The legend of Peyton Siva is often known before people ever meet him.
Rick Pitino heard it from Siva’s high school coach in Seattle before recruiting Siva to come 2,300 miles east to play basketball for the Louisville Cardinals. Opponents have read the legend of Peyton Siva in sports magazines before they set foot on the court to face the speedy, do-it-all senior point guard.
It’s the rare sporting legend that has nothing to do with sports, and everything to do with things that actually matter: family, guts and, above all, character.
“I’m kind of used to it,” the ever-polite 22-year-old said, not long before his team’s much-anticipated in-state matchup — and eventual 80-77 win — on Saturday against the now-unranked, but still heavily hyped Kentucky Wildcats. “Hearing my story, everybody can see that not everything is bright, and people can make it out of difficult situations. … Just giving people the inspiration and the hope they can make it out of anywhere.”
The legend goes like this: Peyton was 13. His father had once again disappeared. This was a common occurrence. Siva’s father, Peyton Siva Sr., fell into a haze of drug and alcohol addiction in Seattle’s rough-and-tumble Central District. He’d go on benders, and nobody would know where he was for a week, sometimes longer.
So 13-year-old Peyton got the keys to his brother’s old car and, as he’d done plenty of times before, went looking. He went to a dingy house where he’d found his father before. His father came out and sat in the passenger seat, a gun in his lap, his son in the driver’s seat. Suicide, the father wondered aloud.
No, the son said.
And the father listened.
In this moment, the boy became a man.
Except Peyton Siva Jr. didn’t really see it that way. Not at first, at least. When he tells this story a decade later for what seems like the thousandth time, he says he knows it sounds strange, but this was pretty much the norm.
In the neighborhood where he lived, he’d see people on street corners using drugs, drinking alcohol. They knew Peyton and his family, and they knew all about his athletic skills, how he’d always be playing basketball past dark, and football and baseball, too. The neighborhood addicts would look out for him. It was like they were his big brother.
“You better not be doing this!” they’d say. “Well, why are you doing it?” young Peyton would reply. He’d seen what that stuff did to his dad, and says he has never smoked, had a drink or done drugs to this day.
His closest friends had these sorts of problems, too. Their parents were strung out, or drunk, or never came home, or, worse, had died. Everybody goes through these sorts of things, he figured.
“To me, this was like an everyday thing, my dad going missing,” Siva told FOXSports.com. “It was the first time he ever had a gun on him. But it was kind of an everyday struggle with him, him going out and doing drugs. At the time you don’t think of it in that way …
“You look back at it now, you think, ‘That was something special, and you really overcame it.’ But I know a lot of people who had it worse.”
That legend of Peyton Siva, the one everyone knows before they meet him, had a happy ending. His dad didn’t kill himself. He pledged to quit drugs and drinking. In the decade since, he mostly has. The drugs are gone, the son says, and though the alcohol can still show up from time to time — it’s still a struggle — it’s better, way better than when Siva was a teenager.
Father and son are close now. Dad sometimes visits Louisville for a week at a time, staying in Siva’s dorm room and cheering him on at games.
But the next legend of Peyton Siva has an ending that has yet to be determined.
In Louisville’s worst moments last season, Siva played his worst, like a 90-59 loss to Providence in which Siva scored two points in 19 minutes and fouled out. In Louisville’s finest moments last season, like its stunning run through the Big East tournament and into the Final Four, Siva shined. He dropped 18 points and dished out six assists against Marquette in the Big East tournament. He handed out nine assists and netted 13 points against Notre Dame the next day.
He may not be the most talented player on this Louisville team — Russ Smith is averaging 19.7 points a game, and center Gorgui Dieng, who will return Saturday from a broken wrist that has benched him since November, could be a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft — but there is little doubt that Siva makes this team run.
He came to Louisville more a combination guard, but in his four years, Siva has developed into a true point guard, Pitino said. Siva’s shooting has improved. He still is prone to turnover-heavy games, but his ballhandling has improved. Pitino compares Siva to a Jacque Vaughn-type player, someone who may not get drafted high but could carve out a solid 10-year NBA career through sheer force of personality.
Pitino also considers Siva, along with current Florida coach Billy Donovan, to be the kindest, most moral human being he’s ever coached. And that, Pitinio warns, could be Siva’s Achilles’ heel.
“Peyton’s problem last year was he’s too much of a pleaser,” Pitino said. “His girlfriend’s grandfather died, and she was very close with her grandfather. He was trying to devote more time to her because she needed him at that time.
“I finally called him in. I said, ‘Look. Peyton. You’re trying to please the world, man, and it doesn’t work that way. You’re in basketball season. You gotta start paying a little attention to the person in the mirror, and just take care of yourself emotionally, so you can get through this season.’
“Then he started playing poorly. He was hearing it from all different sides. I told him, ‘You gotta block out everything. The thing about being tough-minded, it’s not that I’m or they’re emotionally stronger than you. They just take themselves out of all those situations where you can emotionally break. And you’re not. You’re trying to please everybody, your dad, your girlfriend. You gotta cut it out, and you gotta pay more attention to Peyton Siva.’ ”
That can be easier said than done. A man often is shaped in his teenage years, when Siva was navigating the difficult waters of addiction and family crisis. By age 22, personalities are formed.
But in his senior season for a fourth-ranked Louisville team that has a good shot at a national championship run, Siva’s improvement on the basketball court has been marked. He’s shooting 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, the best of his career. His shooting percentage is up from last season. His free-throw percentage has increased steadily, from an ugly 61 percent his freshman year to 84.2 percent this year. He’s had double-digit assists in three games this season. And he’s playing aggressive defense, with his 2.3 steals per game good enough for 38th in Division I.
All this stuff? Yeah, it’s great. It’s what makes Siva the fan favorite in one of the nation’s most vibrant college basketball cities. It’s what makes Pitino gush over Siva’s improvement in keeping his dribble alive in the lane, which could be due to studying tape of Lakers point guard Steve Nash.
But all that stuff isn’t what makes Peyton Siva a remarkable young man. It isn’t what makes Pitino choose Siva when he’s looking for a babysitter for his grandchildren. It’s not what makes Siva talk about his Christian faith and stories of redemption. Ultimately, it’s not why he’s proud to be on a basketball court, playing before 22,000 people, for the weekend’s most exciting nationally televised game, one that could tell us plenty about the state of two of the nation’s best basketball programs.
It is, however, why he happily retells his story over and over.
“I thank God for putting me in a place like this, to use me to help others out,” Siva said, using words that only a man who’s lived a life like his can say, and truly mean.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.