By: Nan Turner (Junior, Print Journalism major)
It is no secret to anyone who has visited, lived in, or passed through Richmond this month that the city has basketball fever. The historic run of the Rams to the NCAA Men's Final Four has put the town on edge and sparked a new wave of school spirit throughout campus.
I didn't travel with the team during their NCAA games, but instead got the chance to immerse myself in the fan experience. I watched the first game against the University of Southern California while on spring break in Savannah, Ga. While the win was exciting, I was incredibly pessimistic about the team's chance against the Georgetown Hoyas.
Fortunately I was proved wrong. Watching our team not only beat Georgetown, but do it so seemingly effortlessly was exhilarating. I thought Brandon Rozzell's arms would fall off as I watched him sink three pointer after three pointer. While the team had played well all season, they seemed to be in that groove that great teams get in where they're unstoppable. After that game, I knew that doubting wasn't something I could ever do again.
The Purdue game was about the same way, with an even crazier end result, with the Rams winning 94-76. At the end of the night my friend and I sat at my house googling directions to San Antonio and checking out hotel and flight rates. Inevitably, we decided none of the above plans were feasible and remained in Richmond.
As the Rams moved on to the Sweet Sixteen everyone on campus was sporting their Black & Gold. The bookstore began to be slightly more crowded than usual and cutting through it on the way to classes almost took more time rather than walking around. VCU wasn't only the first story in sports sections, but on the front page.
My friends and I tried to watch the game against Florida State University at a sports bar located right beside my house. We went an hour and a half before game time, were informed that the wait would be over an hour for a table and throughout the game our names were never called in the waiting line. We didn't care, we were simply happy to be crammed in somewhere, anywhere with other Ram fans watching the team that everyone wrote off. We watched the second half at a friend's house racing to secure a spot in front of the television before the end of halftime. At the game everyone in the neighborhood ran out into the streets, car horns were blaring, and V-C-U cheers could be heard throughout the night.
As the players prepared to take on Kansas, the nay-saying increased, which only fueled students desire to rep their team. Elite Eight shirts once again were sought after like rare gems. Around 1,500 students gathered at the Siegel Center to participate in a watch party that Sunday. Being in the facility where the season had started, and taken place, with so many other people was electric. At the game's nail biting conclusion we all rushed into Broad Street. While, I expected this would happen I still wasn't prepared for the way it made me feel.
VCU, in my opinion, has always been a proud school. However, now we were uniting students and community, sports fans and non-sports fans; heck even people who had never attended a basketball game couldn't stop talking about Burgess, Skeen, Rozzell and Rodriguez. As cheesy as it sounds it was magical and truly felt like one of those days you never want to see the end of. The Rams were going to the Final Four and it seemed no one could get enough.
That night thousands of people gathered to see the team return to Richmond at Siegel Center. It was a Sunday night, at 1:30 a.m. I had class the next day, as did many of my peers; however, attending wasn't even a question. We had to be there, we wanted to stay in this moment. Hearing the screams from the crowd I felt as though I was living in the middle of my favorite sports movie.
If I thought the Sweet Sixteen, or the Elite Eight was a big deal, nothing could've prepared me for the Final Four mania that swept the Commonwealth over the next week. Friends and family from all around the state and different universities were constantly texting me messages of 'Good luck!' 'Let's Go Rams!' News trucks and camera crews were a regular presence in the Fan. If you happened to encounter a player on your way to class, chances are they were being mobbed with requests for pictures and signatures. Everywhere that sold Rams apparel was completely ransacked. Houses were decorated with VCU paraphernalia and basketball was the primary thing discussed between students and faculty alike.
I would turn on ESPN and see full length features about VCU including interviews with Joey Rodriguez and Athletic Director Norwood Teague. Overall it was incredibly surreal. I entered the student lottery to go to the game dying to find some sort of way to get to Houston. I didn't win the raffle, and began to reconcile the fact that I would be spending Final Four weekend at home, and quite honestly I didn't mind. I knew there were plenty other schools and college towns that would kill to be in the same position as us, and the mere idea that I would get to participate in the chaos that was Richmond at the time was enough. However, that all changed for me late Tuesday night.
I was doing some work when I got an email from VCU and the NCAA. The email stated that VCU was making ticket packages available that would give students admission to both of the remaining NCAA game days for $25. This was obviously alluring to me but there was still the matter of housing for four days and transportation; then came the news that the university would also be providing hotel rooms. With that I ran out of my room and threw myself on my sleeping roommate's bed pleading with her to wake up, whip out her credit card and turn on her computer. I was in full on alert mode, keeping in contact with everyone I knew that could possibly want to go to Texas through text, phone calls, Facebook chat and email. Calls peppered with exclamations of "Did you hit checkout?!? Oh my gosh, are we really doing this?!? I hit checkout…did you?" occurred for around ten minutes ending with "WE'RE GOING TO HOUSTON!!"
In my elation I failed to tell my parents my plan of road tripping to Texas on the fly but knew they would understand. This wasn't even a choice for me. My school was going to the Final Four, there was a high chance that this would never happen again and I HAD to be there.
Smoothing out the details of the trip were exceedingly difficult over the next 24 hours but when it was all said and done the plan was, I would drive down to Texas on Thursday night with three friends and return to Richmond on Wednesday morning. As I began emailing teachers and informing them of my absence, many cancelled or rescheduled classes. Even though I only had to get through one day until my departure, it felt so much longer. I had Houston fever and was itching to get on the road.
We set off on the 20 hour journey on Thursday night and surprisingly made pretty good time. We vowed not to play the unofficial VCU theme song "Black & Yellow" until we hit Houston. As the city came into sight we honked with renewed enthusiasm, blasted our song and rolled down the windows proudly displaying our "Ram Nation" signs to all passing motorists.
Hands down my favorite memory from Houston was the first time I saw Reliant Stadium for the first time. Seeing the giant VCU banners on the side of a building that can seat over 70,000 people is not something I will soon forget. It sounds stupid, but seeing all of the Final Four signs gave me chills and put us all in the game time state of mind, even if it was a day early.
The next day was swagged out Ram Nation from the first glimpse of sunlight through our hotel curtains. We threw on as much Black & Gold attire as we could find, grabbed our signs (Can't Beat Shaka and @ProfessorHaley3: Tutor Me?) and made our way to stand in line for our tickets. After getting our arm bands we had went to wait in front of the student entrance. Despite the Texas heat, everyone was in good spirits and was beyond eager to get inside. The crowd was donning some of the most creative VCU apparel I've ever seen and it felt like everyone had a unique story about how they made it to Houston to support their Rams. Some people even freely admitted that it was their first game.
Once we got inside we ran down to the floor and immediately began taking pictures at and around the court. Charles Barkley and crew were setting up commentary and as I passed the NBA great someone asked him, "Charles what do you think about VCU?"
"Love 'em!" he replied.
We didn't get floor seats but we hardly cared. We were much too joyous for people sitting in the 600 level. As the game progressed that would change some, but not as much as you might think. People were upset, but no one was disappointed that they made the trip. The students in my section cheered for their team even as the last seconds moved off the clock. This year changed the rules for the forgotten about team from Richmond, Va. We put doubts to rest and accomplished things even we didn't believe possible. This tournament run birthed a new set of Ram fans, and will continue to inspire students and the City for years to come.
Later that night after watching the UConn-Kentucky game, we ventured over to a friend's hotel. We decided to sit out on the balcony and the first thing we heard upon opening the sliding glass door was a chorus of "You don't want to go to war with the Rams!"
The next day we walked around downtown and the mall and yelled greetings at other fans and were met with only genuine smiles and "Go Rams!"
At the NCAA Championship game on Monday night my friends and I still wore our VCU shirts and as we were exiting we were stopped by probably five people who wanted to tell us just how much they loved our school. They weren't alumni, or Richmonders, just NCAA viewers who had been inspired by our team's run. Concession workers and event staff sang "Black & Yellow" as we walked around the concourse and asked us about our trip.
As the weekend came to a close and we packed up our car to drive the 20 hours home we recounted the trip. I had left Richmond excited and expectant, and while we may have lost I was returning a much prouder Ram fan than ever before. We came, we saw, and in my opinion we conquered.