Virginia’s Kyle Guy heals by embracing UMBC NCAA loss

Virginia's Kyle Guy heals by embracing UMBC NCAA loss

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Virginia guard Kyle Guy (Lawrence Central) has played just two college games without at least some family or extended family presence in the stands
Mike Berardino, IndyStar

LOUISVILLE — Four teammates from top-seeded Virginia walk out of the locker room Wednesday and into a battery of television cameras. They are stone-faced and serious, pictures of the big-time athlete: unaffected, stoic. Well, three of them are stone-faced and serious.

The fourth is Kyle Guy.

The 2016 Indiana Mr. Basketball doesn’t do stone-faced, doesn’t do serious. Guy is grinning that huge grin of his, and as the cameras turn to follow him and his teammates down the hall, where a roomful of reporters are waiting, he’s throwing a happy look at his teammates, who are doing their best to look bored.

The four Cavaliers are led into the room, up some stairs and onto a dais overlooking scores of media members. Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt are statues up there. Kyle Guy is smiling, and his grin grows as Hunter fields the first question about Virginia’s game in the Sweet 16 on Thursday against 12th-seeded Oregon.

Not 20 minutes earlier I’d been on the phone with Guy’s mom, Katy Fitzgerald, back in Indianapolis. I’d been asking her about the way Kyle plays, how her son’s joy on the court is so palpable, I can feel it coming through the television screen. Knowing that Guy has been public in the last year about his struggles with anxiety, I was asking his mom: Is the basketball court his happy place?

She’s telling me: No.

“It’s not just the court,” Katy was saying. “It’s everywhere. He’s always been the happiest kid — always.”

Which makes what happened last year so awful …

… and what is happening now so wonderful. 

A year ago, he’d have been a wreck. Well, a year ago, he was a wreck.

It was last March, against Maryland-Baltimore County, that Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed. You’ve heard of that, probably. And it’s possible you’ve heard about what happened to Guy afterward, how he retreated to the shower and wouldn’t come out, sitting by himself and crying. Six weeks later Guy went public with that story, and with his own battle with anxiety and panic attacks in the months leading up to the 2018 NCAA tournament.

That’s the background, what you need to know as we proceed. Because after Guy smiled his way through the news conference Wednesday, I was waiting for him in the hallway. As he was walking toward me, that big grin on his face, I was looking up his statistics for the 2019 NCAA tournament and … wait, what? After two games, the best 3-point shooter in Virginia history at 43.1 percent, fifth-best in ACC history, is 1-for-15 on 3-pointers. Guy, a 6-2 junior, was 0-for-10 from 3-point range — and 2-for-15 overall — in the Cavaliers’ 63-51 victory against Oklahoma in the Round of 32.

And he’s grinning.

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Smoothly, I stumble right into my first question:

Your last couple of games, I’m telling Guy, I see your numbers. How are you handling it? How are you doing?

“Really well, actually,” he says. “If you know me at all, you know I don’t really care about the statistics. I care that the teams wins, and we’re further in the tournament than ever been, and …”

Here, I interrupt him. I tap him affectionately on the chest and say: You know why I’m asking.

“I know why you’re asking,” he says, and he’s smiling the most sincere, the most believable smile you’ve ever seen. “My sophomore year I would have been upset about this. It just shows some growth I’ve had. I’m just really excited to be here.”

It takes a village, as they say. And Kyle Guy comes from a great village.

Last time Virginia played at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Guy came up with 85 tickets for friends and family. That was Feb. 23, and this is how it goes every time he plays within driving distance of Lawrence Township in Indiana. Happened earlier this season at Notre Dame, when friends and family filled a 40-person luxury bus for the 140-mile drive to South Bend. It’ll happen again Thursday night.

And those supporters, they don’t come only to cheer. Katy spent a few weeks in Charlottesville last January when she realized her son was struggling. His middle school sweetheart-turned-fiancé, Alexa Jenkins, was visiting from DePauw nearly every weekend for a while. Teammates and coaches and friends … they reach out. And Ty Jerome, his backcourt mate?

“He’s always checking on me,” Guy says. “When you hit a downward spell it’s hard, but if you’ve got people in your corner, it’s a lot easier to come up.”

NCAA BRACKET: On to the tournament’s Sweet 16

NCAA TOURNAMENT: Five bold predictions for the Sweet 16 and Elite 8

SWEET 16: The 10 most valuable players still in March Madness

 

That pressure he felt a year ago, that anxiety — that monster within that was roaming unchecked until it came crashing out after the UMBC game — it’s under control now. Most of last season his family didn’t know what Guy was dealing with, but his mom looks back and sees the signs. The phone calls from Kyle, more than ever. Him sitting silently on FaceTime but not wanting to hang up, asking for one of his brothers, one of his sisters, for anybody to sit with him.

He’s handling it so much better this season, on and off the court. Back in Charlottesville, he sleeps under a picture of UMBC players celebrating. In the foreground, hunched over, hands on his knees, is the blurry image of Kyle Guy. He’s not running from it. He’s embracing it, taking away its power.

Guy moderated a panel on mental health for Virginia athletes earlier this year, and has accepted an invitation to participate in a similar panel at the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis. I ask him if he’s comfortable being made into a spokesperson on the issue.

“Absolutely,” he says. “I’m fine with that. That’s why I was transparent about it and came out about it. Being able to use that to help other people is what I always wanted to do here. Using basketball as a vehicle to do that has been tremendous.”

Right, the basketball. That, too, is going better than ever. A year ago he shot career-worst percentages from the floor overall (41.5) and 3-point line (39.2), and had his worst ratio of assists (50) to turnovers (42). This season he’s shooting 45.4 percent overall and 43.9 percent on 3-pointers, and has 73 assists to 47 turnovers.

Guy, averaging 15.1 ppg, made the All-ACC first team and All-America third team (Sporting News) and set a school record with 11 consecutive made 3-pointers over a two-game span. The highs remain high — his joy remains palpable — but the lows aren’t what they once were. Case in point: Last weekend in Columbia, S.C., where Virginia beat Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, but where Guy was a combined 4-for-23 from the floor and 1-for-15 on 3-pointers.

Here’s what he remembers:

“I knocked somebody over on the court and I was helping them up,” Guy says. “And he asked me: ‘Are you always like this?’”

Kyle Guy pauses. He wants to make sure I get this. He’s about to show what victory looks like.

“Yeah,” he told the other player. “This is me.”

I’m writing down what he’s saying, but I have to know, so I sneak a peek and … yup. There it is. Kyle Guy’s smiling again.

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