The post-brawl life for Tu Holloway

CINCINNATI -- To pick up his textbooks at the Xavier bookstore, Tu Holloway first must navigate through racks and racks of Musketeers jerseys -- his jersey, No. 52.

It is strange, he admits, but no stranger than the double-take looks he catches as he traverses campus.

Once, Holloway loved to playfully disarm fellow students. He'd whip his head around and catch them when they were trying to figure out whether he was, indeed, Xavier's little big man on campus.

Now, he mostly keeps his head down as he walks from the Cintas Center to the academic advising offices.

He's deflecting the cold on a brisk January day, but you wonder whether he's deflecting the attention, as well.

On Friday, it will have been two months to the day since Xavier and Cincinnati engaged in an ugly end-of-game brawl that brought the simmering nastiness of the Crosstown Shootout to the surface.

Since that Dec. 10 game, Cincinnati is 12-4, riding a surprising seven-game win streak in the weeks immediately after the brawl to earn the Bearcats a little cushion for the Big East roller coaster. Xavier, meantime, is 8-8, a promising 8-0 start derailed and careening off course. The Musketeers, proud owners of all or part of the past five Atlantic 10 titles and NCAA tournament berths in 10 of the past 11 seasons, are fighting to avoid a final crash.

What's wrong with Xavier probably can be best summed up in one Chris Mack exhortation from practice.

"C'mon, Tu," the coach yelled the day before the Musketeers hosted Saint Louis, "I want my tough guard back."

He's in there somewhere, lost in the maze of Holloway's mental anguish, paralyzed between humiliation and confusion and tangled up in a naive hope that, by playing like more of a pleaser than an aggressor, he'll change people's opinions.

"I think it all took some of the life out of me," Holloway said. "I know I need to get it back. I just don't know how. I'm thinking too much, way too much. To be great, you have to play with emotion and passion. I'm trying."

There is no undoing what Holloway said. In this age of gotcha media, Holloway's words after the game -- "We've got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court. And we went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game." -- will live forever.

The defense Xavier has offered -- that Holloway never threw a punch -- is not much in the way of a balm on this festering wound.
Holloway gets that. He has taken and is willing to accept blame for what he said.

What he doesn't get, what he can't shake, is how, in that handful of seconds, everything changed, seemingly forever.

People who lauded his career for four years called him a disgrace, some going so far as to pen nasty letters to the Xavier basketball offices. Worse, people who didn't know him, had never even heard of him, decided they knew who he was.

Mostly what eats at Holloway is he can't quite figure out how to change it.

Or whether he can.

"I walk on campus and people are looking at me. I used to turn around real fast, catch them," he said. "Now I wonder, what are they thinking about me? Are they looking at me differently? You know, you say all the right things, you try to do the right things, but, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. One mistake, and it's not the same."

The day starts in Chris Barbour's office. Xavier's second semester has begun, and the Musketeers' academic adviser wants to meet with his players.

Thanks to heavy summer loads, Holloway needs just two more classes to graduate -- a Thursday evening business ethics class and a senior workshop that meets on Sundays.

Holloway and Mario Mercurio, Xavier's director of basketball administration, head over to Barbour's office.

Mercurio is not a coach. Once a student at Tennessee, he latched on as a student with former Xavier coach Skip Prosser, transferring to his hometown school and earning a double major in finance and marketing. He is sort of a jack-of-all-trades, charged mostly with making Xavier's nonconference schedule and serving as the university's liaison to Nike Basketball.

"He's really my baby sitter," Holloway joked. "Twenty-two years old and I need a baby sitter."

Barbour is the academic sitter. He has known Holloway since the New York point guard first came on campus. Before he was named the team's adviser, Barbour led the Musketeers' study table and tutored Holloway for a class. Barbour sheepishly admits he wasn't much help.

Now he reminds Holloway to get him his syllabuses, and he helps the senior set goals for the semester -- a C+ in what Barbour concedes is a tough business ethics class and a 3.0 for the semester.

First, though, Barbour opens the day as he always does, asking Holloway to give him his high and low for the day.

The high that day is being trailed by ESPN.com for a story, the low a lingering cold.

It's always the same, never too deep, never too revealing, not even in the days after the brawl.

"He's internalized it," Barbour said later, at practice. "He's never talked about it, not to me anyway. He's one of those guys, puts the shades down and deals with it on his own."

It's part and parcel of a wariness Holloway readily cops to. He's not distrustful so much as he is reluctant.

On campus Holloway goes out of his way to be warm and friendly. He chats with a girl in the bookstore about study habits, jokes with a receptionist about her odd breakfast choice of grapes and coffee and greets longtime athletic advising coordinator Sister Rose Ann Fleming with a hug.

And every time he walks into the athletic offices, he stops to visit with Carol Maas, an administrative assistant who is battling breast cancer.

He's just suspect of outsiders, wondering what it is they want from him.

Holloway has been alone for a long time, shuttling between five high schools from his Hempstead, N.Y., home before finally graduating from Harmony Community School in Cincinnati.

It forced him to grow up fast, to decide whom he could trust and whom he couldn't. He believes he has good intuition -- "I know when I get a good vibe from people" -- yet he tries not to be quick to judge.

Which is why those who know him say he is so torn up about the rush to judgment he has endured.

Father Michael Graham, Xavier's president, met Holloway four years ago when Holloway lived in the Commons, the residence halls Graham also calls home.

He has seen him often since -- at games, naturally; on campus; and often after Sunday Mass. Graham said he always found his famous student to be nothing other than "poised and articulate, someone who measures his words."

Graham was as horrified as anyone by the fight with Cincinnati, saying it "was not representative of Xavier's standards and has no place in intercollegiate athletics," and he agrees that Holloway's remarks were inappropriate and, even more, ill timed.

In the aftermath, however, the Jesuit priest said he's been equally disappointed with the lack of forgiveness.

"It's enormously unfair to take an episode and use that as the window into someone's soul," he said. "Frankly, the person who has taken the most heat over this is Tu, and I think that's disproportionate to what happened. The fact that he's taken so much of this to heart ought to tell you who he is, not what he said. He could be the kind of kid to say, 'What the heck? I don't care.' But he is deeply troubled by this. That says all you need to know about Tu Holloway."

The side bets were for bragging rights but also for the bills.

That's how it was when Tu Holloway played on the New York City playgrounds, how it still is. People come out to watch the games but also to make some extra money.

"They're trying to get the money to pay the electric bills," he said. "It was serious."

Holloway grew up taking the train from his Long Island home to the city, finding a game wherever he could. The city then was littered with great guards -- Kemba Walker, Truck Bryant, Corey Fisher and Edgar Sosa. Holloway played against all of them.

That's when basketball was fun. His grandmother would call him at midnight, worried that he'd been on the playground alone, and he would lie to appease her.

"I'd tell her no, that I was at someone's house, but I always was playing," Holloway said.

The playground game made Holloway the player he is today, or at least the one he was on Dec. 9. Fierce and fearless, he played with as much determination as joy.

Not overly emotional off the court, Holloway could be read like a book on it.

"He always had that big smile on his face," Graham said.

Holloway doesn't smile so much anymore, and he knows it.

"It's not fun anymore," he said. "I don't know. It's just not fun anymore."

It is not just the brawl.

Truth be told, Holloway wasn't expecting to be in college this season. After a strong junior season that earned him third-team All-America honors, Holloway put his name in for the NBA draft. He didn't sign with an agent but says he had mentally checked himself out of college.

The lockout put players such as Holloway, those not guaranteed the riches of a lottery spot, in a precarious spot, so he returned to Xavier instead. It took a while to get his head around that, but, by October, Holloway was in the right frame of mind, well aware that a strong senior season and an NBA future went neatly hand in hand.

And now, as he sits at the on-campus Currito Burrito watching NBA highlights unfold on the television screens in front of him, Holloway is caught somewhere between his past, present and future.

His scoring numbers are down -- from 19.7 a year ago to 16.3 this season -- and worse, of course, his team is down. The brawl stained what had been an impeccable reputation, and he can't help but worry and wonder how all that will play in the minds of NBA GMs.

All this fretting and thinking manifests itself on the court. Holloway always has been equally happy distributing the ball as scoring with it, but he delivered his passes with tenacity, an attacking point guard who created offense by driving the lane. This season, he's been apt to give up shots he would normally take and to throttle down instead of up.

That's what Mack was alluding to in practice, imploring Holloway to again be the player who walked the fine line between reckless abandon and controlled ferocity instead of leaning toward timidity.

Selfishly, Mack wants it for himself and the Musketeers. It is no secret that Xavier's success and failure are wrapped up in No. 52.

But the coach wants it more for a player who is running out of time in his college career.

I understand what I did. And I'm sorry. I've said it. I don't know what else I can do.

-- Tu Holloway

Recently, Holloway has begun to look more like his old self. In Xavier's past five games, Holloway has averaged 18.4 points, 6.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds, a significant boost from the 7.3 points, 7.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds from the four previous games.

But there is still a reluctance. He frequently has declined to participate in postgame interview sessions, worried he'll have to answer more questions about the brawl, uninterested in the media tap dance.

"It just hasn't been fun," Holloway said. "It's more like a job."

Reminded that it's not yet a job, that he still has two months left in his college career, Holloway nods.

"I know," he said. "And I also know our goals are still intact. We can still do everything we set out to do this season. I've just got to get it back."

Tu Holloway does not hate the University of Cincinnati nor any of the players there.

He and Yancy Gates played together on a summer-league team, Gates the starting center and Holloway the point guard on a team that won the championship.

Holloway played with and against Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick at the adidas camp, and, until this season, he was a regular at Bearcats games, there to watch opposing Big East players he knew from New York.

Not once was there an incident.

What happened in December, he believes, was as much a byproduct of the undercurrent in the rivalry as of the action on the court.

"It's part of the culture here, that you're not supposed to like each other," Holloway said. "But it's for that game, not all the time."

There was trash talking before the game, with Kilpatrick intimating that Holloway wouldn't start for Cincinnati.

And then the Musketeers, who rallied around Kilpatrick's remarks and claimed they were disrespected, went out and routed the Bearcats.

It all festered and percolated in 40 minutes of nastiness, exploding when Holloway and Ge'Lawn Guyn exchanged words and shoves.

Holloway threw kerosene on the inferno when he and junior Mark Lyons spoke in the postgame news conference.

"I know every word that I said and I understand the reaction, but I also know that, it might sound cliche, but that's what you talk about when you're playing, about being tough," he said. "When you're on the playground, if you're not tough, you don't play."

Except Xavier University is not a New York City playground; it is a proud Jesuit university.

And, after such reprehensible behavior from both teams, the only appropriate tone is absolute remorse.

Instead, the All-American who had never made a misstep, who had been so reliable that Xavier officials never even considered keeping him from meeting with the media, went wildly off course.

With the fight video already viral, there was Holloway, speaking not just to ESPN viewers but to CNN watchers, not just to hoop heads but to homemakers, lauding his team for being gangsters.

To anyone's ears, he sounded foolishly tough and hopelessly out of touch, proud of the mess he helped create instead of ashamed.

Holloway was genuinely stunned by the reaction, failing to realize how his words would be interpreted.

"It's so hard because it's words," Mack said. "You have to look at what he said. Most people didn't. They stopped after gangster. He made a point of saying this was about the game, not about what happened after on the floor, but no one heard that. No one listened, and you can't ever take it back."

A day later, Holloway tried to fix what he'd done, asking athletic director Mike Bobinski to allow him to take questions at a news conference, not merely read a statement. He said all the right things.

A month later, Holloway insists that he meant them.

"I understand what I did," he said. "And I'm sorry. I've said it. I don't know what else I can do."

As Tu Holloway walks out of the campus bookstore, another student stops and does a double take.

Holloway just shuffles out the door.

Whatever the student is thinking, Holloway doesn't want to know.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.