I once watched a team win four games in four days to claim the ACC Tournament title at Barclays Center. Confetti fell as the band played and the team celebrated on the floor. I took it all in and kicked the confetti out of my way, feeling completely deflated…because the year was 2017 and the team was Duke. All I could think about as I watched their celebratory moment from the sideline was whether this could ever… would ever… happen for Virginia Tech. I so badly wanted to believe that it would be the Hokies out there someday. The stubborn, proud, competitive parts of me believed it could happen, but some part of me feared that it was just too big of a dream, too far out of reach.
On Saturday night in Brooklyn, as Ben Varga and Lynn Kidd and John Ojiako and Camden Johnson closed out the ACC Championship game over Duke and the Hokies’ four-day tournament odyssey at Barclays Center, my heart and my phone seemed to explode all at once.
The buzzer. The sheer joy. The outright glee. And then…the confetti. Orange and maroon confetti. Everywhere. Even though I knew it was coming, I was not prepared. Those tiny pieces of paper somehow celebrated…and honored…and healed…and declared… so much. That confetti took four days of glory and more than forty years of dreaming and brought it all home in one triumphant burst.
Amidst that delirious swirl, all I could think about were all the people over all the years who shared in the dream that had just been realized before us. Ace Custis…David Jackson…right there in the middle of it all…both with years of blood, sweat, and tears in the game. Zabian and Jamon. Malcolm Delaney. Justin Robinson. Ahmed. Nickeil. Devin Wilson. Justin Bibbs. Will Johnston. Erick Green. Allen Calloway. Bryan Randall. Deron Washington. Coleman Collins. Seth Allen. Zach LeDay. And many, many more.
My childhood friends, who grew up on Coach Moir, Dale Solomon, Al and Perry Young, Dell Curry, Bimbo Coles, Bobby Beecher, and Yellow Sweater Man, had dreamed about it too. The messages that blew up my phone included memories of the night in middle school that Bimbo scored 51 points vs Southern Miss, when one friend was a ball boy on the court and another cheered from the stands, cementing the love of basketball that inspired her to later play in college. The deafening games vs Memphis State in the Metro days, the smell of the popcorn popping when you walked in the warm coliseum on a cold winter night, all the childhood memories poured out in celebration of having just witnessed the memory of all VT basketball memories.
Caring about a team before you win big is different than caring about a team because you win big. The Hokies will no doubt gain some wonderful fans in the latter category after winning this championship…and they are welcome…but I couldn’t be happier for the players and alumni and fans who cared before it was cool, who cared because Virginia Tech is home.
Clemson. Notre Dame. UNC. Duke. With each successive win in Brooklyn, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather, Stuart K. Cassell, and what this all would have meant to him. After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1932, his devotion to his alma mater became his life’s work. He believed in the importance and value of college athletics and wanted the Hokies to succeed on the biggest of stages. He was determined that Virginia Tech would take a backseat to no one and firmly believed that universities and the student-athletes who represent them could and should excel in both academics and athletics. His vision for Virginia Tech frequently exceeded the limits conventional wisdom tried to impose. He worked hard to make ACC membership a reality for Virginia Tech decades ago and resented the roadblocks that emerged all along Tobacco Road at the time to prevent it. He fought for - and completed - a 10,000 seat coliseum on campus in the 60’s when many thought he was crazy to even propose it. He wasn’t crazy though…he just believed.
When this year’s team was 2-7 in the ACC in January, an ACC championship in March seemed crazy too, but they believed. They tuned out conventional wisdom and fought. They went to work…on the court, winning 9 of their last 11 games…and off, with every single member of the team carrying a GPA over 3.0 with them to Brooklyn.
When Darius Maddox caught the inbounds pass with 6.7 seconds left vs. Clemson, he believed. His game-winning shot moments later felt like it would be the highlight of the tournament. It turned out to be just the beginning. As they handled Notre Dame, a glimmer of that old New York City ’73 NIT title magic seemed to reappear. After dominating UNC in the semifinals, it was clear this team had come to make its own magic.
Hunter’s tenacity, Storm’s energy, David’s growth, Darius’ composure, Sean’s fearlessness, Justyn’s passion, Nahiem’s selflessness, Keve’s resolve. Each brought their individual best, but their togetherness won the games.
Suddenly, the surreal started to become very, very real. Horse on a treadmill in the house Jay-Z built. In the concrete jungle where dreams are made of the pep band played our song while the Hokies danced each night away. There was nothing they couldn’t do… stifling defense, highlight-reel dunks, buzzer-beating threes, swoon-worthy passes, beautiful ball movement…all coached by someone who is of this place and for this place, who no doubt dreamed of this too.
It wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t dumb luck. It was belief, hard work, fight. These Hokies demanded and deserved the ACC Championship title. In leaving no doubt, they left the selection committee with no choice to make.
When Justyn Mutts, the ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year, dunked over Duke’s one-and-done phenom, it was all over but the shoutin’.
The dream was not too big, too far out of reach. The dream was about to happen right here, right now. Cue the confetti…and all the emotions.
Asked about their success in the aftermath of it all, the briefest responses said the most.
Keve: “We fight.” Justyn: “We work hard.” Hunter: “We just all love each other.”
My grandfather would be so proud of those answers and of this entire team. And so, I know, are all the rest of us crazy dreamers, who will probably never be able to express to them just how much it all means to us.
Back in Blacksburg, my friends’ 9-year-old son made a sign to go meet the team when they got home from New York. Someday when he’s an adult, after some big future win, he’ll be exchanging messages with his friends about their childhood memories of this very first ACC Championship. Though it may be the first of many, there will never…ever…be another one like this.
Dream on, Hokies. This is the one that taught us our dreams can come true.