MINNEAPOLIS — This game? This Final Four matchup against Auburn on Saturday with a berth in the national championship on the line? This is nothing. Want real pressure? Let’s travel to the ISSA Indy Indoor Sports Park on the south side of Indianapolis, circa 2012.
Eighth-grader Kyle Guy has been telling classmate Alexa Jenkins that he can hoop a little bit. They’ve just started dating—or whatever passes for dating in eighth grade. Guy isn’t bragging bragging. It’s more humblebragging. She would ask how his game went. He’d say he scored 20 or so points. (Which was true.) She wouldn’t necessarily believe him. “I thought that you weren’t good,” Alexa tells Guy in a video her brother posted on YouTube earlier this month. “But I still dated you.”
So finally the day came when Guy played in a game that included Alexa’s brother Tyler. Alexa was there. So was her mom. Forget Jim Nantz, Grant Hill and Bill Raftery. This was the biggest game of Guy’s career.
And he dropped 30.
“That was the most nerve-wracking game of my life,” Guy says now. “That right there. Because that was make-or-break for us. If I play bad there, we’re not engaged right now.”
He’s kidding, of course. The truth? Even if he hadn’t scorched the net that day and become a star at Lawrence Central High and gone on to star at Virginia, Jenkins probably would have fallen for him anyway. They’d probably still be scheduled to get married this summer, just before she starts at Notre Dame’s law school. But it did feel like that at the time. So Guy had to ball out.
If Guy can recreate that performance against the Tigers, it might propel the Cavaliers into Monday’s national title game. In Guy’s last game, he snapped an NCAA tournament shooting slump and made five of nine second-half three-pointers as part of a 25-point outburst that helped Virginia overcome Purdue and a night for the ages from Boilermakers guard Carsen Edwards. That win put Virginia in the Final Four for the first time since 1984 and added yet another layer of salve to the wound the Cavaliers have nursed since becoming the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed.
No Cavalier has worn that 20-point loss to UMBC more publicly than Guy, who never shies from answering questions about that game. In fact, he keeps a photo of himself with hands on his knees while the Retrievers celebrated as his Twitter avatar. Another photo from the moments after the final buzzer serves as his phone’s home screen. “I did it as inspiration,” he says. “Motivation is short-term. Inspiration is long-term. It’ll always inspire me. … I didn’t want to forget it.”
He never will forget it, because Guy’s response to that game redefined him. But the seeds of that reinvention were planted before the ball was tipped in the first round in Charlotte.
Last spring, Jenkins suggested Guy write down his feelings. “I didn’t even want to come out about it,” Guy says. “I wanted to stay in my shell.” That’s exactly why Jenkins had encouraged Guy to write—and share—his experience from before and after the UMBC loss. She had seen Guy struggle throughout the season. He took medication to prevent anxiety attacks, but he didn’t want those outside his inner circle to know. “You’ve kept it a secret because you didn’t want to be viewed as weak,” Guy wrote in a letter to himself last March that he posted on Facebook five weeks later. “You were worried people might think you aren’t built for this. But now you need to realize, that even if they do think that, that’s fine. They can think that. They weren’t with you when you bursted into tears in the middle of practice and you didn’t know why. And despite that, you kept pushing.”
He wrote that letter before the UMBC game. The final sentences offer a window into the minds of Guy and the rest of the Cavaliers as they entered the 2018 tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. “This is a chance to shut them up,” Guy wrote. “We have accomplished so much as a team already. This has been one of the best seasons in the history of college basketball. Why stop now? Because check this out; if you are looking for an excuse, you will always find one. If you are looking for an opportunity, you will always find one. You asked for this opportunity to make noise nationally. Here’s your shot. Don’t waste it.”
Within days of writing that letter, Guy stood on the court as the buzzer blared. Virginia hadn’t only become the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16. That No. 16 had whipped the Cavaliers. “When that final buzzer sounded… I cracked. I cracked and the pressure got to me,” Guy wrote in a Facebook post on April 24, 2018. “If you know me or read my last passage you know I do not believe pressure is real, unless you let it be real. Pressure comes from thinking too much about the future or past so there can be such thing as no pressure if you just be where your feet are. Well I was right where my feet were but my mind raced to the past, the future, and the present. It was too much. I was hit with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, anxiety, and failure. All the sensations of that exact moment consumed me and I was no longer in control of my emotions.”
Guy poured out his soul in a 2,400-word post that felt almost like therapy for him. He publicly shared that story and the letter he wrote to himself before the tournament because he thought it might encourage someone else fighting through crippling anxiety to let go of the shame and face the monster head-on. Guy had tried to hide his anxiety, but when he revealed it to the world, he stripped it of its power over him. “It helps me,” he says. “It may not help everybody, but it helps me. That’s why I wrote that. I wanted to be a beacon of hope.”
In addition to helping others enduring the same fight, Guy also helped find peace with his role in a historic loss. His post on the subject is gripping. He rips the scabs off that night. For instance, Virginia coach Tony Bennett asked Guy and fellow guard Ty Jerome to attend the postgame press conference. Bennett did this because Guy and Jerome were sophomores. They would have brighter days ahead as Cavaliers. Seniors Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall would not. Their college careers would always have to end with that loss. Bennett saw no need to prolong their agony by making them face questions. But it wasn’t any easier for Guy and Jerome. “The only word I can think of to describe myself on that podium was numb,” Guy wrote. “It was a dark place. Some of the questions were so tough and some were so dumb (ask Ty) that it was the hardest interview I’ve ever been a part of. The feeling of embarrassment is hard to shake. It was even harder to swallow that embarrassment and go on the podium. My throat felt dry and sore from holding back tears. Every word that came out of my mouth had to be second guessed so my voice wouldn’t crack.”
The next hour wasn’t any easier. “When we finally got to leave the arena we had to get a police escort and go in the back of the hotel,” Guy wrote. “You know why? Because we got death threats. There was suspicion of someone hurting a bunch of 18–23 year olds for losing a damn basketball game.” When Guy returned to the hotel, he found his parents and his fiancée waiting, heartbroken. After a lot of hugs, Guy’s mother asked how he was doing. “A bend in the road isn’t the end of the road unless you fail to make the turn,” he replied. Her response? “What if I told you not to worry,” she said, “because when you feel like you’re drowning, fear not, your lifeguard walks on water.”
When Guy wrote that post five weeks after the UMBC loss, it served as another piece of his recovery. A more healthy and centered Guy would help Virginia win another ACC regular-season title and earn another No. 1 seed. He would lead the Cavaliers with 15.2 points a game. Early in the tournament, Guy’s three-point shooting would slip, but his belief wouldn’t. Before he scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half and overtime against Purdue, Guy had made three of his previous 29 three-point attempts. “I still shot and had a smile on my face,” Guy says. Says Virginia assistant Brad Soderberg: “He can miss 12 in a row. He’ll take the 13th with the same confidence.”
Near the end of his April 2018 post about the UMBC game, Guy explained his goal. “Writing was therapeutic for me,” he wrote. “Not everyone understands the toll athletes go through and I hope this was a good read for those who don’t understand. I also hope that anyone struggling in life or sports understands they aren’t alone and everyone has a voice to share their journey. You can’t judge my story because of the chapter you walked in on. The only way I could continue my story was by putting a bookmark in this chapter and turning the page. See you next year, March.”
It’s now April, and Guy is still playing. He’s busy rewriting a much happier chapter than the one we walked in on.