THE RUN REVISITED: AN INSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE
By: Scott Day, Assistant AD for Athletic Communications (Media Relations for Men's Basketball)
It's been over two weeks since the final buzzer sounded April 2 at Reliant Stadium, and as I sit in my office in the VCU Sports Medicine Building, I'm still not sure if I'll ever grasp what took place during the month of March for the basketball program that I've traveled with over the past two seasons.
I can remember early in the year a time when I sat at team meal with Strength and Conditioning Coach Daniel Roose, Video Coordinator Matt Fleming and Graduate Managers Donny Lind and Timmy Lawrence, and we all commented on how the chemistry was different with this team.
Am I trying to say we knew the Final Four was coming? Definitely not. But we all felt like this team and this program was more of a family than ever before, and when everything clicked, something special could happen (See: March 16th-Apr. 2nd).
Much like everybody around the program, I was frustrated after a tough month of February, but knew all of that could change during three days inside the ninth wonder of the world, the Richmond Coliseum.
On March 1, Lawrence scampered into my office looking for a desk calendar with the month of February. After moving piles of paper, empty soda cans and CDs of pictures out of the way, I reached my desk calendar, ripped off February and handed it to Lawrence, who jetted out of my office.
Days later I heard about Coach Smart lighting my poor desk calendar on fire, but in the end it was all worth it when I saw Jamie Skeen hit the game-winner against Drexel, Bradford Burgess lead the Rams past Mason and an unbelievable second-half comeback that came up just short against the hated Old Dominion Monarchs in the CAA Tournament.
As I stood in the back hallway by VCU's locker room at the Coliseum, all I could think was about how hard those 25 guys (players and coaches) worked to accomplish something and how much it stung to come up just short. None of us knew what would lie in the days ahead, but at that moment, it was the worst.
Fast forward six days to March 13, a day that I spent trying to find every errand in the world just to keep my mind off of the NCAA Selection Show. It wasn't until about 5:30 p.m., when on the way home picking up dinner, my wife turned to me and said, "You think you're in, don't you?"
Maybe it was Joey Rodriguez texting me all week telling me that we were in since CBS's Jerry Palm had us, but for some reason, I couldn't get it out of my mind that our dream would become reality.
Still, I found out while watching the selection show on my couch, just like everybody else in Richmond. When I saw "UAB/Clemson" pop up in the bracket, I dropped my head in defeat. About 15 minutes later, that all changed when I saw "USC/VCU" scroll across the screen and I let out a scream that probably could have been heard in Washington, D.C.
After a euphoric celebration with my wife and dog, I tried to organize some media stuff for our guys later that night at the Siegel Center. Was I happy to be going to the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, I was, but more than anything I was overjoyed to be able to spend more time with everyone that made up the VCU basketball program.
As the whole country watched, analysts from across the country criticized our beloved Rams. I watched Joey, Jamie, Ed, Brandon and Brad all stop their interviews to listen to what was being said. It was as if you could see the chip on the shoulder get bigger and bigger.
For some reason this team played its best basketball this season when outsiders criticized them or disparaged the program. The selection Sunday criticism was the most we had seen all year, if I only knew what would have resulted, I probably wouldn't have sent ESPN's Jay Bilas that email.
This trip was different than anything we had taken all year. New life had been breathed into the program. It was a second chance for this group of guys to prove just how much they loved playing basketball with each other.
Off to Dayton we went for a 59-46 win over USC and an unbelievable quick turnaround to Chicago for a date with Georgetown. For me, it was great because I've always loved the Windy City, and I was happy to be going back, but for our guys, it never felt more than just a business trip.
Sure there were cameras out when our guys walked into the United Center for the first time, but the focus never went off track from the ultimate goal, and it was evident after a 74-56 beatdown of Georgetown.
With a couple more days in Chicago, you would think our guys would get to enjoy the city some more, but no. The only stops they really made were to Niketown and nearby fast food restaurant Johnny Rockets, who must have sold a million milkshakes between our players and coaches.
On to the Purdue game, and it was the same story. In fact, at one point in the second half when the Rams were up at least 20 points, I stood up during a media timeout and took in the scene inside the United Center, trying to grasp what I was watching.
Another blowout win, and the Rams were in the Sweet 16. The celebration in the locker room and on the bus were something I thought I'd never see again (boy was I wrong).
Back home to Richmond for a brief trip that incorporated media, media and more media. It was crazy, but it sure beat the alternative. The amazing part to me was that no matter how many phone calls or texts I sent to the players, I never got one attitude. They did what I asked, but yet the focus remained the same. I was watching something special here, and I was finally beginning to understand this team's capabilities.
Off to San Antonio we went for Bradford Burgess' heroics against Florida State and the unforgettable takedown of the top-seeded Kansas to earn the Final Four berth. One of the moments I'll remember forever is in the final two minutes of the win over the Jayhawks when the always eccentric Craig Sager walks over to me and just looks at me. He stood there for an awkward minute and said, "I'm speechless, this team is unbelievable."
I had promised some of the guys that if we won the regional I would "cook" with them in the locker room on camera, but I was able to wiggle my way out of there thanks to the 60+ media members that I had to hoard in a controlled manner around our locker room.
Everyone has talked about the early morning arrival at the Siegel Center, but I have to mention it because it's the moment that I'll always tell my future children about. I tried to get ahead of the team to truly take in the entrance into the arena and it was an unbelievably electric moment. It was 2 a.m. and I couldn't calm down my nerves, I kept hugging unsuspecting co-workers and just wanting to celebrate the moment with a bunch of guys who worked so unbelievably hard every step of the way.
Back to Richmond for an even crazier week with the media (over 500 requests in two days) and then off to Houston for the Final Four. There were a couple moments that are etched in this big dome of mine forever.
One would be pulling up to Reliant, seeing the giant banners hanging off the arena and taking in the fact that on that banner hung the VCU Rams logo. The second was walking into the arena with the guys for the first time. It was an open practice and there sat over 13,000 fans screaming for our players.
The final moment came a couple hours after the Butler game when I got a text message from a number I didn't recognize, it read, "Scott, please tell your players and coaches thanks for a tournament that I'll never forget. What a great program. Steve Kerr." That's the best three-pointer shooter in NBA history, a guy who played with Jordan and a guy who has five NBA championship rings, so I think he knows a little bit about basketball.
From stop to stop, we traveled, and I always got the same comment from the television and radio crews, "Boy, you guys are a lively bunch." That's who we are, and that's what this coaching staff wants the program to be. You want to know why America fell in love with the Rams? Try watching any one of our games and not love the hustle and effort that Joey plays with, or the enthusiasm that Brandon Rozzell shows or just the pure skill and ability of guys Jamie Skeen and Bradford Burgess.
However, the one guy who I think epitomizes this team's run in March is Ed Nixon. Maybe it's because Ed granted me the privilege of a specialized pre-game handshake, but how can you not love this guy? All year long he battled all sorts of injuries from shoulders to ankles to cramping, you name it, Ed had to deal with it. Not once did he complain, he strapped up his laces every time and did anything and everything his team asked of him, without once getting the credit he deserved.
To me, that's exactly what happened to this team during March. At some point in the locker room, those 14 guys looked around at each other and knew that they didn't want to stop playing with each other and would do anything it took to keep it going, no matter who got the credit.
So as I sit here in my office, I look around at the piles of paper that have grown, the empty soda cans that have multiplied and the cases of CDs that have tripled and can't help but realize how blessed I was to be granted the chance to be a part of the family that is VCU basketball.