MINNEAPOLIS - Lee Larkins first got his hands on Kyle Guy as an Indiana sixth-grader who might as well be shooting free throws with his eyes closed.
“I shot with two hands, kind of like (motions his hands over his forehead and pushes, palms high, in opposite directions),” Guy, now a junior at Virginia, said Sunday, about 16 hours removed from the heroic game-winning free throws that sent the Cavaliers to the national championship game and Auburn home from the NCAA Tournament.
A self-described slasher in middle school, Guy grew into a sharpshooter. There’s a Jimmy Chitwood — the sweet-shooting Hickory High School guard in the film “Hoosiers” for the uninitiated — on every block in Indiana, where hoops is a religion and virtually all other things take second billing. Not just on winter Fridays in high school gyms. Parents get the ball bouncing on the same day they toss the baby booties.
Guy credits, in part, his middle school guidance counselor, Larkins. Guy’s recollection was Larkins, who played football at Purdue and later coached there after playing middle school for Mike Fratello, forced him to work out with him.
“I have two daughters and they’re a little bit older than Kyle. He used to come into the gym, always had a basketball in his hand,” Larkins told Field Level Media on Sunday afternoon. “It started as — he went against all girls. All girls and him.”
Larkins is not the only basketball mentor in Guy’s life, although he remains a constant. So when Guy strolled to the line with the game hanging in the balance Saturday night with 0.6 seconds left, the Larkins family started celebrating. That included Larkins’ two older daughters who were part of the Kyle Guy Construction Project.
“He was built for this. This is what I texted him last night. Right away, my mindset is that he’s knocking these three down. This is what he trained his mind for,” Larkins said.
“At the end of every workout, we shot free throws with his eyes closed. He had to be at 80 percent. There was no doubt in my mind, this kid is going to make these shots. That same scenario, I guarantee you, he’s played it out in Lawrence Central’s gym. It’s a mindset we were trained on.”
Larkins only had to open the door once for Guy to keep showing up at practices. He begged to be coached hard, and picked up nuances of the game on the fly.
Before long, Larkins had no doubt about Guy’s destiny.
“We constantly worked on his shot, but he wanted to be coached and loved to be coached hard,” said Larkins, who now runs an AAU program and has coached women’s basketball at IUPUI.
“His grandmother was my boss. And then I told her and his dad, I said, ‘This kid can be Mr. Basketball.’ He picked up everything. Worked so hard. In my gym, I’m pretty fundamentally sound: Don’t fade away, straight up and straight down. He picked up from there. It shows now. Just a really good shooter.”
Not everyone peered through the same optimistic lens evaluating the spindly Guy, who floated under the radar of many major college programs. Larkins said his alma mater, Purdue, was not a fit because it already had slots filled — hello, Carsen Edwards — in which Guy would have fit.
“Virginia was a natural fit,” Larkins recalled.
“I tried to get him to Purdue. His grandfather and great grandfather are all (Indiana University) people. Kyle wanted something different. He wanted to get away, and write his own story. I think that was so much different than anyone else.
“Virginia was a great fit. When coach (Tony Bennett) came here and watched him, they were playing Lawrence North at the time. You could just see the relationship he had with Coach. It was a perfect, perfect match.”
The trust evident between Bennett and Guy paid off in a big way again Saturday. But Guy wants his original support system to know he’s taking the court for them, too, on Monday.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot the last three weeks,” Guy said. “Not just what it would mean to win a championship with these guys, but to bring it home and represent my hometown and Indiana.”
Measured and reflective, Guy comes across as vulnerable with overtones of on-court confidence. He models his openness after his coach, Bennett.
It might not have been evident to observers when Guy, who shoots 86 percent from the free throw line, sealed Virginia’s win Saturday, but he battles extreme anxiety. He looked calm. He told himself he was calm. In reality?
“I was terrified,” Guy said. “But it was a good terrified.”
Pressure typically feels like a privilege until it has buckled you.
“The best thing I could do for Kyle is I pray for him a lot,” said Bennett, who identified five biblical pillars of his program and uses faith-based teaching daily.
“I do, and I’m there for him. We have a saying: be kind because everyone you meet is facing a hard battle. Some things you have to work through with yourself and the right kind of help, and he’s very honest about it. I try to encourage him and challenge him in ways and be there for him, coach him hard.
“We always talk about encouragement and accountability — being that way with him. I constantly think about him. It’s an extended family, so you are a father figure, to an extent, to them. I think about that stuff, and I do that for me. That’s really important for him. That’s probably the best thing I could say I did.”
Historically improbable, Virginia lost to UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The March 16 defeat wasn’t just an upset — it was the first time a No. 16 seed knocked off a No. 1 in tournament history — it also was an emotional landmark for Guy.
At the time, it felt like a landmine. The impact settled well below the surface when the team bus required a police escort back to Virginia’s hotel in response to death threats.
Guy didn’t know where to turn. He went into a shell and tried to close himself off from society. The 20-point loss felt to Guy like a nightmare from which he couldn’t, and seemingly wouldn’t, escape.
Fighting out of the pit wouldn’t be a point-to-point venture.
Anxiety medication. Sports psychology. Sessions with Bennett. All of it helped. Nothing cured Guy.
He wrote himself a series of letters and ultimate liberation came through a social media post. Guy poured out his heart and soul into the emotion-charged writing at the behest of fiancee Alexa Jenkins.
“When that final buzzer sounded, I cracked. I cracked and the pressure got to me,” Guy wrote in a Facebook post 39 days after the UMBC loss, unwinding and expelling almost 2,500 words of pulverized anguish.
“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.”
Writing became a necessary form of therapy. He shared, he asked and listened. And most important to Guy, he refused to forget. It didn’t take away the shame and the sting is still there — but it is now suspended intentionally by the 21-year-old.
His cellphone wallpaper and Twitter avatar are still set to the March 16, 2018, loss to UMBC. Soon enough, Guy says he’ll let it go. And if you wonder how often a 21-year-old college athlete checks a cellphone — “a lot.”
“It still stings every time I look at it,” he said.
But Guy crept out of his shell. He firmly believes a hand guided him here, to Minneapolis, to Monday night, to the precipice of a story of overcoming failure by refusing to repeat history.
It helped that when he felt like he was drowning a year ago, his mom reminded him his lifeguard walked on water.
He felt an unspeakable presence on the Virginia team outing — white-water rafting, the high-class kind that might not be a wise choice for someone battling anxiety — and an unshakable calm that emerges in-game with a smile that stretches to his earlobes.
“In a way, it’s a painful gift,” Bennett said of how the UMBC loss propelled Virginia to this point.
“It did draw us nearer to each other as a team. I think it helped us as coaches. I think it helped the players on the court and helped us in the other areas that rely on things that were significant. I knew it was going to be a really important marked year for all of us in our lives, and it’s certainly playing out that way.”
That echo helped carry Guy in this very NCAA Tournament, when he endured a shooting slump from 3-point range — 3 of 29 — that put the Cavaliers in peril in two of their first three games. Then came the regional final. Guy collected 21 points after halftime, 25 in all, and Virginia bounced Purdue to reach the Final Four.
Six points in the final 10 seconds on Saturday is now the string of splash plays Guy can recall when he rewinds his journey on and off the court.
“I think all of my life has led to this. Everything that I’ve been through made it a lot easier to hone in and try to knock down the free throws,” Guy said Sunday. “I said that I was terrified. It was a good terrified, though, a good nervousness in my stomach like, ‘This is my chance.’”
The climactic final chapter comes Monday.
Pressure is a privilege Guy would never consider passing on this time around. Imagining scissors fitted around his fingers to trim the nets hanging at U.S. Bank Stadium won’t bring anxiety Sunday night or Monday. Even knowing Texas Tech could be the team climbing the ladders to celebrate becoming champions brings a peaceful smile to Guy’s face.
“Every player and coach on every team has envisioned it, I’m sure,” he said. “But I think it’s important to realize that you don’t get to skip the game and just go down and cut the nets. We’ve got to focus on what’s in front of us. We’ve got to practice (Sunday) ... and just focus. We’re excited.”
—By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media