Is This The Dagger?

For those that have not yet heard, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports is reporting that VCU will play Duke in the first round of the 2015 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden in November. Georgetown and Wisconsin are on the other side of the bracket. I say that for no other reason than it allows me to show this video, which put Kevin Harlan’s voice on permanent loop in my brain:

Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen…

You didn’t really know Teh Jepp, but you’ve probably seen her around VCU basketball. She spent many a winter’s night hanging around the Bowe Street parking deck during VCU basketball games, and you may have caught a glimpse of her in Bon Air or the west end of town. She’s been known to idle at airports, waiting for the team to arrive home from a road trip.

Teh Jepp was never flashy–she didn’t wear makeup, and the most she adorned was the truncated “It’s Havoc You Fear” placard she wore on her front and rear. She changed her top just three times. Like Ed Nixon or Jarred Guest, her greatest asset was a stubborn consistency and willingness to do everything that was asked of her.

She never even saw one VCU basketball game live, but plenty great moments played on her radio. And even though she could not legally enter the Siegel Center, she is the very definition of a staunch supporter to the program.

Teh Jepp, my 2002 Jeep Wrangler, at 13 years old and proud steward of 188,000 miles, was given her death certificate. Her health had been slowly failing in recent months, and she died of natural causes after filling her belly with her favorite beverage, a cold Exxon 89 Octane.

Her life would make Rand McNally blush. She carted me to Raleigh with Jeff Capel, where Chris Paul broke our hearts. To Buffalo with Anthony Grant. Teh Jepp didn’t see The Dagger, but she made certain I did. When we arrived in Buffalo the fog was thick enough to eat. I was on the phone, no real idea where I was going, crossing a bridge and I could’ve driven right off. Teh Jepp was up to the task.

She went up I-64 to Harrisonburg and down I-64 to Norfolk. Up 95 to Fairfax and down 95 to Wilmington. Philly!

“I’ve got nothing,” said Scott Day, VCU Athletics director of communications.

It wasn’t all VCU basketball. She’s been down Carolina beaches, up numerous mountains, hauled kayaks, kids, and dogs. When the weather cooperated, she did this topless.

She came to me when The Beautiful One challenged me to get her, and there’s something perfect about that. In a harried email, I misspelled both words in “the Jeep.” The Beautiful One rightfully gave me a hard time for referring to my car in that manner, and a name stuck.

The greatest car in the history of cars, Teh Jepp, who got me to most of the 318 VCU wins since I bought it, is ready for a museum.

In the Mind(set) of Many, It’s Wade–As In Upgrade…

Less than nine hours after agreeing to replace Anthony Grant as head coach at VCU, Shaka Smart had Will Wade on plane bound for Richmond. The pair met into the wee hours, discussing everything from players to staff to strategy to the reality that dreams were about to become true.

This was the day before Smart’s introductory press conference.

Let me write that this way: Shaka Smart—who left VCU as the school’s alltime wins leader, and the man who many claim should have the Seigel Center court named after him and the man who turbocharged VCUs climb into national prominence—had not yet coached one collegiate game and needed a bright basketball mind to help him get established, and further a winning tradition.

He chose Will Wade, in an unwavering heartbeat, and before he spoke one public word.

Six years later, after it took Wade two entire years to move Chattanooga to the top of the Southern Conference, so did Ed McLaughlin. I texted McLaughlin soon after hearing Smart was leaving and said “not that you need recommendations from me, but you should call Will Wade.”

Ed’s response was immediate, and direct.

“We love Will and look forward to talking with him.”

And from what I’m told, the “talk” between McLaughlin and Wade stretched more than three hours.

The first time.

Before all this broke, months ago, Will Wade told on himself. Oh, he was trying to tell on Smart, but he gave himself away in the process.

I had asked Will if he had a story he could relate about Smart’s thoroughness and attention to detail. Wade recalled the days before their first game at VCU together—Smart as a head coach and Wade as his assistant. VCU was hosting Bethune-Cookman, a matchup that defines early-season buy games.

Wade was preparing his scouting report, and Smart wanted video of the Bethune-Cookman freshmen. These were going to be bench players, marginally effective role players. But they still needed to be scouted.

Now, getting a scouting report on the freshmen who play for Bethune-Cookman is slightly more difficult than finding film of Kentucky’s freshmen, or juggling chain saws. That meant Wade had to call high school coaches, associates, send up smoke signals–anything. Smart wanted every detail on the seventh or eighth man in the rotation for a November game against Bethune Cookman.

And Wade got it.

Before the first press conference. Before the first public word. And before the first game. The point of these three anecdotes: my friends, we are in great hands.

***

In many ways, I’m about to argue, we are in better shape with Wade than Smart. I’ll explain that, but first I have to get something off my chest.

I don’t understand the rancor and derision surrounding Smart and his move to Texas. You may not like that it happened. And you may feel like he owed something more publicly. I’m in that camp. But the pettiness is awful, and quite frankly disrespectful.

Besides, you have no idea what he did in private. You have no idea if he’s continued to text people. You don’t know how close he was to Treveon Graham in the run up to the NBA draft, or to Briante Weber right this moment.

Just because you don’t see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

It isn’t about how much the players did or how much the coaches did or how much the media lapped up his presence. Shaka Smart was hired to win basketball games and take VCU to the NCAA tournament and raise its national profile and graduate players.

That’s exactly what he did, and he did it better than any coach who ever set foot in Franklin Street Gym.

Lament is a wasted emotion, but feel free to lament the last couple days Shaka Smart was employed by VCU. That’s fine. But if you let those two days wipe out six years of growth and joy, that’s your cross to bear. It’s also pretty pathetic.

Now, we are moving forward because this is V fricking CU and we won before him and we’re going to win long after him, but I need Smart’s move to outline why we are in better shape with him in Austin, and Wade in Richmond.

It also allows us to address the biggest misconception surrounding VCU basketball.

I keep reading and hearing that now that Smart is gone, we are going to get back to being the underdog, or some similar story. You know, the party line goes, VCU was most successful as the underdog, when it didn’t feel respected. We need that motivation.

We are not going back to the hunter as opposed to the hunted. We are not going back to doing more with less. There was not some magical motivation that made us play better in the 2011 NCAA tourney.

We are not going back to anything. It doesn’t work that way. There’s only going forward.

You don’t suddenly get back to “being the underdog” because it isn’t about underdogs and overdogs, or feeling slighted. That’s an external limitation, like mid major, put on the players and coaches by media and fans. They are conversation points, not reality.

And as for money, we charter to road games, have a $25 million practice facility coming online, and don’t have to worry about funding football. So while the budget may not threaten nine figures, there’s no such thing as more with less.

The players decide the outcomes and what is inside them determines the fate, not some ill-conceived notion of motivation. It’s basketball.

Motivation is episodic. It’s easy. No locker room speech ever turned a lollygagger into Darius Theus. No tape of a lion chasing down an antelope will make you a better three-point shooter, and no sideline torrent of fiery adjectives and verbs can make you want to dive for a loose ball.

However a coach can unlock a mindset and unleash an attitude. There is a difference in mindset and motivation.

It’s difficult to create a Darius Theus mindset. That “chip” you used to hear VCU coaches talk about didn’t have anything to do with underdogs. It had everything to do with mindset, and ego. Joey Rodriguez has that mindset. It was unlocked and unleashed in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

And that’s the crux of the misconception. We were never the underdog in 2011, at least not in the minds and hearts of he players and coaches—where it matters. Listen to Rodriguez.

“We never felt like an underdog. Why? I don’t know,” Rodriguez wrote last March when asked to recall the 2011 run. “We just had an attitude and swagger about us that when we stepped on the court we were better.”

The staff in 2011 were masterminds. They didn’t play the underdog card. They played the ego card and that team was full of ego. That’s a coaching staff teaching mindset.

What we’ve got with Will Wade is a rare opportunity to tap back into a mindset through a fresh but familiar teacher. It’s the essence of VCU basketball. It’s what we have now.

Perhaps that’s what’s been askew the past couple seasons. (An A10 championship and two NCAA tournament seasons, I might add.) We were playing more with motivation than mindset.

There is no going back. There is only forward. I know this. And guess what? The biggest pure basketball mind of those 2011 masterminds is running the show now.

There’s one other thing that’s been forgotten. It’s what happens when mindset meets talent, and you play aggressive and fun.

Will Wade–bringing back the swagger.

Jack Ross and Joe Friday Walk Into A Bar…

The past two weeks has absolutely worn me out. The rumor, innuendo, speculation, sources, he-said/she-said/we-said filth has bubbled over. Stay? Go? Maybe so?

Maybe no.

It’s a leaky septic tank, only without the ground covering. It’s time to put all that to rest and deal with what we know.

Just the facts.

The fact is that two programs in division one have won 26 or more games in each of the past six years, VCU and Duke. The fact is that VCU is the only program in the commonwealth of Virginia, ever, to go to five straight NCAA tournaments. Only 11 programs nationally have been to the last five NCAA tournaments. VCU has been to seven of the last nine NCAA tournaments.

Fact: we win.

The fact is that there have been 66 straight sellouts in the Siegel Center. The fact is that we have The Peppas. The fact is that there is no football at VCU. The fact is that six television commentators have remarked to me about the crazed atmosphere in That Animal, and three national writers have been in touch with me about coming down to see a game, because “I have to see it.”

The fact is that the VCU style is running up and down the court, having a blast doing what others grind at.

The fact is that no matter what lawyering exists and what a judge may say in the future, we own havoc. It may become someone else’s tagline, but it’s a fact that it’s our identity.

The fact is this article with this quote within it: “Their coach, their players, their fans, their pep band – they all appear to be having more fun than everyone else. Watching VCU, especially in person, is the total package of all the things we love about March Madness.”

Fact: the VCU basketball experience is the very definition of passion, and reward.

The fact is that VCU was 7-3 in the NCAA tournament with Will Wade on the sideline, and 0-2 since he left. The fact is that Chattanooga won 13 conference games total in the two years prior to Wade’s arrival. The Mocs won 27 conference games in Wade’s two seasons, including 15 last year alone.

Fact: Will Wade in a winner.

The fact is that Juvonte Reddic went from a raw talent to an all conference performer with an arsenal of moves, and a professional basketball player under the tutelage of Wade. The fact is that Justin Tuoyo, in his first year at Chattanooga, was named the Southern Conference defensive player of the year.

Fact: Wade develops talent.

The fact is that VCU is the defending A10 tournament champions and played 29 games on national TV. The fact is that we are constructing a $25 million practice facility. The fact is that the Atlantic 10 is a basketball-focused conference that’s competitive nationally.

And the fact is that in early November we will play again. That Animal will be rocking. Shaka Smart is gone, he is not coming back, and it’s time to move forward.

These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed.

***

“Like a house protects you from the sun, Hatha yoga protects the practitioner. In asana, you should remain firm yet find ease.”

This isn’t some sunshine-pumping post that’s more a ham-handed, transparent attempt to make you feel better about the events of the past two weeks. It’s not a Bacon-in-Animal-House attempt to say ‘remain calm.’

Not. Even. Close.

In fact, what I’m talking about is the house that VCU basketball has built.

What I’m saying is that change has occurred before and VCU has been just fine. In fact, it gets better because of the strength of that house. What gets lost in the hand-wringing is this: VCU has always gone about the business of winning.

Talented players show up, are coached up, and the administration is fully supportive. The players get quality coaching, a brand spanking new practice facility, charter flights, and Sofia Hiort-Wright. They get a full building that oozes love and passion for what they are doing.

It’s a model that has served us well and is bigger than one man or three recruits.

If guys like Jonathan Mandeldove–who carried the requisite number of stars and stood 6-11 and was going to be a program-changing recruit–want to go to Connecticut and sit on the bench and score 21 points in their entire college basketball careers, so be it. His choice.

There are others. There’s always talent. It’s a fact that Nick George, the #11 scorer in the history of VCU basketball, was a July signee. Troy Godwin, Darius Theus, and Troy Daniels also come to mind as late-arriving players who fit into that winning model.

So three kids who–get this–never contributed one damned thing to VCU basketball other than frothy-mouthed expectations, are not going to be here. Their choice.

I don’t know who will be sitting on the VCU bench come November. But I know this. When strong coaching meets talented players within the VCU commitment to basketball, good things happen.

No, we won’t have those guys, but those guys are irrelevant. We have our guys.

I saw a togetherness on last year’s team I had not seen since that 2010-11 team. It was obvious. And I’m not ducking another obvious part–you bet your bippee I want Justin Tillman to be a part of this. You see, I don’t know if Tillman will or will not, but I’m not losing a moment’s sleep about it until Justin tells us. It’s pointless to waste energy on what we do not know.

What we have is what we know we have: a coach who knows how to win. A coach who can X and O as well as any I’ve seen in this town. A building that goes absolutely bonkers for the guys that run up and down the floor. And a $25 million behemoth sitting right next door.

We’re going to be sitting in That Animal in November. JeQuan Lewis will get into the lane and kick a pass to The Melvin, who will rise and fire from beyond the arc. The fans will stand, mirroring the midair path of the basketball. The ball will splash swish, and the familiar thump of That Animal pouncing on an opponent will erupt.

Freshmen and sophomores–underclassmen play at VCU–will scramble to spots on the floor that are still only mildly familiar. Robby will punch my shoulder so hard it will bruise. One of those long-armed, talented youngsters will bat a pass to Mo Alie-Cox, who will headman a pass to Terry Larrier for a dunk, and that thump will repeat itself.

And all will be right with the world.

Facts, my friends. Deal with the facts.

Are we clear?

***

Sydney Harris is a little-known but highly-intelligent journalist who spent most of his career in Chicago. One of his books is entitled Winners and Losers. Within it, is a dead-on quote:

Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time. What we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that VCU basketball things have remained the same, and it always gets better.

Give No Ground…

Will Wade took the podium yesterday and began talking in his introductory press conference, and I thought he looked nervous. He was working his way through the thank yous and plaudits–standard issue press conference decorum–and he rocked just a little bit back and forth. His words were a little stilted and robotic.

But after about a minute there were subtle shifts in body language, word choice, and smoothness of delivery. I realized I was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Will Wade wasn’t nervous. He was simply champing at the bit to get to basketball and the stamp he will put on this program. He couldn’t wait to get started, he dodged nothing. It was like a wave crashing to the shore.

The nuts and bolts of the program will be very similar, but it will have my little personality on it, a little distinct flair on it.

We’re going to fly around for 94 feet. We’re going to give no ground.

Contest every movement. Chance favors the aggressor.

And just so y’all know, havoc still lives here.

You could almost see the saliva form at the corners of his lips when he began getting into a tiny bit of detail: …30% of the time we will play 2-2-1 and fall back into a matchup zone.

It was like Wade was five seconds from telling Nate Doughty to get rid of the dais, asking folks politely but directly to move the chairs, and yelling into the stands: “Melvin. MELVIN! Get your shoes!”

Give no ground. You bet that resonates. Give no ground on the basketball floor when the clock is running, and give no ground in the progress this basketball program has made over the past 15 years.

It’s difficult to screw up an introductory press conference. Glasses are half full and speeches are easy. The air carries an ebullience that is tough to stamp down. There won’t be a lame moving screen call and nobody will lose.

However this was no ordinary introductory press conference. We can all admit that. Everything that has occurred in the past week, the past six years–hell, the past 15 years–framed this as a key moment.

Around 1,2o0 people were in attendance, and another 1,000 viewed online. They wanted to hear what Will Wade had to say. They had nagging questions, and nagging feelings. Even if they couldn’t put their fingers on the words they needed to hear, they needed to hear them.

This went beyond lofty goals and fiery speeches. This went straight to the heart of a fan base and basketball program that’s been on an unprecedented trajectory. This was a time to notice everything surrounding the press conference, not just the press conference itself.

And Wade friggin’ crushed it.

Blammo.

Will Wade knows this isn’t about him. He repeatedly said yesterday it’s about the players and the people. It’s about winning. And he is honored to be a part of it.

You know what you’re going to get from Will Wade. You can see the authenticity in his words when he has to talk about himself. It’s in those moments that he reverts back to searching for words and stammering just a bit. It becomes easy again for him when the focus turns to basketball, the players, and a vision for the program.

Later, at Home Team Grill, Wade again deflected from Will Wade and into the players and people and basketball:

we want people who will carve their heart out to be here

cutters we follow and those we let run, strong side, weak side, open side

if you get the opening tip the averages say you get an extra possession

It’s obvious what we have. Will Wade is a straight basketball coach. It oozes from his pores. He has a vision and a plan for actualizing that vision.

This is clear: you can call it anything you want to call it, but this is Will Wade’s show. And he has big dreams, big goals, deep March runs, in his mind.

Let’s give no ground, and do it again.

Where are all the people going?
Round and round till we reach the end.
One day leading to another,
Get up, go out, do it again.

Then it’s back where you started,
Here we go round again.
Back where you started,
Come on do it again

The Beatle…

It’s simple, really.

Shaka Smart won 163 games at VCU in six seasons, shattering the school’s alltime wins mark. It’s the second-most wins for a D1 coach in his first six seasons in the history of college basketball. He never won fewer than 26 games in any single season. He won the only tournament VCU played in that was not an NCAA tournament.

There’s that Final Four business that was, uh, significant. Wins. Hardware. T-shirts. Banners.

There are banners, lots of them, that hang in That Animal.

But here’s the truth: basketball coaches are replaceable. VCU won before Shaka Smart, and it will win long after Shaka Smart is gone.  Smart may have been the figurative can of spinach, but VCUs success on the court is the Popeye. From a basketball perspective there are other cans of spinach.

Here’s the second truth: to appreciate what Shaka Smart accomplished at VCU, you have to separate the man from the job. And then separate everything around the program from both of those.

This has everything to do with winning, and nothing to do with those banners. Those are mere artifacts. It has everything to do with 66 straight sellouts. Standing on the tables at KBH in Brooklyn. Smart’s moxie and how he handled press rooms. Food being named after him. Billboards on I-95 and a media feeding frenzy that bordered on embarrassing.

It was Smart’s ability to elevate the VCU program to national prominence and bring those who care along with him that is the differentiator. Any coach can be a tactician and win. Any coach can be a good guy. Any coach can care deeply about his players. And any coach can whip you into a frenzy by his very nature.

Shaka Smart’s blessing, and legacy, is that he is all of those things. People don’t write about Smart because he wins games. That’s a small piece of the puzzle. Smart is what we want from our leaders, and he went about his business at VCU with a humble nature. We know about Daniel Roose and Sofia Hiort-Wright because Smart talked about them and raised them up.

He galvanized this city and the college basketball world around concepts that made you feel hopeful and energetic, and we are all better for that. Smart is a true servant-leader.

So keep the banners. Keep the wins total. I don’t need them to validate anything. There will be more banners and more wins to enjoy.

Be thankful for these six years. Be thankful for we have today, this day, and be thankful to that man. Take every bit of that and continue to move forward, in your life and the lives of those that surround you. Be appreciative. Have a plan and write it down. Create approach goals. Have a positive outlook. Lift up others. Be energetic.

Shaka Smart is gone, and he will be replaced, but don’t let his spirit evaporate.

***

They ran an offensive set that broke down one day in practice. Whistle. Shaka Smart began hammering Troy Daniels, I mean flat out playing the classic role of basketball coach.

“What are you doing Troy?” Smart bellowed in a coach’s voice. “I can’t believe it’s February and you don’t know that play! Go!”

And Troy Daniels began running the Siegel Center stairs.

When enough time had elapsed and enough stairs has been stepped, Smart called Daniels down and turned control of practice over to Mike Rhoades. Smart spent the next 10 minutes with Daniels over in a corner, one-on-one, just talking. Both started laughing, and Daniels resumed practice.

Immediately, they ran that same play, the result of which was Daniels swishing a corner three.

***

We were on the plane earlier this season returning from a loss. Mike Gilmore had played a bucketful of minutes, and it was not his best night of the season. It was one of those nights where a freshman played like a freshman–tentative, fearful, almost lost on the court.

Smart made sure he sat in the row behind Gilmore.

Typically, and especially after a loss, Smart’s habit is to settle into his seat and fire up the laptop to watch a tape of the game we just played. On this evening, the laptop remained closed and he started chatting up Gilmore.

It turned into a conversation about how to approach the game, Gilmore’s time on the floor, how to manage fear, and how to use his teammates to help him get past fears.

“Let me tell you about when I played…”

There was a discussion of what goes through his mind when he gets the basketball in his hands. Smart spent time on how Gilmore should think about the opportunities when he has the ball in his hands–not avoid it by thinking “what if I miss this shot?” He also spent time on the opportunities he could create without the ball in his hands.

“If you’re on the court, and we’re making plays, you’re going to stay on the court whether you make the play or a teammate.”

I can’t count the number of times Smart paused, asked Gilmore what he thought, and listened intently to the answer. The whole conversation turned when Smart made one statement.

“It’s the same approach for everything you will face in your life. School, career, relationships. Let me tell you about when I gave my introductory speech when I took this job…”

It was a 30-minute clinic on helping Mike Gilmore understand life and his own emotions and fears. And me, a 46-year old man with life experience, could not get enough.

***

Mo Alie-Cox was deemed a partial-qualifier by the NCAA. Alie-Cox will graduate early this summer, and is on track to finish his basketball playing career with an advanced degree.

I’m done here.

***

You may remember Cole Sydnor. A few years back, while swimming in the James River with friends, the Atlee High Schooler dove into the water, hit his head, and was paralyzed.

I am friends with Sydnor’s father and obviously know Cole. We decided an autographed basketball from Shaka Smart to display in his hospital room would help lift his spirits, or at least help somehow comfort him.

So one summer day I popped into Smart’s office and explained the situation, when Smart did a funny thing. He reached for his keys.

“Let’s go,” he said.

All I wanted was an autograph on a basketball, and Smart was prepared to drop everything he was doing, on a moment’s notice, to go visit a kid he did not know but was in a perilous situation.

It didn’t work out that way because Sydnor was in a special rehab facility in Atlanta at the time, but I will never forget that.

***

You want numbers?

Typically an in-season post in this space generates around 1000 views. The better ones hit 1500 and every now and then it touches 2000. As of yesterday, the post where Shaka Smart talked honestly about the challenges of being a coach has crossed 19,000 views. I stopped counting at coaches from 34 different states.

***

Those five anecdotes are why they can take every banner out of the Siegel Center and wipe the record book clean and it will never touch the memories of what Shaka Smart brought to this program, and to me personally.

Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant were transactional. Shaka Smart was transformational. The campus, the energy, the spirit. Everything about VCU has been transformed. Let’s keep it going.