Hours later — after the anticipation, after the ups and downs of overtime — as the seconds wore down, as the University of Virginia grew closer to making history, the crowd of fans inside the Boylan Heights bar near campus grew louder and louder.
Then, with the buzzer, they exploded again in cheers, tossing their beers into the air in disbelief. There were hugs — and one couple embraced in a deep kiss.
They poured out on to the street, chanting “Wa hoo wa!”
In the hours after the Virginia Cavaliers won their first men’s national basketball championship, hundreds of students took to the streets and the campus to celebrate. There was chanting and singing and streaking. Mostly, there was exhilaration. Groups of students posed for photos in front of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, who founded the school.
George Morris, a fourth-year student studying finance, watched the game from his apartment. As Texas Tech took the lead in the closing minutes, he grew nervous: “I was scared as hell.”
Then, as the game ended, his ecstatic roommate kicked the wall in excitement, boring a hole into it. Morris poured out two shots of rum to celebrate: one for the coach, Tony Bennett, and one for his damaged wall.
The moment was made even sweeter because it was the first time the team had made the Final Four since 1984. It was a shot at redemption for a squad that made history last year by being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed when the team was bested by the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a soul-crushing embarrassment. But for a town beset by controversy and tragedy, it was about more than just the basketball team.
Nearly 20 months ago, white supremacists descended on the town to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose tribute presided over a city park. People across the country saw images of young white men carrying tiki torches, yelling racist slogans, their faces strained with anger. The following day, their demonstration turned violent, leading to clashes with counterprotesters. A man from Ohio plowed his vehicle into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a local woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring many more.
Like so many other small communities that become settings for tragedies, the word Charlottesville became not just a place, but a single event. That event came to signify the terrifying rise of white supremacists.
It came to signify many things that people who love the community say it is not.
“It’s a lovely small town,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of U-Va.’s Center for Politics. He has lived in Charlottesville since 1970. “It’s heaven to live in.”
Sabato said the game signified a chance for the world to get to know Charlottesville beyond the headlines.
“It’s certainly attracting a great amount of positive attention, which is a nice antidote to the avalanche of negative attention” that came after the white-supremacist march, Sabato said. He pointed out that nearly all of those who arrived to protest were from out of town. “Nothing’s changed. It’s just the outsider’s view.”
At the school’s famed Rotunda, students packed the brick steps after the win. On the sidewalk below, there were piles of clothes. And on the Lawn, the stretch of grass that runs between the Rotunda and Cabell Hall, there were dozens of students taking part in that University of Virginia rite of passage: streaking the Lawn. It’s a tradition that normally happens in the dead of night, when few people are around. But tonight, there were spectators and dozens of gleeful students, peeling their clothes off and running from the steps to the statue of Homer and back.
Hundreds of students packed the stairs and meandered on the Lawn, cheering, singing the school’s fight song, and dancing along to a hand drum a man played on the steps. They cheered every time a cadre of streakers arrived at the steps.
The crowds meandered to the Corner, at the crossroads of the town and campus. They shut down streets and packed together so tightly there was barely room to move. Joy was the prevailing emotion.
Jermaine Austin, a 21-year-old studying biochemistry, took in the game with his fraternity brothers. The moment the buzzer sounded is one that will be etched in his memory forever.
“It was exhilarating,” he said. “It was so exciting. It was amazing. I can’t describe it. It was pure ecstasy."
After 1:30 a.m., even with classes looming, students were still packed in at the Corner, hanging from traffic lights. An impromptu dance party broke out, with music blaring from the speakers at Boylan Heights
Stephen Hoyle, a 22-year-old graduate student studying medieval literature, has been at the university for less than a year. But he was sucked in by the team, and the growing enthusiasm around them. On Monday night, he packed in to Crozet Pizza and Biker Bar and found himself hugging total strangers. Hours later, he was marveling at the crowd on the Corner.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Even if you don’t know anything about U-Va. basketball you couldn’t help but get excited about it.”
After tipoff, Ben Walter, 35, sat nervously in the stands at John Paul Jones Arena, which broadcast the game on its Jumbotron to more than 8,000 people. Walter, a business analyst with the University of Virginia alumni association, graduated in 2005, and returned a decade later to raise his daughter in Charlottesville, a community he loves.
He had brought a fuzzy orange wig with him — a relic of his undergraduate days. But he was torn on whether to put it on.“ I haven’t decided whether it’s lucky or not,” he said at halftime.
Fans young and old, wearing T-shirts and color-coordinated dress shirts and ties, mixed in the stands. There were students, alumni and those who were raised in the town and grew to love the team, despite having no official ties to the school.
Raejion White, who has lived in Charlottesville his entire 22 years, arrived at the arena at 5:30 p.m. to snag a spot in the front row. Now he was sitting among the hordes of fans, who exploded in to deafening cheers with every sunk basket and defensive rebound. A championship “is something I’ve always wanted but it’s something I never though would happen honestly,” he said at halftime. “It’s surreal.”
Daniel Redd, a 24-year-old urban planning graduate student, was a U-Va. fan long before he set foot on campus. He inherited his love of the school from his father growing up in Norfolk.
Walking through campus a couple of hours before the game, he said the team’s performance this year inspired optimism in him — not just for the team, but also for the community.
He said he worries that the outside world still equates the town with the images of hatred and violence generated by the demonstration in 2017. But, he said, maybe the game was a chance for the town to change that.
“Maybe it can change the narrative, hopefully,” Redd said.
Jasmine Lee, a 24-year-old second-year law student, earned her undergraduate degree from the school and has been a rabid fan since she started her freshman year a half-dozen years ago. She has been waiting for this day since then.
Last year, she optimistically purchased tickets to the Final Four games in San Antonio, certain the Cavaliers would make it. When the team went out in the first round, Lee was undeterred: She and her friends attended the games in San Antonio in U-Va. gear.
Last week, when the team beat Purdue, she felt her commitment to the team — through ups and downs, and there were many downs — finally paid off.
“It means everything to this team,” Lee said. Standing outside of Boylan Heights, a mainstay of the college bars along University Avenue, she wore the No. 15 jersey of player Malcolm Brogdon, who was on campus when she was an undergraduate and now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Charlottesville City Council member Wes Bellamy (D), who pushed to remove the Lee statue, saw parallels between the narrative of the city and the team. The 2017 white-supremacist rally inspired the city to tackle equity issues more aggressively and reopened dialogue about race relations, Bellamy said.
“We both took a blow,” Bellamy said, referring to the city and the team. “But we got up and pushed harder, and we’re better because of it.”
April 8, 2019 | Basketball fans watch the University of Virginia and Texas Tech national championship basketball game at Boylan Heights, a tavern in Charlottesville. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
The scene in Charlottesville after Virginia won its first NCAA basketball championship