Danny Granger carries mission for New Mexico hoops alone
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 8, 2004, issue. Subscribe today!
TWO LINES INTERSECT, paths that peak and trough before colliding. Then, just as suddenly, they split apart again. One fades into black.
The story behind the story
Because we want to understand the dead, we go in search of them. It's a part of who we are and a hint to where we're headed. And sometimes it's just morbid curiosity. Working on a story in Belgrade, I couldn't help but visit the InterContinental Hotel's grand but gloomy lobby. There, I found the red leather banquette where the infamous Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan was seated when he was assassinated.
As a sports writer, you don't get too many stories like this one about Danny Granger and Billy Feeney. There's a fine line to walk when you delve into cases of suicide. You want to be respectful to those who mourn, but the question of "why" never really goes away, even when you think you might have an answer. Which means you never stop digging.
Fortunately, a police report filled in many of the somewhat ghoulish details, such as the rope with the flotation ring. That left me more time to get Granger and his teammates to open up about what a great guy Billy was. In some ways, it was clearly cathartic for them. Lobos guard Mark Walters told me, "It feels good just talking about him." Eventually, my morbid curiosity (and journalistic enterprise!) led me to seek out the place where Billy ended his life. The apartment parking lot was nearly empty; no one was around. It was the exact opposite of the InterContinental Hotel lobby. The banality of the place made it all the more disturbing. I tried to imagine Billy's death as just an accident, but an almost indescribable heaviness told me that wasn't the case. -- John Gustafson
Jan. 24, 2003. Reporters stake out Albuquerque International Sunport, awaiting the 11:30 a.m. arrival of Danny Granger, New Mexico's controversial new forward from Bradley by way of New Orleans. Several hours later, they leave disappointed-the transfer ended up missing his flight. When Granger does arrive the next day, there's no one at the airport to greet him. Alone in a strange place, he wonders what he has done.
Billy Feeney knows the feeling. The previous summer, the lanky kid from Colorado had made his own move here from Portland State. So when he gets to know the bewildered new guy on campus shortly after his arrival, he invites him to share his off-campus apartment.
The two drifters quickly discover they have more than baggage in common. Soon, they're doing everything together: movies, bowling, Tiger Woods video golf. Barred from game action as first-year transfers, they tangle in sartorial competition, turning heads as the audaciously dressed towel-wavers at the end of the Lobos' bench. In practice, they dominate on the floor, the 6'8" Granger tearing it up from the wing as the 6'10" Feeney moonlights at the point. On gameday, walking to the arena, they talk wistfully about the future, about how they will soon make their impact, the two of them, together.
Two lines intersect, and then suddenly, violently ... Danny Granger still doesn't understand why his friend didn't get on the bus home that August morning a little over a year ago. He was distraught over a soured relationship, that much he knows. But it still doesn't add up. The previous day, Danny and Billy had finished their first individual workouts of the new season. Their moment had finally arrived. All that was left for them to do was to seize it.
Granger doesn't expect he'll ever have answers. But after all the months of feeling at a loss, he now is settled on the course he has to take. As he sets out on his senior season, with the hopes of a program riding on his shoulders, he's on a mission: to leave something to remember them by, him and Billy. Something impossible to forget.
ON A late summer afternoon, Granger walks into The Pit, the New Mexico arena that from the outside resembles nothing so much as a giant red IKEA. He descends a ramp to the court 37 feet below ground, then joins his teammates for some serious preseason pickup. The stakes are simple: winners ball, losers sprint.
Granger clearly isn't in a sprinting mood. He dominates each of four straight games, leading the break, blocking shots, dishing to the open man and nailing his frozen-rope J. Watching him slice to the hoop for another deuce, freshman Bambale Osby throws up his hands: "How does he get to the rim every time?"
Coach Ritchie McKay had a similar reaction the first time he saw Granger play. That was three years ago, back when McKay was the head coach at Oregon State and Granger was a new Bradley recruit. No one expected much from the kid; at Metairie Grace King HS outside of New Orleans, he had a better rep in the classroom than on the court. (He was accepted at Yale.) But after going for 11 and 7 his freshman season at Bradley, Granger left no doubt where his future lay. McKay remembers watching him one night and being blown away. "I thought, man, they've got a pro there," he says.
The Braves, unfortunately, didn't have nearly as good a year, and the school changed regimes. It couldn't have played out worse for Granger. Even while he averaged a team-high 19.2 ppg as a sophomore, he couldn't get along with the new head man, Jim Les. And after he announced his transfer to UNM in January 2003, Bradley wouldn't release him from his scholarship, charging the Lobos with tampering. Granger could leave, but he would have to pay his way his first year.
The controversy made Granger the biggest story in Albuquerque when he arrived later that month, and all the attention freaked him out. "I didn't know it was like that here," he says. "I was like, this is insane." So he was lucky to meet someone as grounded as Feeney, and as quickly as he did. Of course, it wasn't a matter of luck, really-more like an inevitability.
The big man from Colorado had been on campus for only five months himself, and yet all the Lobos already knew him as uncommonly generous and kind. When sophomore forward Michael McCowan struggled on the court, Feeney offered a sympathetic ear and urged him to keep at it. When walk-on Laurence Metz had no place to stay over Christmas break, Feeney offered his own pad. And when he heard Granger was paying his own tuition because of some unfinished business with his old school, well, there was no way he was going to let him pay for room and board, too.
Granger spent that first semester on Feeney's couch. It made his transition much easier, if not exactly restful. The apartment was a clubhouse for friends and teammates. Feeney, of course, was the magnet. There was an unassuming goofiness about him-he'd show up at morning practice with mismatched socks and serious bed-head. And he had a knack for making people laugh or putting them at ease. "People wanted to be around him," says Granger. "Even if they were competing for the same position, Billy would be their friend."
He initiated Granger into the Lobos family, the bonds of which had been tightened by tragedy. Two months before Granger arrived, senior guard Senque Carey was temporarily paralyzed after being knocked to the floor in a game against Northwestern State. Although he was walking again two weeks later, his hoops career was done. The team was rocked, says guard Mark Walters, though everyone seemed to play harder knowing basketball could be taken away so quickly.
Many members of the team, including Granger and Feeney, stayed in Albuquerque to work out over the summer. They all pulled together on July 27, 2003, when they heard that ex-Lobo Patrick Dennehy, who'd transferred to Baylor a year before, had been found dead outside Waco, Texas. The murder hit Dennehy's old crew hard: not only was he still friends with a few of them, he'd been an AAU teammate of Carey's. It was particularly harrowing for Feeney. He was the one who'd taken Dennehy's scholarship at UNM.
By the time the team started individual workouts in August, everyone was anxious to create better days ahead. Granger and Feeney, in particular, couldn't wait to step on the court and start to rebuild all that had been lost.
"OW!" SAYS Danny. "They don't make these adobe houses for people my size." Granger rubs his head, tilting his eyes at the low doorway he's just bumped into. Pointing to a ceiling fan over the living room table, he says, "I hit my head on that every other day." He continues to walk through his cramped off-campus digs until he reaches his cluttered bedroom. He hesitates for a moment. "I've got a picture of him," he says. "You want to see it?"
He disappears into the darkness, then re-emerges with a framed photo. There they stand, Danny and Billy, their lithe forms pulling away from the camera, making them appear taller than they already are. It's a typical shot of young friends out on the town: stony faces trying their best to look hard, Feeney's enormous right hand in the foreground, flipping the bird.
How could Granger have known what his friend was going to do? How could anyone have known? The night before Feeney was supposed to take an early-morning bus to Colorado, he had been hanging out with some of his teammates in the UNM dorms, as he so often did. Everyone sensed he was upset over some girl problems, but no one suspected there was anything seriously wrong. Only after he'd gone missing for a few hours did Granger and Walters drive around town searching for him.
At 3 a.m., they found him walking downtown. They got out of their car, pulled him into an alley and pleaded with him to let them take him home, or at least to drop him at the bus station. But Feeney said he was all right and wanted to walk to the station alone. Convinced their friend was just having a bad night, Danny and Mark got in the car and drove off, glancing one last time at the spindly figure framed in their back window. They would both later say they had no idea he was drunk.
At around 4 a.m., Feeney talked to his sister Kayla, who was to pick him up at the bus station. A few minutes later, he called Coach McKay, who has declined to reveal the specifics of what they talked about, saying only that he, like Feeney's sister, didn't sense anything was amiss. At 5:03, Feeney dialed up Granger. The call roused Danny, asleep in his room, but he was too tired to pick up. A minute later, Feeney left a message for Kayla, saying, among other things, that he loved her.
Feeney pocketed his phone, and apparently wandered around until he found himself at the Villa de San Felipe Apartments, a few blocks from the bus station. Next to a canopy in a well-lit parking lot, he came upon a rope attached to a swimming pool flotation ring. "For Emergency Use Only" was stenciled on the front. He looped part of the rope over the top of a lamppost and coiled the other end around his neck. At 5:14, Albuquerque Police were dispatched to the scene. At 6, Granger got the call from McKay.
"IT HAD something to do with girls, you know, just girls." Granger is sitting in New Mexico's media lounge on a scorching August afternoon. He stares at the ceiling as he talks about his friend's last night. His usually booming voice is quiet. Granger knew Feeney better than anyone on the team, but his answers to the "whys" are painfully limited. He's heard differing accounts about the girl in question, and he doesn't know what to believe. But that's the least of his confusion. He simply can't square his friend's actions with his easygoing manner. "He wasn't in his right mind," he says. "He found a permanent solution to a temporary problem."
At the funeral, several Lobos, including Granger, served as pallbearers. They wept as they carried the casket to the grave site. A few weeks later, the team decided to dedicate the season to Feeney and to wear a black patch that read "#3 BF" on their jerseys. It was a nice gesture, but to Granger it didn't feel like nearly enough. Then again, what would?
Before the Lobos' game against Coppin State on Dec. 21, 2003, the team presented Feeney's family with a pair of his No. 3 jerseys in frames. A few minutes later, Granger was awaiting tip-off for his first game as a Lobo. Bittersweet didn't begin to describe his emotions. After sitting for a year, he was at last getting his chance, and yet all he could think about was his friend. "We'd always said how we were going to be killin' in the first game," he says. "And then he wasn't there."
Looking up at Feeney's family in the stands, Granger's heart raced. He clanged his first three shots before finding a rhythm. By the end of the night, he had 18 points and nine boards and UNM had a win. And just like that, it was clear. He would make an impact at New Mexico, and by doing so he would remind everyone of the impact Feeney had made on him.
TWO LINES intersect and then bend away, vectoring off in opposite directions. At the corner of Coal Avenue and Fifth Street, where the Villa de San Felipe Apartments stand, a rabbit edges into the road, then quickly retreats into a yard. Across the street a black cat looks on. The traffic signal hums as the sun dips behind a mesa in the west. It's been more than a year since Feeney's death, but a veiled energy still seems to haunt the spot.
Granger feels his friend everywhere. At times last season he walked to a timeout and imagined Billy was there with him. In a way, he was. With Feeney in their hearts and Granger on the floor, the Lobos won five of six after Coppin State. But down the stretch, a torn shoulder muscle limited their leader. Though Granger averaged 19.5 ppg and 9 rpg for the season, New Mexico finished just 14-14. That record still bothers Danny for obvious reasons. "We dedicated the season to Billy," he says. "I wish we could have done better."
He has surrounded himself with memories. When Feeney's father and brother cleaned out his dorm room, they asked Granger if he wanted anything to remember Danny by. Today he has a half-dozen pairs of Feeney's shoes; they're the same size 15 he wears. Newspaper clippings that detail the death and funeral adorn the wall of his bedroom. Some of Billy's clothes hang in his closet. And wrapped around the rearview mirror of Danny's car is his friend's headband.
A few of Granger's friends have suggested that this hoarding is a bit morbid. He doesn't get that. For him, there can be no moving forward without looking back, nothing to be gained unless the tragedy is confronted head-on. "I'm sure later in my life, three or four bad things will happen in a row and I'll think it can't get any worse," he explains. "I can always look back and say, when I lost Billy I felt a lot worse, and I came back from that."
Granger's final season at New Mexico begins this week, and he has big plans. But they don't include averaging a double-double, or winning Mountain West Player of the Year, or becoming a first-round draft pick, although all that is certainly within his grasp. They don't even include leading his team to the Tournament after a five-year drought, although that's possible, too. No, Danny Granger won't busy himself with matters so mundane.
This year, when he stretches before a game or lifts weights on an off-day, Coach McKay will sidle up to him and whisper in his ear.
"Leave your mark," he'll say.
And there will never be any need to explain.
John Gustafson, a former staff writer at The Magazine, is a freelance writer living in Santa Monica, Calif.
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