HOUSTON -- I can still see the banner from my hotel window. Amid a sea of parking lots and highways that seem to run forever, the image of Virginia Commonwealth University survives a day after its game ended: a vertical streamer with the logos of the Rams and their opponents, the Butler Bulldogs.
It hangs from the left side of the front entrance to the massive Reliant Stadium, where circular wings jut out and giant, parallel trusses crown the dome, an architectural wonder that looks like an alien landing station but can retract its roof in as little as seven minutes. On an overcast Sunday afternoon in this sprawling, pungent city, the day after VCU saw its magical season come to an end, the stadium has an overpowering presence. It's cruel and cold, despite the humid Texas air of 80-plus degrees.
Houston has an end-of-the-world feel to it. On this flat, sprawling landscape everything is so much bigger than it needs to be. The football stadium, built for the Houston Texans, sits next to the now-dormant Astrodome, a monument to excess. A cab driver says the city refuses to tear it down, dumping millions of dollars into the facility just to maintain it. Another, larger banner out front features a cliché that serves as the slogan of the biggest basketball tournament in the world: "The Road Ends Here."
VCU's team — the coaches, players, requisite cheerleaders and pep-band players — is gone. It left on this Sunday morning. So many of the students and other fans who made the trek have departed too, leaving their glittering black-and-gold Mardi Gras detritus, the yellow wigs and beaded necklaces. They packed up their spirit and took it with them. The irony is that the gold and black injected life into the Final Four. The ESPN experts and talk-show hosts spent the better part of last week bemoaning VCU, and to a lesser extent Butler, for crashing this high-minded basketball affair, robbing the rest of the country of its blue bloods, the Dukes and North Carolinas, the Floridas and Kansases. The conventional wisdom was that the real national title game would come after VCU and Butler left center court and traditional powers Kentucky and Connecticut squared off.
It's not that everyone else didn't get it. The story of VCU's run in the NCAA tournament will be remembered for its improbability, its team of no-name players, and the scrappy, yes-we-can head coach Shaka Smart, playing over and over in the never-ending loop on ESPN. Not even Butler, which plays home games in the gymnasium immortalized in "Hoosiers," could touch the story of the Rams. The world saw VCU and Richmond as the never-say-never underdogs who won against all odds, beating all manner of hoops royalty, without any stars — not a single McDonald's All-American, or even one NBA prospect.
Did Richmond see it too? Did we see the personality of a city being defined by a former commuter school with an under-the-radar profile? In the belly of Reliant Stadium, an hour before the Final Four tipped off on Saturday, did we see Richmond enrapturing this cavernous stadium filled with 76,000 people?
It starts before tipoff. Butler's pep band blurts out staid renditions with a sense of entitlement while its team takes the court. Even the cheerleaders, in long-sleeved white shirts up to their necks, seem remarkably prudish. The VCU pep band, however, is swinging, blowing life into this enormous void, revving up the VCU section of students — they're the first to arrive in the stadium Saturday afternoon — with "Ghostbusters." The students are young, carefree and diverse — black, white, Indian, Asian (insert your ethnicity here) — screaming and gyrating.
The pep band, known perfectly as the Peppas, may have been the life of Houston for a weekend. Made up of Richmond musicians and led by Ryan Kopacsi, it wins the Battle of the Bands during a showdown Saturday morning, beating out last year's champion, Butler. In downtown Houston's convention center, which had been turned into a hoops nirvana called Bracket Town, Kopacsi — wearing a floor-length, gold-trimmed black robe with his nickname, Total Package, etched onto the back — says the band borrows heavily from hometown favorite the No BS Brass Band.
"It's been 13 years coming," Kopacsi says, carrying the championship trophy with several band mates, stopping briefly to pose for pictures. Energizing two cities at once can be exhausting, but he trudges on. "All right, victory lap continues," he says, before scooting off.
It's uncanny how fragile the players and coaches seem on such a stage. Smart is 5-foot-10, all of 33, and Brad Stevens, Butler's coach, is 34. Along press row, which sits about three and a half feet below a raised court, the game seems surprisingly small. I keep thinking about how the players could fall off the court. Perhaps one of the slight breezes inside the arena will topple them over, or they'll dive for a loose ball and disappear into the abyss.
For a team devoid of big-name stars, even the popular Joey Rodriguez, Smart has become the rare coach-celebrity, winning the loudest cheers when he runs onto the court after the players. It wasn't long ago that Smart was seen as a something of an enigma, an unknown, obscure assistant from the University of Florida with a funny name. Just a few weeks earlier, Norwood Teague, VCU's athletic director, was receiving demands from some people that Smart be jettisoned. After the team lost back-to-back home games against Old Dominion and George Mason, Teague says his email box lit up.
"There was definitely a group of fans who were very critical of him, because they let me know about it," Teague says, recalling one text message in particular instructing him to "fire Shaka Smart and his inept staff."
Teague knew better. It may have taken people a while to warm up to Smart, but Teague knew what his coach was doing. Smart was slowly building up his players' confidence, strengthening relationships, and the team's struggles were partly covered by Smart's coaching. This was a team, after all, that didn't have an Eric Maynor or a Larry Sanders, two star players of the last five years who are now playing in the NBA. Instead it boasted a roster of newcomers and seniors who weren't standouts. Each struggled in his own way, and Smart was working to coax the talent out of them.
"As far as this year is concerned and the continued growth, we had stretches of brilliance. I think we got a good amount of talent. But we got exposed quite a bit. And it wasn't because of Shaka's coaching," Teague says. "That week in February when we played Old Dominion and Mason here, I think our kids lost confidence."
But Teague knew his coach. Smart was building something long-term. Smart also knew his players well. Teague became convinced two summers ago, when Smart first arrived and the team was fracturing. Most of the players had come here to play for former coach Anthony Grant, who guided the Rams into their last two NCAA tournaments, perhaps best remembered for the team that beat Duke, with Maynor's buzzer beater, in 2007.
Sanders, the 6-foot-10 center with freakishly long arms who became the face of the team after Maynor graduated in 2009, had been emotionally up and down. He was having problems at home. During a particularly rough patch, Smart stayed up with Sanders in his dorm room, talking out his problems and sitting with him until the wee hours of the morning.
"That was one of the turning points for me," says Sanders, now playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, who spoke by telephone after an afternoon practice in Indianapolis. "He came in there with me and we sat in there and talked all night until the sun came up. The thing about it was, he talked about his problems too. He made himself vulnerable, and I made myself vulnerable. ... It makes you want to run through walls for a coach like that."
It took time. Bradford Burgess, a junior recruited by Grant, says the two coaches were like night and day. At first some of the players couldn't adjust to Smart's positive affirmations, the daily diet of inspirational quotes from the diminutive coach.
"The first few months were rough. Like drills in practice: Coach Grant, he would intimidate guys and he would yell at guys. Some of the guys would actually laugh when coach Smart got mad because he's like a little kid getting mad," Burgess says. "We liked how coach Grant ran things and how his personality, it kind of represented us a little bit. And so, you know, with coach Smart being different the guys felt like he didn't know what he's talking about, he didn't know what he was doing. ... Guys started to feel like they ran the team themselves instead of the coach."
The first year under Smart was up and down, but things reached a breaking point last fall, at one of the team's first practices, Rodriguez recalls. Some of the incoming freshmen were talking back to Smart, and the seniors realized they needed to step in.
"Last year, the whole year we had struggles with everybody adapting to him," Rodriguez says. "One time the guys just started talking back to him a little bit. And some of the seniors kind of stepped up and said, 'No, he's our coach,' and kind of had his back."
While the team had stretches of brilliance, it also had stretches of horrid shooting and lackluster defensive effort. The team could go for long stretches without scoring, but Smart kept encouraging it to shoot, even those players who struggled. While Grant had tight reins on players — each had specific roles and expectations as to how and when to play and shoot — Smart has a much looser philosophy. He wants his men to play free and confident.
Jamie Skeen, the team's senior power forward and most dominant inside player, says that's made a difference: "If you got a coach that doesn't get mad when you take shots — and sometimes we take ill-advised shots, like Brandon Rozzell, myself, Joey — and he doesn't get mad because he knows that we can hit those shots, it just gives us unbelievable confidence."
The confidence emanating from the sidelines sometimes can seem too nonchalant, like the coaches are walking through a scrimmage or a preseason game. Before 76,000 fans on the grandest stage in college basketball, the Rams seem so loose and carefree it's difficult to believe they're playing in the national spotlight. On Saturday night, with Houston in the process of swallowing up VCU's dream season, hundreds of reporters and photographers are here to record and broadcast every detail, and pick apart every nuance.
The game itself is one of four-minute spurts — Butler and VCU exchange offensive flurries — and there's plenty of drama. This is no blowout, but it's clear the Rams have run into a team that's well-prepared, tactical in its approach. The Rams hit a few 3-pointers early, but then Butler devises a strategy to eliminate outside shots. It allows VCU's Skeen to have his way inside — and he does, scoring 27 points — but late in the game the shots don't fall as they have in VCU's previous five games, those wondrous victories over the University of Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and, of course, Kansas.
Smart keeps encouraging, keeps patting players on the back when they come off the court while they rack up fouls and sloppy turnovers, mistakes that usually draw fire from other coaches. At one point early in the second half, with the Rams down by 1, Juvonte Reddic, a 6-foot-9 freshman, knocks the ball away from Butler and then follows the play with a clumsy foul, but Smart smiles and claps his hands in support. With everything on the line, and the pressure of the world on his shoulders, Smart still doesn't deviate from the plan.
The Rams claw back, and then it nearly happens. Down by 7 with two minutes and 32 seconds left in the game, Skeen hits a 3-pointer and is fouled on the play. Timeout. If Skeen makes the free throw Butler will have only a 3-point lead. The Peppas launch into the "War Song" while the student section goes wild. The magic is starting again. The impossible dream of playing for a national championship, one even the fans here can hardly fathom, seems within reach.
But Skeen misses the free throw. And after a flurry of missed shots, Butler's star big man, Matt Howard, hits a layup, putting the Bulldogs up by 6. He's fouled after rebounding a missed layup by VCU's Darius Theus and hits both free throws, putting Butler up by 8 points with 47 seconds left. Suddenly, like a punch in the stomach, the enormous crowd senses the game is over. Butler's fans are roaring. The eyes of VCU's players, filled with so much confidence throughout the tournament, go vacant, distant. Coach Smart's jaw clenches and he starts to deflate. The subs come in and seniors come off the court. The final seconds run off the clock and the horn sounds while courtside TV monitors shift to Connecticut's and Kentucky's players in their locker rooms, waiting for their turn on the stage.
In their locker room afterward, the VCU players slump over in their chairs. They slowly, gingerly, take off their shoes, their uniforms, draped in towels and defeat. A clutch of reporters and photographers huddles outside, waiting for the allotted half-hour access.
The door opens and they rush in. Most swarm around Rozzell, who isn't in the official post-game interview with Smart, Rodriguez, Burgess and Skeen. Those four are escorted out of the room and down the arena's halls to a sprawling media room, where the lights and podium have sat empty for hours, awaiting the first victims. The locker room is quiet while reporters stoop down to ask questions in hushed voices.
What was going through your mind as the clock wound down?
Who will you root for in the national championship?
How does it feel to get so close, and come up short?
The questions burn like acid. The players answer like drones.
The shots just didn't fall tonight.
We made too many turnovers.
We didn't play aggressively enough.
The enormity of getting this far, of appearing in the Final Four, is so far removed.
"We have to learn from our mistakes," says D.J. Haley, the freshman center, the team's biggest player at 7 feet and 250 pounds. He hangs his head and talks to the floor. "I think it's really going to help us going into next year."
Next year. Even before the team departs for the hotel, the expectations of following up a Final Four run seem unfair, too burdensome, especially for kids barely out of high school. But it's there, hanging. Assistant coach Mike Jones, sitting off in the corner, quietly lights up when the question is raised. "It will certainly give us a lot more access to players that maybe we didn't have access to," he says of potential recruits. "We're certainly getting more phone calls."
For the recruits coming in, it's validation. Katrina Graham, the mother of VCU's top incoming freshman, 6-foot-5 forward Treveon Graham from Bowie, Md., says everyone questioned her son's decision to attend VCU. Graham could have gone to Clemson University or Boston College, from the higher-profile Atlantic Coast Conference, or VCU rival Old Dominion. But he chose Smart and the Rams.
"Everywhere we went, they were there," Katrina Graham says of last summer, when her son played in the neighborhood of 50 basketball games with his Amateur Athletic Union team. She means everywhere. Either Smart or Jones attended all of his games, even though NCAA rules prevented them from talking to him. The VCU coaches traveled to North Carolina, Florida, New York, Chicago — even Indianapolis.
"Everywhere we went this summer, they were there," she says. "My son is quiet, low key or whatever. It didn't take long for him to open up to them. With the other ones, he just didn't feel that connection."
Still, she heard from family and friends who questioned why her son opted to play at VCU, in the mid-major Colonial Athletic Association, instead of the powerhouse ACC where he could have gotten more exposure. Looking back, of course, the questions seem silly. "I put that on my Facebook," she says. "Where are all y'all haters at now?"
Graham says she was never concerned about Smart's possibly leaving for more money, at a bigger school with a higher profile, such as N.C. State, even as the experts predicted he would likely depart. After all, he went through a similar experience when his coach at Kenyon College, Bill Brown, departed for California University in Pennsylvania after Smart's freshman year as the team's point guard.
"Coach Smart is a family man. You can tell," Graham says. "Everybody loves money, but it's a broader picture with him. I think he's the type of man — he can't just look in those kids' eyes and say 'I'm gone.'"
Graham was right. On Monday Smart agreed to remain with VCU for at least five more years with an annual base salary of $1.2 million, ending widespread speculation over the future of perhaps the hottest coach in college basketball.
After VCU's game, and long after the team has departed for its hotel, the arena's hallways are quiet, echoing with a faint din of the crowd after the second game, in which the Kentucky Wildcats lose to the Connecticut Huskies. The media horde now waits outside the Kentucky locker room. Just down the hallway, past the team holograms on the wall directing traffic, the Connecticut players come bounding around the corner, jumping and celebrating. The halls fill with their spirit while the prospect of becoming national champions settles in.
On Sunday night, after the teams finish practicing for the big game and most of the Kentucky and VCU fans have packed and left, outside my hotel window a loud pep rally erupts by the pool. A group of VCU students, still waiting to board buses to head home, are leaving Houston with a parting gift.
Chants of "V-C-U" echo through the courtyard, just like they echo in the streets of Richmond, back home. S