UVA Basketball wins the national title: And the tears flow

chris graham final fourI am not ashamed to admit that the tears were flowing for me as the final seconds counted down last night in Minneapolis as UVA Basketball wrapped its first national title.

OK, sure, basketball, football – sports, in general – mere diversions, get that.

Somebody has to win the championship. They give one out every year, in every sport.

Your favorite team winning one doesn’t make them or you any more special than the team that won last year, the one that wins next year, the rest.

But it does make you feel special, and it’s been a long time since I figured out why, and why I let myself get emotional over these things.

Following a sports team is a way to let yourself be a part of something bigger.

For some, that something bigger is religion; for others, politics, though, gotta say, you politics people, and I used to be one of you, so I can speak from experience, y’all are freaks.

Sports isn’t life or death.

(Neither are religion or politics. At least sports knows it isn’t life or death.)

I spent Tuesday in Minnesota because, unlike practically everybody else in the media contingent that covers UVA Athletics, I couldn’t get a flight out Tuesday, because I couldn’t get here until Saturday due to my obligations doing ESPN college baseball.

Which, fine. My wife, Crystal, got her hands on national championship T-shirts and hats at U.S. Bank Stadium last night, so we threw those on and spent the day at the Mall of America, just walking around.

I’ve never been, may never be back, and Crystal is a native Minnesotan, and after spending Sunday in her hometown, Owatonna, a city of around 25,000 residents about an hour south of Minneapolis, farm country, she wanted to show me the touristy side.

We could barely walk 10 feet without running into other UVA fans leaving town either tonight or Wednesday and sharing.

And that was around me taking phone calls from my college roommate, Jay, who might be a bigger UVA sports fan than me, which is saying a lot; and Scott German, who couldn’t be here with us because he came down with pneumonia earlier in the postseason.

I did a radio interview with Mark Moses, who hosts a daily sports talk show in Central Florida, and I met years ago when we sat beside each other in the press box at Scott Stadium, when he was producing for a local radio station, dreaming of hosting his own show one day.

I traded texts with Wade Branner, the Voice of VMI Athletics, who covered for me so that I could shove out of town on Saturday, doing a pair of weekend ESPN broadcasts of VMI baseball solo.

Friends from back home who I know aren’t otherwise sports fans sent messages of congratulations, and wrote about how they’d watched the game, and what an exciting game it was, and how cool it was that UVA had pulled the game out.

That’s what gets me, in terms of the emotions.

It’s thinking about all the people involved, and knowing what it meant to for so many of them to see their favorite team finally win the big game.

Or, would have meant to them.

My mother, for instance, God rest her soul.

When I was in elementary school, I had a strict bedtime: 9 p.m.

Except that she knew that I loved UVA Basketball, so, when the ‘Hoos were on TV on a weeknight, I could stay up past 9, as long as I promised to get up in the morning and go to school, no matter how late the game went.

(One triple-overtime game ended at midnight. Virginia won; school was rough the next day.)

I thought of my mom last night. She would have called, or in this day, texted.

She would have stayed up and watched and then asked me what it was like to be on the court for the celebration and then in the locker room to do interviews.

She passed away in 2015.

I thought of Scott German’s father, Bill, who passed away in 2016. Bill worked for many years as an usher at UVA Athletics events, and started taking his sons to games and got them hooked.

He had a major health scare at the end of the 2013-2014 season, and then accompanied Scott and I to an early-season game that November. Hanging around after the game to wait for us to do our job interviewing players, he struck up a conversation with two gentlemen who happened to be relatives of UVA star Justin Anderson, who motioned for Justin to come up from courtside after doing a postgame radio interview to say hello to the nice man who was a long-time fan.

Long story short, Justin Anderson had been the big player that night, and us reporter types were back in the locker room waiting for him to come back so we could ask important questions about basketball, but he ended up in conversation with Bill for going on 20 minutes, because that was more important at the time.

And, no doubt, it was.

I thought of Bill last night, and Justin Anderson.

And Malcolm Brogdon, and Joe Harris, who were in U.S. Bank Stadium last night, and without whom none of what happened last night was possible.

Malcolm, Joe, Justin – London Perrantes, Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Darion Atkins, Akil Mitchell – they weren’t recruited to win 30 games and ACC championships and #1 NCAA Tournament seeds.

They were the kind of recruits that a program that wins 20 games and watches Joe Lunardi bracketology updates to see if they’re going to get a bid ends up landing.

Who worked their butts off to take it to the next level, which in turn made it possible for Tony Bennett and his staff to be able to tap into higher-level recruits.

I’ll always say that the loss that stings me most as a fan is not the UMBC defeat from 2018 that we all talk about so much, but instead the 2016 Elite Eight loss to Syracuse, because the key guys on that team were seniors, they should have been the one to break through, they are all such great people, and it ended too soon.

I think about those folks.

I think about a lot of folks that I don’t know, but whose stories are similar to mine, what it means to them.

We all, as fans, get together with our people 15-20 times a year for home games, some road games, tournament games, we keep up with each other for the other games that we don’t watch together, we talk about it when we talk, and the end goal is to see your team win the big game.

And then, finally, it happens.

As it’s happening, last night, I’m thinking about the people that I’ve shared this silly obsession with, the ones who aren’t here with us anymore to be able to enjoy it with us, the ones who made it possible, the ones who made them possible.

And then, I tear up.

I’m not too cool for school to admit that.

Column by Chris Graham


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