March 29, 2011 News & Features » Cover Story


Shooting Stars 

The Spiders and Rams make their way in San Antonio, and along a bustling River Walk, Richmond finds itself.

click to enlarge VCU fans in San Antonio cheer on the resilient Rams during Friday’s Sweet 16 game against Florida State, eking out a 1-point victory in overtime. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • VCU fans in San Antonio cheer on the resilient Rams during Friday’s Sweet 16 game against Florida State, eking out a 1-point victory in overtime.

SAN ANTONIO — Hello? Hello?

Is there even anything left out there? Did this issue make it to newsstands? Or is this being read years later, some charred scraps pulled from the ruins of Richmond, which was torn to the ground by an exuberance that began on Broad Street and consumed the entire city?

So many unknowns. But then, that's how we got here, isn't it?

click to enlarge University of Richmond senior Kevin Smith shoots over Kansas defenders during Friday’s game, which ended in a 20-point loss to the Jayhawks. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • University of Richmond senior Kevin Smith shoots over Kansas defenders during Friday’s game, which ended in a 20-point loss to the Jayhawks.

The tale can be told in T-shirts. San Antonio's River Walk (a bit like Richmond's Canal Walk, only with lots of stuff on it) begins to swell with bold primary colors on Thursday. The relentless blue of the University of Kansas is on many chests, all decent flatlanders who've seen a great team rise from the fertile fields of Lawrence. They wouldn't miss this weekend's games — the Southwest Regional arm of the Sweet 16. Three other teams will play at the Alamodome, but none is thought to be any serious competition for Kansas. That two of the teams are from the same obscure Virginia city doesn't seem to inspire much curiosity. No one asks: Who is this city? Should we be worried? After all, Kansas had won the whole damn NCAA national championship when the Final Four was played in San Antonio in 2008, so what they feel is something territorial in their corn-fed breasts.

Kansas is alongside Florida State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond: one top-seeded school and three teams that alternately have been called either Cinderellas or Davids (as in Goliath), depending on whether the media outlet in question wanted to paint the team as a lucky princess or a rock-slinging underdog. The metaphor extends to Richmond itself, that Virginia city that either put on the right glass slipper or picked up the right stone, depending on your preference. That Richmond should be so represented in San Antonio, a city that Richmond's planners long have tried to emulate, makes the weekend that much more interesting.

All of the action that will follow happens in one corner of the Alamodome, a huge stadium designed for some as-yet-uninvented sport featuring hundreds of players and bears. Or maybe a sea battle. I grew up in San Antonio, so walking around in the bowels of the thing, a mile or so below the surface, I'm reminded of the last time I saw the locker rooms and catacombs beneath the bleachers. It was 1993; the Olympic Festival was brought here as the Alamodome's first event. (The place wasn't even finished.) I was a teenager, volunteering my summer away. I recall tiny figure skaters sharing the halls with hulking hockey players. I recall thinking the figure skaters were far meaner.

click to enlarge After the Richmond game Friday, UR fans switch loyalties to cheer on cross-town rival VCU in a show of Richmond hoops solidarity. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • After the Richmond game Friday, UR fans switch loyalties to cheer on cross-town rival VCU in a show of Richmond hoops solidarity.

At any rate here come the teams. Thursday is open practice day, a chance for the public to size up the teams it crossed some portion of the country to watch. UR's Spiders are out first, led by coach Chris Mooney, who by the end of the weekend will sign a 10-year contract extension for what must be a princely sum. Then VCU's Rams, led by coach Shaka Smart, whose "wreak havoc" strategy of constant, always pressing defense exhausts and befuddles opponents. Then Florida State's Seminoles and finally the Kansas Jayhawks, led by twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, identical down to their tattoos. Some call them the Morrii, like figures from Greek mythology who live inside the paint. All this time, during all the practices, all up and down the stands, a blue tide surges slowly in.

By Friday Richmond finally shows up. The River Walk's Parade of T-Shirts include UR's red and VCU's yellow. So much energy! I ask one bespectacled VCU fan where he's headed. A party? A bar? A rally? "I need to get some pills," he says, pointing to the CVS. Certainly! Best to be prepared! No telling what types of pharmaceuticals this weekend will require.

The games are scheduled for the evening: Richmond vs. Kansas and then VCU vs. FSU. But before that, in adjacent St. Paul Square: the alumni parties in big, renovated event spaces. The St. Paul Square area was settled back in the 1700s by farmers living near the mission you know as the Alamo. Southern Pacific Railways made this a hub in the late 1800s, but until the whole thing got repurposed into a fancy event space called Sunset Station a few years ago, both sides of the tracks were the other side of the tracks, if you know what I mean.

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UR's party is in a place called the Spire, one of the many churches converted for more secular use in San Antonio. Take note, Richmond planners: San Antonio is lousy with churches, on account of we've been trying to convert people since those 18th-century missionaries discovered the Indians hereabouts were godless heathen. A lot of these churches end up repurposed, such as the nearby San Antone Cafe, a former Methodist church now serving greasy enchiladas downstairs and live music in the chapel upstairs. Bands play at the altar, listeners sit in the pews, and there are even cup holders for your beer. This place is right across the street from the Liberty Cafe, a convent-turned-restaurant where VCU President Michael Rao's delegation has dinner Saturday night. San Antonio's first lesson, Richmond: Houses of the holy make for good nightspots.

Inside the Spire are all the red shirts, drinking Coronas and eating tacos like it was the alcalde's daughter's wedding. It's hot and crowded and the excitement is high. It's clear that UR wants the Spiders to win, but supports its hometown rival as well.

"Obviously I root for U of R a hundred percent all the time, and I don't normally root for VCU, but just the fact that both are here sort of creates a multiplying effect," Mark Smith says. He was a freshman at UR in 2004, the only other time the Spiders played Kansas — and won. "And under these conditions, what's good for VCU is good for the city of Richmond," he says. "So I'm gonna root for both teams."

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UR basketball alumnus Johnny Newman, who went on to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and others, soon strolls in to great fanfare. He smells terrific. He too thinks it's pretty slick that Richmond doubled-down for the weekend. "A lot of other cities always seem to come ahead of us when they talk of sports, especially professional sports — but definitely basketball," Newman says. "But to have two teams in the Sweet 16 — that shows how those two programs are thriving."

UR's president, Ed Ayers, takes the microphone for a brief greeting. "Look how many Spiders are in San Antonio. And if I'm not mistaken, we're here for, yes, the Sweet 16," he drawls. "Spider athletics I don't think has shown quite this brightly."

And right then the party runs out of beer.

click to enlarge VCU’s Juvonte Reddic shoots over Florida State defenders during Friday’s game, the signature defensive grudge match of the tournament. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • VCU’s Juvonte Reddic shoots over Florida State defenders during Friday’s game, the signature defensive grudge match of the tournament.

Around the corner and up three flights of stairs is VCU's party. It's held in a low-ceilinged, brick-walled room with thin carpeting, looking for all the world like a transplanted Fan apartment. The alumni roll in, the cheerleaders roll in, the Rams' pep band players, the Peppas, roll in. For the first time this weekend, I see some tattoos. No joke.

More lines for food and drink form, while outside, on the patio overlooking a courtyard, the Peppas set up. Raucous, funky and inspired, this is the pep band to end all pep bands. They don't just honk out the notes; they dance and chant and play some dirty big-band stuff. They don't even need a team — they could be the pep band for life itself. They start in and start in loud, because down below, in the courtyard, the University of Kansas is having its party. A huge inflatable Jayhawk is an island in the churning blue-clad mass. It looks like a sea — if a sea could get drunk.

You don't want to go to war ... with the Rams!

Don't start no stuff, won't be no stuff!

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The chant is VCU's war cry down into the Kansas swell. But down below it's evident that Richmond's reputation hasn't necessarily preceded it.

"Wasn't there a Richmond in 'The Waltons'?" asks Sheri Definna, an 1984 Kansas graduate now running a T-shirt store in downtown San Antonio. "Is that a real place, Charlottesville?"

Having lived in Richmond, it's difficult for me to imagine it being so far off the radar, but it becomes clear that Kansas' star shines so brightly. ... Oh hell, let's just go to the tape:

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Style: So tell me what you know about Richmond so far. What if anything.

Sheri Definna: Spiders? That's about it.

You don't know much about the city?



No. Is it the capital?

It is the capital.

[She screams with glee.]

Pretty good. And there is a Charlottesville.

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I know about it from "The Waltons," that's it. I mean really. [To others in her party]: Have you guys ever heard of Richmond before this week? [They say something about somebody named Coach Carter, who I think is also a television personality, perhaps also fictitious.]

Whether this is being read days later or hundreds of years later, the result of the games is known to you. The Spiders are simply outplayed by the Jayhawks, and even their stars — guard Kevin Anderson and forward Justin Harper — can't keep up. In the last minute and a half, with Kansas up nearly 20 points, there is this one moment, the moment in which Anderson is subbed out for the last time. He hugs Mooney and then hugs each of his fellow players down the line, one at a time — the end of a good run. Behind him, the game continues.

VCU's game against Florida State is closer, and hard-won. UR's fans shift loyalties to VCU, the Peppas get down to their underwear, and some serious playing gets on. Rams star Joey Rodriguez is the thread that holds the team together; coach Smart is the needle, threading eagerly from the sidelines. A final-seconds layup by guard Bradford Burgess puts VCU a point ahead, and the T-shirt assortment drops to two: VCU's gold and black, and Kansas' blue and crimson. On Sunday they'll play for a slot in the Final Four.

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That night a crowd assembles at the Hotel Contessa, where VCU's team is staying. Fans mill around the entrance waiting for the bus, whilst other fans wait, perhaps more constructively, in the bar down in the foyer. There I find Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, working on a martini. I ask him what makes Richmond, that unknown mid-Atlantic city, a place worth knowing. It's the city's attitude, he says, the kind of thing that can make a mid-sized urban university go this far in a major tournament, with fans like these, with a band like that. I say it's funky.

He looks at me and says, very seriously: "Urban is funky. They're synonymous."

I ask him how a VCU victory might be worked into a PR campaign.

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"VCU projects Richmond in a way no slogan can," he says, and I can't help thinking that's waaay better than Easy to Love.

"We're trying to make a tier-one city," Jones says, "we're trying to build Richmond, and when you see VCU win, you don't need to ask any more questions."

Jones sips his martini, describing the city's attitude, which itself is synonymous with that of the Rams under Shaka Smart. It's like this, he says: "Don't mess with us. Get out of our way." And he repeats the refrain of the tournament. "We're David. And they're Goliath."

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Trudging back upstairs to wait for the bus, a friend shows me a video on his phone, posted to the Internet moments before. It's of people walking down Broad Street in Richmond, hundreds of them, celebrating the victory, no particular direction, just getting out, walking together, being in the city.

Of all the great and funny and sad things I'll see this weekend, this little image on a screen is the one to which I keep returning. It says more about the city of Richmond than master plans and slogans, more than old television shows can depict, more even than the performance its best athletes can broadcast nationally.

San Antonio's River Walk isn't really the city; it's just a tourist draw. It's San Antonio giving outsiders what they think San Antonio is — it's a response, a theme park. Richmond's attempts to capitalize on its history like this would produce something similar. Not bad. Just not exactly ... Richmond. Having been gone nearly two years, it's clearer to me now that Richmond has energy — to flood funky urban streets and move, even if there's no clear direction. Richmond's great things are built in that friction of people, surging onto the streets. It's difficult to define because it doesn't sit still, it doesn't have a single place. It can remain unknown to outsiders even as it produces things so great that the city surprises even itself — and has to run immediately outside to play.

click to enlarge After VCU knocks off Kansas, VCU students and fans pour into the streets, taking over West Broad Street. Tens of thousands celebrate downtown, chanting and reveling in a victory march toward Monroe Park. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • After VCU knocks off Kansas, VCU students and fans pour into the streets, taking over West Broad Street. Tens of thousands celebrate downtown, chanting and reveling in a victory march toward Monroe Park.

Sunday is one long held breath. The crowd is much diminished when VCU and Kansas take the court; it's a lot of blue shirts and a small eager corner of yellows. Attendance is 14,000; the rest of the 65,000-seat stadium is concealed by massive black curtains, like the world's biggest magic trick is about to happen.

VCU pulls ahead early and stays there. Kansas, with its 35-2 season and its monster twins of myth, can't find the basket. They make mistakes, lots of them. Players with names such as Morningstar suddenly go cold, missing shots they never miss. VCU's Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess, Brandon Rozzell and Jamie Skeen — the entire team, really — harry the Kansas players; wreaking havoc takes them apart. The Jayhawks seem to be in shock. VCU is faster, quicker, better. VCU gets up 18 points; at the beginning of the second half, Kansas comes back, bringing it to within two points. The Kansas fans are on their feet; the sound they make is deafening — finally, the roar of the sea. But neither VCU nor its fans back down, and by the time the game is over, VCU has won, 71 to 61, and the blue sea has become still.

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At the Hotel Contessa after the Big Upset and dancing and net cutting, the VCU Rams stand outside with fans, taking pictures and hugging. People drink Shiner Bock beer on the sidewalk. The players wear their regional champion hats pointed to all the cardinal directions. Joe Rodriguez, Joey's dad, stands off to the side with Joey and his brother.

"We were walking through the River Walk," the elder J-Rod tells me, "and everywhere we went, people were asking us, 'VC-who? VC-who?' And that's motivation."

The team looks tired, and I think about what this life must be like. And I know. It's like this: College athletes, all through their school careers, are interviewing for jobs; their stats are their CVs, their résumés play out every weekend. Most of us are fortunate enough to interview for jobs in private offices. These people do it on national television. And it's only just the players, but also the coaches. Both Mooney and Smart are the subjects of much speculation, the objects of much desire. Mooney's going to be around for a while, as it turns out, and Smart insists he's sticking around too.

It's worth mentioning that Richmond's being evaluated, too, while the Rams begin preparing for the Final Four this weekend, leaving "The Waltons" behind.

"These kids believe right now that they belong, and they can play with everybody, and they can," the senior Rodriguez says. "These are talented kids, and they're all putting it together at the right time."

While he's saying this I know, without needing to see it on a screen, that at this moment Richmond's streets are filling again with believers who may or may not be bringing it all down. S



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