As we went to bed Monday night, I told my wife that maybe it was time I retired as a sports fan. It was never going to get any better than this.
The Virginia Cavaliers had just won the national championship in a nerve-racking overtime game against a tenacious Texas Tech team, and I was feeling jittery and euphoric. I can’t think when a ball game has made me happier.
Unless it was last fall, when my Boston Red Sox had enjoyed an almost perfect 2018 season, defeating the Yankees, the Astros and taking the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baseball and basketball are the sports I care about; the games I played and follow most intensely; the games that live in my imagination.
But the UVa story is about a lot more than basketball.
We talked about Virginia’s storybook year, how they’d earned universal scorn during the 2018 season — the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history. And they didn’t merely lose, but lost by 20 points to a University of Maryland-Baltimore County team they should have beaten easily. There was laughter, anger, booing and worse.
Never mind that De’Andre Hunter, who scored one clutch field goal after another against Texas Tech, had been out with a broken wrist. Virginia had no excuse.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine that anybody would send a death threat to a college kid over a basketball game. But it happened.
Virginia’s brilliant guard Kyle Guy posted essays on Facebook opening up about his treatment for anxiety attacks stemming partly from such messages. It seemed to me a courageous thing to do, and it also appeared to pull the Virginia team together — a band of brothers out to prove themselves to fans and detractors alike.
Me, I’d been following the UVa team all season, hunting down the games on obscure cable channels and online broadcasts. My wife Diane listened to me talk about it. A basketball and baseball coach’s daughter, she thinks it’s normal for men to blather on about such things — although she definitely has her limits.
She did sit up late to watch the championship game with me, although her compromised eyesight makes it hard for her to follow the action. The Guy story definitely caught her imagination. For a star athlete to publicly admit such vulnerability, and then come through with brilliant performances in the biggest games of his life, touched her heart.
As the mother of basketball-playing sons, she identified.
I’d shown her a recording of the final minute of Virginia’s improbable semifinal win over Auburn — with Guy knocking down a contested 3-pointer to pull the Cavaliers within one, and later coolly nailing three free throws with six-tenths of a second remaining to win the game. The kid appeared composed and confident, but later admitted he’d been “terrified.”
Washington Post columnist John Feinstein captured the thrilling championship game perfectly: “The way they redeemed themselves was something straight out of a Disney movie — except if you attempted to sell the story line to Disney, you would probably get laughed out of the pitch meeting.”
Alluding to Hunter, Guy and guard Ty Jerome, he added that “(i)n all, the three pals — all part of Virginia’s 2016 recruiting class — scored 67 of U-Va.’s 85 points.” They do appear to be close friends, not always the case among competitive athletes.
But Diane also understood why I’d grown so attached to this UVa team. Normally, we follow the Arkansas Razorbacks.
“It’s about you, you know,” I told her.
“I know,” Diane said.
Long ago, we’d been introduced at a reception in one of Thomas Jefferson’s serpentine-walled formal gardens on the UVa campus by the dean of the graduate school, like her an Arkansan.
I’ll never forget it.
“Mr. O’Connell,” he said, “is a Notre Dame graduate. Mr. Lyons attended Rutgers University. Miss Haynie graduated from Hendrix College. Mr. Lyons, have you ever heard of Hendrix College?”
“Dean Younger,” I said. “They must not play football.”
Diane gave a happy laugh and my heart turned over. It’s remained pretty much upside down to this day. She laughed partly because she thought it was a cheeky way to talk to the dean; partly because I was right. The coach’s daughter wouldn’t have expected me to have heard of her alma mater — a terrific liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas — otherwise.
The Cavaliers were a sub-.500 team in those days, but we never missed a home game.
It’s been a rough few years for anybody connected to the University of Virginia: a couple of terrible campus murders, Rolling Stone’s shameful frat party gang-rape hoax, and the degrading spectacle of torch-bearing white supremacists marching past The Rotunda chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
But something else I’ll never forget is this remarkable Virginia basketball team, and the spirit of brotherhood they embody.
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