Feeling So Cavalier
By Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports columnist
I had avoided picking a program to support because it was a daunting task, given that I have no personal affiliation with any Division I schools. I had to go on feel alone, and after some debate and a lot of advice from "The People's Sports Podcast," it was clear Virginia had stolen my heart.
My fandom boiled down to a few very basic but compelling facts: The school is in CHARLOTTEsville, I had a Virginia T-shirt I loved as a kid, and I was intrigued by the slow style of play in which coach Tony Bennett believes.
After my first full week as a fan and my first regular-season game, I can report back and say that (a.) I’ve never received such a warm welcome from a group of people and (b.) watching UVA basketball feels like jumping into very cold water in slow motion.
My lungs constricted as I watched the (still) national champion Cavaliers battle the not-national-champion Kent State Golden Flashes last Friday, taking turns holding the lead despite the fact that Virginia was favored to win by 20. I went numb with dread watching the game go into overtime, but the whole experience was thrilling, a rush.
Much like a polar bear plunge, I was hyper aware of my own mortality. I felt alive in the final minutes as I held my breath.
But winning? That felt like slowly climbing out of the ocean and basking on a sunny dock.
The key word in that drawn-out metaphor is slow, because that sure is the kind of basketball Bennett and his team execute.
Mark Titus, my co-host on the podcast, sold me on becoming a Virginia fan because he said their style of play was so deliberate and focused on defense that fans lost their minds when Virginia forced the other team to commit a shot-clock violation. Something sounded inherently funny and charming to me about that, but I had no idea just how delightful it was until I watched.
Before I dive into the game, I want to say how grateful I am that the community of Virginia fans embraced me as quickly as they did. The messages welcoming me to the fold were very sweet, and UVA athletics even went so far as to put me in its Twitter bio, which is the most starstruck I’ve been since meeting Paul Rudd on a plane to Kansas City. Thank you, Virginia.
Chris Long, the retired NFL star from Virginia, was kind enough to join us this week on "PSP," and he told me Cavaliers fans are not used to anyone deciding to bandwagon their team — even after winning a title — so it’s thrilling when someone does. And I felt that.
It seems like fans don’t really care where you came from or why you’re there, they just want you to love Tony Bennett, watching boys become men, and hard-hedging ball screens as much as they do.
Which brings me back to the Kent State game.
I was struck by the emphasis on efficient shots. Bennett’s whole modus operandi, as far as I could tell, is to make it impossible for another team to gain momentum or start feeling themselves. The Cavs simply do not let the other team get hot — they’ve put parental controls on the browser and unless you’re a genius, it’s hard to get around it.
I was also struck by the number of infomercials for men’s shaving products and cleaning supplies they show on ACC Network. But I digress.
As I sipped my white wine and ate slices of cheese (I’ve gone full Charlottesville, baby), it dawned on me: Virginia plays the ultimate Dad Ball. Their game plan is the cliche “defense wins championships,” said earnestly and honestly. UVA basketball wants to be sure that your AAA membership is up to date and that you’ve got cash in your wallet just in case. It tells you to listen to your mother and will turn this car right around if you take a splashy shot over a smart one.
It’s a brilliant way to play the game. It basically says to fans, “get on board with this, a style of basketball so unsexy yet so successful that you have no choice but to love it.”
It’s the normcore of college sports. It’s Crocs worn not to be ironic, but because they’re practical in the summer. It’s also the reason few people join the bandwagon — because it’s not the thrilling rocketship of a program blasting 140 points into space per game.
But I love it. There’s something refreshing about a coach confident enough to do something not very splashy simply because it works. Tony Bennett: More than just a silver fox.
The ferocity with which fans love Virginia is impressive. While I only adopted the team a few days before I watched my first game, rooting for these guys felt completely natural. Sam Hauser is my large adult son, Kihei Clark is my short adult son, and every Jay Huff dunk made me swell with pride. I felt at home on Twitter making jokes about the shot clock, mostly because ... no one was, for lack of a better way of saying this, a jerk about it.
The many Virginia fans I encountered on the internet seemed far more interested in delighting in the game — in diving in and feeling alive — than they did in getting offended at anyone who poked fun at them. There’s a sense of humor, I think, that’s required of UVA fandom, because if you can’t laugh at the fact that the ideal score is 47-40, then it’s probably not the team for you.
I’m a little bummed I didn’t jump on this bandwagon sooner, so that I could be a part of the community when UVA went on that magical title run in 2019. But fandom is fandom, and it means that you stick around through the good times and the bad.
With COVID-19 being such a disaster, I don’t know how many games we’ll get this season, and I don’t know what the NCAA Tournament will end up looking like.
But I do know that I’ll be with Virginia every step of the way, surrounded by people who also want to be sure that you checked the prices at this gas station to be sure that there isn’t a cheaper one just down the road.