I was asked to write this.
It didn’t happen because I’m a prolific writer. It didn’t happen because I possess some incredible level of insight regarding the game of basketball. It didn’t happen because I blackmailed anybody.
It happened because I am an actual, real-life Mid-Major College Basketball fan.
As high school ended, I didn’t immediately attend college like most of my friends. I assumed I had the requisite skills to score a job in IT, and I soon found exactly the job I had been dreaming about. What I didn’t realise, however, is how quickly such a job can suck your soul dry at such a young age. A few years passed, and I came to the realisation that I could still easily quit my job and go back to school.
I had been living outside of DC at the time, in Virginia, and wanted to stay in state. George Mason didn’t work because it would have left me in the same area I was living, and I knew I needed a change. Virginia Tech and UVA were out, because I knew I’d go crazy living in a tiny college town in the middle of nowhere. I had never heard of ODU at the time. I wouldn’t qualify for William and Mary. JMU seemed like a school for losers. My only real option was VCU. I had visited Richmond plenty, and I knew I liked the town, so mostly on a whim I quit my job, applied for school and moved to the former capital of the confederacy.
I moved to Richmond with no friends to speak of residing there. I was too old to live in the dorms, so I lived a few miles from campus by myself. I rode my bike to school every day, and returned immediately after. I entered the most hermitic phase of my life. At one point in time I believe I spent close to a month without having a real conversation with anybody, if you don’t count answering my professors in class or asking the girl behind the counter at the 7-11 for a pack of Camel Menthol Lights.
Toward the end of my second semester I started to loosen up. I made some friends and I started leaving my apartment for social purposes. At around this same time, the CAA tournament was happening just down the street. I received an email informing me that VCU would be playing in the CAA championship game on a particular Monday evening. The email promised shuttle-busses from campus, free entry for all students and an after-game celebration, win or lose, at a local club. I decided to embrace my newly reclaimed extraversion and made my way to campus to catch a bus to the Richmond Coliseum to watch VCU take on George Mason in the 2004 CAA finals.
VCU ended up winning by one point as I watched by myself. We traveled to face Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament and we lost by one point. Again, I watched by myself in a stadium of thousands. Suddenly, I was hooked.
The following year I attended every home game. I got to know a bunch of fellow VCU fans. I even discovered that plenty of members of Richmond’s famous punk scene were huge VCU fans as well. It became an interesting blend of compatriots as I learned about the legends of VCU in Gerald Henderson, Rolando Lamb and the many years of almost-glory.
I became a season ticket holder. I started following the team wherever they played. I traveled to Puerto Rico to see them play in a preseason tournament. I was only a handful of rows back, directly across from the VCU bench, to watch Eric Maynor drain “The Dagger” against Duke in the 2007 tournament in Buffalo. I got to know most of the Athletic Department, many of the players and their families, and, most importantly, I got to know a lot of other VCU fans. I had never felt like such a part of anything in my entire life. These people kept cheering no matter what. They kept cheering no matter who the opponent was. They just kept cheering. And, I loved cheering with them.
Fast forward a few years, and a whirlwind of circumstances landed me in Brooklyn. I gave up my season tickets to the friends that had always accompanied me. VCU made the NCAA tournament again shortly after I moved. Since I was in New York and they were playing in Philly it was a no brainer. I attended the game with hundreds of fans that traveled from Richmond. We lost by one point, again, this time to UCLA. I spent the next few years watching VCU games by myself at the local punk dive bar. They carry all of the requisite channels, and they never mind turning on the game for me. I very quickly stopped trying to invite people along for these excursions. No one knows who VCU is. No one cares about CAA basketball. And: that’s OK. Watching these games became a weird form of personal therapy. Watching these games became a way for me to stay in touch with myself.
Now VCU is in the Final Four. I went from watching us lose to Georgia State a few months ago – by myself, while Fear and the Misfits blasted in the background while I screamed at the TV – to watching us defeat big conference team after big conference team. I had one companion when we destroyed USC in the first round. I had three companions to witness a dismantling of Georgetown in the second. I was able to gather a group of around 10 for the whipping we gave Purdue in the third. For FSU in the Sweet 16 I filled half a bar. For Kansas in the Elite 8, I filled the entire bar.
I get why VCU is fun to root for right now. We are the definition of the scrappy underdog. We are doing something that hasn’t been done since our conference-mates George Mason did so in 2006. But, there is a big difference. George Mason scraped by in their games. They won them all on the buzzer or in overtime. VCU is currently destroying every team in their path. We are playing no holds barred. We are living up to the “Havoc” system Shaka Smart promised to bring to our program two years ago.
VCU is not a no-name program. We had a strong series of success in the 80’s, although it might not have translated to many NCAA tournament wins. In the last decade alone we’ve lost by a handful of points on many occasions in the opening or second round of the NCAA tournament against very good teams. We’ve always been just shy of breaking through and proving what we might be able to do. We have continued the almost-glory tradition of VCU. But, right now, we’re showing the world what this basketball program is made of. This basketball program I fell so very deeply in love with. This basketball program filled with kids I respect and love. I watched our current senior class as freshman in Puerto Rico four years ago, and knew something special was going to happen. I knew that this was going to be our real opportunity to make a name for the program.
And, four years later, I’m glad that it’s finally happening. I’ve spent countless hours following this team all over the country. I’ve also spent countless hours watching bad internet streams. I’ve spent countless hours listening to audio feeds. I’ve had to follow entire games just by the slowly updated stats provided on ESPN.com. The point is: I’ve followed all of those games. And, now that we’re in the semifinals – after beating Pac-10, Big East, Big 10, ACC and Big 12 teams – now that we’re finally where I’ve known we always should have been, we’re finally in a position where other people might appreciate the beauty of VCU basketball. We’re finally in a position where people may appreciate mid-major basketball. We’re finally in a position where people may remember that sports are about heart and determination, and not just big contracts in the professional leagues. VCU and Butler and George Mason may not be flukes. Maybe we’re showing that true parity has arrived in the world of college basketball. Perhaps the time has come for us to watch the major conferences crumble.
But, in the end, that doesn’t really matter. Sure, all basketball fans would love to see their team make runs like this year after year, and VCU fans are obviously no different. But, I know these fans. It doesn’t really matter if we never get to experience this again. These people will keep cheering till the last buzzer sounds this year. And they’ll keep cheering no matter what happens to our season next year. They’ll never stop cheering.
I’ll never stop cheering.
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