I don't know about you, but there are times when I can start reading a news feature and, even though there are no hints in the headlines, photographs or pull quotes, I can just tell that a religion shoe is going to drop sooner or later.
That's how I felt when I started the epic Sports Illustrated story called "Love, Loss and Survival" about the struggles of New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson after his long-time girlfriend, reality-television star Gia Allemand, committed suicide. Read the opening lines of this story and see if you can spot the first clue:
The argument began, as so many do, over something small and seemingly insignificant. Ryan Anderson can’t even remember what it was. A text message? An offhand comment?
Then the quarrel grew, gaining strength. It carried over from lunch at a restaurant to the drive home, Gia Allemand’s voice growing louder. By the time Ryan dropped her at her apartment, in the Warehouse District of New Orleans, around six on the evening of Aug. 12, 2013, they’d said things they could never take back, and Gia’s anger had morphed into something else, dark yet strangely calm. Upon returning to his apartment, two long blocks away on Tchoupitoulas Street, Ryan flipped on a single light and slumped on the couch. All around were reminders of his relationship with Gia.
Spot it? I knew something was up the minute I read that he dropped her off at her apartment and then drove back to his own apartment. What? An NBA star who is seriously involved with a beautiful television celebrity and they are not living together?
Now, it's important to know that I first read this lengthy feature in an actual tree-pulp edition of the magazine. We'll come back to why that matters in just a minute.
As I dug deeper into the text, I started hitting other clues that something was up.
Perhaps it was the references to Anderson being "different" from other NBA players and how, after the suicide, he went to the home of head coach Monty Williams and his wife Ingrid, where they huddled "in prayer" for hours. A pastor appears, at one point. Then the story detailed the romantic chaos of Allemand's non-TV life, which took a turn for the better when she "found God and soon after met Ryan, a strong, stable man from a strong, stable family."
Then, after the suicide, Anderson fell to pieces and pretty much shut down all links to the outside world, choosing to spend his time "reading his Bible in silence." Meanwhile, the tabloids went wild with what the magazine calls the obvious tabloid trifecta of "sex, celebrity and death." Anderson remained close to Gia's mother -- Gia’s mom, Donna Micheletti -- and to his coach. The coach never tried to pressure him back out onto the court. Instead, Williams sent his star Bible verses.
Are you beginning to think that there might be a specific, powerful religion hook in this story? If so, it was not worth a line or two of SI ink to articulate and name.
The story ends with Anderson trying to grasp the many demons that haunted Gia linked to her dysfunctional family, a complicated medical condition and her struggles to trust a man after being burned so many times in her past. He works through a career-threatening injury to his neck and comes out the other side stronger and more committed to helping organizations that try to help people who are tempted to take their own lives.
Now, that's the print version -- lots of character and signs of faith, with no specifics.
You have to wonder what happened in the editing, because the extended-cut that is available online -- perhaps this is the story that reporter Chris Ballard wrote -- offers a crucial addition to the pivotal passage that kicks the story into high gear:
The first thing Ryan saw upon entering Gia’s fourth-floor apartment were her knees. His recollections of what followed are fragmentary. His screaming and running to her. The vacuum-cleaner cord hanging from the second-floor handrail of the spiral staircase, so tight around her neck that at first he couldn’t loosen it. Gia’s dog, Bentley, running to him. A neighbor arriving and dialing 911 as Ryan tried to revive Gia. Seeing the three-word note in her handwriting on the dining room table:Mom gets everything. Paramedics rushing in. Ryan calling Donna. Donna cursing at him, screaming that he knew Gia was sensitive, that he was supposed to protect her. The police pushing through the door. Ryan answering questions, sobbing, blaming himself. Pelicans coach Monty Williams hurrying in with a team security guard and finding Ryan slumped on the carpet, his back to the door, unable to rise. Williams dropping to his knees and hugging his player, the two men rocking back and forth.
For Williams, the night was a test of sorts. A fourth-year coach, Williams had played at Notre Dame and then for five NBA teams. He and Anderson were unusually close. Both men were Christians, and they bonded immediately despite the vast differences in their backgrounds. Williams grew up poor and once, at Notre Dame, considered suicide. That didn’t make it any easier to relate to Anderson now, however. Everyone’s pain is different.
As a crowd milled outside the apartment complex, Williams and the security guard hoisted up Ryan, who was limp and drenched with tears and sweat, too hysterical even to walk. They dragged Ryan to the elevator and then into a waiting car, the tops of his feet, still wedged into flip-flops, scraping the asphalt so hard that his toes still bear thick white calluses more than a year later.
Now that wasn't hard, was it? Why did editors put that middle paragraph on the digital cutting-room floor?
Simply naming the ghost in the story didn't send the plot zooming off into Religion-Right land, did it? If anything, making the faith element more explicit only makes this tragic story more real and complicated. Even with the ties of love and faith in this couple, the demons that haunted this young woman's life remained present and powerful.
Pews contain hurting people, too. Religious organizations need to get involved with suicide networks. It's OK to state the obvious, isn't it? Even if that means printing an explicit reference to Christianity in a Sports Illustrated news feature?