It's well known on the college basketball circuit that a trip to Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., can result in 40 minutes of hell. That's what the Arkansas Razorbacks pride themselves on giving their opponents; it's also what you might experience if you try to determine which of the many faces of swingman Todd Day, the team's blade-thin star, is the real one.
Pick an adjective—arrogant or sensitive, hotheaded or fun-loving, irritating or engaging, blameworthy or persecuted—and someone will tell you it fits Day, a 6' 8" senior All-America. Perhaps the only thing about him on which there is unanimous agreement is his diversity of talents, which were on display last week for the first time this season. Day returned from a painful two-month disciplinary suspension last week and made the Hogs whole again. He warmed up with 26 points in 22 minutes in a 123-60 win over Division II Quincy College last Thursday, and then on Saturday night helped Arkansas begin its first Southeastern Conference season in style by scoring 35 points in a 110-92 thrashing of Auburn.
Day's return marked the end of a rather hellish period for the Hogs, the nation's 16th-ranked team. He was one of seven players who missed all or part of the first two months of the season because of disciplinary suspensions, and although Arkansas was 10-2 during that time, it was obvious that the Hogs wouldn't be themselves until January. "Getting Todd back makes us complete," said center Oliver Miller. "It's been a long time coming."
It will take even longer for Day's scars to heal from what was a tense and hurtful time away from the court. It began last February when a 34-year-old woman alleged that Day and three teammates—forwards Darrell Hawkins, Elmer Martin and Roosevelt Wallace—raped her one night in an athletic dormitory. The four players admitted having sex with the woman, but each said it was with her consent. A police investigation found no evidence that a crime was committed, and no charges were filed, but the players were suspended from the team for a month. In June, Day's suspension was extended to two months when he and other classmates were found to have obtained the answers ahead of time to a biology test.
Day's regret over his involvement in the two incidents is mixed with bitterness about what he believes was his unfair treatment by the media and the public after the rape allegation. For several weeks he received daily hate mail, some of it laced with racist remarks, even from people who identified themselves as Razor-back fans. One of the letters that most disturbed Day included a newspaper clipping of a photo of him speaking to young students in Dallas. "My face was marked through, and the note was from a man who said I was a disgrace to Arkansas basketball and that he hoped his son never grew up to be like me," Day says.
He came away from the experience with a feeling of alienation—from the fans and the rest of the student body—that hasn't diminished. "I won't spend a lot of time hanging out at the mall the way I used to, for instance, because I'll probably get three or four rednecks yelling things at me," he says. "Some of the students said the only reason I didn't go to jail was because I play basketball. All of it hurt a lot. It still does."
Day can sense more subtle changes in the fans' attitude toward him. "You can see it in their eyes when they come up to me for an autograph," he says. "They're looking at me, wondering what I'm going to do, what kind of person I really am."
It has been a crash course in the double-edged nature of fame, a lesson that Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson believes will eventually serve Day well. "He has to remember that if he's been treated unfairly, he put himself in a position to be treated that way," Richardson says. "As hard as the whole thing was on everyone, it made him grow up some. He understands more about taking responsibility for his actions and not acting on impulse, especially because he's in the public eye."
Any tension between Day and the Arkansas fans was hard to detect during the Hogs' dismantling of Auburn. He received the loudest ovation of all the Razorbacks during the introductions, then began earning more cheers immediately after tip-off. He hit a short jumper, two free throws and a three-pointer on Arkansas's first three possessions and had 13 points before the game was six minutes old. By halftime, Day had 24 points and the Razorbacks held a comfortable 57-30 lead.
"Todd Day was the difference," said Auburn coach Tommy Joe Eagles. "I haven't seen Arkansas without him, but with him, they're a lot better than the 16th-best team in the nation."
Day was his usual extroverted self on the floor, gesturing to the crowd, patting referees on the backside, alternately chatting up and staring down Auburn players. It's a style that has earned him a reputation as a cocky trash-talker and has irritated more than a few opponents.
"I don't do as much talking as I used to, but the talking I do is usually part of a mind game," Day says. "Ninety-five percent of the time I get a guy so mad at me that he gets overaggressive trying to stop me, and then I've got him."
Still, Day knows that his on-court demeanor won't help his standing with NBA people—Los Angeles Laker G.M. Jerry West has publicly suggested that Day play more and talk less—which is why Day has attempted to tone down his act. He even tried wearing a mouthpiece for a time last season to make himself less talkative, but he wasn't comfortable playing that way.
"The talking comes from his self-confidence," Richardson says. "I've never seen a great player who wasn't a little arrogant. He's not a belligerent guy, he just kind of irritates guys who play against him."
And somewhere beneath the surface, there's a part of Day that must enjoy being an irritant. If not, he wouldn't have worn a University of Miami T-shirt around Razorback football players the day after they were routed by the Hurricanes last season. Or maybe that's the fun-loving Day, the guy his teammates say keeps the team loose. "He and O [Miller] are the funniest guys on the team," says guard Lee Mayberry, the other half of Arkansas's lethal May-Day tandem.
But away from his teammates, Day has a hard time finding humor these days. "I don't think it will ever be quite the same for him here," Richardson says. "I think Todd will finish out his career and get his degree [in communications], but I don't think you'll see him carrying any Arkansas flags. Too much has happened."
As Day left Barnhill on Saturday, signing autographs as he walked, a woman tried to get through the cluster surrounding him so he could sign her homemade poster. Finally she pushed the cardboard through the crowd to her target, and Day quickly scribbled his name. She thanked him, then said, "Welcome back, Todd."
But by then, Day was already too far away to hear.