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‘A chance to breathe’

How Virginia’s Kyle Guy learned to live with anxiety in the wake of the greatest college basketball upset of all time.

Last February, while preparing for the biggest day of his life, Kyle Guy thought he had anticipated everything.

He’d enlisted UVA athletics photographer Matt Riley to serve as documentarian, visiting the Boar’s Head Resort in Charlottesville together a few days prior to scout the best angle for pictures. He’d chosen the location, a small footbridge adjacent to the Birdwood Golf Course clubhouse, before asking his Virginia basketball teammates to watch from behind the clubhouse’s tinted windows. And he’d arranged a decoy: his head coach, Tony Bennett, who, along with his wife, Laurel, had requested a supposed brunch double-date.

With all the details in place, Guy, now a 21-year-old junior guard for the Cavaliers, felt confident that his marriage proposal to long-time girlfriend Alexa Jenkins would go according to plan.

And aside from his own jitters and verbal miscues, the morning unfolded as he’d hoped. Jenkins said yes, the newly engaged couple posed for photos, and they celebrated afterward with close friends and Guy’s teammates before calling their respective families in Indiana.

The one factor Guy hadn’t expected was the collective media swarm.

The next day, the engagement was headline news on local TV channels, regional newspapers, The Washington Post, and even ESPN aired photo footage of Guy, kneeling before Jenkins, mid-proposal.

“I’m very used to people having insight on my basketball life and career — but my personal life, unless I put it on social media, is very personal,” Guy said in a YouTube video recap, several months after the proposal. “So, when we got engaged, I didn’t think it’d be nationally televised.”

But perhaps UVA’s starting shooting guard should’ve anticipated the collective interest in his story, which would only magnify a month later.

On March 16, 2018, the nation watched, stunned, as UVA’s De’Andre Hunter, his right arm wrapped around Guy’s shoulders, escorted his teammate off the court post-defeat; Guy’s face buried in his jersey, blocking out the cameramen, the fans — the entire world. And just over a month after top-ranked UVA’s loss to 16-seeded UMBC — the first time in NCAA tournament history that a one-seed had lost in the first round — Guy posted two lengthy posts to his Facebook page. The first was a letter to himself that he had written just after Virginia secured the No. 1 overall seed, and the second, a follow-up written approximately six weeks later detailing his embarrassment and mental struggles following the upset.

Through the posts, Guy offered a detailed look at the turmoil and anxiety he’d experienced throughout the season while helping lead his team to five consecutive weeks as the country’s No. 1-ranked squad heading into the postseason, as well as ACC regular-season and conference tournament titles.

Externally, the 6’2, 175-pound Guy, with his wide smile, buzz haircut, and fair, freckled skin looked at ease, content. But internally, his emotional steadfastness was crumbling. And the death threats following the UMBC loss didn’t help.

Guy wrote the posts as both offering and explanation. When he hit publish, he felt nervous. College athletes, particularly star players at nationally ranked programs, rarely discuss or show how the attention, pressure, and scrutiny affect them.

“Playing basketball, you never get a second of privacy,” Guy says. “You’ve always got eyes on you, people are always saying something, negative or positive. You can say you don’t listen to it, but everyone does.”

For Guy, the process of learning to withstand the aftershock of last year’s abrupt ending reveals much of what elite college athletes often endure. In an era of 24-7 digital surveillance exacerbated by social media, fans invest themselves in athletes more directly than ever. And when those athletes falter, publicly or privately, they are beholden to more than themselves and their teammates.

Guy lives that reality each day. But this season — unlike the last — he feels prepared to face it.

Kyle Guy UMBC loss
Kyle Guy (center) exits the court after Virginia’s 74-54 loss to UMBC during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Getty Images

Guy grew up a basketball junkie in Indianapolis. His father Joe played football, and Guy wanted to follow suit. But an eighth-grade back injury forced him out of the contact sport. He ran the mile in 5:10 and considered track. But at 14, he received his first collegiate basketball scholarship offer, to the University of Indianapolis. “My stepdad and my dad were like, ‘Holy s**t, he’s real,’” Guy says, laughing.

Guy also met Alexa Jenkins that year. He had traveled with his cousin, Cody Jacob, to a local basketball game, where Jenkins, who was already friends with Jacob, was watching her brother play. Afterward, she texted Jacob and said she thought Guy was “cute.” They first flirted on social media when Guy tweeted that he liked Eminem and Jenkins tweeted back an Eminem lyric. They exchanged numbers and started dating soon afterward.

An undersized, skinny player, Guy thrived in response to critics who speculated about his size and ability. He has always played, he says, with the classic “chip on his shoulder”. But in high school, his smaller frame didn’t matter — he was still the best player on the court. “He doesn’t just play basketball, he knows basketball,” says Al Goodwin, Guy’s junior and senior year coach at Lawrence Central High School.

Guy was also a self-confessed people pleaser. Goodwin often chided Guy for passing the ball too often instead of taking his own shot, a characteristic that continued away from the court. Guy has a large family — four parents, five siblings, many cousins — and there was always a backyard BBQ to attend, a game to cheer, a concert to watch.

“I was running 100 MPH at all times in high school — I just never said ‘no,’ because I didn’t want to let anyone down,” Guy says.

His days were a blur of activity: 5 a.m. workouts, school, basketball, training, friends, family, dates with Jenkins. He’d fall asleep after midnight and wake up fewer than five hours later to do it again. With commitments pulling him in all directions, Guy had one place he felt at ease.

“Basketball used to be his space where the rest got left behind,” Jenkins says. “He loved that when he was on the court, the outside world couldn’t come in.”

Guy set numerous goals for himself. Mr. Indiana Basketball? Check. McDonald’s All-American? Check. Playing in a high school state championship game? Check. “I am incredibly driven — if I put my mind to something, no one’s going to stop me,” he says.

The mounting pressure he placed on himself was as high as the expectations he assumed that everyone had for him, as is often the case with Division I athletes. And that was when his anxiety started to take hold.

Arriving in Charlottesville in 2016, Guy joined a talented Bennett-led squad. During his freshman year, he started seven games and appeared in all 34.

“He had a relentless attitude,” teammate Jack Salt says. “It’s hard going against the older guys when you first get here, but I could sense the confidence about him, offensively and defensively.”

Guy’s move into the college basketball spotlight began during his sophomore season, both for his offensive firepower and for his hair. He maintained his signature man-bun throughout the year, earning the coiffure its own Twitter handle, @KGManBun (now Kyle Guy’s Buzz Cut), before cutting it off in mid-June of 2017.

Entering last season, the Cavaliers weren’t ranked among the top 25 teams in preseason polls, and pundits predicted they’d finish sixth in the ACC. But by mid-February, UVA had obtained the nation’s No. 1 ranking — the first time for a Cavaliers men’s basketball team since 1982. Guy maintained a 28-game streak of notching at least one three-pointer per contest, and he often led the team in scoring.

“The first time I came [to Charlottesville] and saw how fanatic everyone was about Virginia basketball, I thought, This is so scary, I could never do it,” says Jenkins, a former track athlete. “I don’t think he was expecting that much attention and pressure.”

As Virginia continued to defy expectations, that pressure grew. In the middle of practice one afternoon, Guy abruptly broke down, crying. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t talk to his teammates about it. Coach Bennett texted Guy to let him know that he was praying for him, and to reach out if he needed him. Former teammate Isaiah Wilkins, who spoke last year with ESPN about his struggles with anxiety and depression, says that Guy didn’t talk much about his experience. “I was kind of sad to see he’d been going through that the whole season,” Wilkins says.

Guy is “the type of person who likes to fight and fix it on his own,” Jenkins says. But he shared his struggles with her. She asked how long he’d felt this way and if he’d talked to anyone, particularly his family. He said no — he didn’t want them to worry.

“They’d always seen me as a strong kid who’s happy,” Guy says. “My mom would’ve bawled if she knew I was unhappy.”

Instead, Guy began meeting each week with Dr. Jason Freeman, one of two staff sports psychologists with Virginia athletics. At the recommendation of Freeman and the team doctor, Guy began taking an anti-anxiety medication. He didn’t have a specific diagnosis; rather, he felt the constant, heightened stress and anxiety of being a star player on the nation’s top-ranked team.

“I tend to feel responsible for everything, in basketball and in life,” Guy says. “There’s always someone saying something on Twitter, or an interview — I never get a chance to breathe.”

Following its defeat of Notre Dame on March 3, UVA became ACC regular-season champions and the first team in ACC history to win 17 conference games. A week later, the Cavaliers won the ACC Tournament. In the title game, Guy led the Wahoos with 16 points and was voted the tournament MVP.

On the eve of the NCAA tournament, 26.6 percent of brackets submitted to CBS Sports had selected UVA as national champions, more title nods than any other team in the Big Dance.

“I’m a very real person, but I’m not very realistic,” Guy says. “I am always chasing for something that may seem out of reach.”

But given their odds-defying regular season, a national title felt within reach for Guy and his teammates. From the first of his Facebook posts, written just before the UMBC loss:

“They say with great success comes great responsibility,” Guy wrote. “… they can’t teach you how to handle everything that comes with winning. They can’t prepare you for the hatred and support, or for basketball fans to forget that you’re a human being ... You have always been a believer that pressure is just a figment of your imagination, as is fear. It only becomes real if you let it. Don’t buy in now … This has been one of the best seasons in the history of college basketball. Why stop now?”

Kyle Guy ACC Men’s Tournament MVP
Guy celebrates Virginia’s 2018 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament championship with tournament MVP nod, too.
Getty Images

In April 2015, heading into his senior year of high school, Guy met former NBA player-turned-trainer Derick Grant. Grant was working with Guy’s future brother-in-law, Tyler Jenkins (now a guard at Bellarmine University). After watching Guy play one afternoon, Grant reached out via text, offering to train him. Right away, the two clicked. “I’ve worked with a lot of guys, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player who the game came to so naturally,” Grant says.

They would meet outside L.A. Fitness at 5 a.m., six days a week. Sometimes, Grant would arrive at 4:50 a.m. to find Guy, sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, asleep. While Guy was already known for his shooting prowess, Grant wanted to develop the guard’s shot creation and versatility on the floor.

The two continued working together once Guy arrived at Virginia. Slowly, their focus became as much about the mental aspect of the game as the mechanics. Midway through last season, Grant sensed that something wasn’t quite right. In high school, Guy texted Grant after almost every game, asking what he did wrong and how he could improve. Last year, it was Grant texting Guy, pointing out specifics about his game or just checking in. Most of the time, Guy didn’t answer. “That just wasn’t like him — red flags were going off,” Grant says.

Indeed, the loss to UMBC finally fractured Guy’s precarious veneer of confidence.

After the postgame press conference, Guy rode with his team back to the hotel, a police escort following their bus. His family waited in his room. When Guy saw them, he broke down again. He felt like he’d let everyone down: his friends, family, Virginia fans — the hopes of thousands, pressing down on him.

He turned his phone off for 48 hours. Eleven days later, he was named to the Associated Press (AP) All-America Third Team, making him the 10th player in Virginia history to earn All-American honors.

After taking several weeks to process the upset, he wrote the second Facebook post that he would publish on April 24.

“Everyone goes through adversity but not everyone lives there,” Guy wrote. “I don’t want this piece to be a pity party, a sermon or preachy, or even a feel-good story. I want this to be REAL. I want this to impact people and I want everyone to understand what my team and I went through.”

Guy shared details of how, building up to the NCAA tournament, they knew not to overlook UMBC. But as soon as the jokes about a No. 1 seed losing to a 16-seed began, “at that very moment, I let the pressure sink into my mind,” Guy wrote. He explained how the loss felt almost surreal, how after Hunter had to drag him off of the court, he apologized to the seniors before sitting in the showers and crying. “There aren’t many people who know what it’s like to be the ONLY person (program in this instance) in the world to be on the wrong side of history … no one understands the sheer pain and fear to be ridiculed. Misery loves company.”

But Guy also wrote how the loss was a turning point. “It was also at this moment as I walked off the stage that I vowed to not quit and to not let this define me. That feeling of drowning while being able to see everyone else breathe — I was going to work my ass off to never feel this way again.”

“That was me opening up, so people knew that they weren’t alone,” Guy says. “Even if you think someone’s having the greatest life, being a No. 1 seed and a third-team All-American, they still go through stuff. Don’t be so quick to judge.”

Guy deleted all social media apps from his phone. He finished the semester, often walking around campus with his head down, earbuds in.

“In college, basketball aside, you go through a lot,” says Guy’s roommate and teammate Grant Kersey. “Then you add basketball — we just go out to breakfast and he gets recognized. People see when the lights are on, they don’t see the other side.”

When the semester ended, Grant drove to Charlottesville to pick up Guy. On the ride home, Grant reminded Guy that he couldn’t please everyone, or he’d be a hamster on a wheel. “When you are number one, and you have millions of eyes on you, you have a platform,” Grant reminded Guy. “And if you’re a pleaser, it can be a recipe for disaster. That wears on you.”

Grant and his family had recently moved to Naples, Florida, so in August, Guy and Jenkins drove down and spent a week there. Grant and Guy worked out together every day. They also watched sermons and TED talks and discussed Guy’s mental approach.

One of those TED talks was therapist Amy Morin’s The Secret to Becoming Mentally Strong. “I have this Facebook friend whose life seems perfect,” Morin begins the 15-minute talk, noting the envy and jealousy that stem from social media scanning. Morin shares her own struggles, including the sudden loss of her mother, her first husband, and her father-in-law.

“The only way to get through uncomfortable emotions, to deal with them, is you have to go through them,” Morin says. “To let yourself feel sad and then move on, and to gain confidence in your ability to deal with that discomfort.”

“I think initially, he wanted to sweep [the NCAA tournament loss, the season’s stress] under the rug, but now he’s embraced it and the emotions that come with that,” Grant says. “He was still kind of in a gray area, emotionally, but I could tell he was on his way back up.”

Kyle Guy with coach Tony Bennett
Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett (right), along with other campus resources, have helped Guy get to a better place mentally.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Just before 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 4, Guy sat inside the football team meeting room at UVA’s McCue Center. He’d arrived to moderate an inaugural student-athlete Mental Health Panel, designed to encourage conversation among UVA student athletes about the stigmas of mental health, and how to work through them.

When planning who might speak, “we wanted to bring Kyle in because we knew it would draw a bigger crowd,” says sophomore Nicola Ferris, one of the co-organizers. She emailed Guy, who happily agreed to take part.

Guy opened the discussion with the 40-plus attendees by detailing the aftermath following his team’s final game. He talked about the death threats, the hate mail, and how he and his teammates — young men playing a game they love — were the recipients of such intense vitriol. He still hadn’t completely recovered from the season’s abrupt end. However, he had found ways to work through those pressures and move forward.

“Everyone struggles through something,” says UVA senior baseball pitcher Chesdin Harrington, who attended the event. “We talked a lot [at the panel] about how, as athletes, you’re expected to be mentally tough and to perform at the highest level, continuously, without asking for help. But you have to let things go and ask for help, whether it’s a teammate, a friend, or a professional.”

Initially, Guy was reticent to see Freeman. After their first meeting last year, “I didn’t want to be that person that has to see a sports psychologist,” Guy says. But Jenkins pressed him to continue the conversations. They began to meet weekly, a process they’ve continued. “It didn’t just help me on the court, it helped me in life,” Guy adds.

Freeman has worked at UVA in various therapeutic and research capacities for 21 years. Along with his colleague, associate sports psychologist Dr. Karen Egan, he spends hours each day talking individually with many of the 700 UVA student-athletes.

“My main headline is that mental health is health,” Freeman says. “So, to separate that or make it lesser than or different than health creates stigma and barriers to actually treating anything that’s going on with the person.”

According to Freeman, UVA uses an all-encompassing approach to supporting student health, whether addressing sport concussion, learning issues and how they affect performance, mental health issues and how they affect well-being or performance psychology, and other areas.

A one-seed’s first-round loss in the men’s NCAA tournament was unprecedented, so there was no precedent for coping. Coach Bennett did his best to help.

“At a church service I attended, the pastor talked about this idea of ‘trembling courage over measured cowardice.’ I like that,” Bennett says. “I want to let the guys know, it’s OK to have doubts, it’s OK to be anxious at times. You can be that way and still pursue all that you are worth, as long as you know that you can live with whatever comes your way, success or failure. That was a great lesson in last year’s situation — you are still OK. And we will still go after it.”

Kyle Guy and Isaiah Wilkins in the NCAA Tournament 2018.
Former Virginia teammate Isaiah Wilkins (right, with Guy) opened up to ESPN in Feb. 2018 about his struggles with anxiety and depression.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Before each game, Guy walks out, crouches at mid-court, and says a prayer. He looks at the crowd around him, taking it all in: the fans, the hecklers, the lights, the cameras — an atmosphere of adrenaline and expectation.

“I chase the highs, for sure,” Guy says. “But not adrenaline, like I need to jump off the cliff. More utopian.”

Playing at home against Towson University on Nov. 6, Guy missed several open jump shots in the game’s early minutes. During a first-half timeout, despite the Cavaliers’ lead, his expression was a grimace of frustration. He finished the game with only five points.

Five days later, as fifth-ranked UVA faced George Washington University, Guy was rejuvenated. With four minutes to play in the first half, he drove to the basket, split two defenders, and nailed a reverse lay-up. As the crowd cheered, he grinned toward UVA’s bench, shrugging his shoulders with a Steph Curry-esque “I-don’t-know-how-that-happened-either” expression. Guy and fellow backcourt starter Ty Jerome scored 20 points apiece, accounting for more than half of UVA’s total offense.

Guy dominated in the Cavaliers’ final non-conference game before ACC play, setting career highs in points (30), three-pointers (7), and rebounds (8) in a 36-point win over Marshall.

The challenges and triumphs of UVA’s redemptive season have meant accepting that his basketball journey is no longer his own. There’s no fix for the fact that so many people have invested their emotions into how he and the Cavaliers perform, but he can help himself as best he can.

“Since last year was so rough for me, I approached this year differently,” Guy says. “I’m taking more of a business aspect. This is my job, I want to use it as a vehicle to success. I still have love for it, but there’s more days that are hard for me to get through than there used to be in basketball.”

Mentally, that progression has been steady. After a summer of healing, his continued work with Freeman, and his own awareness and openness in dealing with pressure, Guy has found himself in a much better place, including being more open with his family and close friends.

“I wish that there was this one big moment for me, but there wasn’t,” Guy says. “It took a lot of hard work, and the people around me helping me through it. The more I stayed in a routine and made mistakes with it, the more I learned about how I was going to cope with it. And it gradually got better. I haven’t had a panic attack in a very long time. I’m thankful, and I’m happy that I figured it out.”

Early in the season, Guy considered posting a third Facebook entry. He wrote it, Jenkins edited again. But the day before posting, Jenkins questioned his intent. “Are you posting this for you, or for other people?” Jenkins asked. “Because if you are doing this, it should be for you — and no one else.” He decided not to post it.

Now, Guy records his thoughts in a journal, both handwritten and on his computer. If he wants to post or check on his social media account — which he still does, albeit sporadically — he logs on from his computer. Guy’s most revealing online appearances now are alongside Jenkins on her YouTube vlogs, which she says are meant to be “fun,” offer insight into their lives together. The apps are still absent from his phone.

Off the court, Guy relishes life’s daily routines. He has memorized almost every Disney film and he loves binge-watching TV series: Lost, Game of Thrones, Friends. According to Kersey, Guy is an encyclopedia of random facts — ask him the most common squirrel in North America, he’ll answer immediately. And while he loves hanging out with Jenkins or his teammates (his apartment with Kersey and UVA football punter Nash Griffin has three TVs: one for sports, one for movies, one for Fortnite), Guy has learned to take time for himself.

“If I said ‘no’ to anything, I’d always have these feelings of guilt of letting people down, but I’d hide it with my Hakuna Matata attitude,” Guy says, referencing the line from the Lion King. “Now, I’m still Hakuna Matata at heart, but I’m trying to show more real emotions.”

Guy continues to be tested publicly. On Dec. 14, Barstool Sports’ Duke Blue Devils Twitter account tweeted about a GoFundMe campaign begun by one of the Head Line Monitors of the Cameron Crazies. The campaign aimed to raise $550 to bring former UMBC guard KJ Maura, who played all 40 minutes in the upset victory over UVA, to Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Blue Devils’ matchup against the Cavaliers on Jan. 19, 2019. The last line on the fundraising page read: “Contribute some money and let’s make Kyle Guy weep.”

Guy read the tweet. But rather than post an angry response or ignore it, he took the jab in stride. He retweeted it, adding, “Wahoos, let’s make this happen.”

Several UVA donors contributed, the fund reached the total amount, and Maura will likely be standing among the Crazies in two weeks.

“I wanted point to out that we’re not afraid to face what happened,” Guy says. “No one seems to know how to let it go, so we might as well relish the moment. I don’t really care who’s in the stands.”

He admits that his response would have been much different a year ago.

“I think it would’ve cut deeper on an external level before,” Guy says. “Because it does cut deep on an internal level for me, but I know how to handle it better.

“In other words, I’m OK with it now.”

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