CINCINNATI — They claim it's all in good fun. Still, when it comes to needling a hated rival, college basketball fans often lose their sense of tact. There are no ground rules, no filters. Everyone is fair game.
Even a player's grandma.
Xavier standout J.P. Macura discovered that firsthand last winter, when a member of Butler's student group, the "Dawg Pound," phoned his family's home in Lakeville, Minnesota, a few days before the Musketeers faced the Bulldogs. When Macura's grandmother—who was dog-sitting while his parents were out of town—answered the call, a man posing as J.P.'s "close friend" told her he'd misplaced J.P.'s number and asked if she could provide it.
Grandma obliged, and for the next few days, Macura's phone vibrated nonstop with texts and calls—many of them on FaceTime—from trash-talking Butler fans hellbent on rattling him before the big game.
"I've never had a player that drew the wrath of an opponent's student section quite like J.P.," Xavier coach Chris Mack says. "They do everything they can to get under his skin."
Perhaps that's because he gets under theirs.
A 6'5" senior, Macura ranks second in points (12.2) and assists (3.0) for Big East champion Xavier, which won its first regular-season conference title since 2011 before being selected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that begins this week.
Yet while Musketeers fans recognize and appreciate how vital he's been to their team's 28-5 record—not to mention last season's Elite Eight berth—Macura is known more nationally as an irritant, a conniver who toys with opposing fans and players mentally as much as physically.
Macura is the guy who infuriates baseline hecklers by clapping in their faces or smirking as he stands before them after a layup. On the road he evokes boos when he raises his arms after swishing a three-pointer and glaring at the crowd as he trots down the court. And in between the whistles he always has something to say to his defender.
You realize you have four fouls, don't you?
Sure would be embarrassing if you missed these free throws.
Have you seriously not scored a single point yet?
Yes, John Paul Macura is the Dennis the Menace of college basketball. And he's fine with that.
"If I played with no emotion," Macura says, "and if I didn't get into it or get the crowd going…I don't know. I just feel like it wouldn't be fun. I try to bring energy and excitement to the game.
"I wouldn't want to play basketball any other way."
Mack, who beat out Creighton and Butler for Macura's services back in 2013, says he's rarely had to "rein in" his senior shooting guard. He knows how much Macura's game thrives on engaging with opponents and fans. Plus, Mack believes Macura knows how to approach the line of poor taste without crossing it.
Still, the one thing Mack and others close to Macura regret is that more people don't know about the real J.P. Macura. It's unfortunate, they say, that opinions are based on a handful of sporadic, braggadocious moments on the court instead of the touching gestures and acts his family and inner circle have witnessed off it.
In some ways, they say, Macura is more poodle than pit bull.
"The people that don't like him are never going to like him," Mack says. "But the people that get to know him, the people who have interacted with him and met him at the mall or seen him around town…they come away with a completely different perception.
"They realize that J.P. Macura isn't anything like the guy they see on TV."
"Dude, I'm going to score more points today than you did on your ACT."
Although he certainly has tried, J.P. Macura has yet to top that putdown, a nifty bit of trash talk delivered at an Iowa State camp during his senior year of high school.
Then-Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg—who'd been watching from the stands—heard about Macura's remark and summoned him to his office after the game. When Macura acknowledged that he'd indeed uttered that comment to his opponent, Hoiberg erupted in laughter.
"That's one of the best lines I've ever heard," Hoiberg told Macura. "I'd like to offer you a scholarship."
That was hardly the first time a coach had been smitten by the competitive fire of Macura, whose passion for basketball during his formative years often reached abnormal levels.
Growing up in Lakeville—about 20 miles south of the Twin Cities—Macura routinely asked his mother, Sue Ann, to drop him off in the mornings at Life Time Fitness, where he'd sit in the stands and watch adult pickup games, often waiting for hours until someone felt sorry for him and asked him to join.
"Toward the end of the day, when the games got a little less competitive, I'd get a chance to jump in," Macura says. "I definitely remember a bunch of old men yelling at me for shooting too much."
In the summers, J.P. had so much energy before bedtime that he'd ask his parents if he could run a few laps around the house, just to wear himself out. The brutal Minnesota winters were hardly a deterrent for Macura. Bundled up in layers of clothes on weeknights, after his homework was complete, he'd shovel knee-high snow from the court behind his house and then spend hours shooting jumpers in sub-zero temperatures. Patches of ice often prevented Macura from dribbling, and he almost always had to wear thick gloves to prevent his fingers from going numb.
"Didn't bother him one bit," his father, Paul Macura, says. "More than once we had neighbors call and complain because he was out there shooting past midnight."
When he stepped between the lines for his youth league games, Macura exhibited many of the same traits he does now, creating a stir not just because of his scoring and defense, but also for his knack for infuriating opponents.
"I was probably more annoying at that age," says Macura, laughing. "With less social media and less people taking videos of you, you could do whatever you wanted to. I was a little wild. It was more than just talking to people. It was pushing people, maybe some elbows.
"I was probably a little too competitive. I had to learn to take a little step back and learn to stay level-headed."
Macura—who was often overshadowed by in-state standouts Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis—averaged 32.2 points in leading his high school to the state championship as a senior, when he signed with Xavier after receiving more than 20 Division I offers.
Still, as proud as they were of their son for his basketball success, Macura's parents felt even more rewarded by the selflessness he demonstrated in his free time, a trait he showed long before he arrived at Xavier.
It all started in preschool when Sue Ann picked him up from the nursery at her gym. Waiting for Sue Ann that day was the mother of an African American child. She was in tears.
"Apparently," Paul Macura says, "the class had an activity that called for all of the kids to hold hands, but two of the white children didn't want to hold hands with two of the black children. The mother told Sue Ann that J.P. had stepped in and grabbed everyone's hands and put them all together. The mother of one of the [African American] kids had seen it and she was really moved."
About seven years later, when Macura was 12, he walked into his house with a shoebox filled with $500. Unbeknownst to his parents, Macura had spent the afternoon—again, in single-digit temperatures—going door-to-door in his neighborhood collecting money for a classmate named Jake whose father had passed the week before Thanksgiving.
"I got the door slammed in my face a few times," Macura says. "And one person told me to wait a minute so they could go inside and Google the name of the person who'd passed to make sure I was telling the truth. But it worked out really well.
"I just figured if I went and collected money, he could buy himself and all of his family members Christmas presents. By doing that I could lift his spirits up and also the spirit of his whole family."
A few days later, Sue Ann and J.P. took Jake and his mother to the Burnsville Center mall to purchase gifts for themselves and Jake's four brothers.
As a star basketball player at Xavier, Macura has routinely used his pedestal to impact others. He's developed a special bond with Troy Hannasch, a young boy from his hometown who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Fans have written notes to Mack about how impressed they are that J.P. is always the last one to leave postgame autograph sessions. More than once his parents have had to replenish their son's bank account thanks to J.P.'s generosity toward homeless people and others in need.
"Anyone who plays college basketball at a high level, or even a lower level, is looked up to by somebody," Macura says. "You have so many young kids that want to be where you're at. Anytime you can do something to help them out or make their day, it's really important.
"I have a lot of things. I play basketball. I'm on a scholarship. I don't need anything at this point in my life. I just want to give back to other people and put smiles on their faces and make other people's days. It doesn't take too much effort to smile, to say hi to someone or to be nice."
Nothing, however, brings Macura as much joy as spending time with his 87-year-grandfather, Jan. The two text before and after every game— even if it's at 1 or 2 a.m.—and video cameras last year captured J.P. hopping the guardrail before an NCAA tournament tilt to help Jan, who has poor eyesight, down the stairs and to his seat.
"He's always concerned about me and wants the best for me," J.P. says. "It's great to have someone that's there for you all the time. I get a lot of joy when he says he's proud of me. It makes me feel so good."
No one remembers the exact phrase, but as the Xavier team bus made its way through Butler's campus for a Feb. 6 game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Musketeers noticed a sheet hanging from a dormitory window. On it, in thick black ink, was a message for Macura.
"There wasn't any profanity," Paul Macura says. "It was basically something like, 'We've been waiting for you, J.P.!'"
Macura admits he brings some of the jeers on himself.
He screamed "Oh-and-11" toward St. John's fans when the Red Storm lacked a Big East win. And, by his own count, 15 Wisconsin partisans flipped him off when he directed a "Gator Chomp" toward the student section at the Kohl Center.
Other times the taunts seem unprovoked. For a stretch at Marquette, Macura was booed nearly every time he touched the ball. At Seton Hall, chants of "J.P. sucks!" rained down from the bleachers.
At least one publication this season has referred to Macura as "the Grayson Allen of the Big East." Much like Duke's polarizing guard, Macura is the player opposing fans love to hate.
"Anytime we're on the road," Macura says, "and there's all these people yelling at me and saying these things, it makes me laugh. It makes me play better. I want to shut those people up."
Mack says Macura does a good job of not letting fans disrupt his game.
"When he walks onto the basketball court, he has no regard for how people feel about him," Mack says. "The only thing he wants to do is win.
"He's not doing any of it for venomous reasons. It's intertwined with him being competitive. He enjoys it. He's having fun."
Well, most of the time.
Occasionally Macura is unnerved by some of the personal attacks he's absorbed on social media—especially when they involve his family. Tempting as it is to fire back, Macura usually just types: "Sorry you feel that way. God bless!"
But it was difficult for Macura to mute his feelings after an incident involving Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin following Xavier's Dec. 2 win over the Bearcats. Macura says Cronin wasn't being truthful when he accused Macura of telling him to "f--k off" before, during and after the game.
"For 15 years I've been a head coach," Cronin told reporters at the time. "I've never seen anything like it. He wouldn't play for me."
Says Macura: "That's not what happened. He lost the game and he was mad about that. He had to go in a different direction and talk about me. That's his choice. It is what it is."
"When people say stuff like that," Macura says, "it makes you look like a bad person, and that's not the case with me. That's not what I'm about."
Mack was quick to defend Macura, saying that there are "two sides to every story." It's certainly understandable why he'd have his senior's back.
For the past four years, Mack has seen firsthand how Macura has influenced the culture of Xavier's program with the example he sets for his teammates. Yes, he may come across as temperamental at times on television. But inside the locker room, on the practice court and within the huddle, Mack says Macura stands for all the right things.
"He doesn't have a game mode and a practice mode," Mack says. "With him, it's all the same. Whether you're a teammate going against him in practice or an opponent in a game, he's going to try to fry you.
"Everyone in sports is competitive to a degree. But the ultra-competitors…I don't know what makes them tick. There's something inside of them that's different than everyone else. Something that can't be developed. J.P. has that."
Macura says he takes pride in doing "the little things," such as diving for loose balls, taking charges and tipping rebounds to teammates.
"Every team needs a guy like that," Macura says. "I try to have as much energy as I can when I'm out on the floor so it will rub off on everyone else."
Macura earned Big East Sixth Man of the Year honors as a sophomore before averaging 14.4 points as a starter on last year's Elite Eight squad. Although his scoring has dipped slightly this season, Macura isn't any less feared or respected.
"He's a little unorthodox," says Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team lost to Xavier in December. "But at the same time, he makes things look so easy. He can fill up a stat sheet and impact the game and hurt you in so many ways. He's the heart of that team."
Although Macura isn't listed on any draft boards, one scout didn't rule out the possibility that he could play in the NBA.
"He'll get a chance during the [NBA] Summer League to impress someone," the scout says. "All it takes is a few good games for someone to fall in love with you. And his work ethic and attitude are supposedly great. No matter what happens, he's going to make money playing basketball somewhere, even if it's overseas."
Excited as he is about a potential pro career, Macura hasn't lost focus of the possibilities in front of him right now.
Xavier suffered a 24-point loss to NCAA runner-up Gonzaga in the Elite Eight last season and a second-round defeat as a No. 2 seed in 2016. And in 2015, when Macura was a freshman, it fell 68-60 to Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Macura believes this group is different. Xavier has dropped just two games since Jan. 10, and two of its five losses are to Villanova, although Xavier still topped the Wildcats by one game in the final Big East regular-season standings.
All players want to leave a legacy. For Macura, leading Xavier to its first Final Four in school history would be a fitting end to an unforgettable college career. Even then, Macura's haters will still probably find a way to discredit him and all he's accomplished.
"These fans that talk trash to him…that's the wrong thing to do to J.P.," says Trevon Bluiett, the Musketeers' leading scorer. "It fuels him and it fuels us. If I was on the other sideline, I might not like him. I'm just glad he's on my team."
Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King has received mention for his work in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.