Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Updated: November 2, 12:22 PM ET
The ascent from deuce-8

By Eli Saslow
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 12 College Basketball Preview. Subscribe today!

HE TAUGHT HIMSELF to drive at age 13, out of necessity, the same reason he learned to do everything. And one day in that summer of 2005, Peyton Siva climbed into his brother's beat-up Dodge and headed off to search for his dad.

Siva's father had been missing for a week this time, maybe longer. His disappearances had become so regular that almost everyone in the family had stopped bothering to look -- everyone except Siva, a rising freshman on whom so many had come to rely.

When Siva first took responsibility for these searches several months earlier, he had been nervous while driving illegally and alone on the backstreets of Seattle. He had rocked the steering wheel from side to side, like he saw actors doing in television shows and movies, careening across the lanes and stopping every few blocks to ask strangers whether they had seen his father, Peyton Siva Sr. But now these rescue missions had become routine, and his driving had improved. He maneuvered the streets by heart.

He drove a few miles -- to a block where he had found his father half a dozen times before and parked in front of a two-story house with boarded-up windows and overgrown grass. It was a place he had heard his father refer to as a dope house, and Siva had never wanted to step inside it. Four or five men smoked cigarettes on a sloping front porch. One recognized Siva's car and disappeared back into the house. He emerged a few minutes later with Siva's father -- a 6'3" former kickboxer, eyes bloodshot and expressionless, scratches rising on his shoulders and arms, a gun tucked halfway into the pocket of his pants.

"Pey-pey?" he said, using his son's nickname. He squinted into the daylight and asked why Siva had bothered to come find him.

"I want to help you," Siva replied. "And I need you to help me."

His father sat in the passenger seat of the car, pulled the gun from his pocket and set it in his lap. He had been out of work for months and suffering from unrelenting depression. He looked down at his lap and fiddled with the gun.

"I want to end it," he said. "I'm ready to be done."

"That's so stupid," Junior said, shaking his head, his voice firm but quiet. "That's so selfish."

"How come?"

"Because you're my dad. I need you."

Siva continued to talk for several minutes, trying not to look at the gun in his father's lap. He was becoming one of the best young athletes in the city, just beginning to sense that his life held possibilities beyond this place, but first he had to navigate through the dysfunction that surrounded him. His teenage half sister had an infant son and had become a habitual shoplifter. His mom was working two menial jobs, sometimes three. His older brother had joined a local gang and started dealing drugs.

He had watched so many lives in his sprawling Samoan family be defined by a cycle of addiction and crime, drinking and fighting, and now he feared that the same cycle would define him too. How could he succeed if almost everyone in his family was flailing? He decided he would either change them or become them.

He sat in the driver's seat of the car and spoke to his father more candidly than he ever had before. He said he had a different plan for his life -- a vision for the family's future. He wanted to improve on his lackluster grades, get serious about going to church, win a state basketball title, make a new reputation for the Sivas and maybe even earn a living playing hoops. He said he could do that only with a family that remained intact and with a father who supported him.

"I want to do something big, and I want you to be a part of all that," he said. "Stop just wasting your life. Are you in?"

Siva Sr. listened in the passenger seat, stunned into silence. How many other teenagers could suddenly act like the parent? Some of his genes were in this son's wisdom, his calm, his sense of purpose. Maybe he really could get clean, leave the dope house for good. Maybe his son was capable of doing something big, of redeeming the family's reputation.

The father opened the passenger door, walked back into the house and threw the gun away. Then he returned to the car, eyes still bloodshot.

"Okay," he said. "I'm in."


NEARLY A DECADE later, at a Mexican restaurant in a college town across the country, Siva sits down after a preseason workout and tries to eat lunch. He is the best player on one of the country's best teams -- a senior point guard who led Louisville to the Final Four last season. In a town with no professional franchises, he is as close as it gets to a superstar. He calls over a waiter to order chips and queso, but the waiter wants to talk about the upcoming season instead. A 10-year-old fan stops by and asks Siva to pose for a picture. A mechanic on lunch break walks over with a napkin and a pen.

Siva is polite and quiet, pushing the chips to the side of the table and greeting the interlopers one at a time. He smiles reflexively and holds up his right index finger for their cellphone cameras. He signs their napkins and answers their questions with one-sentence answers. "I'm used to everyone recognizing me," he says, and it doesn't bother him. Because here in Louisville, his conversations are usually simple, and he still feels somehow anonymous. They might know about his rebuilt jump shot. They might know about his weakness running the high pick-and-roll. But rarely do they know about his past -- his strange and singular and always present past, reflecting his familial devotion, defining his life.

The narrative that shaped this NBA prospect, and his family, began 13 years before he was born, in the late 1970s, when Siva Sr.'s own father died of cancer at age 52. Siva Sr. was 12 years old then, and the tragedy set in motion a pattern of anguish and escape. Siva Sr. and his eight siblings drifted in their grief. Siva Sr. says he joined a gang, dealt drugs and blunted his pain with alcohol, then marijuana, then ecstasy and, at last, crack.

He had three children -- Leilanna, Michael and Peyton Jr. -- by two women in his early 20s but couldn't make it last with either of the mothers. When he wasn't kickboxing, he worked as a bouncer at Seattle nightclubs, stopping some fights and instigating others. He hosted boozy barbecues at his mom's house in the South End that devolved into brawls with his older brothers, many of whom also drank heavily and weighed more than 250 pounds. His aging mother tried to keep the peace with a baseball bat, but neighbors occasionally called the police. Siva Sr. cycled in and out of jail, mostly on drug charges, missing many moments of his children's lives.

Even from his remove, Siva Sr.'s problems ran through their bloodlines, afflicting one person after the next until Peyton Siva Jr. hit adolescence. He was the youngest -- and also maybe the luckiest. He knew the family pattern, and he had at least one idea about how to avoid it. The best path to success as a Siva, he decided, was to always do the opposite of the family.

He had to transcend not only his genes but a place. His mother's two-story house on the edge of Seattle's Deuce-8 neighborhood sat in the middle of a mounting gang war: The Deuce-8 territory was a few blocks to the east, Central's a few blocks to the west and South End's just a mile away. Trouble surrounded them -- and even if Siva was never in it, he was tied to it.

Trouble was the pills he found sewn into his pocket one day in middle school after he borrowed a pair of shorts from his older brother. Trouble was the video games his older half sister occasionally stole for him in her late teens, along with clothes for herself and baby shoes for her new son -- most of which was confiscated after she got caught and police obtained a warrant to search their house. Trouble was the $20 bill he received in weekly allowance from his grandmother that his father sometimes took when he was desperate for a fix. It was the mailing address he memorized for the nearby prison so he could write letters to his brother, his sister and his dad. It was the way his mother often told him, when everyone else's life blackened, "Now only you have the power to steer clear of all this."

From the beginning, his strategy was to steer clear through sports. His grandmother, a longtime cashier at Safeway, talked one of her customers into giving Siva a tryout for AAU basketball, and he made the team. His father, a youth football fan, knew that the local football league required players to weigh at least 60 pounds, so Siva, 56 pounds in a winter jacket and snow boots, stepped onto the scale with hundreds of playing cards and a few old cellphones loaded into his pockets.

He was the smallest player in both sports but also the most audacious -- a center on the basketball team who posted up against players a foot taller and a reckless free safety in football. He suffered a concussion. He dislocated his shoulder. The aggression that others in his family displayed everywhere else, Siva reserved for games. Only then did he operate in the space so often occupied by his family: on the outer border of control.

"Everybody in the city knew him as the craziest athlete, the wildest and usually the best," Michael says.

Just as Michael and friends joined gangs in search of an adolescent identity, Siva found an identity of his own: the basketball player, a status as respected as anything in urban Seattle -- and one that solidified him as different from the rest of his family. An AAU coach named Daryll Hennings began flying him to tournaments across the country. A youth pastor started attending his games and text-messaging him scripture. A talented older player, Terrence Williams, invited him over on weekends to play pickup games and taught Siva how to dunk.

Siva says he never drank, smoked weed or stole even after accompanying his sister to the mall and watching her walk away with an easy haul. "My whole family is addicted to something, and I didn't want to tempt fate," he says.

He feared that he possessed some of those same appetites -- a flash of his father's temper, say, after a referee made a bad call. For Siva, it wasn't enough to avoid temptation. He had to push back against it. So when he began to sense that he had inherited his mother Yvette's affection for the casino, he vowed never to go regularly enough to own a player's card.

He became the magnet for his extended family, eager to share his own successes and willing to accept their burdens as his own. He would not live like they did if he always worked to help them. He dumped out his brother's beer bottles. He counseled an uncle through addiction. He saved up a little money to help buy schoolbooks for his mother so she could earn a college degree. To push back against the temptations of gang life, he essentially started his own gang, inviting a dozen people to sleep over at his mother's house on the weekends under her supervision, staying up all night playing video games and drinking Capri Sun by the case, turning troubled acquaintances into friends and friends into roommates. There was Devon, who stayed over on Saturday and then accompanied Siva to church. There was Leon, who moved in for two years while his own mother struggled through rehab. There was LC, a 6'7" basketball player who lived with Siva for a few months until he broke the house rules by sneaking out of windows in the middle of the night. When Yvette kicked the boy out, Siva stashed LC in a family car, which worked until Yvette noticed an extension cord running to the garage. She followed it out and found LC huddled under blankets, playing video games.

And Siva continued to guide, more than anyone, his father. He called every few days. He dropped everything to find his father when the demons returned. He suggested that Senior, working construction part time and living with his own mother, could find solace where Junior had, in sports. So Senior coached football and volunteered at the gym of the Boys & Girls Club. During his first year in high school, Siva asked his father to join a men's group at the church, and his father agreed.

After Siva confronted his father at the dope house, his dad stopped doing hard drugs but continued to struggle with alcohol. "Peyton was almost like a counselor," Siva Sr. says. "He checked on my progress and gave me equal amounts of love and tough love."

Says Siva Jr., "As long as I was helping fix people, I knew I wasn't part of the problem."


BUT EACH FAMILY member's progress was interrupted by lapses, some of which spilled over to Siva's primary place of escape: basketball.

The family always came to games with good intentions, Siva says. Sometimes 40 or 50 relatives rented a bus and caravanned to his games, tailgating with a Samoan feast in the parking lot and taking over a section of the stands. His father always stood at the center of the spectacle, in a T-shirt with cutoff sleeves and slits running down each side. The colder it was, the less he wore. "Our hearts were hanging on every second of every game," Siva Sr. says.

But every so often, their intensity turned to rage, and the group became a mob. They were infamous among basketball fans in Seattle: big, tattooed, loud and disruptive.

Once, when Siva was in sixth grade, an opposing fan yelled in frustration from the bleachers just before halftime. "This little Mexican is killing us," he said.

Peyton Siva
Siva returns for his senior season asa co-captain and Big East preseason player of the year.

"My son is not Mexican," shouted Siva Sr., before charging in the fan's direction. A scuffle followed, and the fan pushed Siva's half sister. Siva Sr. swung back and broke the man's jaw.

Once, during Siva's sophomore year in 2007, his high school hosted a pregame ceremony before its biggest rivalry game to retire the jersey of former guard Jason Terry, one of Siva's idols. The school had never retired a jersey; local basketball dignitaries packed the gym, and Terry interrupted his NBA season to fly back from Dallas. Moments before the ceremony, Siva's sister recognized a man in the stands who she believed had stolen her car. She ran across the gym and started screaming at him, Siva says, starting a skirmish on the edge of the court, with her father eventually pulling the two apart.

At least half a dozen times, Siva watched his family start a fight in the stands. At first, the brawls embarrassed and infuriated him; he cried on the court, coaches say. But gradually he learned to use his anger to his advantage. He played more aggressively. After the jersey ceremony, for instance, he scored 24 points in the first half, charging at the basket, oblivious to the defenders and consequences.

The better he played, the better his family behaved: "Go up 15 or 20," AAU coach Hennings often said, looking back at the stands, "and everybody will calm down." Soon, his teams coasted to victories -- a state high school title Siva's freshman year and another his senior year. As his accomplishments mounted -- Washington's Mr. Basketball and MVP, and an All-American -- he began to fulfill the vision he had shared with his father in the car years before.

"He made a new reputation for the Sivas," says his brother, Michael. "Everyone knew us because of him, and we didn't want to disappoint him or drag him down."

Michael went back to school for a degree and became an apprentice carpenter just as Siva graduated from high school. His half sister enrolled in a cosmetology program. His mother went from working three poorly paying jobs to focusing on one good one, as a drug counselor in a probation program.

His father continued coaching youth football and working part time in construction. He relapsedmostly boozebut stayed clean for several months, instead of days, he says.

When it came time for Siva to pick a college, he followed his old AAU friend Terrence Williams to Louisville. He had been focused on his family for so long, and now he wanted to focus on himself. He decided that he was ready to go someplace far awayand that his family was ready for that too.


BUT THERE WAS no escaping a family maintained by equal parts devotion and dysfunction, and no escaping the person he had become.

At Louisville, he continued to be the activist who helped everyone else, sometimes at his own expense. His friends nicknamed him the Pied Piper because his instinct was to take charge when someone needed him. A fledgling student Bible group sought him as its leader; a girlfriend wanted him over for nightly dinners; his father wanted his counsel every few nights, and Rick Pitino, Louisville's coach, wanted him to concentrate on his game.

Siva managed to play well as a backup in his freshman year and emerged as the team's assist leader as a sophomore. But by Siva's junior season, Pitino decided the guard had let himself "get stretched too thin." Instead of leading on the court, he had devolved into an inconsistent mess. He turned the ball over as many as four times in a single half and made less than a quarter of his three-point attempts. A few months into the season, Pitino pulled Siva aside for an intervention that would change his career.

"I told him, 'Take a relationship sabbatical -- I'll even call your girlfriend for you,'" Pitino says. "He should only be making time for two things: school and basketball. I told him that we need 100 percent of his focus on the court."

The result was a return to the border-of-control play that had made Siva a prep legend. Last postseason, he averaged nearly 14 points and six assists per game and led the Cardinals to the Big East championship and a run to the Final Four. He returns for his senior season as a co-captain and one of the best college players in the country. He is an unlikely superstar -- scrappy and persistent at six feet, having spent the summer refining an awkward jump shot and watching hundreds of hours of tape of Steve Nash running pick-and-rolls. But even as the Big East preseason player of the year, he is hardly a lock for the NBA. His future -- and his family's future -- remains in doubt.

"I have people who are always counting on me," he says, and the dilemma remains how best to help. Continue to solve their problems or follow Pitino's advice and maximize his basketball potential by thinking about himself?

He has tried to follow his coach's direction: fewer dinners with his girlfriend, shorter calls home, attending Bible study instead of leading it.

But there are some people he has no choice but to lead. His father has made a habit of traveling to Louisville every November to live with Junior until March. Senior has gotten better every year but still spirals into a relapse with one drink, family members say. When he's 2,000 miles from the dope houses of Seattle, it's easier to stave off temptation. "It's like his safety net, coming here," Siva Jr. says.

So every year he invites his dad to stay at his spacious apartment, with two bedrooms and a common area. Junior says he is glad to have his dad there, watching Netflix for several hours a day and walking to restaurants downtown for lunch. Senior plays pool with his son and his teammates and tells them jokes in the common lounge. He is a fixture at Louisville games, regarded by the student section as something of a fun-loving mascot. He wears a tattered Louisville jersey that reveals his gigantic arms and shouts in a voice so booming that Pitino occasionally turns from the bench and asks him to quiet down.

Siva checks on his father during the day and comes home to watch TV with him at night. Sometimes they sit together on the couch and revisit that long-ago conversation outside the dope house. The son is still calm and focused. The father is still loud and excitable. They talk about all that has happened since and all they want next. The father wants to stay clean and turn months of sobriety into years.

The son wants to win a national championship, play in the NBA and cement his family's transformation.

They might do it. They might not. But on these nights, together in a dorm room across the country from Seattle's South End, the dynamic remains the same. Siva's successes are still his family's successes; its problems are still his problems.

And all these years later, his family's fate still depends on his help.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.