A FAN’S NOTES, The Rumpus Sports Column #23: Underdog Tattoo


One time I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, standing behind a dark-haired woman whose left arm was covered in tattoos. Another shopper—a young man wearing a summery straw hat—approached the woman and asked, “Do you mind if I take a picture of your heart tattoo to show my cardiologist stepfather?” The woman said that she wouldn’t mind at all. She offered her bare, illuminated shoulder to the man, who used his cell phone to snap a picture. That’s when I first noticed the heart image inked onto the woman’s skin: it was an anatomical heart, four-chambered, complete with the curving pink wave of an aorta.

“Thanks!” the man in the hat said after he’d saved the picture on his phone. Then he walked away, ending my speculation that his interest in the tattoo was really just a pick-up line. It was kind of a cool tattoo, I realized, and it was possible to have a pure aesthetic interest in it.

The woman’s heart tattoo showed something about who she was, about her sense of humor, her interest in detail. But this emblematic brand of self-revelation can be a dicey prospect, and if you don’t agree, check out the 11 Worst NBA Tattoos Ever. (Before looking at this, I had no idea who Chris “Birdman” Andersen was, but now I’m pretty sure he’s my favorite pro basketball player.)

I’ve been thinking about tattoos lately because of the recent college basketball finals. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the lack of tattoos on Gordon Hayward of the Butler Bulldogs. Hayward, a 6’ 10” sophomore, had an incredible NCAA tournament. His play wasn’t enough to lead his team to victory over Duke in the championship game, but Hayward’s overall scoring and rebounding proved why he’s almost certainly headed to the pros. What’s funny, though, is that Gordon Hayward is the most baby-faced, innocent-looking basketball player I’ve ever seen in my life. He looks like a character out of a Victorian novel, maybe The Luck of Barry Lyndon—the kid from the countryside who hasn’t yet been corrupted by the city. Hayward always has a wide-eyed, shy-kid expression on his face. It’s a little hard to picture Hayward in the NBA, not because he doesn’t have the skills (he does) but because he doesn’t look tough enough for the pro game. It might help if he got a few tattoos.

There were plenty of other players in last Monday’s championship game who had no visible tattoos—Hayward’s teammate Ronald Nored, for example, and the Duke players Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. And these other guys also look young and boyish in their own ways. But Gordon Hayward is the only one who looks kind of awestruck and embarrassed even in the most heated moments of competition.

During Butler’s Cinderella run to the NCAA finals, it was tough for the broadcasters covering the games to find a human-interest angle on Hayward (though of course they tried). Basketball is not life-and-death for Hayward, as it is for the kids in the excellent high school basketball documentary The Street Stops Here. Before he committed his athletic career to hoops, Hayward was an accomplished tennis player. Both of his parents were there rooting for him at every game during the tournament; his twin sister was there for the final game as well. As a unit, the family looked almost as wholesome as Hayward himself. But what does the future hold?

The 11 Worst NBA Tattoos Ever might give a sense of what Hayward will confront when he takes his virgin epidermis to the pros. Time will tell if the Indiana native chooses to keep himself free of ink, or if he’ll succumb to professional peer pressure. For the time being, Hayward is just the kid from Butler, the best player on an appealing underdog squad at a school with an unusually cool president. But all that can change with a draft pick and a tattoo machine.

Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at Ascent and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More from this author →