Stan Heath does not have a tattoo on his body and doesn't plan on that changing any time soon. "I'm old-school that way. I was kind of against tattoos, didn't really like them," said the USF men's basketball coach, who turns 45 on Thursday. But having seen his players and the tattoos visible on their bodies during basketball games, having talked to them about the stories behind the words and images, he has a better understanding of why players like them the way they do. "This generation coming up, as time goes on, you can see the tattoos have meaning to them — you have a death in the family, a birth of a child, references to God and faith," Heath said. "It's kind of changed my views. I've accepted it. They have a powerful meaning to these kids." Even the best seats in the Sun Dome won't get you close enough to read the words on sophomore Justin Leemow's hands, to know who the intimidating figure is holding a basketball on senior Mike Mercer's right shoulder. Other teammates' bodies are covered with messages and reminders of what is important to them — family, basketball, faith, perseverance and, occasionally, cartoon characters. Now for a closer look …
Junior center Jarrid Famous missed his family in New York, so he got a tattoo of dog tags on his chest with the names of his father, brother and sisters. His left shoulder pays tribute to his mother, Dianne, who died in childbirth when Famous was 3 years old. While his chest is a tribute to his family, his back is for himself, with two words running diagonally from his shoulder blades: "Indestructible" and "Misunderstood."
Pride and loyalty
Junior guard Dominique Jones has been to get tattoos at least 20 times by his count, and in the closing minutes of a tight game, when he needs words of encouragement, they literally are right in front of him: "Strength" and "Loyalty" and "Survivor" on his arms, with sleeves of dragon scales to illustrate a tough exterior.
He's proud of the words "Lake Wales" written in script among the scales on his arms. "I feel like I'm the last of a dying breed," he explains. "There's not many people left that can say they were born and raised in Lake Wales. They don't do labor at Lake Wales Hospital anymore. They have to go to Winter Haven or Lakeland."
On his stomach, he has two quotes from Michael Jordan: "The game is my wife. It demands loyalty and responsibility, and it gives me back fulfillment and peace." And, "Basketball is my escape, my refuge. It seems that everything else is so … so busy and complicated."
There is shorthand only the players know — senior Chris Howard's leg reads "B2WG," short for "born to win games," and Leemow, who has the names of his grandparents, sports "F4L" — family for life. Both players have the words "Only God can judge me" on their bodies, the first two words of which appear on the eyeblack of USF quarterback B.J. Daniels in each football game.
Leemow has a family nickname from his brothers — "Jus' Blaze" — written on the backs of his hands. His left shoulder shows a lion — he's a Leo, born Aug. 1 — and the words "King of the Jungle." Other tattoos are more fun, such as the Looney Tunes character the Tasmanian Devil with the words "I am what I am." Like Famous, he's from New York, with a crown tattoo for "Prince of Brooklyn." Over his heart, he has a six-line message to his mother: "Mom, you fill my days with rainbow lights … a sweet-dream kiss to wipe away the tears," it begins.
Mercer has the most colorful tattoos on USF's basketball team. Take his right shoulder, which has a drawing of Michael Myers, the villain from the Halloween movies, holding a basketball in one hand and a knife in the other and the words "Killer Mike" — he got it in high school when he committed to play for the University of Georgia. His first tattoo is on the other shoulder, with a fiery basketball baring its teeth. Other tattoos reflect his favorite teams growing up in Georgia — the script A of the Atlanta Braves and the familiar G of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Howard has the name of his 6-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, on his leg, and Leemow's next tattoo will be of his infant daughter, Nevaeh, whose name is "Heaven" spelled backward.
Heath said he'll notice a new tattoo on a player at practice and will ask for the story behind it, though it doesn't exactly compel him to do the same.
"I'll still tell the guys, 'Hey, when you're 45 or 50 years old, you might want to think about your appearance at that age,' " he said.