QUIETLY, KEVIN HART tries every day to turn his big lie into the truth. He chooses not to talk about his mistake to the media, which in itself is a sign that he is wiser now, because talking about himself is what led to the big lie in the first place. He slips his mouthpiece in when he goes in to play guard for Feather River College in Quincy, Calif., and then rarely takes it out the rest of the game, even when he's on the sideline. It's as if he is reminding himself to stay silent, that he has said too much already.
When Hart was a senior at Fernley (Nev.) High last season he talked plenty. He talked about being heavily recruited by major colleges, and pretty soon he was saying things that weren't true. But he kept talking anyway and didn't stop until most of Fernley's student body, his family and TV camera crews had gathered in the school gym five days before national signing day last February to hear him announce which Division I scholarship offer he had decided to accept.
That was when Hart's big lie began to unravel. He chose Cal over Oregon that day, which was news to the coaches at Cal, and those at Oregon for that matter, because none of them had offered Hart a scholarship—or even recruited him. Neither had anyone from any of the other Division I programs that Hart had said were interested in him, including Illinois, Nevada and Washington. After a reporter called Cal and the truth came out, Hart's first reaction was to spin an even taller tale, that he had been duped by an impostor posing as a Bears recruiter. But within days an investigation by the Lyon County sheriff's office disproved that story, and Hart admitted that he had made the whole thing up. No charges were filed.
He was media fodder for a while, as everyone tried to figure out whether this 6'4", 315-pound behemoth was a pathological liar, an inept con man, or both. How would you feel if everybody considered you an object of either pity or derision? But soon enough the public's attention moved on, which was almost as rough on Hart because it left him alone with his humiliation. "There was some therapy involved," says his grandfather George Hart. "He understands that what he did was dead wrong, and he understands why some people were really angry at him for it. But, in actuality, the only person Kevin really hurt was Kevin."
Why would Hart try to pull off a hoax that was so clearly doomed to fail? "He told me it was a little lie that just snowballed, and he didn't know how to stop it," says Feather River coach Tom Simi. "I think he fell in love with the lie a little bit." Maybe the only difference between Hart's tale and most others is scale. "Almost everybody lies during the course of daily life," says Robert Feldman, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst psychology professor who has done extensive studies on lying. "We spin these fictions to tell other people what we think they want to hear, or to feel better about ourselves."
After such a public embarrassment, most of us would start thinking about moving to a remote desert island or creating a new identity. Hart did stay home from school for about a week, Simi says, even though after their initial shock, people in Fernley were mostly supportive. He wanted to crawl into a hole, but that would have meant giving up football, which he wasn't willing to do. "That's always been the thing that gave Kevin direction," says his grandfather. "He loves the sport, and that's what keeps him going." Continuing to play was the only way Hart could prove that he wasn't delusional about his own ability. When he told people he was a Division I--caliber player, it was a lie at the time, but if he could one day make it the truth, that would count for something, wouldn't it?
That's why he's at Feather River, a small junior college tucked among the pine trees in northern California. That's why he's working on his pass blocking and strengthening his upper body. Feather River has sent six offensive linemen to Division I schools in the last two years, and Hart would like to follow them. It won't be easy—he hasn't cracked the starting lineup yet, partly due to knee and hamstring injuries—but his coaches believe he might just pull it off. "He's come a long way in the short time he's been here," says Simi. "He has two things you can't teach: size and passion for the game. He has a chance to realize his goal. It's not like it's some pipe dream."
But even if the story doesn't end quite the way that Hart first envisioned it, at least he will know that instead of slinking off in shame he made an honest effort to become the player he once pretended to be—a quiet effort that says more about him than the big lie did. Sometimes, Hart has learned, you can tell the truth without ever saying a word.
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After the hoax was uncovered, Kevin Hart wanted to crawl into a hole. But that would have meant giving up football, which he wasn't willing to do.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER