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Kyle Guy is redefining what it means to be mentally tough

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Sacramento’s newest draft pick isn’t shying away from his fears.

Kimani Okearah

With two minutes and 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter in a tie game, Kyle Guy curls off a screen sprinting out to the top of the three-point arc. Immediately after receiving a pass he rises and fires a shot over the outstretched arm of a defender, draining a three to put the Sacramento Kings up over the Golden State Warriors, and an eventual victory Monday in the first night of the California Classic.

Such a shot likely reminded many of Guy’s performance in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The Kings acquired the draft rights to Guy from the New York Knicks during the second round of the NBA Draft. Though widely known as a knock-down shooter, the 6’2’’, 170-pound guard showed more than his shot this week in Sacramento. He grabbed four rebounds in two of the three California Classic games by regularly boxing out his man when the ball was in the air, got his hands in passing lanes, and on Tuesday against the Miami Heat, stepped in front of opponents to take charges on two occasions. Guy’s willingness to take clutch shots and stand in front of players who are much bigger than him to take a charge illustrates what Kings Summer League coach Jesse Mermuys refers to as “grit.”

“When the games get tight, he rises, he’s got grit and toughness,” Mermuys said. “Going through mini-camp, as the competition rose, when we were scrimmaging and stuff, when it got higher competition, his presence, and he’s got some grit, he’s got something inside of him and he rises to that level, like he really enjoys it and that’s a mark of an NBA guy.”

Toughness is certainly a term fans want in their players because you have to be both physically and mentally strong to make it in the NBA, yet “toughness” can have many meanings in the sports world. If it is considered a key attribute to the makeup of an athlete, people tend to gravitate toward signs of “weakness” in these larger-than-life players as a negative, forgetting they are human beings. Guy is a good example of how being “mentally tough” can actually be rooted in being open about vulnerability.

In March 2018, Guy’s No. 1 seed University of Virginia (UVA) team lost to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (the 16-seed) in a blowout. It was the first time in the history of the men’s NCAA tournament history that the top seed lost to the 16-seed in the opening round.

It hit Guy hard emotionally.

A little over a month after the loss, after being encouraged by his fiancée, Alexa Jenkins, to write his struggles down, Guy posted a couple of letters he had written on social media. The letters delved into his struggles with anxiety, and specifically how the loss caused a severe sense of failure and sadness. Whether it be the pressure he put on himself, the historic nature of the loss, the negativity sent his way through social media, or the death threats, the weight of it all had an impact on his mental health. Here is an excerpt from one of the letters:

“Walking around campus with everyone staring and giving disgusting looks was hard. Every person knew my business. Everyone knew our every move … It made me feel claustrophobic and when privacy is not on the table you begin to be jealous of the freedom of the wind.”

That battle wasn’t so new for him, however. He had been struggling with anxiety for a while leading up to that game. Though he considers himself an extrovert, the constant spotlight and having lights in his face isn’t exactly something he relishes. During one practice in his sophomore year, he broke into tears. He still does not know the specific reason as to why, but admits he was just overwhelmed and experienced a panic attack. He mentioned in his letter that he had been taking medication for anxiety the whole season.

The UVA trainers and Jenkins helped him pull through that moment in practice, and similar support and meetings with a sports psychologist helped him get through the emotional letdown of losing that game.

At the end of his second letter, he concluded with “See you next year, March.”

When the 2019 NCAA Tournament began, the pressure returned.

On March 30, his team found itself behind by double digits in the first half against Purdue. Guy would later hit a string of huge shots on his way to 25 points (19 of which came in the second half) and 10 rebounds, which vaulted UVA into the Final Four with an overtime win. In the April 6 matchup against Auburn, Guy drained three free-throws at the end of the game to seal a victory with .6 seconds left.

Guy was the team’s emotional leader after telling the world he was struggling with his own emotions.

The National Championship? Guy poured in 24 points on 8-15 from the field and 4-9 from three, to go along with three rebounds and a steal in UVA’s NCAA Championship win over Texas Tech on April 8. On top of becoming a champion, he was named the 2019 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player and named to the 2019 NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team, among other accolades.

He had overcome the devastating defeat and anxiety-inducing aftermath from the year prior.

“That game is the best thing that ever happened to me in my basketball career, I always say that, even on top of getting drafted and winning a championship,” Guy said. “There’s few things that can motivate you and make you better than a loss like that.”

Aside from motivation, the self-growth he experienced by seeking help with his anxiety and openly admitting he was dealing with it has instilled in him a sense of empowerment. The letters he shared online discussed how he kept his anxiety to himself for a long time because he didn’t want to be perceived as “weak.” The majority of athletes at this level likely feel they can’t put themselves out there emotionally for this same reason. Guy says it is important for that perception to change, and appreciates what Kevin Love did last year with his self-penned article about his mental health struggles.

Kevin Love is doing a great job, amongst others, but especially him of just kind of making it normal. I think the biggest thing is that people who are advocates for it is just knowing that everyone has it, some version of it, maybe not as frequent as others …. Everyone is overwhelmed at some point, everyone freaks out, so I think it’s important for everyone to know that there’s things that can help you,” Guy said.

Speaking of overwhelming, with the way that athletes and fans are closer than ever through social media, it is often a challenge to be able to ignore a lot of the negativity. Guy has had an off and on relationship with social media. During his junior year, he was so focused on winning a championship that he got rid of social media apps on his phone and only logged into it on his computer. He has it back on his phone now and actually likes looking at all of the negative comments.

“I like to retweet it, so they know that I know it. That adds a little bit of fuel. Again, I like looking at that stuff just to know why you think that way and then prove them wrong,” said the 21-year-old Guy, whose self-reflection and ability to share wisdom is beyond his years. “You just have to do your best to surround yourself with people who are positive, follow people who are positive, and kind of start working on yourself at a young age to try to cope with the bad things that people say.”

He’s heard it all – he doesn’t “look the part,” or he’s too skinny or too small – and he feels like he has always been overlooked. The confidence that showed on the floor in the California Classic comes from that experience, he said. The 55th overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft now takes that confidence to the Las Vegas NBA Summer League where he will continue to pursue his NBA dream, but also is fully aware that getting drafted may allow him to reach more people who are suffering from mental health issues.

His fiancée, Jenkins, told him after he wrote those letters that he could really end up helping some people, and he doesn’t take that lightly. He cares about speaking out about mental health and anxiety and offers this piece of advice to anyone who may be dealing with it now.

“Tell someone first with some authority, like a sports psychologist, or just a psychologist. Not everyone has a fiancée at my age, or younger, to go to right away, so if you don’t have that, I would go to somebody with some authority who can really help you. That will lift a weight off your shoulders and then you can feel more comfortable as you are talking to them because they make you feel really good, like it’s OK. Then, you’ll know what to say to your family and close friends and just be very comfortable in your skin,” he said.

In sports and society in general, Guy’s experience should be a prime example of what it means to be considered “mentally tough.”