Dean Garrett is a black man who stands 6 feet 11 inches tall. Add up those two facts in the United States, and you're likely to reach one stereotypical equation. Every day of his life, complete strangers take the liberty of asking 45-year-old Garrett whether he played basketball.
Eleven months out of the year it's annoying. If the calendar is flipped to March, it's not such a bother.
Garrett played center for Indiana University in 1987, when TVs wore cute little bunny ears and basketball players wore cute little shorts. It's also the year the infamous Bobby Knight led his team to a national championship victory in a down-to-the-wire win over Syracuse University.
Fans watched him play with a personal investment in the game. Now he watches fans put a financial investment in the game. Garrett is a supervisor in the Flamingo sports book. Tonight's stakes are especially high.
His alma mater faces the overall No. 1 seed Kentucky for a rematch of one of the biggest upsets of the regular season four months ago. Garrett's heart wants to bet Indiana will do it again and advance to the Elite Eight. His head isn't so sure.
"I really just hope that they play well," he says. "Do I think they'll win the whole thing? ... No."
If his team proves him wrong, it's not like Garrett's bracket will suffer for it. He doesn't do brackets. "I've never been interested because there's so many upsets," he says. "I really can't take it."
And, that's how he feels about teams with whom he has no affiliation. When it concerns a jersey he once wore, sometimes it's literally painful to watch. Indiana's win last weekend over Virginia Commonwealth University (63-61) gave him a stomachache. Not the victory, but the 40 minutes of March Madness that came before it. He watched the game at Green Valley Ranch Resort, among a bevy of bracket-gripping basketball fans.
It has been 10 years since Indiana made it past the second round of the tournament, when they lost the national championship to University of Maryland. It also has been 10 years since Garrett retired from basketball. The VCU game gave him his first dose of the medicine he and his fellow Hoosiers spoon-fed fans in '87. Feeding it, he quickly learned, is much easier than tasting it.
"Now I know what everyone else had to go through," he says. "When you're in it, there's no time to get nervous. You're just trying to figure out the next play."
And, if you didn't figure it out, you faced the wrath of coach Knight. To commit to Indiana was to commit to mind games, a sport Knight may have mastered even more than the game of basketball. Garrett recalls getting cursed out and thrown out of practice as regularly as Knight plucked red sweaters from his closet.
The seniors on the team had it especially hard. Knight charged them with the task of personally preparing the underclassmen. If a freshman wasn't ready to play, the senior responsible for him was likely to feel the spit from Knight's words sprinkle his face. Garrett just calls it his former coach's way of getting the players to "step up and be leaders."
While he played for him, Garrett never got much praise. When he left, however, he was a hero. That was Knight's strategy, to make his current players feel they could never live up to their predecessors.
Knight didn't intimidate Garrett. He was raised by a military father and grew up on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California. Angry men with strong vocal chords weren't anything new.
Straight out of high school, he didn't feel his skinny build was ready for a Division I college. Garrett followed his mom upstate and played for City College of San Francisco before he bulked up and Indiana came calling.
Nothing in his life has compared with winning the NCAA national championship 25 years ago. He just wishes he appreciated it then the way he does today.
Experiencing that kind of glory so early in his career made it seem easy to come by. Playing basketball for seven years in Italy post-college wiped the rose tinge off those glasses.
While he played abroad, Garrett longed for just one year in the NBA. He got six. He was recruited in '96 as a free agent to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He later played for the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors.
His finest basketball moment with a team came in '87, but it was a personal dream come true to have his father watch him play in the NBA before he died.
His basketball career was just one part of his life, which is why Garrett resents the questions, comments and jokes he fields daily from strangers regarding his height.
"I wish people would just talk to me and get to know me for me," he says.
If they did, they would learn he has a 22-year-old daughter, just got a boxer puppy, enjoys old-school R&B music and spends his days supervising a sports book.
If they really get to know him, they will understand why, tonight, he might do more sweating than supervising.
Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.