By Charlie Sallwasser
It’s 1am on Tuesday, and Virginia basketball has just won the national championship. I can’t believe it. As a 10-year-old, I used to pretend to be Virginia forward Cornel Parker when I was shooting hoops in my driveway, lining up the game-winner in the national championship game. I made countless elbow threes to secure the title for the Hoos, but driveway fantasy is a long way from hardwood reality. I’m giddy. What a night. What a team.
I cried happy tears tonight. I knew they were coming. I’m a crier anyway (weddings and father-son scenes in movies are my usual pitfalls), and I cried two Saturdays ago when Kihei Clark hit the free throws to cap the miracle comeback against Purdue, clinching the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1984, when I was a year old. On one hand, it’s just sports, but on the other, fanhood of this team is a common thread between my family, many of my friends, and the city I live in. It’s taken me from that 10-year-old shooting hoops in his driveway to a 36-year-old shooting hoops in his driveway with his 6-year-old. Following this team has covered most of my life.
I never wore the honors of Honor. My attitude toward high school academics was a little too cavalier for me to be a Cavalier, but both of my parents and my older sister were, and my youth was marked by trips to Charlottesville for football games and having basketball games on TV all winter. It didn’t take much exposure to any of it before I was sneaking my throwback Ralph Sampson jersey to school for picture day and spending long hours in my driveway trying to adopt Curtis Staples’ lightning-quick release for my jump shot (update: it didn’t take).
When I was in high school, my parents and I would talk to my grandparents every Friday. The Hoos would always come up, and my grandfather would ask me what I thought of specific players or games. He’d oblige my youthful optimism and punctuate it with his trademark “very good,” regardless of how seriously he actually took my analysis.
Virginia’s sports teams have been a steady undercurrent in my relationship with my own father. He’s not one for idle conversation, but I started calling him during every Virginia game I watched when I went away to college, no matter where I happened to be at the time (or how sober). Those calls pinballed from the state of Todd Billet’s jumper to little minutiae of our day-to-day lives, and have kept us much closer than we would have been otherwise. I don’t know how much paternal wisdom I would have missed out on if I didn’t need to chat with my dad about an otherwise inconsequential matinée basketball game. As an adult now with two children of my own, I don’t even get to watch every game these days, much less break them down afterward, but those calls still happen often. I’d be sad if they didn’t.
Now, I share that fanhood with my son. He wears a Kyle Guy jersey every day it’s clean (or he can sneak it out of the house), and when a game runs too late, we watch highlights together the next morning before school. I got to link arms with him on Saturday night when his favorite player lined up the winning free throws, and then hear him breathlessly recap it for my parents on the phone. I didn’t wake him up tonight (though I wish I had), but I can’t wait to sit down after dinner sometime this week, watch it with him, and celebrate all over again.
That’s what it’s about, really. Moments. The linked arms with the boy. Coining a recurring “never a doubt!” with my Dad after having plenty of doubts against Gardner-Webb, Purdue, and Auburn. The joyful, teary (and beery) celebration with my friend Will after Clark’s free throws. FaceTimes, calls, and texts with friends and family near and far tonight. The basketball’s been plenty memorable this March, but the moments have counted for a lot, too.
For most of my life, merely seeing Virginia selected to the NCAA Tournament was a thrill. The program made just five appearances in the Big Dance from 1993-94 (the first season I can remember start to finish) to Tony Bennett’s 2009 hiring, and in four of those five appearances, they failed to emerge from the event’s first weekend. Success in that span was judged by the team winning more ACC games than they lost, rather than by any postseason benchmark, but even that modest feat only occurred four times during those 16 seasons.
There were plenty of highs, but they manifested as short bursts of excitement, like upsets of North Carolina or Duke in front of rowdy crowds at University Hall or John Paul Jones Arena, or as superlative individual performances from the likes of Staples, Travis Watson, or Sean Singletary. You could never count on any prolonged success.
More frequent were the lows, groaners like Dave Leitao locking the team out of their brand-new arena for what he felt was subpar effort, scoring three baskets in a half during a loss to Florida State, or losing by 45 to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In the 10 seasons before Bennett was hired, the team won just 68 of 160 ACC games and played in the NIT five times. It was hard to imagine the Cavs making the jump; the Final Four runs of 1981 and 1984 felt about as relevant to me, a fan born in 1983, as Bob Cousy highlights do to someone who grew up on Allen Iverson. Final Fours felt like they were of a different sport, reserved for basketball’s blue bloods (the Kentuckys and North Carolinas) or random outliers like Loyola Chicago, who would become trivia answers for future generations, barring forever middle-of-the-road teams like Virginia, who couldn’t stay out of its own way.
Tony Bennett changed things. He developed an identity for the team. It wasn’t my favorite at first, and it took a while to get used to—artful scoring is more fun to watch than dogged defense—but it quickly made the team competitive night in and night out. Then, clued in by the slow surge in results and a connection with the humble, honest Bennett, talent started coming in. And with the talent came wins—178 of them over the last six seasons, with four ACC regular season titles and two ACC Tournament titles to boot. And with those wins come expectations of glory on the sport’s biggest stage, and that’s where, on some level, we still felt like there was something to prove.
In 2014, Virginia lost in the Sweet Sixteen. In 2015, the second round. The next year, with a Final Four spot in their sights, a 16-point lead evaporated in a flurry of Syracuse pressure and turned to a seven-point loss. And as everyone knows by now, 2018 marked the first time a top-seeded team had ever—ever!—lost to a 16. Each early exit fanned the flames of doubt around Virginia’s ability to win in March, while simultaneously finding new neuroses to add to the pile.
No matter how unfair it is that so much of the perception of a college basketball program’s health is derived from success in a single-elimination, end-of-season tournament that is mostly popular for how much wild, unpredictable stuff happens and how many people guess wrong and lose money, it’s true, and that perception has been the cloud hanging over this unparalleled run for Virginia hoops. As well as we fans think things are going, we want everyone else to think so too. Even if Bennett is actually the paragon of perspective that he appears to be in public, I’m comfortable saying that his was a fan base in need of some vindication.
This year’s run provided that vindication in cathartic fashion. One needs to look no further than the photo of Bennett hollering to the roof of the Yum! Center after Virginia’s Final Four-clinching win for proof of that. It’s been redemptive for 2018’s historic flop and the disappointments that preceded it, and redemptive for every one of the countless times a national analyst like USA Today’s Nate Scott said something like “UVA basketball is paint-drying, grass-growing, sixth-period-algebra boring.” There is now an evergreen reply to the many critics of Virginia basketball, and it will be raised to the rafters of John Paul Jones Arena.
For me, this Virginia drive to the national championship game has been more than just another six basketball games in March. It touches on three generations of family, 25 years of patience and pain, frustration and elation, late-night phone calls and barrages of texts, and perhaps more emotional and intellectual energy than a man in his mid-30s should be devoting to a team representing a school he didn’t even go to—but my wife and friends can write that piece. Virginia’s thrilling run through March 2019 has been accompanied by joys at every step. I’ll cherish it forever. And I can’t wait to share it with my kid.
Charlie Sallwasser wrote the UVA sports blog University Ball from 2009-2017.