Chain of Events Keeps VCU Going
They practice in a gym across their Richmond campus called Franklin Street. Most of the players describe the facility as a community center.
"If that," said Eric Maynor, Virginia Commonwealth's money sophomore guard, chuckling. "Something about Franklin Street, though -- we all like being there."
The rims aren't bent, the paint isn't chipped or cracked and the baskets mechanically descend to just about the right 10-foot height when the button is pushed to lower them. But it's no-frills, the same gym it was when VCU played there in the 1950s and 1960s: six baskets, a mop to keep the dust and cobwebs off the hardwood and a rack of worn, scuffed leather balls. It's very un-big time, the kind of hoops sanctuary where a team with an imagination could bond and grow -- and one night, on national television, throw a roundhouse and drop Duke.
When Maynor rose, fired and scored from just beyond the free throw line on Thursday night with 1.8 seconds left to send Coach K's Mickey-D all-Americans packing, the Rams submitted the first entry to become 2007's Cinderella Men.
Which, let's be honest, is so last year.
Memo to VCU: You can't be seeded 11th in the NCAA tournament, give some fearless kid nobody outside of the Colonial Athletic Association has ever heard of the ball at the end of a knotted game, come up with your own good-luck charm and play giant-killer in March. George Mason already did that.
"Well, we don't want to be the next George Mason," Maynor said. "We want to be this year's VCU. That's okay, right?"
Kids these days; they want everything, including their own identity. The truth: VCU's back story actually is more than decent and, in point of fact, very different from Mason's.
It begins with a first-year coach who for the past decade lived on the other side of the college basketball fence, miles from the have-nots. Anthony Grant was Billy Donovan's right-hand man at Florida. When he showed up in Richmond to console the kids who were upset about their beloved coach leaving town to climb the ladder -- Jeff Capel grabbed Kelvin Sampson's old job at Oklahoma -- Grant had just one selling point:
"I'm going to use a system that two weeks ago won the national championship," he told them. "Ninety-four feet. Both ways."
The Rams still were emotionally wrung out after seeing a scroll line across a cable-news station that Capel was gone before he could even speak to them. Some spoke of transferring. None did.
Instead, they began to accept Grant, embrace his need-for-speed philosophy. Will Fameni, the junior center from Cameroon who broke his nose against Duke, shed 30 pounds to make sure his rump got back downcourt. Jesse Pellot-Rosa and B.A. (Bobby Anthony) Walker, two of the team's five seniors, bought in, too. And a week before the CAA tournament, Grant came up with a symbol to signify their unity: a single, metallic-gold chain.
"Coach Donovan actually gave me the idea," Grant said. "I wanted something to show our commitment to each other and what we wanted to do. So I had each of their initials engraved and I told them what I expected from each person."
"He told me he needed to be more of a leader on the floor and to play better defense," Maynor said. "He told B.A., 'Be a killer,' because B.A. is sometimes not aggressive enough. Every player got a different message and role when the chain came out."
It weighs about a pound or so and looks gaudy enough to resemble something Darryl McDaniel and Joseph Simmons wore as Run-D.M.C., circa 1986. The chain was brought out in the final minutes against Duke by Matt Coward, VCU's senior guard, and a couple of knock-offs were displayed by VCU's rowdy fans at the end of the Duke game. None of this would have been possible if Maynor hadn't stolen George Mason's mojo in the CAA title game. Down by five with two minutes left, the kid hit shots, made steals and triggered a crazy, 9-0 run that put VCU in the tournament. He said many of the Patriots players who faced Florida in the Final Four a year ago came up to him afterward.
"Gabe Norwood was really nice," Maynor said. "He told me, 'Go win some games and have some fun. You guys have the talent to do it.' I remember that. It meant a lot."
The baton was passed, and Maynor took it and ran, right past Duke and Greg Paulus, the Blue Devils' acclaimed point guard whom he outdueled in the final minutes. Maynor's father George told him before the game -- a lot like Lamar Butler Sr. told Mason's Lamar Butler Jr. a year ago before Connecticut -- "Don't look at the names on their jerseys. If you do, you'll be down by 20 before you look up."
"Even when we were ahead at the end, I kept thinking, '1.8 seconds is a long time for some Christian Laettner play to happen,' " Maynor said. "We got to keep 'em in front of us. Keep the ball in front so they can't beat us.'"
Saturday night it's on to big, bad Pittsburgh of the Big East, another power-conference school. The Panthers are supposed to be too big and too steeped in tradition to get caught up in another small-school myth stretching 94 feet. Both ways.
But after last year, you just don't know anymore.
The text messages are rolling in; Grant counted 80 on his cellphone last night.
"My high school coach called," Pellot-Rosa said. "I haven't heard from him in three years. He said he'd been trying to find my number for a while. That's okay. It was nice to hear from him."
At VCU, they are finding out what their predecessors who wielded a slingshot already know: For as long as Maynor Mania and the Rams last, we want to hear about the old-school gym, the player nobody recruited and the coach who left the national champs to join the underdogs. For as long as Virginia Commonwealth lasts, we want to take the ride with them.