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On Saturday night, toward the end of one of the worst days of his professional life, Xavier coach Chris Mack went out to dinner with his family, hoping he could decompress. As he sat at his table, Mack caught a glimpse of two of his players, Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, on a television. The video was from the players' postgame press conference. During his own press conference following the ugly brawl that marred the end of the Xavier-Cincinnati game, Mack had been asked about some incendiary comments his players had made before he got there, but Mack brushed it aside. When he saw Holloway and Lyons pop up on the tube, however, it started to dawn on Mack that something significant had happened.
Mack excused himself, stepped outside the restaurant, and watched the full video on his iPad. What he saw shocked him just like it shocked the rest of the country. There was Holloway -- his leader, his best player, his All-America candidate -- appearing to justify the fight with some extremely coarse language. "That's what you're going to see from Xavier and Cincinnati," Holloway said with a troubling nonchalance. "We got disrespected a little bit before the game, guys calling us out. We're a tougher team. We're grown men over here. We got a whole bunch of gangstas in the locker room, not thugs but tough guys on the court. We went out there and zipped 'em up at the end of the game."
We got a whole bunch of gangstas in the locker room. Mack was stunned. He immediately called Holloway and Lyons to make sure they understood the seriousness of the situation. He was especially concerned with Holloway, who because of his stature had the most to lose. "I really think Tu understood the gravity of what took place," Mack told me by phone Sunday night. "He said, I can't believe I came across that way. It wasn't my intent. It's not what I meant."
Holloway, of course, was far from the only player who was in the wrong on Saturday. But while the fight was reprehensible, indefensible and inexcusable, it was, on some level, understandable. These were kids behaving badly because they lost their heads in the heat of the moment.
Yet, when Holloway and Lyons walked into that interview room, they were not in the heat of the moment. They were speaking calmly after what should have been a brief period of reflection and remorse. Holloway had particular reason to feel regret because his woofing toward the Cincinnati bench instigated the melee in the first place. Not only did Holloway refuse to apologize for his actions, he relished the chance to own them.
"I talked to that whole staff. I said, 'This is my city. I'm cut from a different cloth,'" he said. "None of them guys on their team is like me. I let the whole staff know none of them was like me." Holloway later added, "I don't regret anything that happened."
Holloway was singing a different tune on Sunday afternoon. He met with Mack and Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski shortly before a scheduled press conference. They told Holloway they wanted him to read a statement to the media and then leave, but Holloway asked if he could take questions, too. Mack and Bobinski agreed.
During the 40-minute news conference, Holloway said all the right things and handled himself well. His body language matched his words of regret. He also tried to explain what he meant when he used the word gangstas. "I idolize guys like Kevin Garnett and Ray Lewis. I love what they stand for in their sports," he said. "When I used the term, I tried to clean it up and say we're not thugs. We're gangstas as far as having toughness on the court, making big plays, making big shots, playing team defense, and having toughness as a team.... We're not thugs. We're not doing things in the street and things like that."
Fair enough. But even if we give Holloway a pass for using that term, that still does not change the broader message he was communicating. He simply did not think there was anything wrong with trash talking to opposing coaches. He didn't quite condone fighting, but he did not seem to feel badly about what had happened, what he had helped cause. Mack told me that he had made a mistake by letting Holloway and Lyons speak to the media in the first place, and that is obviously true. But Holloway is a senior and he should have known better. His mistake wasn't just in his choice of words. It was the attitude behind them.
The apologies from all the parties ring especially hollow considering the lightness of the penalties that were meted out. Two Xavier players who threw punches were suspended for four games each, while Lyons was suspended for two games and Holloway for one. Cincinnati's penalties also fell short: Senior forward Yancy Gates was suspended just six games for leveling Xavier center Kenny Frease with a sucker punch to the face and throwing several more punches before being restrained. Two other UC players also got six games for throwing punches. The penalties are especially inadequate since both teams are entering the soft part of their schedules. (The Cincinnati players will only have to miss one Big East game.) Compare that with the University of Oregon, which two years ago suspended running back LeGarrette Blount for the rest of his senior season after he decked a Boise State player in the Ducks' season opener.
Still, I have no reason to doubt Holloway when he says he is now sorry, and I give him credit for facing the music on Sunday and handling himself with grace. "I'm not the picture I painted yesterday. I'm a son. I'm a grandson. I'm an uncle. I'm one of Coach Mack's players," he said. "From this day on, it's a part of changing our image at Xavier back to where it was before. So many guys before have made Xavier into a great place."
Tu Holloway has learned some hard lessons here, not least of which is that there's more to being an All-America than making clutch three-pointers. If his remorse is genuine, he can emerge a better, stronger person. Sunday was an important first step toward reclaiming his reputation, but the journey ahead is long.
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