First on Monday night, that Monday night that we’d all spent years or decades waiting for, when the Virginia Cavaliers beat the Texas Tech Red Raiders to win it all, there was the Virginian, where I spent most of my evening. With the country music pouring from its speakers, its hole-in-the-wall charm endeared me to Charlottesville’s oldest restaurant during the Purdue game far more than the comparative bedlam of other spots on the Corner. It was just about packed to the ceiling when I got there a little before 8:00, of course, but I found myself a comfortable spot at the end of the bar. Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” was an ideal soundtrack to my first bite into their pimento cheese sandwich that served as all the sustenance I would need for the remainder of the night. Seriously y’all, as famous as their mac and cheese is, that’s probably the best sandwich I’ve ever had. I digress.
Behind me, while I’m drinking a local cider and inhaling the sandwich, three future doctors are sitting at a table, in blue Hawaiian shirts with orange flowers and a bunch of split-V’s that say “medicine”, hats backward, hollering constantly. They each have some teal-colored concoction with an upside down can of Red Bull in it. I am very confident about the future of health care in America.
As the pregame winds down and tipoff nears, whenever Texas Tech players get on TV during warmups, the whole place boos mercilessly. When they show someone from UVA? It’s like JPJ and someone made a go-ahead three in the final two minutes. By the time for the starting lineups, it’s so packed that the barstools are taken away because at this point, they’re nothing more than a hindrance to a flawless atmosphere with as many people as we can fit. After the national anthem, SUCH a good anthem, everyone chants “U-S-A!” while pounding the bar or a table, and the energy is damn near palpable.
The game happens. We die a thousand deaths, stop breathing with every bounce of the ball, go silent when things aren’t looking too good in the final minute of regulation, shout and roar when De’Andre Hunter ties it with 15 seconds left in regulation, erupt in unbridled ecstasy when Braxton Key’s dunk all but seals it with 15 seconds to go, and all hug as one when the final horn sounds. No chance we got to hear Jim Nantz’s terrific call of “Virginia, with the all-time turnaround title!”. After the manager of the place stands on his bar and chokes up while imploring us to cherish the moment and remember the night forever, everyone gets a shooter. It was red, tasted like fruit punch, and went down like spring water. Then came my all-time favorite rendition of the Good Old Song.
Time to head to Boylan.
Not to actually get inside, hell no. Less than 15 minutes after the game, you can’t even get into the mob scene outside at the intersection, only add to it. Nonstop, probably starting from Rugby Road and even back to JPJ, thousands of kids streamed out of the bars and frat houses and apartments, running down the street and the sidewalk, screaming and crying and hugging and high-fiving and visibly in awe of the exponentially growing madness.
I don’t even bother to keep going when I get to the edge of the crowd. I jump up and down and yell and all that good stuff, turn around, and actually walk back up University Avenue, away from it all. After a couple steps, I stop to crouch down and put my head in my hands. Somehow, after seeing the team I’ve adored for 20 years finally win a national championship, I don’t break down into a sobbing mess. All I can think about, in the shadow of the railroad trestle where they used to display scores of games when this program began in 1905, is how happy I am for my mom, a 1981 and 2012 alumna of UVA, who planned her and my dad’s wedding around a game in December of 1982 (Georgetown, not Chaminade) and has, for decades, planned her weekends around a game if we’re playing in the afternoon. Me, my dad, and brother, have always eaten good and plenty — she’s a damn good cook — but not until the game ended.
Even as the clock strikes midnight, as I’m in the middle of the street and trembling and enveloped by an unstoppable roar of joy, I also can’t help but think about the mantra of this team, from a TED talk Tony Bennett watched after 74-54 happened, about how to handle overwhelming heartache. “If you learn to use the adversity right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.” Since I heard it for the first time a week or two ago, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I’ll spare the details, but 14 months ago, I experienced my own 16-over-a-1 in my personal life: an earth-shattering breakup. On the worse days last summer, I would immediately turned to what Bennett said in the minutes after the worst moment of his professional life:
“You enjoyed the good times and you gotta be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena, the consequences can be historic losses, tough losses, great wins, and you have to deal with it.”
Hearing the poise in his voice as he answered every painful question, even joking that he wished Jairus Lyles hadn’t transferred to UMBC for his fifth year, helped in an odd sort of way. You could hear his pain as well as his gratitude, balancing the heartbreak of that night with the months of sustained greatness that preceded it. I’ll be the first to admit that I might be a bit too invested in this team, but especially since last February, they’ve been an escape when going through the valleys and just something else to be happy about when I’m on a hill.
After the Corner came a bottle of champagne shared with friends and a “pop” that I can still imagine clear as day as I write this 44 hours later. Then, another Uber back to Grounds to see where I can get some food — and immediately realizing that it’s not gonna happen when the line at Littlejohn’s is almost to the street and the White Spot looks like a 40-minute wait too. At 14th Street, police brought in from Roanoke and Virginia Commonwealth University have kept the peace, and at closing time, the call goes out for them to disperse and open the filthy, beer-soaked roads back up. I walk a few blocks eastward, to Sugar Shack, to call a ride home. I get inside, cut the net to the Mincer’s hoop I have above my bedroom door because why the hell not, lay on my bed, and stare at the ceiling.
They did it.