or as loud as his. No professor, no hallmate, no friend or teammate influenced my life like he did. Not even close. Coach did not seem to be as confused about me as I was about myself. In fact, he seemed quite certain of my place in the world, and he freely and rather thoroughly answered those lingering existential queries, without me even asking.
“Check out how soft Ian is here on this box-out. You’re soft, Ian. Really fucking soft.”
“This is absolutely fucking atrocious, Ian. Try and be a man, eh?”
“I don’t know how you sleep at night, Ian, setting screens like that.”
His criticism was mostly in a basketball context. I did not, after all, walk around campus setting screens for professors, nor did I box out in grocery store checkout lines. But, because basketball basically ruled my life, and because what I thought of myself overall, as a person, depended on what I thought of myself as a player, and because what I thought of myself as a player depended on what Coach thought of me as a player, his assessments of me as a player became my own overall assessments of myself, as a person, and what he thought of me as a player wasn’t exactly flattering.
By mid-season, I’d almost completely outsourced my self-identity to this perfectly well-spoken and perpetually opinionated man. What he said, I accepted, whether I wanted to or not. There was no other opinion besides Coach’s, even when I disagreed. His station was the only one on the dial. The two hours a day I spent with him dictated almost exclusively my self-esteem across the other twenty-two.
I feared film sessions like an inmate fears solitary. During sessions, I’d furiously try to remember sequences from the game and how they might be appraised. I was good at this, remembering what came next, for two good reasons. The first reason: I, like a lot of players, have a decent memory when it comes to games I played in. The second reason: I constantly evaluated myself during games, often as I was playing, with regards to how Coach would evaluate me the next day in film. If I missed a rebound, I wouldn’t think, That’s ok, get the next one. I’d think, Fuck, you’re gonna get it tomorrow. In other words, I played games not to succeed in the now, but to avoid consequences in the future.
My freshman year became, as it would throughout other parts of my career, a dreadful countdown. I counted down to the end of practice, the number of practices until the next day off, to anything that wasn’t happening now. But the harder I chased the future, the further away it got. Whenever anticipated moments actually arrived, I couldn’t enjoy them because I was already, and dreadfully, counting down the minutes to the start of the next practice, the next film session, the next stretch of games.
I did have a sustaining pastime. Every Thursday, early afternoon, I’d pick up my Sports Illustrated from my mailbox in the Student Union. I’d trek to the library and find a comfy chair behind the reference stacks, sink into the cushions, untie my shoelaces, and get lost, my contradictions calling a momentary truce while I dug into a new issue. All versions of me loved to read SI.
In March we were upset by Virginia Military Institute in the opening round of the Southern Conference tournament. In the locker room after the game, several players wept openly. There were hugs and handshakes I didn’t understand. I watched the proceedings with detachment, returning the appropriate embrace when prompted, but otherwise just kind of sitting there. I tried to look and feel despondent because I thought that’s how I should look and feel. But why? Sure, we lost the game, and it was disappointing, but we’d just won our freedom. No more practice. No more film. No more orange jumpsuit.
For a few shorts weeks anyway.