RICHMOND — “I love you,” Shaka Smart was saying, as VCU’s basketball reunion entered its sixth hour.
The object of his affection this time was Johnny Williams, VCU’s senior point guard, whom Smart was hugging, because he was hugging everyone during a bipartisan postgame party that seemed like it might never end. Four hours earlier — just before his Texas team took the court against a Rams program he led to the Final Four — Smart had strolled to the middle of the Siegel Center court he once ruled. He was there to help present a signed basketball to Dianne Long, the program’s senior secretary, who is now in her 34th season — under a ninth head coach.
“He told me that he loved me,” Long recalled, tears in her eyes. “He told me that when he left me, too. And it’s sincere. It’s sincere.”
It probably isn’t enough to call the emotions mixed during Smart’s first trip here with a visiting team, a blissfully raucous December affair that ended with a 71-67 Texas win. The emotions were swirled. They sloshed together. They piled on top of each other. Fans who cheered for Smart before the game also said they couldn’t remember wanting to beat an opposing team this badly. Fans who cried when Smart left Richmond said they were seeking closure, calling this night the true end of the Shaka Smart era. The father of one former player wore a VCU jacket over his Texas polo — because that former player, Darius Theus, now works for Texas. The coaching staffs are so stocked with former co-workers and friends that it’s a wonder the game ever started, what with all the necessary pregame handshakes and hugs.
Love mixed with pain mixed with a desire for revenge. And it was especially complicated because Smart wasn’t just a successful basketball coach during the six seasons he spent building VCU into the biggest sports attraction in town. He was a civic fixture. He raised funds. He served on boards. He and his wife, Maya, became local institutions.
“They were like the king and queen of Richmond,” said Mat Shelton-Eide, the co-founder of VCURamNation.com.
“He was godlike,” said season ticket holder Mark Cross, one of the dozens of VCU boosters Smart hugged as he circled the court before the game.
“He was The Man in Richmond, basically,” said Charlotte Hornets guard Treveon Graham, one of a half-dozen ex-players still milling around the court long after the game ended.
Smart had stayed put at the school, even as his name was linked with cushier jobs at UCLA and Marquette and N.C. State, and fans wondered whether VCU’s program had graduated from steppingstone to landing spot. Then Texas and its $21.7 million deal arrived in the spring of 2015. Smart left, and those fans who had lived through Jeff Capel’s arrival and departure and Anthony Grant’s arrival and departure had to do it again.
“There were some hearts broken,” said Chris Crowley, one of the best-known VCU supporters. “It’s a pretty passionate fan base, but with that passion comes emotion sometimes, and it’s not always happy emotion. There are some open and hurt feelings there.”
Tuesday offered a chance to let those feelings out. The school puts a clause in its head basketball coach’s contract mandating a home-and-home series with his new employer if he leaves. When Capel decamped for Oklahoma, he brought his Sooners back to Richmond, and lost. When Grant headed to Alabama, he suffered the same fate. “Two of the best games we’ve ever had at the Siegel Center,” Crowley said.
So the VCU community had been looking forward to this game from the moment Smart left. Some said it was the most hyped regular season game they could remember. Standing-room tickets started at $75 on the secondary market, and students began lining up outside the arena at 10:30 in the morning.
“This is, I think, cathartic for everyone,” said Greg Burton, a local sports-radio host, moments before Smart appeared and grabbed him in a hug. “See, that’s what I’m saying,” Burton said, as Smart hugged other well-wishers in the pregame crowd. “Everyone just wants to get a glimpse and say thanks, because every memory is so positive.”
Well, most of them, anyhow. The popular question this week was whether Smart might hear boos from those who felt betrayed, and as the coach walked out of the tunnel for the first time, there was at least one catcall. That came from Meade Fitzgerald, a 38-year-old VCU graduate who said his two favorite teams are now “VCU and whoever’s playing Texas.”
“I just feel like he left the program at its peak, and he let a lot of people down,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s like if your dad left your mom and then came back to your house with a new wife. Would you cheer that?”
But it seemed easier to find the other side, the people who wanted to thank Smart while beating him — showing that his ex-program was every bit the equal of a Big 12 school.
“We understand why he wanted to leave; you do it for your family, you do it for yourself,” Melanie Cross said. “We all have goals, and sometimes you can’t stay in one place forever.”
Smart’s successor, Will Wade, stayed just two years before leaving for LSU, a departure that made fans appreciate Smart’s six seasons even more, and that likely took some of the edge off his return. So there were mostly cheers when he came out onto the court just before the game, raising his arm and waving to the crowd. He shared a long hug with VCU Coach Mike Rhoades, his former assistant — “I’m not here if it wasn’t for Coach Smart,” Rhoades said after the game — and then he set about trying to earn Texas’s first road win in two seasons.
Texas surged into an early lead, the deafening crowd settled down, and the Longhorns pushed their lead to 19 midway through the second half. Then VCU unleashed the sort of full-court blitz Smart had seen so many times from the other end of the gym, finally taking a one-point lead and setting off one of the loudest roars in the building’s two decades.
The place was sold out for a 105th straight game — complete with a 24-year-old Smart impersonator who was invited to sit directly next to the Texas bench, and a group of adults dressed as a motorcycle gang and calling themselves the Rhoades Warriors. If you weren’t convinced this night was complicated, you should have heard the howls when Smart complained about a call as fans pleaded for a technical.
And when you combined all those emotions with the rabid comeback, the noise became outrageous at the end. The din hovered in the air, crashing against your skull. Khris Lane, whose three-pointer gave VCU its only lead, tried saying something to himself during that mayhem, “But I couldn’t even hear what I said to myself. It was that loud,” he said.
“That crowd was phenomenal,” Texas big man Dylan Osetkowski said.
“Pretty unbelievable,” said VCU’s Justin Tillman, one of the last of Smart’s guys.
“Like a playoff game,” Rhoades said. “You don’t experience this in 95 percent, 98 percent of other basketball arenas.”
“We always used to talk about on the coaching staff here about how many wins a season this place is worth by itself,” Smart said of the 7,600-seat arena, which could have breathed life into a Farm Bill committee hearing. “Every once in a while you take a deep breath, and you say, ‘Man, this is a special place, and I was so unbelievably fortunate to be here for six years.’ ”
Now he’s coaching a Texas team boasting one of the country’s highest-rated recruiting classes, with a future lottery pick in center Mohamed Bamba and enough talent to outlast his old program, even in that cauldron. So as the Longhorns made their free throws, that tiny bit of revenge VCU fans had imagined for two years flitted away.
Some still found what they were looking for. Like Jennifer Mullen, such a head-over-heels Shaka Smart fan that she displayed a photoshopped picture of herself with the coach inside her home on Valentine’s Day. (“She has an unnatural love for the man,” joked her husband, Steve.) When Smart left, she cried. Before the game, she stood underneath the arena’s Final Four display, talking about those tears, and how she needed a night like this.
“I really did get closure,” she said after the game. “This breakup will be easier.”
Neutral basketball fans, meanwhile, got the sort of game that should happen every December, if the big boys weren’t so terrified. Smart tried to schedule games like this when he was at VCU, games that are so clearly good for the sport.
“But that’s just not why people schedule,” he acknowledged. “They don’t schedule what’s better for the sport.”
As for the 40-year-old coach, he tried to downplay his return, to treat it like another game. Good luck with that, unless a normal game involves 100, 200, 500 hugs. Long after the game — when the arena would normally be empty and the visiting team rolling away in its bus — Smart was still grinning, still embracing friends, still asking people about his favorite cookies and telling people how much he loved them. There were security guards to hug, and parents of former players to hug, and parents of current players to hug, and enough photos to fill an album, and those seven or eight former players huddled in a corner of the arena.
“Some of those guys are my favorite guys I’ve ever coached, and I coached them here, so to come back here as a visiting coach is just a strange feeling,” he said, voice hoarse, as he made his way toward the exit. “It’s strange. And in a good way. But that’s what happens when you spend six years in a place.”
He chatted with a few more friends, handed out a few more hugs and posed for a few more photos. Then he finally left, wearing his Texas sweatsuit and gazing around his former home.
“This place,” he said to no one in particular, “is special.”
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