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COMMENTARY: NCAA tournament run has U.Va. fans’ beaming

At some point around 10 p.m. tonight, Dr. John Coker and his wife Linda will take their seats in Madison Square Garden in New York City to watch the University of Virginia men’s basketball team take on Michigan State. 

If Virginia wins, the team advances to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. It’s an opportunity Virginia fans haven’t had in a long time.

“This has been their day in the sun,” Coker said. “There’s a ray of hope.”

The Cokers, whose three children are U.Va. grads, have had season tickets to men’s basketball games for about 15 years. Those have not been great years for Virginia basketball fans. Sometimes, it was hard for the Cokers to justify the drive to Charlottesville.

But fans find light in the darkness, and the Cokers enjoyed learning about the players and seeing the home crowds rally for games against rivals such as Duke and Syracuse.

Sometimes the light overpowers the darkness and something great happens for long-suffering fans, and this year has been an exceptional bright spot. It’s a moment that makes it easy to justify a trip to Charlottesville, or even New York.

If U.Va. wins tonight, the Cokers will scramble to find tickets to the next game on Sunday. If they win that one and make the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, well, that’s an easy decision.

“If Virginia goes, for sure we’ll go to the Final Four,” he said. “I’d love to go.”

I am a U.Va. graduate, and was once a die-hard Cavaliers basketball fan. The great 1995 team was a not-insignificant factor in my decision to matriculate in Charlottesville. I was looking forward to years of Atlantic Coast Conference championships and tournament road trips.

But that didn’t happen, and I suppose the disappointment has left me jaded.

Make no mistake—I’ll be cheering on the Wahoos tonight, but I won’t be going to New York. After years of indifference, I don’t deserve to be among the faithful.

My Virginia basketball dream ended with a cold shower of disappointment nearly 20 years ago. I was a freshman (or a first-year, in the parlance of U.Va.), and when I woke up from that basketball dream, I was alone in the darkness. That’s just not the way it was supposed to go.

The night of Oct. 15, 1995, eager U.Va. students filled University Hall to experience the joy of collective anticipation. We gathered to watch the U.Va. men’s basketball team take the court for their first practice of the year.

It was not a school tradition, nor was it a spontaneous show of support for the team. It was for something much more vital: a live television show.

Basketball commentator Billy Packer did his best to explain television production to the thousands of students in the stands, who were directed to cheer, scream and generally go nuts whenever a camera with a red light was pointed their way. The live shots were being fed to ESPN, where they would be mixed seamlessly with similar “midnight madness” celebrations at the universities of Maryland and Michigan.

There was a lot of standing and waiting as the team ran layup lines and three-man weaves. There was a lot of hopping and screaming when the cameras came on.

The scene was contrived, but that’s the price you pay for making the big time. Surely, it was old hat for students at Duke and Kentucky, and their happiness always looked real enough on TV. Even though it was packaged, directed and sanitized, the enthusiasm inside University Hall was genuine.

We had reason to be hopeful. The previous season, the team had worked its way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, and there was reason to believe that the salad days of excellent basketball would return to the university for the first time since the ’80s.

A lot of the stars from that Elite Eight team were gone, but a solid core of young players remained, and coach Jeff Jones had recruited some high-caliber prospects. The team started the year ranked 12th in the nation. Things were looking up.

Then it all fell apart.

There was no NCAA tournament for U.Va. that year. The team didn’t even make the consolation National Invitation Tournament.

For the next 17 years, Virginia men’s basketball was mired in listless mediocrity. Teams would make postseason tournaments now and then, but expectations were low and the results weren’t pretty.

I decided I wasn’t going to fall for it again, although there were fleeting moments of interest.

The clouds started to part in 2001. Virginia was ranked ninth in the country when I went to the Richmond Coliseum to see them play Michigan State. The game was canceled after five minutes due to malfunctioning air conditioning and a wet floor.

U.Va. finished that season by losing in the first round of the NIT, and I haven’t been to a game since. Darkness returned and I couldn’t shake it.

Now there’s nothing but blue skies, and I feel like one of those lizards that lives in a cave so long its eyes disappear. I understand the significance of an ACC championship, a No. 1 seed and the first 30-win season since Ralph Sampson. It’s what I wanted all those years ago, but I’m not sure how to process it.

I watched the first two games of this year’s tournament by myself, as I’ve grown unaccustomed to the rituals of group college sports consumption. I found myself talking to the TV, occasionally spouting an involuntary and embarrassingly nonsensical exclamation.

The last time I cared to exclaim my joy—or dared to hope for victory—during a Virginia basketball game, I was in high school.

It has been a long night of despair for U.Va. basketball, but it looks like a new dawn is breaking over Charlottesville. I’m starting to see the light.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036