PROFILE OF A CHAMPION | Peyton Siva, suffering and glory
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A point guard's currency is assists. The best ones deal them out with interest -- over time, they not only yield big returns, they make the people around them more valuable.
Peyton Siva is money.
He finished his University of Louisville career having led the Cardinals to back-to-back Final Fours and their third NCAA championship. It was not, most analysts agreed, the most talented team in the tournament that won the title. But if the sum of these less-heralded parts turned out to be greater than all opposition, it was in large part because of a multiplier they called "PS3."
Siva should be a first-ballot, jersey-in-the-rafters honoree at U of L. As a senior, he dished out more assists than any player in school history (228) and finished second on its career list. But a deeper look reveals that assists are more than just a part of Siva's stat line. They are part of his DNA.
It began at home. By now the story of the 13-year-old Siva climbing into the family car to fish his alcoholic and suicidal father off the streets of Seattle is known chapter and verse, right down to his father throwing away the handgun he intended to use on himself with a vow to change his life. But there were others.
Siva grew up facing full-court pressure. A brother who dealt drugs. A half-sister who stole. Friends who fell by the wayside, some despite his efforts. He will receive a degree in Sociology from U of L, and was the last Academic All-American still playing when the Final Four rolled around, but his college courses weren't the first in sociology he ever attended. Those would have been courses taken by his mother, Yvette Gaston, who sometimes had to bring her three children along, the youngest, Peyton, in a stroller or held on her lap.
The litany of Siva's life has, by virtue of his basketball success, been retold on the sports pages of the nation. His family started fights at his high school games. He had gifts removed from the house by police because they were found to have been items shoplifted by his half-sister. His father took the allowance he received from his grandmother. All three of those, father, brother, half-sister, spent time in jail.
Siva, meanwhile, lived in that world, but was not of that world.
He refused to drink. He rejected gangs. He led Bible studies. More than once, he turned to Romans 12:2: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God."
Siva's first mission field was his father. As Peyton Siva, Sr. began the back-and-forth road to recovery, his son called often to check up on him. When he could not reach him, he went out looking. He cajoled and badgered. He wore his father down until he started going with him to church. By the time Siva graduated high school, his father was coaching youth sports and using his own transgressions as cautionary tales. His brother was working as a carpenter and his half-sister was in a trade school.
"Everybody Peyton touches," the father said, "he tries to lift up."
During the national championship season, for long stretches father lived with son, occupying an apartment, talking at night, watching games. It was, in some ways, preferable to the younger Siva worrying about what might've happened to his father left to his own devices on the other coast.
It was only natural, then, that Siva the point guard would assume the same role with his teammates at Louisville. He became counselor and confidant. He was voted preseason Big East Player of the Year, and made some preseason All-American teams and the Wooden Award watch list, but when teammate Russ Smith began to get more of the spotlight -- national TV features, a splashy spread in Sports Illustrated -- and he began to replace Siva on some of those award lists, Siva was the first to pass the praise.
"In Russ we trust," Siva said after one January game. "He deserves all the credit he gets. He deserves more credit than he gets."
Siva, meanwhile, had peaks and valleys on the basketball court. For those, it took a father figure to navigate. In January of 2012, after the Cardinals had lost five of their past seven games, the only man under more withering criticism than Siva was Cardinals coach Rick Pitino.
The coach called Siva in and told him a couple of things. "Everybody's second-guessing you," he said. "No different from the way they're second-guessing me as a coach. They're second-guessing our recruiting. They're second-guessing everything because we're losing." Then he told him something that made a difference. He told Siva that he would be judged not by the present struggles, but by how the team fared in its final exam.
He used that final exam analogy with the entire team, then gave Siva one other piece of instruction -- to focus more on himself and his basketball, just for the season. He told the player that he would have an entire offseason and lifetime to focus on others, but that in-season, he needed to narrow his field of vision to the task at hand.
Part of Siva's appeal, perhaps, is that it wasn't all roses. His struggles were evident. He made game-winning plays, but also made mistakes at the end of games to lose them. As a senior, his perimeter shot returned to him, then it went away for a time.
This is how his Senior Day began at the KFC Yum! Center: Long before the fans arrived, Siva alone at the top of the key.
Siva for three, good. Siva for three, miss. Siva for three. Swish. Notre Dame arriving on the bus. Another three. The St. Patrick's Day Parade gearing up on Baxter Avenue. Swish from the right of the key. The zip of the net. The flip of a pass. The squeak of a shoe. From the left of the key, another. Shoot, rebound, repeat. A hundred times. Another hundred.
When Siva nailed a pair of first-half three-pointers, the crowd roared. What the crowd didn't see is part of what made the day special. The work. Showing up early, staying late. Louisville roared past Notre Dame, and afterward, the Siva family poured onto the court to get ready for him to be honored.
Pitino took the microphone to introduce his seniors before the game, and when he came to Siva, simply had to call his name. Every time he tried to say a few words, he choked up.
"I had a story made up to talk about Peyton, a huge story, but I couldn't tell it, because every time somebody started mentioning his name, I got very emotional," Pitino said after the game. "It's been so much fun coaching a person that has never had a bad day. You just think about that. We all do, sometimes you just don't feel right, and you come to work not happy. Never one time with Peyton. I didn't always go pat him on the back and tell him what a great kid he was. I got after his ass quite often, but never one time would he come to work with anything but a great attitude. I just have never seen the likes of that in my lifetime."
Think about Siva performing in the toughest of situations. In the second halves of the Big East championship game and of the NCAA championship game, Siva scored a combined 21 points, dished out eight assists, and came up with six steals.
During the title game, Pitino was all over Siva. "Son," he said -- a word he used more this season than perhaps in any other at Louisville, and likely more with Siva than any other player -- "Son, you're not in the shape I thought you were. What's wrong with you? You've got to get going."
Pitino was relentless. It was nothing new. Siva said he was thinking, "I've got bruises all over. I'm going all-out."
Pitino knew he was. But he wanted that last ounce. "He might be the only player I ever went home at night and felt bad about getting on. He gave so much. There's no way I could ever do what he is able to do. But he recognized what I was doing. And he always dug in and found more."
On Senior Day, Siva's family, many of whom he had counseled and supported, showed up in force, bearing leis, in the Samoan tradition. One by one they placed them around his neck and kissed him, until Siva's head was nearly covered in flowers. Into the microphone, Siva said of Pitino, "The man who brought me here, who recruited me, who loved me and pushed me every day, who called me every name in the book and I cry whenever I see him, but I also wouldn't be here without him."
Back in January, ESPN's Bob Wenzel saw Siva during a shootaround and remembered a USA Today story he'd read about the senior. He'd read that Siva received a Bible verse from an old friend and pastor via text message every day. He asked Siva what his verse was that day. He was taken aback when Siva was able to quote it from memory: "Romans 8:18. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
On the day of the national title game, Pitino had an errand to run. He needed to be there when they announced he had been elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Siva went with him. That night, at halftime with his team down a point, Pitino would tell Siva that the game was in his hands, that he would call the offensive plays, that he had faith Siva would make the right choices. Siva did. He dissected Michigan.
When Siva was young, an older player in town saw all he was doing and wanted to help him. He made contact, worked with him, even helped the much smaller Siva learn to dunk. Terrence Williams, who preceded Siva at U of L, was that player. As the seconds ticked down on the national championship game, Williams stood one row behind the bench, watching in a Kevin Ware game jersey. He had, for once, few words. But some of them were these: "Siva is special."
As Siva celebrated, his father close by, his family in the stands, confetti falling, no suffering seemed to compare with the glory.
- This series of championship profiles is part of an e-Book compilation from WDRB.com and Eric Crawford titled, "The Run," a look back at the University of Louisville's NCAA title run through Eric's game stories from WDRB, and new material on the players and Coach Rick Pitino. The e-Book will be available FREE OF CHARGE from WDRB.com in May, via the web site in easy-to-adapt PDF form, or from the iTunes store, as a thank you to our readers. TOMORROW'S PROFILE: Gorgui Dieng.
- Previously: Russ Smith.
Copyright 2013 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.