Devendorf deals with the hate
MIAMI -- Eric Devendorf knows what you, the general public, are thinking.
"They probably think I'm an a-hole, man," the Syracuse shooting guard said with a smile on his face. "I know they do. I know everybody thinks I'm an a-hole."
He knows that because he hears it in every opposing gym, and he can read about it online as well. One sports blog, The Big Lead, compiled a list of the five most hated players in this NCAA tournament, and Devendorf was No. 1, followed by Tyler Hansbrough, Greg Paulus, Hasheem Thabeet and Jon Scheyer.
"That's pretty good company right there," Devendorf said, laughing, after shooting Arizona State out of the NCAA tournament, 78-67.
The fact that four of the five are white guys is an interesting sociological discussion for another day. For today, we're only concerned with the guy who tops the list, how he got there and how long he'll be around to irritate America in this tournament.
If being The Villain of College Basketball bothers Devendorf, he hides it well. But once you get past the endless ink, the ant-line beard, the smirk, the occasional potty mouth and an altercation with a girl that nearly cost him the season, everybody's a-hole insists he's an a-OK guy.
"I don't know if it's because of the tattoos or my competitive spirit," Devendorf said. "But sometimes people can get the wrong idea about a person. Off the court I'm a whole different person.
"I'm a good dude, man. I'm a down-to-earth dude."
Would everyone understand that if they spent a day with you, Eric?
"They spend a day with me, man, they'd have some fun."
Fun would not describe Syracuse student Kimberly Smith's encounter with Devendorf on Nov. 1, 2008, near campus. That's when Devendorf allegedly struck her in the jaw with an open hand (Smith's lawyer later said Devendorf did not hit her, and his client's version of the events was misconstrued on the police report). That incident got the Bay City, Mich., native briefly suspended and nearly ended his season.
Devendorf said he acted in self-defense toward Smith, who was the aggressor in an altercation after she got out of her car. Problem was, Devendorf already was on probation with the university for harming another student last spring, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.
So the school's judicial board recommended suspending him in December for the remainder of the academic year, which runs through May. But Devendorf was reinstated on appeal after missing two games, a decision that has direct correlation to Syracuse's presence in the Sweet 16 and trip to Memphis this week to play Oklahoma.
I don't know if it's because of the tattoos or my competitive spirit. But sometimes people can get the wrong idea about a person.” -- Syracuse's Eric Devendorf
Last time the Orange played in Memphis was December. Devendorf missed that game against John Calipari's Tigers while suspended. During that time, he was at a crossroads, relying on support from his parents and his AAU coach, Will Smith of the Michigan Hurricanes.
For a kid whose life had revolved around basketball since he was 9 years old, the thought of losing it was terrifying.
"I feed off playing basketball," Devendorf said. "I tried to stay upbeat, even though it wasn't an upbeat situation at all. I wanted to be positive, but at times I was negative. So many things were going through my mind at that time.
"I had a lot of thinking to do and had to straighten some things out. I had to be smarter about who I'm around, surround myself with the right people."
Now the father of a 9-month-old daughter, Devendorf said he's conscious of trying to be a better role model. On the court, he's played model basketball for Syracuse -- averaging a team-high 19.2 points in six postseason contests. His consecutive 3-pointers ended Arizona State's last chance to rally and upset the Orange at American Airlines Arena on Sunday afternoon.
Given the divide between Devendorf's value to his team and his popularity outside of upstate New York, he's the classic guy you love to have on your side and love to rip when he's not. Think Bill Romanowski here.
"They don't understand him or know who he is," said former teammate Gerry McNamara. "They think they do but they're wrong. He's the best teammate I ever played with. He would do anything for this team."
In some ways, McNamara and Devendorf are the same guy: stone-cold shooters who excel in the clutch and succeed at a high level in part on moxie and swagger. But McNamara's the guy who shows up in Madison Square Garden to watch his old team in an argyle sweater. Devendorf is the guy who looks like he's a rougher version of fellow Michigan product Eminem.
It was Devendorf who reportedly was told, during his freshman year, to watch his mouth on the court by none other than Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. It was Devendorf who celebrated his apparent game-winning shot over Connecticut -- the shot was disallowed, sparking a famous six overtimes -- by jumping on the Madison Square Garden press table and screaming an F-bomb into the stands, according to those in the vicinity. And as far as we know, McNamara was never dragged in front of the school judicial board.
So the hate finds Devendorf in every gym. Whatever the reason, it's up to him to deal with it.
"The world is messed up already, and they want to hate someone who plays basketball?" he asked rhetorically.
Sure they do. Since Devendorf is unlikely to sway public opinion to his side, there is only one response.
"We keep winning and people will get madder and madder," he said.
Four more wins would shut them up for good, and give The A-Hole of College Basketball the last laugh.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.