The Herro family woke up around 9:30 a.m. one morning and saw red—everywhere. Red spray paint on the side yard. Red spray paint on the green grass. Red spray paint on the tree branches, which, for good measure, were also laced with toilet paper.
FUCK B.B.N.! GO WISCONSIN! the spray paint read, on that summer day last year.
Then there were handwritten letters, routinely delivered to Tyler Herro's high school, Whitnall of Wisconsin. His coach, Travis Riesop, carefully combed through them. Most were too vile to let Tyler, then a senior, read. One was from a man who said he hoped Herro injured his leg the way Gordon Hayward did—a particularly gruesome fracture.
All because Herro decommitted from Wisconsin to go to Kentucky (whose fans make up the aforementioned Big Blue Nation).
Then the death threats began. First on Twitter and then in real life. One afternoon, Herro was pumping gas into his tan Chevy Malibu at the BP gas station near his home when someone approached him. The man stepped close. Nose-to-nose close. "Walk across that street," the man said, turning to the road. "I hope you get hit by a truck!"
Eighteen-year-old Herro was no longer a kid, but what could he do? Laugh or shrug or run? His car was egged, as were his family's front door and garage. Tomatoes were thrown at his father Chris' Chevy truck. Tyler's mother, Jen, feared someone might physically harm Tyler when he went to Applebee's with his friends around 10 p.m. for half-price appetizers on weekends.
Fans would bring stuffed-animal snakes to games, as well as giant poster boards with Herro's face plastered onto a snake's body. He was called a backstabber and a traitor.
But he knew Kentucky was the right place for him—even though few outside his family and circle of friends believed it.
He was a 247Sports 4-star recruit, which is great but not considered the elite type of talent college basketball's blue blood programs feast on. He was not a McDonald's All-American. He was not regarded as a one-and-done NBA prospect as many Wildcat recruits are. Instead, fans said he would never play at Kentucky. He'd ride the bench for two years and then transfer. Forget the NBA. He'd be just another white boy who could only stand in the corner and shoot.
That burned Tyler the most. The way people boxed him in. Told him what he could do. What he couldn't do. And so he hardened. Did what his close friend, Baba Fajembola, advised him to do: embrace the villain people made him out to be.
You hate me now? Tyler would think to himself while taking the floor—like the time he hit a step-back corner three over two defenders against New Berlin Eisenhower. He grinned, telling the opposing bench they better sub in somebody who could stop him. I'm going to make you hate me even more.
Maybe the death threats, the eggs, the snakes, prepared Herro for the boos he encountered on the road for Kentucky this season. Maybe that's why he's so poised in clutch moments, like when he hit free throws in the waning seconds against Auburn, Arkansas, Florida and Ole Miss.
"I play better in those situations," Herro says. "I like it when people are against me."
"Pretty much whoever I'm going against, I feel like I'm gonna just kill 'em," he says. For good reason: He's averaging 14.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game as the Associated Press' SEC Newcomer of the Year, helping Kentucky earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
When he's on the court, he feels like every shot he takes will go in. And he'll let you know. When a player from Arkansas was talking smack to Herro while the Wildcat freshman was at the free-throw line, Herro blurted out: "I'm a bucket."
During an exhibition game in the Bahamas in August, against Serbia's Mega Bemax, Herro drove to the left and kissed the ball high off the glass. He ran down the court and winked at Wildcats associate head coach Kenny Payne. "K.P.," the referee said, "Did you see this freshman wink at you? He's really that confident?" Payne just laughed. Nodded. Yup. That's Herro.
It's the same swagger he's had since elementary school. As a third-grader, Herro would challenge Fajembola, then a high school senior and teacher's assistant, to one-on-one during recess. Herro was skinny and frail and looked like a mouse next to Fajembola. But the first possession, Herro drove to the right and swished a step-back corner three. "That just let me know," Fajembola says. "He wasn't going to back down from anybody."
Nowadays, Herro comes off as brash or arrogant, but he's neither. His confidence is his coat of armor. His defense against those who still doubt he belongs.
On this snowy day in Lexington in early March, Herro sits on a black chair in the players' lounge. He's reserved—almost embarrassed when talking about his "I'm a bucket" moment. He pretends as if he doesn't know what the phrase means, though he's said it all his life. "I don't know," he says. A smile washes over his face, and he laughs. He tucks his head down. "A bucket means I can score; I don't know."
Many people don't see this Herro. Off-the-court Herro. The loud mouth quiets. The villain vanishes. The swagger melts into shyness. Sometimes it's difficult even for those closest to him to pull three, four sentences out of him. He was terrified to deliver a two-minute presentation to his speech class of 17 earlier this year despite playing in front of over 20,000 people at Rupp Arena every game.
His mistakes bother him—a lot. He calls them his "failures." Sometimes he chucks the ball into the stands in his own workouts when he fumbles a drill. He labors to get stronger physically. To get bumped off screens less. To finish with contact more.
"Every day I just feel like I'm not at my best," he says. And that gnaws at him. "When he has a bad practice, he's devastated," Payne says. "He's sick when he plays bad games."
Herro doesn't care what people think about him, but deep down, a part of him seems to. He reads the negative tweets, reads every article. These things fuel him and frustrate him. He still feels slighted for not making the McDonald's All-American Game. Still feels his all-around talent isn't recognized, even though he's hitting floaters, attacking the basket and morphing into a playmaker and much-improved defender.
"He wants to prove to people that, I am one of the guys that you should have been talking about and I am one of the best in the game," Payne says.
Back at UK's players' lounge, Herro looks to his left toward a wall with a graphic of Wildcats who have reached the NBA. Devin Booker. Anthony Davis. DeMarcus Cousins. John Wall. Herro stares at the wall, longingly, as if burning to jump inside and add his figure to the pantheon now.
That's the hard part about playing for Kentucky. The four-year college-growth process is often squeezed into one year. And Herro, who has unexpectedly jumped onto some NBA draft boards, has never been challenged like this.
Coach John Calipari lit into him in the middle of a timeout at Tennessee. It was Herro's worst game. He missed shot after shot, going 2-of-11. Afterward, Herro apologized to Calipari. Soon thereafter, he went to a gym late into the night, as he does after most games, and knocked down dozens of the baseline pull-ups that clanked during the game.
"He's been great," Calipari says. "I always tell our players, Don't apologize for your play. It's apologizing for your reaction, your attitude towards stuff, which [makes you] a man or child. Which one are you? Because these kids are going to move in a man's world real quick."
On his first day of practice at Kentucky, Tyler Herro looked like anyone but...Tyler Herro. He was prancing. He was trying to slide to his right during a defensive drill and couldn't do it—couldn't complete a lunge. He couldn't keep up with anyone.
"He was one of the worst defenders we had," Calipari says.
If a player dribbled by him, he'd try to steal the ball from behind or block the shot. But these were not 5'8" kids from Wisconsin. These were guys Herro's height (6'5") or taller, and they had the power to dunk on him when they blew by him.
But he committed to improving on that end of the floor. "He's absolutely engaged every moment he's on the court, which means you can trust him," Calipari says. "We got some other guys that aren't engaged all the time. When they're tired, they just stop. He does not stop."
He couldn't, especially while struggling with his shot the first few games of the season. I'm not cheating myself, he'd think. I'm always in the gym. Why can't I make a shot? But he was learning to play without the ball for the first time in his life, and his confidence teetered. Calipari told him to trust his work. Trust his instincts. Know that he's going to be pushed. Hard.
"He wants to be coached," says Drew Dunlop, Herro's longtime basketball trainer, crediting Herro's longtime shooting coach, Andy Monfre, for helping instill that mentality. "He wants to get better. He's constantly adjusting."
That was especially so after Duke demolished Kentucky 118-84 on national TV in November. Herro struggled to get open looks. The Blue Devils hedged hard on screens. Herro looked uncomfortable. Indecisive. Out of rhythm.
He still had 14 points, nine boards, five assists and two blocks but was disappointed in himself. After he talked with his team and family, he approached Fajembola. Herro broke down crying.
"Why are you crying, bro?" Fajembola said. "It's only the first game of the season."
Herro measures games differently, though. Always has. Riesop used to sometimes have to take him out of the game for 30 seconds or so in high school because he was breathing so hard. Because he wanted it so badly.
"Every single game that Tyler played in was like do or die," Riesop says. "It's, I'm either going to play my best game of my career, or it's not gonna be good enough."
Maybe that's why Herro broke down in front of Fajembola after the Duke loss. "I just felt like I let you guys down," Herro told him.
Herro meant his family. The ones who always saw him as worthy, as capable—who cleaned up every egged car and buried every hate-filled letter. Herro couldn't bear to let them down.
Especially not his dad.
Wake the fuck up! Chris Herro would yell at Tyler when Tyler launched ill-advised shots, when he dragged his feet on defense.
I'm awake! Tyler would shoot back. I'm just not playing good!
Tyler was only in seventh grade but felt like every move he made on the court needed to be perfect. Chris demanded it that way. He was Tyler's coach. Tyler just wanted to release those long bombs and watch his pretty backspin twirl its way through the net. So, when the yelling began, he'd wave his father off with the hand he wasn't dribbling with.
Chris would then bench Tyler, once ignoring the mid-game text message Jen sent that told him to put Tyler back in.
"He used to push me so hard," Tyler says. "He'd never tell me good game or anything."
Tyler's voice grows thin. "That's kind of what made me," he says. "Those hard times." And they were hard. Painful. Sometimes Tyler wondered if he could do anything right.
Once, Chris and Tyler were playing one-on-one. Chris kept fouling Tyler, calling him soft. They got into an argument, and Chris told Tyler to walk home. Chris went home, but, as the sky darkened, he realized he should go back and get Tyler. He did.
Sometimes during Tyler's high school games Chris would stand up and yell at him from the top of the bleachers until he was red in the face. "We were always like this," Chris says, mashing his fists together, "because I was always riding him."
When Chris speaks to you, he moves closer. Not in an aggressive way, but in a direct way. He's pointed with his words. Self-assured. The thing he's most sure of is how much he loves his son. And how much he believes his son can be great. But the way he delivered those messages hurt.
"I was tough on him," Chris says. "I wholeheartedly believe he's mentally strong because of it."
Jen tried to reconcile: "They've always had a love-hate relationship. Chris and I used to fight all the time because I thought he was way, way too hard on Tyler."
Chris wanted to ensure his son would be tough enough to withstand what could happen if the basketball rolled the wrong way. He'd know. He was a basketball player all his life, too. One of the best in the area, too. Like Tyler, he was out to prove himself. To gain respect. To talk more mess than anyone else in the gym.
Then Chris tore his ACL, and his Division I dream evaporated overnight. Chris wanted Tyler to achieve his own dreams regardless of how Chris' career ended. Though the two continued to bump heads, Chris also supported him.
When Tyler would log on to the family computer, obsessing about rankings, slumping his head down when finding his name listed in the 40s rather than in the top 15, Chris would tell him to close the website. Rankings don't matter. You got this.
When Tyler would hit a corner three, Chris would belt out: You can't fucking hold him! Chris never missed a game. He doesn't now, either, driving about six hours to Lexington no matter the snow or rain.
Maybe Tyler's toughness, his swagger, comes from his dad. Chris taught him to always act like he belongs but not to forget where he comes from. You're not special just because you can put a ball through the hoop, Chris would tell him. There are things out in the world that are bigger than basketball.
Basketball always seemed to be at the brink of either bonding them or breaking them, but neither really happened. It's just that the color of their relationship shifted. Coach-player slowly shaded into dad-son, once Tyler realized who believed in him and who didn't.
Like when Tyler injured his meniscus as a junior and some friends talked crap about him behind his back: You're not gonna recover. You're not gonna play college basketball. Some of them fell away.
Or when Tyler decommitted from Wisconsin and it felt like the entire state was against him.
When Tyler lost his final playoff game as a senior, though, the relationship deepened. Chris found his son in the hallway. They hugged. They cried. They held each other. "A special moment I'll never forget in my life," Chris says.
There was a warmth between them that had long been cooled. Because underneath Tyler's jersey was a son. Not a basketball player. A son who had worried he let his team and his family down.
Chris shook his head. No. "You can't win every game," Chris said.
The day after Tyler scored 10 points and dished out four assists in a SEC semifinals loss to Tennessee last weekend, his mom found a tweet about him. This one felt particularly chilling:
"I hope Tyler Herro blows his knee out, has surgery, gets an infection, has to have a blood transfusion, gets AIDS from the blood transfusion, realizes he's going to die a slow death, then gets hit by a bus, but only gets mangled, then dies slowly as an AIDS infected cripple."
"The way people wish harm upon him is mind-boggling to me," Jen says.
Herro still feeds off it. "He can't be broken," says Steve Becker, his longtime strength coach. "He just knows what his abilities are."
He continues to show up at the gym at midnight, hitting fadeaways off the dribble and floaters down the middle, ever eager to prove he's a versatile scorer.
He continues to become more active on defense, too, recording three steals at Ole Miss and two against Alabama.
"He's not just a shooter," says Rex Chapman, a retired NBA veteran and former Kentucky star. "He's a basketball player. He makes basketball plays. He makes plays for other people. He's not a perfect player, but man, he's got a chance to be really good."
It feels a bit surreal for his family to see his name potentially in the draft this year. It's unclear if Tyler will declare, but sometimes Chris and Jen think back to when Tyler first picked up a ball.
Back when he was four years old, at the local YMCA, he refused to do arts and crafts in the day care center, instead sneaking onto the court. He never learned to swim in middle school—and still can't swim to this day—because he didn't want to miss a summer afternoon on the court.
"He's beaten a lot of odds," Chris says. "Last year, when he signed, I'd be tickled pink if he would have been playing 20 minutes a game here. And he's playing 37, 38."
Chris pauses. "I'm proud of him."
Chris still offers Tyler advice—albeit intensely—but his message is different. More upbeat.
It's a new game, he sometimes tells Tyler after the buzzer. New game.
Mirin Fader is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and SLAM. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.