A predictable thing happened the other night. The Virginia Cavaliers, the winningest program in the country’s strongest college basketball conference over the last five years, won the college basketball national championship. It was a logical outcome, honestly.
It was also the most batshit thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Honestly.
I texted and spoke with several UVa alums around my age, and every last one said the same thing on Tuesday, mere hours after the proudest collective moment in the university’s 200-year history: “I still can’t believe it.” (I can show you the texts if you want proof. It’s actually kinda weird.)
And how could you, really? This team trailed inside the last 15 seconds in each of the last three games it played. Purdue had them beat. Auburn straight-up thought it won. And Ted Cruz thought it was signed, sealed and delivered, y’all!
And of course, UMBC. Scarcely one year earlier, this very team fell to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, making history as the first No. 1 seed to succumb to a No. 16 seed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Didn’t just fall, actually. Fell, then got kicked in the nut sack, punched in the jaw, shivved in the back, tossed in a body bag and hauled off to purgatory, left to languish in shame forevermore.
(The score was 74-54.) ((It was not a good look.)) (((Also their assassins were Golden Retrievers, probably all related to Air Bud.)))
But that’s not why we UVa alums couldn’t fully comprehend Monday’s victory. There was a deeper reason for our confusion, one rooted in a swerving series of mishaps that, over time, coagulated into a rotten mass of neurochemicals triggering fear, anger and sadness at the first sign of meaningful athletic competition.
It’s because we sucked. We sucked for quite a while there.
During my three years at UVa (I transferred from Wake Forest in 2008), the football team compiled a mathematically cute record of 12-24. The men’s basketball team went 41-49. I experienced one winning season during my time there: The basketball team finished 16-15 my senior year, tying for seventh place in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference. It was lit.
I covered that team as a student reporter for The Cavalier Daily. It was a genuine thrill to sit on press row alongside professional reporters, to interact with Tony Bennett, to bang out embarrassingly hyperbolic columns on tight deadlines after games. I loved every minute of it.
But by the end of that thoroughly mediocre 2010-11 basketball season, the fondest memory my colleague Ashley Robertson and I took away was the taste of the cheesecake. Ohhhhh, baby, that cheesecake. The PR folks at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina served up a dangerously delicious cheesecake in the press room between games, and that was a hell of a lot more memorable than anything Virginia’s players did on the court that season.
In August of 2011, three months after graduation, I put together a feature for The Washington Times about the dichotomy between Virginia’s revenue and non-revenue sports. The premise: UVa’s teams that bleed the athletic department dry — tennis, soccer, lacrosse, rowing, etc. — are consistently great, while the only teams that turn profits — football and men’s basketball — are consistently butt. Discuss.
The whole thing read like an autopsy report of my time there. Losses piling on losses, pissed-off fans, declining ticket sales, AD Craig Littlepage acting like everything was hunky-dory — pretty nauseating stuff. But the ray of hope peeking through all that darkness — the real reason I decided to write that article in the first place — was the idea that coaching changes could right the listing ship and steer it toward long-sought glory. Littlepage had canned his spirit animals, football coach Al Groh and hoops coach Dave Leitao — a pair of sallow, grouchy old men growing ever stiffer from the sticks up their asses — and replaced them with Mike London and Tony Bennett, a pair of upstarts radiating fresh energy and promise.
London was a good man and a great recruiter, but his inability to understand the concept of timeouts at an extremely fundamental level spelled his undoing. Tony, though, Tony was different. The man could recruit AND coach AND be extremely handsome. Young, principled, intelligent, magnetic, he was the real deal the moment he set foot in Charlottesville.
Sure enough, the ship changed course. (The basketball one, that is. The football ship suffered a massive explosion and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, its last vestiges eventually eaten by lanternfish and, well, Hokies.) Tony’s boys improved every year, eventually going 28-2 in his fifth season, the best regular season campaign in school history. From then on, Virginia somehow established itself as a juggernaut on par with big swingin’ dicks Duke and North Carolina, collecting three more ACC regular season crowns and two conference tournament titles, an unfathomable proposition just a few years earlier.
And yet, somehow, the failures kept accumulating, all of them inconveniently transpiring in March. The back-to-back losses to Michigan State. The blown second-half lead against Syracuse in the Elite Eight. The ass-whooping from Florida.
The last game I covered as a student in 2011 was an overtime loss to Miami in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The Hoos blew a 10-point lead with 40 seconds left in regulation. I’m not kidding.
Oh and we lost to UMBC.
Here’s the thing about that UMBC loss. For Wahoos of my ilk, it was yet another letdown in a long, clamorous parade of failures snaking down through the generations. We’d grown conditioned to endure them dispassionately, with less and less emotion invested each time, the better to sweep them aside and move on as quickly as possible. Because what else can you do as a fan? Without agency, there’s nothing you can do to change this failure, and there’s nothing you can do to prevent the next one, so best to stay numb and pretend you’re not dead inside.
It was an entirely different situation for the players. For them, what happened at the Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018, was nothing short of a catastrophe capable of tainting their entire lives. It was the basketball equivalent of Hillary losing to Trump. There’s just no coming back from that.
A death threat came in after the final buzzer blared, prompting Virginia’s players and coaches to enter their hotel through the back door that night. If they weren’t careful, those kids could have let that calamity haunt them forever, let that humiliation bore into their psyches, like a tumor that can’t be extracted. And that’s a very human way to respond to failure — ignore it, pretend it never happened, just move on with your life, man.
That’s not what they did, and that’s exactly why they won the national championship one year later. When Tony was struggling with how to approach the failure with his team months later, his wife, Laurel, lent some profound advice: “You’re not going to get better or grow stronger from that loss just because it happened. The only way you get better is if you respond to it the right way.”
Six weeks after the loss, Kyle Guy wrote a raw Facebook post detailing his ongoing battle with anxiety on and off the court. How he abruptly broke down in the middle of practice earlier in the season, such was the pressure he felt leading his team toward another ACC title. How the UMBC loss nearly broke him. He changed the background on his phone to a photo of himself with his head down while UMBC players celebrated around him, and he kept it that way the whole season.
Instead of ignoring it, every single player on that Virginia team confronted the meltdown and all the fallout that followed.
“All of that is why you’re ready to play on this stage,” Tony told his guys heading into the tournament.
And so when his guys got down 14 in the first half against Gardner-Webb, seemingly on the brink of becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed TWO YEARS IN A ROW — I would have moved to Greenland, by the way — they banded together, kept cool and won by 15. When Carsen Edwards morphed into basketball Balrog except with more fire, the boys in orange kept chipping away, pulled a quick miracle and got the hell out. When — ah, Jesus Christ, y’all get the point.
So we won. We fucking WON.
Even UMBC was happy for us, those pesky Golden Retrievers. I always did love that breed.
One last thing. After Monday’s unthinkable triumph, I dug up my clunky old recorder from college, gave her some new batteries and found the sit-down interview I conducted with Tony before his second season at Virginia. It was 9:30 a.m. on November 3, 2010. I spent most of the time asking him about how his freshmen were coming along (there was a kid named Joe Harris I was curious about) and what sort of leadership Mike Scott would bring to the table, but I did manage to get a question in about his vision for the program.
“I’ve talked to other coaches who have gone through it when they first got the job, and the constant recurring theme is first you wanna start getting people of character, young men that fit what Virginia’s about,” Tony said, his sneakers kicked up on a small table alongside his desk. “They have a strong sense to turn this program around, and there’s a sense of humility in terms of, ‘Man, I appreciate what I have here.’ Honestly that’s what I want to instill in these guys: an insatiable desire to make Virginia basketball, to get it back and go through the hard stuff to get there, but also have an appreciation for this education, enjoy the student life and just conduct themselves as humble young men that do the right things.”
What struck me was that in the entire course of the interview, he never mentioned striving for a national championship. Not even close. He just kept talking about building men of character. As he did so, a portrait loomed over his desk. It depicted a man gazing out over the horizon, arms raised, hair matted in sweat. It was Rocky on the steps.
Hell, let’s close with a Rocky quote.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”