The hoops part of it — the drama of uncomfortably close games and clutch performances — made for an unforgettable experience, but like every sports title, the ultimate triumph is an intimate one most appreciated by the team, the fan base and the school or region it represents. But the story of Virginia’s turnaround came with a transcendent message that stands today with greater relevance than it did on that championship night of April 8, 2019.
We all love a good comeback, and sports provide plenty of emotion-stirring accounts of what can be achieved through belief and tenacity. Most of the time, as we marvel, the athletes and coaches kind of Jordan-shrug at their feats, leaving us with limited insight into how they did it.
The Cavaliers’ rally was especially meaningful because the program, despite Coach’s Tony Bennett’s notorious aversion to publicity, hype and distraction, allowed itself to bleed for all to see. It was more open than another Bennett-led team probably will ever be. It was introspective. It was human. The season turned into both a basketball and psychological journey. Even at the end, with the trophy in their hands and nets around their necks, the Cavaliers resisted getting all macho and clapping back at the haters. In humble victory, they wound up teaching us a lot about life.
A year later, I’m grateful for those lessons. You should be, too, even if “Rotunda Orange” and “Jefferson Blue” aren’t essential colors in your wardrobe. Virginia left us with an intimate portrait of a comeback. Although a sports memory seems awfully puny compared with the true heroism required to subdue and defeat the novel coronavirus, there is no limit to what can be used for inspiration. If nothing else, it helps to hear about amazing rallies as we prepare to attempt the most important comeback of our lifetime.
Remember when Bennett referenced the gospel song “Hills and Valleys” during the trophy presentation? It was an ideal way to finish the Cavaliers’ book. The championship wouldn’t have been as sweet without the UMBC disappointment. It’s funny: As Virginia recovered and earned another No. 1 seed in 2019, some fans grew so tired of hearing about UMBC that they lashed out. They felt that they were being picked on, that they would never be able to live it down. At the same time, the team was using it as fuel, not as the classic motivator but as a setback to accept, understand and prompt improvement.
Does Virginia win it all without the UMBC upset? We’ll never know. I’m sure the Cavaliers would have liked the opportunity to try, but they can’t say for certain, either.
Did Virginia handle the upset as responsibly as any team that has ever been considered a failure? Without a doubt.
It’s always about the hills and valleys. That song, by Tauren Wells, begins with such beautiful emotion: “I’ve walked among the shadows. You wiped my tears away. And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak. And I’ve seen brighter days.”
After the UMBC loss, Bennett left the arena thinking about how to manage the crisis.
“You’ll remember this,” he said March 16, 2018. “Maybe a 1 seed will get beat again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll be the only No. 1 seed ever to lose. It’s life. It goes on. We’ll have to get past that. For some reason, this is what we’ve got to deal with, and my job now will be to say, ‘Hey, how do we bounce back?’ A life lesson is sitting there about defining yourself by maybe not what the world says, but there’s other things that matter. And then you get back to it.”
There’s a difference between feeling embarrassed and getting embarrassed. In truth, losing in competition isn’t an embarrassment; it’s a reality that one side must experience. The real embarrassment is a loss that comes without discovery — just a disappointment that falls into a bottomless pit of disappointments.
The Cavaliers learned and came closer. They made subtle changes, but they also doubled down on their values and identity. When the 2019 tournament arrived, they didn’t go on an angry, vengeful tear. It was a difficult journey that could have ended in just about any round. Five of their six victories made the heart pound. They fell behind by 14 points early to another No. 16 seed, Gardner-Webb. They could have lost to Oregon in the Sweet 16. They needed a miracle from Mamadi Diakite to force overtime and beat Purdue in the Elite Eight. They collapsed late in the Final Four against Auburn before Kyle Guy rescued them. Then they had to outlast Texas Tech in overtime of the title game.
They needed everything they had to win. If Ty Jerome hadn’t made smart plays, if De’Andre Hunter hadn’t come up big when it mattered most, if Bennett hadn’t deftly balanced taking control and letting his guys play, this comeback story wouldn’t have had such a perfect ending. For the ’Hoos, those small margins made it more rewarding. Theirs was always a nuanced story. Some of the most profound parts — including Guy’s willingness to detail his battle with anxiety — wouldn’t have been as vivid if domination had been the strongest impression.
“Joy is in the competition,” Bennett preached to his players.
Joy is in the maturation, too.
About an hour after the championship game, Jerome was asked a softball question that he could have used to unload on all of Virginia’s critics. He declined. His answer shed light on the emotional depth of the journey.
“Last year, it drew us even closer together, and it made us enjoy every part of the season even more and made us enjoy each other’s company more on the road,” he said. “We grew closer together off the court. So it wasn’t like a rush to get to this championship game and then win it so the season could be over, so we could prove all you guys wrong. It was more just we grew even more united, and we enjoyed every part of the season.”
And now, a year later, Guy is announcing that covid-19 killed his grandfather. Good and bad times don’t last. They often alternate. The hills and valleys. We must learn from both.
Because the coronavirus ended the 2020 NCAA tournament before it began, the Cavaliers will reign for another year. As bad as we should feel for the contenders who lost a prime championship opportunity and the seniors who just wanted to dance one last time, at least the memory of the 2018-19 Virginia Cavaliers will remain prominent for a little longer.
Their comeback is an inspiration that will not vanish into the void.
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