"HEEERRREEE COME THE GATORS!"
The announcer holds the "here" for as long as possible while the rest of the sentence and the squeaks of the shoes of the basketball team hitting the floor are drowned out. The Stephen C. O'Connell Center is sold out this night -- a rarity in Gainesville the past few years.
The players march forward, mostly with heads down and hands dribbling basketballs, but Alex Tyus has his head up, facing backward, taking in the crowd.
He could be doing this because it reminds him of when he first got here -- the Gators, fresh off a couple of national championships, and the O'Dome regularly full of fans. He could be doing this because he's a senior, and this is his last chance to look up and see a fan in every seat. Or he could be doing this because he loves the ebullience, and he wants this dome to be a few decibels louder before his team tips off against arch-rival Kentucky.
All of those reasons are real and true. But he has another reason for looking up into the stands. There's someone special there, and he likes to turn around and see her when he leaves the tunnel. She's always there in the same seat, D 28.
She's Alli Tyus, his wife.
Here are the stories that we've come to expect: Brett Favre sexting Jenn Sterger. Tony Parker's alleged cheating on Eva Longoria. Tiger Woods. We've accepted tragedies like Steve McNair's murder at the hands of his ex-mistress, and oddities like Alex Rodriguez's alleged affair with Madonna.
Because Parker's divorce closely coincided with the anniversary of Tiger Woods' demise, there was a flood of stories and specials about athletes' affairs in November. The Big Lead published a short post titled, "Wake Up, Women, Your Athlete Husband is Probably Cheating on You," which linked to an ESPN.com piece called "The Sports Infidelity Equation."
Chris Jones of Esquire reflected in his blog about his time as a sportswriter. He summed up his thoughts on the subject: "I don't want to speak in broad generalities, but here's the stone-cold deal: Athletes are animals. For them, sex is an extension of their on-field battles, those elaborate conquests for territory and status. It's physically impossible for them not to have freakish sex when it's offered."
But that can't be true, can it? There are no estimates of how widespread this bad behavior is, but because bad news often makes the best news and because scandal sells, we're left with the impression that it's an epidemic.
So to balance the barrage of infidelities and indiscretions, we offer Alex and Alli –- and the hope that this won't happen to them.
She was a year ahead of him in school and moving out of her freshman dorm, and he was moving in. She was sweating and struggling down the stairs, desperately clinging to her mini-fridge. He was empty-handed and offered to help. She refused.
So he spotted her down the stairs to make sure she didn't fall. When she finally reached the truck, huffing and puffing, he offered to help her get it inside. This time, she said yes.
She drove away, and he went right up to his dorm to get onto Facebook. He added her as a friend and sent her a message saying how excited he was to meet her, and ... Would she like to have dinner with him?
When she got into her new dorm that night, finally somewhat settled in, she checked her messages and saw what he had written. Dinner? She didn't think so. Traditional dating, for her, had always been awkward. Plus, she had recently broken up with a guy on the football team, and she wasn't sure about athletes anymore. And she had her own sport, volleyball, to focus on over the summer.
But she decided that she'd take a chance on Alex -- she invited him over to play video games with her. They played Mortal Kombat on PlayStation for three hours. Neither of them remembers who won, but they both remember that Alli liked to act out her character's action on Alex in real life –- he may have left with some bruises. Finally, as a peace offering, Alex asked Alli if she'd like to go get ice cream.
Of course she wanted ice cream.
Their relationship was serious nearly from the beginning.
Their first phone call lasted six hours. They were both busy with their sports, but they spent every spare minute with each other.
Then, four months into their relationship, October 2007, Alli's roommate Ashley Slonina died in a car accident. A little more than a year before that, Alli had lost her sister Lisa to a battle with breast cancer. That death shook her, but because of the long battle, it wasn't a shock.
Ashley's death was. Alli knew there was bad news that night –- she hadn't checked her phone for a few hours and noticed 30 missed calls. She called Ashley first to figure out what was going on. She remembers leaving her a message: "God, you never pick up your phone."
When she found out, "I felt like I'd been hit by a train," she says now. But then, she just went into survival mode. She tucked away the tragedy in a tiny corner of her mind and instead put all her effort into making arrangements. That night, Alli's parents, who had a place in Gainesville, allowed Alex to spend the night for the first time. She had suffered a concussion the day before at volleyball, so she has no idea what he said, but she remembers that he brought her flowers.
She assisted with the funeral arrangements, she heard the condolences and then she finally felt the loneliness.
All the while, though, Alex didn't leave her side.
Suddenly and surely, they learned two lessons: Life is fleeting and love makes it worthwhile. "All those little games that people play," Alli says, "they just got eliminated. They didn't make sense anymore."
And Alex says, "We spent all our time together. And I loved that time. There wasn't any choice but falling in love with her."
Then on March 7, 2008, as Alex was preparing for the season finale against Kentucky and the upcoming SEC Tournament, volleyball coach Mary Wise called Alli into her office. Wise asked Alli to sit, told her she had to take a phone call from her mother and that she was there for her.
"Someone died," Alli thought.
She played out the scenarios in her head and figured that her dad had died because her mom would call if that had been the case. Instead, her mom said that Alli's older brother, Chris, had shot himself on their parents' asparagus field.
First she felt relieved. Her parents were okay.
Then she felt guilty. Her brother was dead.
She didn't have a good relationship with Chris. He was almost twice her age, from her father's first marriage. As a child, he had a brain tumor removed, but the problems with the surgery left him battling depression and aggression for the rest of his life. Growing upon her family's farm in California, Alli never appreciated the way Chris treated her hard-working parents.
But now he was gone, and she had lost three loved ones in two years.
She went back to California for the funeral, and when she arrived, she discovered that Alex had sent her a fern. To this day, it remains in her home in California. She calls it her love fern.
It reminds her of how, together, they got through their toughest test.
The summer after she lost her brother, Alli quit volleyball. She quit everything, really.
She sat at home in Gainesville during the summer semesters, watching TV, failing her classes -– she finished with a 1.5 GPA –- and putting on 20 pounds. Alex realized that he was losing the woman he loved, so he concocted a risky plan: He broke up with her.
"She was acting out more and snapping at me for no reason," Alex says. "I wanted to get through to her." He hoped that the news would act like an defibrillator and shock her back to life. It did.
She started working out again, started going to grief therapy, and after three weeks, they were back together.
That same summer, Marreese Speights, the Gators center declared for the NBA Draft. That forced Alex to switch to center. At 6-foot-8 and skinny, he felt unnatural at the position. But point guard Nick Calathes was able to give him a lot of open looks, and it turned out to be his best statistical season –- he averaged 12.5
points and 6.2 rebounds, finishing behind Calathes as the second-leading scorer.
Alli and he were seldom apart, but when they were, he liked to write her notes, like this one from October 2008:
Alli, I can not get you off my mind. I can not lose you Alli. I care and love you wayyy too much. I really can not wait to talk to you later today. I am obsessed over you big time! I will be with you for the rest of my life. I want to treat you like my queen. I LOVE YOU! YOU HAVE MY HEART! I want you to be the happiest girl in the whole world. I will love you for the rest of my life.
His signoff was circled in a heart.
After the season, though, Alex decided he didn't want to play for Florida anymore. The switch to center wasn't working out for him, and he felt like Florida coach Billy Donovan was discouraging his relationship with Alli. All coaches, after all, want their athletes to be in a relationship with the sport, want them to be free from distractions.
Alex and his dad decided it would be a good idea to transfer.
Alex approached Alli with the news and with a question: Will you follow me?
She said she wouldn't unless they were engaged.
He asked her to marry him on the spot.
She said yes.
It was a stressful summer in Gainesville. Early in the season, guard Jai Lucas transferred to Texas. Then Allan Chaney decided to transfer just after the season ended. Calathes declared for the NBA Draft. On April 17, 2009, Alex announced his intent to transfer.
In the next two weeks, he went school shopping. Then he came to a few realizations. First, he and Donovan had a chance to talk about his relationship with Alli. They all got together for dinner at the coach's house, and Donovan made it clear that he supported them. He also explained that Vernon Macklin, who had transferred from Georgetown last season and was now eligible, would start at center, and Alex could move back to power forward. Finally, he decided he didn't want to sit for a year. He was back on the team before the end of April.
He came back to Florida and had another good season, averaging 11.8 points and 6.9 rebounds. And after a two-season drought, the Gators made it back to the NCAA Tournament.
After the season, he briefly flirted with the NBA, declaring for the draft and working out for a few teams. But once again, he decided that staying in school would be the best option.
Another important thing happened in his life that summer: He flew to California, gathered with 200 friends and family, and married his best friend.
Why are marriages so hard for male athletes?
Ilan Shrira, an assistant professor at the University Florida who teaches a class in the psychology of intimate relationships, offers a theory about marriages in general and applies it to athletes. One of the most important findings in infidelity research is about the availability of alternatives –- of which, athletes have
"Any sort of available alternatives decreases your commitment," he says. "But the more committed you are to your spouse, the less attractive you perceive alternatives."
Steven Ortiz, an associate professor in sociology at Oregon State University, adds communication as another critical component for making these marriages work.
For 20 years, he has been researching the topic of sports marriages. He has found that marriages to male professional athletes can be challenging for several reasons. First, sports is a male-dominated profession, and as a result, women are relegated to subordinate roles; the marriages, then, are husband-oriented and career-dominated. Second, there exists what he calls the "spoiled athlete syndrome," in which highly talented players are conditioned from a young age that they can do no wrong –- they are constantly shielded from the consequences of their actions.
"So, in a sense," Ortiz says on the phone from his office in Corvallis, "from the time he shows athletic skills and talents, he is put on the pedestal, and he's surrounded by enablers – girlfriends, classmates, teammates. As he gets older, he gets more enablers in his life – coaches and agents. They then come to believe that they are above reproach, accountability or responsibility."
These factors may make athletes more likely to be unfaithful, but both Shrira and Ortiz agree that athletes aren't wired to cheat. There's no biological reason behind it; it's just bad behavior learned over a lifetime.
In other words: It doesn't have to be this way.
So here is Alli now, before the Vanderbilt game at the beginning of February. The lights are low in the O'Dome, and she claps along with her mother and Alex's best friend, David, as the team is introduced. When it's Alex's turn, she lets out a loud yell.
He gets off to a fast start, flipping a pass to Macklin for an easy slam, but the next few shots don't fall. It turns out to be a tough game for him: He finishes 1-for-6 with two total points and five rebounds. When he's in the game, she can hardly keep track of the score, she just watches his play, sometimes swearing when he misses -– or when the guards don't give him the ball. "Once you're so invested in one player," she says, "you really only keep track of their score."
If the game's not going well, she starts spacing in the second half, thinking of ways to make it better. After one loss this season, she called for reservations at the Melting Pot, picked him up and drove 45 minutes there to make him feel better. Sometimes they talk about the game; sometimes they don't. After a different loss this season, he didn't want to talk about the game at all. Then, after they had gotten into bed and turned the lights out, he vented for almost an hour, working out his frustrations until he was finally ready to sleep.
After the Vandy game, Alli waits along with the girls and families of all the players. For the rest of the players, there is a rotation of girls that get one of their four tickets to each home game. For Alex, it's always been Alli. When he sees her, he's happy despite his performance -- he didn't have to do media interviews, and, after all, they did win -- and he kisses her hello.
So here he is the next game, against Kentucky. He has a slow first half, playing for just five minutes before he takes a seat on the bench. He doesn't come back in until there are fewer than five minutes left in the half, and he comes back out just a little more than a minute later. He finishes the first half scoreless, having been almost entirely outmatched by Kentucky's freshman phenom Terrence Jones.
In the second half, though, he is a different player. He gets on the board with a jumper at 19:15, then he gets in the lane for a slam at 17:12. He's fouled and misses, but he swishes both free throws. At 16:35, he puts in a reverse layup and Kentucky calls a timeout –- the 34-32 halftime lead for the Gators has ballooned to 45-36. He sits for just a minute after the timeout, gets back on the floor and feeds Macklin for a dunk. At 13:50, he packs Jones and grabs the garbage himself. He gets a good rebound and gets fouled on the next possession. He gets another block and lets his big grin grow. He's feeling it now, laughing and chatting with his teammates.
Kentucky slowly climbs back into the game until there are just fewer than two minutes left and the Gators are grasping a delicate one-point lead. Alex gets a good look on a hook, which rattles around and falls in, 69-66 Gators. On the final possession, Kentucky tries a high pick-and-roll and Tyus is left to defend Brandon Knight, by the far the best player on either team. He gets a hand up, and Knight's shot rims out -– the Gators win.
After the game, Donovan discusses Tyus' second-half turnaround, saying, "I didn't think he played well in the first half. But he's a great kid and he wants to do well. ... Us getting up by 13 had a lot do with Alex. He really helped put them on the ropes."
The game is a good one for Alex, but he'll need a lot more in order to get drafted into the NBA, which he recognizes will be very difficult. The looming lockout likely means that there will be no summer leagues, and that players who aren't drafted will have to play in Europe first.
"He'll have to go overseas and work his way up to have a chance," says one NBA scout. "He's not a good enough ball handler to be a 3 (small forward) at this point, and his back-to-the-basket game isn't good enough as a 4 (power forward). ... But he's a four-year guy who seems to be happily married, so that's a positive reflection on his maturity."
The day after the game, Alex is talking about this with Alli, and he says he isn't scared to go overseas. He embraces the opportunity to play basketball for a while longer. "And," Alli says from across the couch, "at least you won't be alone."
"That's true," he replies. He pauses and smiles at her. "That's true."
The ending to this story is unknown.
Alex and Alli could eventually become another headline, another news flash, another opportunity to examine this subject on its surface in a few years.
"Women who are married to male pro athletes have to be strong women –- they have to be resilient and adaptable," Ortiz says. "She may have a fairly good idea, but when the realities set in, that's when the marriage becomes extremely challenging."
Maybe someone who has learned to overcome tragedies and doesn't let basketball become an excuse for her husband not to wash the dishes or take the dogs out for a walk. Maybe someone who's willing to let basketball dictate where she and her husband live -– but not how they live. Maybe someone like Alli.
"To avoid these temptations and to be willing even to jeopardize his career by putting his wife first," Ortiz says, "that takes a strong man."
Maybe someone who survived a season of center in the SEC standing only 6 feet and eight inches off the ground. Maybe someone who wasn't ever afraid to be married, and was okay with leaving the NBA behind for another year so that he could do it. Maybe someone who brought a woman back to life. Maybe someone like Alex.
Alex and Alli could make it. They could be together, as they plan to be, for the rest of their lives.
There's no formula, though, to predict their future.
So instead we simply offer you a man and a woman in love –- the kind of love that allows you to look up at a crowd of 12,663 people and see only one.
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