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For Those Left Behind

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The Virginia Cavaliers were playing—and coaching—for more than just themselves. It showed.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-National Championship-Virginia vs Texas Tech Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Standing in U.S. Bank Stadium, arms raised, as the confetti fell and the delirium raged around me, I was fine. The moment was still too much and too new to entirely comprehend: the Virginia Cavaliers were the champions of the NCAA Tournament, conquerors of the Final Four. And I’d been there to see it.

But as I reached for my phone, my hand grazed the small lump in my hip pocket. Which brought the tears to my eyes and another lump to my throat.

***

Joy and sorrow are a matched set. Neither moves anywhere without the other. The joy that cometh in the morning is sweeter because of the weeping we endure the night before. Moments of great sorrow are tempered, either by the knowledge of joy to come or the remembrance of joys past.

Nowhere was that more evident than the streamer-covered court in Minneapolis. Watching Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter exchange hugs and laughs and smiles hits home for UVA fans because we saw the scene the year before.

And amidst the joy we saw for the 2018-19 team, there was a tinge of sorrow for their predecessors. Even as Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon and Justin Anderson reveled with the newly crowned champions, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness that they had never gotten this moment themselves.

Devon Hall more than anyone. Of all the Hoos to have fallen short of the mountaintop, Hall and Isaiah Wilkins had unquestionably the most brutal capstone to what were otherwise extraordinary college careers. To Devon’s credit, he did not seem to pout on Monday night or draw a dark cloud over the celebrations; he was as exuberant as all the rest. But to watch him stand and laugh and hug, I thought, “This should have been yours.”

This year’s players have been very open about recognizing that they stand on a foundation built by the teams that could never break through. It has motivated them, to pick up the torch and finish the race.

They played for those who couldn’t make it—the ones left behind.

***

I pulled my class ring out of the hip pocket where it had been stashed all game.

My ring is a little different. It’s not the standard UVA signet, with a flat top and slim, unadorned sides. Mine has a black onyx stone set on top, with broad sides featuring the Rotunda etched on one and the seal of the University on the other. It always confounds fellow Hoos who notice it: like as not, they assume it’s from VMI or Annapolis instead of Grounds.

But my ring is different for a reason. It’s the kind my dad got when he graduated from UVA in 1980. And he got his because it’s the kind my grandfather got when he graduated in 1958.

Grandpa is the one who started this whole Virginia thing in our family—well, Grandpa with a healthy assist from Grandma. Grandpa was from upstate New York, but while he was in the Navy he met a young woman from Waynesboro. And after he got out, and was considering taking his GI Bill benefits to enroll at the University of Michigan, that girl from Waynesboro pointed out that there was a very fine university right there in Charlottesville, thank you very much.

And the decision was made. And the path was set.

Ours isn’t just a Virginia family, though. It’s a Virginia basketball family. Dad was admitted to enroll in the fall of 1976; that spring, he and Grandpa sat in their car in the driveway—the only spot around their house in Rochester, New York, where a radio could pick up the ACC Tournament broadcast—and listened to the Miracle in Landover.

Dad came to Charlottesville, and lo and behold met a young woman from Richmond who was tough enough to be in the first few classes of women at the University. As the story has been handed down, he knew she was the one when she could out-yell him at games and knew what to yell and when to yell it.

All he had to teach her was, “Football is social. Basketball is serious.”

Grandma and Grandpa moved to Charlottesville when my brother was born. And the better part of all my childhood memories of time with them feature UVA sports in some way: crisp autumn afternoons in the old bleachers at Scott Stadium; my brother and I running around the concourse of University Hall, wearing the Cavalier Kids Club t-shirts that made us invincible while Grandma and Grandpa cheered on the great women’s basketball teams of the early 1990s.

They say the oldest memories are the last ones to go. All I know for sure is that as Grandpa’s started to fade, the Virginia ones stayed strong. He loved the way Tony Bennett’s teams played, even if he couldn’t always remember the players’ names. He loved his UVA sweatshirts—with their faint logos and worn collars—even as he started to lose track of which day it was.

Grandpa passed April 3, 2015: four years ago this week. We invested maybe a little too much of ourselves in the 2016 squad—felt a little too crushed by the Elite Eight loss to Syracuse, when the Final Four was so nearly within grasp.

As we dealt with the sorrow from the void he left, we found ourselves clinging to little totems, physical manifestations of a joyous memory. More often than not, it was something orange and blue. The UVA blanket that had covered his bed for years. A shirt emblazoned with his class year, from his 50-year reunion.

For me, it has always been my ring.

***

I don’t know much about Tony Bennett’s relationship with his father, Dick. Not more than what has been written about it, at least. I can’t say for certain what parts of Tony are because of Dick or which parts are in spite of him. And I wouldn’t presume to guess.

But it’s hard to watch the son talk about his father without seeing some inkling that whatever part of this triumph Tony wanted for himself, a part of that part he wanted for Dick. Watch the video of Tony finding his dad in Louisville after beating Purdue; listen to what he says. “We did it,” the son exclaims, before twice repeating “thank you.” We.

Dick Bennett’s Wisconsin Badgers squad that was the darling of March Madness in 2000—the season and experience that fully launched Tony into coaching—hit a brick wall in the semifinals. Advancing past Saturday would show the world that the Bennett system could do more than just make the Final Four: it could win there, too.

Listening to Tony speak about his experiences and emotions the past few days, there is no doubt in my mind that some of Tony’s joy comes from erasing a bit of his father’s sorrow—and for his father being with him instead of left behind.

***

I choked a breath in around that lump in my throat as I slipped the ring back on. (I can’t wear it during games: by the 17th iteration of “Let’s go, Wa-hoos! (clap clap clapclapclap),” it tears the skin right off the knuckles on either side.)

I sat and I stared at it for the longest time. Tears dripped down my cheeks as I raised my hand to my lips and gave the top of the stone a kiss, just as I’d done before slipping it off in the last minute before tip-off.

I’ve learned I’m not the only one here this weekend carrying a symbol of someone who couldn’t make it. A late relative’s pin or necklace became a good luck charm, worth a little rub or touch before key moments. From our own comments group here on the blog, Frederick Holmes, Jr., was one for whom others carried a torch.

Maybe in years to come, the bits of string each player cut from the nets or a handful of confetti they snagged from the floor will become their own token of this moment. They’ll be able to pull it down from a shelf or out of a drawer and let all the emotions of this victory flood back over them: the joy of what they accomplished, made sweeter by the sorrow they’d endured.

Right now I just want to get home. I want to give my dad a hug. I want to give him the UVA sweatshirt I got him, with its nice crisp “2019 Final Four” logo. I want to rejoice in him being with me to enjoy it—even as I wonder whether it will become my totem of him when I’m the one left behind.