MINNEAPOLIS — For the second straight season, it ended with a tearful embrace in a hotel room between father and son.
387 days ago, it was devastation. Ty Jerome huddled in a Charlotte hotel room with his father, his mother and his brother, trying to wrap their heads around what just happened.
Did we really just lose to UMBC? What do I do now? How can we ever live this down?
The circumstances this year could not have been more different.
It was 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday morning when Mark Jerome finally made his way up to the third floor meeting room at the Marquette Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, found his son and, with Ty’s face buried in his shoulder, standing in front of the open bar that was long since closed, got the hug that you don’t know you need until you get it.
And frankly, it’s a miracle Mark made it there at all.
It was well past midnight, after the players had cleared the court and the various media members that had finished writing their stories had begun snapping pictures on the title game floor, that Mark said to everyone and no one in particular, “I told Ty, if they get here, I’m never leaving the court, not after last year.”
And with that, the former TV newsman was off to celebrate by jumping in another standup hit by an unsuspecting on-air personality.
De’Andre Hunter dribbled out the clock. The buzzer sounded. Black and gold streamers drifted to the floor as a second wave of bangs sent blue, orange and white tissue paper falling to the court and Virginia’s bench exploded onto the court
Guy found his fiancé, Alexa. Jerome found his mom and dad. Tony Bennett found his family after first finding Chris Beard. Roughly every former UVA athlete, from Chris Long to Joe Harris to Malcolm Brogdon to Justin Anderson to Devon Hall to Ralph Sampson, found their way to the elevated court at US Bank Stadium.
They did their media. They cut down the nets. They stood on the hastily erected stage, watching as One Shining Moment chronicled the greatest redemption story in the history of sports, a run to the 2019 National Title that featured More Shining Moments than should be possible in a single March.
There was Kihei Clark’s shot against Oregon. There was the back-tap from Mamadi Diakite that led to Clark chasing down a loose ball and finding Diakite for one of the most unlikely buzzer-beaters that you’ll ever see. There was the moment that Tony Bennett found his father, Dick, shoving a reporter out of the way to get the hug he’s been waiting so long for. There was the foul, the three free throws and the bedlam that ensued. There was De’Andre Hunter’s three that forced overtime.
Bennett never flinched, not even as watched the moment that no one thought possible 13 months ago: A ‘what did the five fingers say to the face?’ slap that permanently emblazoned Virginia’s name on the NCAA’s official bracket as champions.
From there, it was back to the locker room, to the podium and, eventually, back to the hotel, through the mass of Virginia fans that had congregated on Marquette Ave, between 7th and 8th streets, waiting for their team to come home. The “To-nee, To-nee” chants never seemed to end. One fan suggested finding a Fiat to flip until he saw the Minneapolis police’s armored SWAT vehicle drive by, armed officers throwing mini-basketballs to anyone and everyone in the street through the hatch on the roof.
“Don’t worry about him, he’s young.”
At 1:08 a.m., word spread through the bars in the neighborhood that the team bus was back, sending streams of people directly into the barriers set up by police to ensure that the players would have access to the hotel’s entrance. The walk-ons came off first, followed by the coaching staff and Tony Bennett himself, flanked by SID and longtime friend Eric Bacher. Then came Hunter. And Guy. Jack Salt led a group of players in. Jerome was the last guy off the bus, making his way to the congregation of fans, ignoring, just for a moment, a father that needed some attention, too.
“22 years and I don’t get a hello.”
Including the 22 year old.
They celebrated exactly the way that you would expect a team coached by Tony Bennett to celebrate: With cookies and a fruit plate.
The team party could not have been more subdued, and the contrast between the party in that third floor meeting room and the hotel bar on the first floor could not have been more drastic. The bar had reached capacity, with security forcing hopeful drinkers to wait for someone to leave before they were allowed in.
“One in, one out.”
“I just want to get a drink.”
“Me, too. You can wait.”
What couldn’t wait was yet another rendition of ‘We Are The Champions,’ or an eardrum-bursting roar every time someone that even slightly resembled a player walked by. The savvy party-goers had their own supply to work with. The Surly Furious IPAs being taken out of the case in the lobby probably didn’t come from the bar. The Famous Grouse getting poured into the paper coffee cups that every hotel has stocked up definitely didn’t.
Up on the third floor, more than anything, it was relief that was palpable.
“We’re just so blown out emotionally,” one attendee said. After the last three games, who could blame them? “We’re just so used to having our hearts ripped out. So this is what winning feels like? Man ….”
Guy was the first player in the room, his trademark smile completely uncontainable as he walked into the room, balled fists held above his head. He hugged his dad, his stepdad, the rest of his family and, then, seemingly every single person in the room. He had lost the piece of net from his hat.
Mamadi Diakite had his piece of net. He also still had his uniform on, a blue national champions t-shirt the only thing standing between him and being able to run it back. His smile burst at the seams when the “Ma-ma-di” chant started.
Braxton Key, wearing a maroon velour sweatsuit, was next. Then came De’Andre Hunter, finding a way to slide in without being noticed. He found his family, taking pictures with all four generations of friends and relatives that had made the trip.
Jerome eventually made his way down, laughing as his uncle pulled another corona out of the pocket of his hoodie, but that was the end of it.
It hadn’t sunk in yet. The Wahoos had pulled off what seemed impossible, simultaneously setting fire to everything you thought you knew about Virginia while putting together a story arc that George R. R. Martin would consider too unrealistic to put in a film.
“How’s it feel, champ?” former UVA forward Justin Anderson asked the players still in the room as last night turned into this morning.
The silence said it all.