The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.P. Macura is the Grayson Allen of Big East basketball

Xavier guard J.P. Macura shoots better and scores more in road games, where he is often the target of jeers. (Julio Cortez/AP)

MILWAUKEE — Xavier guard J.P. Macura has a habit of telling his hecklers “Thank you, God Bless,” whenever an especially crude tweet or profane Instagram comment pops up on his social media feeds, but as he readily admits, he’s never been a saint on the court.

Sometimes he just can’t help himself. At the end of the Musketeers’ road win over Wisconsin on Nov. 16, Macura trotted over to the Badgers’ student section and pantomimed a taunt. He was doing the “Gator Chomp,” a jab at the Badgers’ last-second defeat to the Florida Gators in the previous season’s NCAA tournament.

Marquette’s student section had not forgotten that troll job of their in-state brethren, so when Macura first touched the ball against the Golden Eagles in a late December game in Milwaukee, students repeated the gesture as if they were enrolled in Gainesville. They booed. A few middle fingers went up. It only seemed to stop when Macura got rid of the ball, but once he touched it again, the noise returned.

Macura is not the leading scorer for Xavier as it has climbed to fifth in the Associated Press rankings at 22-3 overall, 10-2 in the Big East; that would be all-American hopeful Trevon Bluiett. But Macura, a senior, is second with 12.4 points per game, along with 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists — as well as the Musketeers’ unquestioned leader in opponents’ enmity. He is fiercely loved by his team and his fan base, who swear by his fire on the court and his willingness to do good deeds off it. But he is equally hated — maybe more than anyone in the country, save for Duke supervillain Grayson Allen — by everyone else.

“When you got thousands and thousands of people screaming at you, calling you whatever they want, I’d like to see how a lot of these fans would react if they were in my shoes,” Macura said.

Managing the noise

His on-court demeanor has earned him the nickname “Dennis the Menace,” and for good reason; the blond, rosy-cheeked Macura has never been afraid to get under his opponents’ skin.

“I didn’t think it would be like this. I can’t go back on anything,” Macura said. “It’s sometimes difficult to manage when you’re out there. I think I’ve done a better job managing all of the noise.”

The noise never stops. The Gator Chomps won’t cease; sometimes even Xavier fans will do it at home games. At another home game earlier this year, Macura and Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin exchanged words in the handshake line after the Musketeers won the crosstown rivalry game. Cronin had to be restrained, then went on a tirade during his postgame news conference.

“I’ve never had a kid tell me to ‘eff off’ three times before, during the game and after the game. You know who it is. Same guy every time,” Cronin said.

“That’s not what happened at all,” Macura said in a recent interview, although he declined to elaborate. He doesn’t feel the need to defend himself because opposing fans were going to come after him anyway. It always seems to stir something deep inside Macura.

As he heard the boos at Marquette, his blood was boiling. He violently punched the padding around the basket three times after he didn’t get a call in the final seconds of the first half; he later heard more boos after Marquette forward Sam Froling elbowed Macura — who fell to the floor dramatically — during a stoppage in play and was called for a technical foul. Macura went on to score 11 of his 15 points in the second half of a 91-87 win, then tried to restrain himself from more heckling as he walked off the court.

It got even worse a month later at Seton Hall, when chants of “J.P. sucks!” rained down. A sign in the student section reminded him of his 2016 arrest in a Cincinnati area bar, when he pulled down his pants and was caught with a fake ID before being charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and obstructing official business. All of that noise only pushed him to his best performance of the season; Macura finished with 27 points, including a memorable put-back dunk in the final two minutes that left plenty of Seton Hall students’ slack-jawed.

This season, Macura’s shooting percentage and scoring average are better in road and neutral-court games than at home.

“He loves [hostile environments]. He’s as competitive as any player as I’ve ever coached. It doesn’t matter what it is,” Xavier Coach Chris Mack said in December. “It could be checkers, chess, it doesn’t matter. He wants to win. Sometimes he makes the play that is too aggressive, and sometimes he puts himself and his team in a tough situation, but I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the country.”

Channeling his fire at Xavier

Macura, who grew up on a cul-de-sac in Lakeville, Minn., about 20 miles south of the Twin Cities, said he’s never quite put his thumb on where his competitiveness comes from. “In middle school, I was super annoying to others, just because of my competitive spirit. I kind of would rub off on my classmates a little bit different,” Macura said. “I kind of stuck to myself . . . I would just draw. I became pretty good at it.”

Macura also said he was a “bit of a loose cannon” early on during his high school career, but once he figured it out, he had plenty of college options. Brad Stevens wanted him at Butler before leaving for the Boston Celtics in 2013. During a camp at Iowa State that summer, then-Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg spotted Macura as he chirped with opponents in a scrimmage. Word got around that Macura had told one of the players, “Dude, I’ll score more points than your ACT score.” That swagger had earned him a scholarship offer on the spot from Hoiberg, according to Macura’s father, Paul.

His son found a perfect fit in Mack. He was as fierce breaking in Macura early in college as he has been in defending him late in his career, including after the spat with Cronin in December, when Mack said, “There’s two sides to the story.”

“A lot of people talk about how he’s sort of the villain in college basketball . . . he feeds off of the fans. They just, for some reason, want to say that he’s whatever,” Paul Macura said. “He is a good kid. But if you get in a one-on-one, you get in the game with him, look out because it’s all out-war and we’ll see who wins. That’s who he is.”

Macura will play in two more true road games to close out his career, Saturday at Creighton and Feb. 21 at Georgetown. Xavier pulled out a narrow 73-68 win at St. John’s late last month, and one tweet afterward reported that Macura yelled “0-11” at the student section of the Red Storm, in reference to the team’s winless start in Big East play. It’s all part of the noise for Macura, who plans to keep telling his online hecklers “Thank you, God Bless,” for the rest of the season.

He’s found comfort and quiet on campus, too. Last month, around the same time he had vanquished the lurid Seton Hall student section, he attended Mass on campus when he was approached by the Rev. Al Bischoff, a Xavier icon. The 90-year-old campus minister, Macura said, simply told him: “I’m praying over you, Saint.”

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