You’re on the court!
I love you.
Those are exact words from a text sent to me from The Beautiful One, and they were accurate.
It was minutes after VCU finished off Dayton to win the Atlantic 10 title. I was on the court as part of my job. It wasn’t exactly the tough part. Interviewing players and coaches about the championship they just won ranks up there with “here’s a cold Stella. It’s on me.”
It was a slightly easier task than the postgame interview with Shaka Smart after the loss at Davidson, so I was ready to dive in and grab whomever was closest for a fun chat. But just for one moment I did not. I hesitated as I watched Treveon Graham and assistant coach Mike Morrell share a bear hug that would turn coal to diamonds.
I decided to wait a little more and allow myself to stand there and let it wash over me and cleanse four months of one of the more memorable seasons in VCU basketball history.
There was Shaka Smart holding his daughter Zora close.
Mike Gilmore, Jonny Williams, and Jarred Guest carried on while Jordan Burgess was right there laughing at, and with, them.
Then I looked over to Doug Brooks standing in place. Motionless. Taking it all in with a small smile on his face. It was the smile of satisfaction.
It was Doug’s steal no more than 20 minutes prior that ushered the win, and it punctuated an incredible season of growth for a kid who nearly quit earlier this year.
The whole scene was right there in front of me, and that was it. My vision began to blur with the salty water produced by your tear ducts. I don’t know if it was some sort of celebratory joy or catharsis that halted the easiest duty I would ever perform, but I wanted to watch them celebrate with each other. They earned the right to celebrate.
You see, this group never gave in to anything. They never quit. It was hard at times, very hard. Even the wins sometimes felt like walking through hot, deep sand. For every step forward there seemed to be a step sideways or even backwards. Antravious Simmons chose to move on.
Injuries and slumps and youth all took a toll.
But the players fought through every bit of it. They never lost faith in each other or the coaching staff. There they were, champions of the Atlantic 10, bouncing around the Barclays Center floor like grade-schoolers on a snow day.
And I was standing with them, just off to the side, beaming with pride, removing my glasses to wipe tears from my eyes.
We will always have Brooklyn and this team stirred those kinds of emotions. You are free to take from it what you wish, but the 2015 A10 tournament is how I will define this season.
Not a gut punch loss to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. Not a 12-game winning streak nor a three-game losing streak. Not the devastating injury to perhaps the most popular player in VCU basketball history. Not a high ankle sprain nor a classic Freight Train winner at Saint Louis.
Not 26 wins. Not 10 losses.
None of it.
You see Brooklyn is the fulcrum. Siegel Center North. Because that was all of it encapsulated in four games.
Tough play. Tough breaks. A blammo run. Great shooting. Poor shooting. Playmaking and trying too hard. We will always have Brooklyn, where the ingredients of an incredible season all came together and showed us how beautiful this game can be, and how wonderful it looks when it comes together.
This was a ride we had never ridden. Oh, the record is similar and the result is similar. But how we got there, the roller coaster, has never existed in such abundance. And there’s no marginalizing the injury to Briante Weber. While it may leave some wondering “what if?” I think that’s a wasted emotion.
Let’s understand something immediately. This team, led by that staff, accomplished something incredible. They redefined themselves in two weeks in February.
The loss of Weber was a tectonic shift. Gone was the frenzied piranha havoc defense. Gone was the senior point guard. Factor in the number two scorer and number five rebounder in school history suffered a significant injury.
This was not November and we were not playing Bethune Cookman with months to figure it out. This was February in the A10, and they didn’t blink.
While Shaka kept us a preoccupied with coaching vagaries like the process and the plan, he and his staff was busily re-crafting where the chess pieces would go. Roles would change.
It got worse before it got better, but to the credit of the players they never lost focus. They believed.
And it came together over those four days in Brooklyn.
We saw the Melvin get his swag back, so much so that he was 0-6 from three against Ohio State but rose with confidence and swished two mammoth threes late. We saw Mo Alie-Cox, who was blossoming already throughout February, come into full bloom in March with an expanded role. And despite being limited by foul trouble, Cox played his ass off in the Ohio State game.
Justin Tillman had an eight-rebound night in Brooklyn. Jonny Williams was steady. JeQuan Lewis scored. Doug Brooks and Terry Larrier became starters. The team played as a unit, all in these new roles.
There’s no “what ifs” that surround that. The injury happened and we had to deal with the next most important thing. We were given a sort of a gift, really, a peek into a bright future. The gift was provided to us over the course of those four games that produced a championship.
In the end, there was Briante Weber, high atop a ladder, waving a scissor-snipped net to thousands of VCU fans. That’s the lens I will frame this season.
We will always have Brooklyn.
That’s really why this season was so incredible. It touched every one of our emotions. Heartbreak. Joy. Frustration. Irony. Sunshine. Rain.
We had it all over the past four months. That’s why we will remember this year not for any accomplishment. Not for any shortfall. We will remember it for what it was, a fantastic journey.
And while this season ended with a loss, it ended with a loss in VCUs fifth straight NCAA tournament.
I’m no different than anyone else. I wanted more, a Sweet 16. But we couldn’t have asked more of those players and coaches. They delivered.
I appreciate what we have, what we got from this group, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Only 11 programs in the nation have been to five straight NCAA tournaments. VCU is one of them.
Think of it this way: VCU now has a graduating class, and alumni, who never experienced a season that did not end in the NCAA tournament.
So yes, I want Sweet 16s, and they will come. I know that. The beauty of that day will be that there’s no argument of an upset. No Cinderella. No fluke. We are a program playing on a national level and we belong.
Hell no. It’s What Will Be.
“I can’t move but I’ll go five more.”
Those were Treveon Graham’s words to me as we sat outside the locker room after Graham scored what seemed like 466 points in the last five minutes of VCUs double overtime win at LaSalle last year.
Graham was gassed after playing 10 extra minutes and carrying an entire basketball team on his shoulders to victory. That short, simple conversation will always stick in my mind. That’s all that kid ever did: go five more.
Cheers, Treveon. You will always be direct deposit to me. We never saw the paperwork but you were money in the bank.