You exit the floor in San Diego State's Viejas Arena, and the back hall to the locker rooms is on your immediate right. For the NCAA tournament, a blue curtain had been set up to herd the media away from that entrance, straight down a long hallway, past the bathrooms and out a back door into a gigantic tent where the NCAA had set up operations for the media horde.
The media work room with its cafeteria-style seating and rows of computers and photographic equipment, the de facto eating cafeteria, and that God awful staging area that I did not want to visit, the place where press conferences took place, was under that same tent.
At this one particular moment I stood at the mouth of the locker room entrance, unable to continue straight as the curtain and security usher wished. I could only manage the go-stay, like when you pump your brakes in the car deciding whether or not oncoming traffic is too close to pull into an intersection. VCU had just lost in heartbreaking fashion to Stephen F. Austin in the NCAA tournament, and I was pondering options I didn’t actually possess.
I didn't want to see my guys, our guys, Shaka Smart and the kids, deal with this raw moment in front of the world. Maybe if I didn't walk into that tent the press conference would never occur? I made it off the floor but wanted to go back, as if I had the ability to alter the course of events I had witnessed that led to the end of the season. If I could shoot from the exact spot JeQuan Lewis shot, in my coat and tie, and make it...
But there was reality. I knew it. There would be a press conference with uncomfortable questions. I understood it and knew it had to happen and that's how it goes, but I didn't have to like it. Still don't. Never will.
So there I was, not really paying attention to my surroundings in those minutes after the shocking manner in which VCUs season ended. And in that moment of hesitation, in that wisp of a moment where I thought I could do the impossible, when I pumped the brakes, I looked up and I was face-to-face with JeQuan Lewis.
His backpack was slung over his shoulder and for the first time all year he was not wearing headphones and listening to music. Lewis stared straight ahead as his weary legs carried him slowly forward.
People are going to forget JeQuan Lewis gave VCU 32 solid minutes as a freshman in the NCAA tournament, subbing for a foul-plagued Rob Brandenberg. They will forget his 13 points and the fact that he had but a single turnover in those 32 minutes. They will forget he swished a three to tie the game at 41-41 after VCU had languished through 27 minutes of action. They will forget he followed that with a natural three-point play to give VCU its first lead of the second half. Those 32 minutes were a season high for Lewis and the moment was not too big for him.
They shouldn’t forget any of that, but they probably will, and that’s a shame.
Lewis’s body was six inches from mine—closer than he ever got to Desmond Haymon—as he turned the corner, but his eyes were someplace else. They were empty but alive, wide, boring straight ahead searching for something only JeQuan Lewis could find. Lewis was in that place you go when you need to make things better for yourself but still cannot yet come to grips with your reality. It's a difficult place but it's also a healing place.
I instinctively stepped back so we wouldn’t collide, but purposely slowed my walk so I wouldn't have to walk with him. Yes it was a bit cowardly, but what do you say to kid, such a nice kid who had just played his ass off so you could cheer and feel good, in a moment like that? What could Shaka Smart say to him? His teammates?
No, this was something that JeQuan Lewis would have to find on his own, even if he has an entire VCU family ready to climb a mountain to punch an echo for him.
Something was weird, or different, about this season. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I'm writing this now because I fear summer will pass and I still won't have the answers I seek and it’s time to move forward.
Perhaps our constant wrangling with uneven play was rooted in something far more simple than Ken Pomeroy could ever offer, and far more simple than the esoteric concept of "leadership" or shooting percentages or the emotional barometer of Juvonte Reddic.
Perhaps what we missed on the floor was a glue guy. You know him. Selfless to a fault and dedicated to making those around him better. Darius Theus may have been a point guard and a leader, but he was a glue guy.
I'll never forget 2007 and VCUs greatest alltime glue guy. Duke's Greg Paulus had flailed an elbow at Eric Maynor and had been talking a little trash. Maynor was our star, the guy. Paulus knew getting Maynor out of his element was a key to beating VCU.
And coming out of a second half timeout after a mini dustup between Maynor and Paulus, Jesse Pellot Rosa flattened Paulus with a manly screen. It may have been a tad illegal, but notice was served to Greg Paulus that VCUs star would not be trifled with.
Dagger. Glue guy.
I guess I'm off kilter because I can't pin the season on anything, to be honest. VCU didn't win an A10 championship and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But really, there wasn't much bad in the season either. I can intellectually understand every loss except perhaps Northern Iowa. And if a college basketball team can go through an entire season and really only lay one true egg, you’re lucky.
We only played seven games that were decided by five or fewer points. Maybe that's the rub.
Or maybe, just maybe, this was the year the script flipped and VCU became the hunted. It isn't that "we arrived" or any foolhearty, arrogant concept like that. Rather, this was the year others viewed us with authentic respect, just as VCU approaches its opponents with authentic respect.
After all, authentic respect breathes life to the motivational fire of beating someone who is a worthy adversary. You aren't getting fired up to play the Nevada Culinary Institute, not like you get fired up to play the Florida Gators.
We sold out our building but also sold out road games. When VCU won it was supposed to win and when we lost it was news. The big boy reporters wrote long form articles a mere three years from considering VCU an upstart. They dug into our weaknesses and we had to stomach those words, because that sort of examination goes with national relevance. It was all new and we had to figure out how that tastes.
It was this way on the court.
The Florida State game comes to mind. The Seminoles did to VCU what VCU did to others in prior years. They used the motivation of playing the 10th-ranked team in the nation and the fire that they were going to take them down a peg. VCU was no more the 10th-best college basketball team this season than a Michigan or Villanova or North Carolina is ever the 10th-best team.
The Florida State game, I think, extends to you and me. Ever since the Final Four run we’ve often said we expect to win games over major conference teams like Florida State. I’m willing to admit those were hollow boasts, chest-puffing rhetoric designed to mask the fact that I was always hopeful we’d win those games but never expecting it.
Until this season, when I can honestly say I expected to win that Florida State game.
This, maybe, was the year of hopes turning in its learner's permit for the real thing. It was the year of authenticity.
Lament is a wasted emotion, so I refuse to lament any part of the last six months of my life. Not everything in the VCU basketball season was steak and cake, but then again what is?
Besides, there's nothing you can do about what’s past. It isn't productive to play the “what if “game, and it isn't healthy to lament missed opportunities, or missed layups. What I choose to do is learn what I can learn from the experience and take that forward.
Memories will be pleasant memories, and that's a good thing because there wasn't really much bad in this season. If you think about it, there really wasn't.
You can't blame officials for anything, just as you can't deny they have an impact on the game. This was never more evident than the second half of the Georgetown game, where the officials had called eight total first half fouls on VCU and seven in the first 2:38 of the second half. The Hoyas shot three free throws in the first half and 34 free throws in the second half. And there was the charging call on Treveon Graham in the St. Joseph's game. I committed to never speaking of it again, but cannot let free from my mind.
I will admit I never expected to lose to St. Joseph's in the A10 championship game, and to SFA in the NCAA tournament. But those are on me, I am my own provider of hubris and grief. Okay maybe there are a couple negative things stuck in my crawl, but I will learn from those as well.
Otherwise there isn't pain from the year. We experienced the thrill of the Freight Train daggering Virginia. A stunning comeback and double-overtime win at LaSalle. A 31-0 run on Virginia Tech that I was told about, and finishing the year 6-0 against the major state teams and 18-0 on Commonwealth soil.
We won, convincingly, at Dayton, and St. Louis became the latest example of why teams don't want a piece of That Animal.
Personally, the St. Louis students mistaking me for Shaka Smart and heckling me is a proud moment in my life. I still remember being 15 feet down the hall from the entrance to the locker room and hearing "Mo Says No" emanating from the closed door after Mo Alie Cox swatted five Billikens shots. His teammates were proud.
For the fourth straight year, a VCU assistant landed a head coaching job when Mike Rhoades was hired to revive Rice.
Shaka Smart became the school's all-time winningest coach, but I'm here to tell you that man's impact on people and this program dwarfs his win total. I consider myself very fortunate to see this impact in the back halls of faraway arenas and unloading gear from the bottom of a bus.
Here's my summation: the season had its high points and low points, as does every season. In the end, we were a five seed in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Let that marinate, weighing its relative importance against single games versus Georgetown or Northern Iowa or St. Joseph's or SFA.
It may have been a season low on drama, but it was high on authenticity.
Someone who long ago was my friend but ceased being that a few years back coined the term "it always ends in a loss." I never really agreed with him on that front, even when we were friends. There are the pure wins and losses that are the ultimate arbiters in what we're all doing here, but on a wholly higher level it's about so much more. It's about trajectory and fellowship, and these shared experiences include wins and losses. We're better people for the journey.
My former friend shuttered his website this week, a place that was once beautiful but had turned into a carnival act, and near the end of his concluding post he saw the light that had escaped him for so long.
"It doesn't end in a loss, and any inflicted pain does not linger for long," he wrote in words we haven't seen in years. "It ends when it's over, and then something else happens. So it goes."
If you look at it in the broader picture, it hasn't ended in a loss for VCU in quite some time. Capel to Grant to Smart. Sander to Teague to McLaughlin. Walker to Maynor to Rodriguez to Theus to Weber. The fabric and the progress is right there in plain sight.
Late in this authentic season we were chosen as a "host school" in the Legends Classic at Barclays next year, alongside Michigan, Oregon, and Villanova. We announced a new $25 million practice facility. I don't follow recruiting but I'm told we have a crop of stallions on the way.
Something else happens. So it goes. And I can't wait.