Musings of a VCU Fan

I was asked to write this.

It didn’t happen because I’m a prolific writer. It didn’t happen because I possess some incredible level of insight regarding the game of basketball. It didn’t happen because I blackmailed anybody.

It happened because I am an actual, real life Mid-Major College Basketball fan.

As high school ended, I didn’t immediately attend college like most of my friends. I assumed I had the requisite skills to score a job in IT, and I soon found exactly the job I had been dreaming about. What I didn’t realize, however, is how quickly such a job can suck your soul dry at such a young age. A few years passed, and I came to the realization that I could still easily quit my job and go back to school.

I had been living outside of DC at the time, in Virginia, and wanted to stay in state. George Mason didn’t work because it would have left me in the same area I was living, and I knew I needed a change. Virginia Tech and UVA were out, because I knew I’d go crazy living in a tiny college town in the middle of nowhere. I had never heard of ODU at the time. I wouldn’t qualify for William and Mary. JMU seemed like a school for losers. My only real option was VCU. I had visited Richmond plenty, and I knew I liked the town, so mostly on a whim I quit my job, applied for school and moved to the former capital of the confederacy.

I moved to Richmond with no friends to speak of residing there. I was too old to live in the dorms, so I lived a few miles from campus by myself. I rode my bike to school every day, and returned immediately after. I entered the most hermitic phase of my life. At one point in time I believe I spent close to a month without having a real conversation with anybody, if you don’t count answering my professors in class or asking the girl behind the counter at the 7-11 for a pack of Camel Menthol Lights.

Towards the end of my second semester I started to loosen up. I made some friends and I started leaving my apartment for social purposes. At around this same time, the CAA tournament was happening just down the street. I received an email informing me that VCU would be playing in the CAA championship game on a particular Monday evening. The email promised shuttle-busses from campus, free entry for all students and an after-game celebration, win or lose, at a local club. I decided to embrace my newly reclaimed extraversion and made my way to campus to catch a bus to the Richmond Coliseum to watch VCU take on George Mason in the 2004 CAA finals.

VCU ended up winning by one point as I watched by myself. We traveled to face Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament and we lost by one point. Again, I watched by myself in a stadium of thousands. Suddenly, I was hooked.

The following year I attended every home game. I got to know a bunch of fellow VCU fans. I even discovered that plenty of members of Richmond’s famous punk scene were huge VCU fans as well. It became an interesting blend of compatriots as I learned about the legends of VCU in Gerald Henderson, Rolando Lamb and the many years of almost-glory.

I became a season ticket holder. I started following the team wherever they played. I traveled to Puerto Rico to see them play in a preseason tournament. I was only a handful of rows back, directly across from the VCU bench, to watch Eric Maynor drain “The Dagger” against Duke in the 2007 tournament in Buffalo. I got to know most of the Athletic Department, many of the players and their families, and, most importantly, I got to know a lot of other VCU fans. I had never felt like such a part of anything in my entire life. These people kept cheering no matter what. They kept cheering no matter who the opponent was. They just kept cheering. And, I loved cheering with them.

Fast forward a few years, and a whirlwind of circumstances landed me in Brooklyn. I gave up my season tickets to the friends that had always accompanied me. VCU made the NCAA tournament again shortly after I moved. Since I was in New York and they were playing in Philly it was a no brainer. I attended the game with hundreds of fans that traveled from Richmond. We lost by one point, again, this time to UCLA. I spent the next few years watching VCU games by myself at the local punk dive bar. They carry all of the requisite channels, and they never mind turning on the game for me. I very quickly stopped trying to invite people along for these excursions. No one knows who VCU is. No one cares about CAA basketball. And: that’s okay. Watching these games became a weird form of personal therapy. Watching these games became a way for me to stay in touch with myself.

Now VCU is in the Final Four. I went from watching us lose to Georgia State a few months ago – by myself, while Fear and the Misfits blasted in the background while I screamed at the TV – to watching us defeat big conference team after big conference team. I had one companion when we destroyed USC in the first round. I had three companions to witness a dismantling of Georgetown in the second. I was able to gather a group of around ten for the whipping we gave Purdue in the third. For FSU in the Sweet 16 I filled half a bar. For Kansas in the Elite 8, I filled the entire bar.

I get why VCU is fun to root for right now. We are the definition of the scrappy underdog. We are doing something that hasn’t been done since our conference-mates George Mason did so in 2006. But, there is a big difference. George Mason scraped by in their games. They won them all on the buzzer or in overtime. VCU is currently destroying every team in their path. We are playing no holds barred. We are living up to the “Havoc” system Shaka Smart promised to bring to our program two years ago.

VCU is not a no-name program. We had a strong series of success in the 80’s, although it might not have translated to many NCAA tournament wins. In the last decade alone we’ve lost by a handful of points on many occasions in the opening or second round of the NCAA tournament against very good teams. We’ve always been just shy of breaking through and proving what we might be able to do. We have continued the almost-glory tradition of VCU. But, right now, we’re showing the world what this basketball program is made of. This basketball program I fell so very deeply in love with. This basketball program filled with kids I respect and love. I watched our current senior class as freshman in Puerto Rico four years ago, and knew something special was going to happen. I knew that this was going to be our real opportunity to make a name for the program.

And, four years later, I’m glad that it’s finally happening. I’ve spent countless hours following this team all over the country. I’ve also spent countless hours watching bad internet streams. I’ve spent countless hours listening to audio feeds. I’ve had to follow entire games just by the slowly updated stats provided on The point is: I’ve followed all of those games. And, now that we’re in the semifinals – after beating Pac-10, Big East, Big 10, ACC and Big 12 teams – now that we’re finally where I’ve known we always should have been, we’re finally in a position where other people might appreciate the beauty of VCU basketball. We’re finally in a position where people may appreciate mid-major basketball. We’re finally in a position where people may remember that sports are about heart and determination, and not just big contracts in the professional leagues. VCU and Butler and George Mason may not be flukes. Maybe we’re showing that true parity has arrived in the world of college basketball. Perhaps the time has come for us to watch the major conferences crumble.

But, in the end, that doesn’t really matter. Sure, all basketball fans would love to see their team make runs like this year after year, and VCU fans are obviously no different. But, I know these fans. It doesn’t really matter if we never get to experience this again. These people will keep cheering till the last buzzer sounds this year. And they’ll keep cheering no matter what happens to our season next year. They’ll never stop cheering.

I’ll never stop cheering.

(Click here to read more Negative Dunkalectics!)

On the Subway, a Defense of Rondo

Somewhere on the way back from a tacos/burritos adventure off the end of the Green Line of the Boston subway system, I found myself recalling a joke to my partner, which she hasn’t let me live down since I originally dropped it weeks ago. I’m not really the joke oriented type of guy, as I hate puns and can’t really stand behind anything funny besides schadenfreude and Parks and Rec, but the bit basically goes: “The Celtics should trade Rajon Rondo for Russell Westbrook.”

I don’t necessarily say “Russell Westbrook” every time, but it usually starts there. Like a fourth grader teasing a crush, I list a series of increasingly ridiculous names, or an item or concept that has personal attachment and she gets peeved (which is, obviously, the intention). In this particular instance, I also recommended trading Rondo for the Red Line between Porter and Harvard running smoothly and on time (without its trademark slow grinding screech that makes commuters anxious). As it seems equivalent, I also suggested that Danny Ainge ditch the struggling Rondo for the 1998 draft rights to Tim Duncan.

For my partner in crime, the subject of the gag is a matter of understandable Celtics fandom from growing up here, going to games with her family, having an authorized Antoine Walker jersey: a complicated, occasionally suffering, but enduring passion. Whereas for myself, I’m actually a little conflicted as I am a “crappy fan” from the outer reaches of New England who only, although following loosely in high school, only started caring about the NBA post-adolescence with the “We Believe” era Golden State Warriors. This difference in approach to love of basketball is, according to Lacan in “Seminar XX,” one of the tenets that provides the fragile foundation for our mutual understanding of it.

Either way, it gets her totally mad, in a lighthearted “I’m going to press an ice cream cone into your face if you’re serious” kind of way. We both know that I’m not serious. Although I rarely talk about it here on Negative Dunkalectics, I have an enthusiasm for the mere concept of Rajon Rondo that is only surpassed for my passions for few things. Here’s a serious example of something up there with Rondo: tuna melts topped with a fried egg and a slice of bacon.

Both contain simple, unique criteria or ingredients which individually provide the airs of excellence. Tuna melts are impartially very awesome by themselves, but adding the richness of an uncomplicated fried egg and some bacon? Indeed, that is a great sandwich. On the other hand, what is more skilled than the court vision of Rondo? His ill floater in the lane that somehow never gets blocked? His talent for utilizing his opponents’ faults to his advantage? Both of these things are densely packed with decadent flavor, a savory array of textures, temperatures and styles. Both have an aesthetic zeal relating to a strict sense of order that, at a superficial glance, seems chaotic. I frequently need a napkin to clean my face after consuming both the sandwich and Rondo’s high-wire act.

When you’ve watched Rondo drive in off a Garnett screen and perform a couple head-turning fakes, then finally a scoop pass leading to a corner three, you have seen a highlight. When you witness Rondo running these offensive sets hundreds of times, performing works of fine art which make old men gasp aloud in their armchairs in obscure hamlets across New England, you feel touched by his careful, mischievous skill, a person under possession by both God and his immortal foe simultaneously, allowing the ball to roll up the court at a crawl, like a conductor holding a baton at the highest gesture, before the cue. This is the dream of Rondo, where a man’s knack for precision and practice has formed such a life form that critics and fans alike admonish him as otherworldly, an alien, and lesser than peers like – at least, revealing himself this season – Russell Westbrook. But what makes this throwaway joke such an insult towards sensibility?

The development of Westbrook up to this point has been different than point guards like Rajon Rondo – most obviously, he has been expected to shoot. Before a firestorm of undue criticism opened up over Bethlehem Shoals’ head, he wrote an essay for the February ’11 issue of GQ where of Westbrook, he noted, “If [Derrick] Rose is money in the bank, the bounding, chaotic Westbrook is a bit like shooting craps in an abandoned missile silo. You expect imperfection, and flaw, from Westbrook.” Shoals is right in describing their styles, but they are clearly both the kind of shoot-first point guards that the now-crumbling Paul/Williams era of dominance were supposed to make irrelevant, through the thrilling skills of likability and moving the ball in a transitional offense. These two people both follow in statistical paths recently trod down by paragons of disappointment like Marbury or Francis, but with the sense of mental clarity that comes from not actually being those players. When I deeply ponder the two Class of ‘08 newcomers and their potential for future greatness, I worry about these dudes in the same frame of mind as the title of Zizek’s most recent thin tome, a line stolen from Marx: “First as tragedy, then as farce.”

If you're not interested in comparing Russell Westbrook with Stephon Marbury, then the next section will be kind of boring. Consider that at the same age – although, it was Marbury's fourth season and not his third, as with Westbrook – they have a very similar "offensive win share" total (6.1 for Marbury, 5.8 for Westbrook), the exact same effective field goal percentage (45.7%), very similar assist numbers (8.4 APG for Marbury, a hair over what Russell does) and that Westbrook's superior advanced defensive and rebounding numbers probably have to do with... how he's physically taller and is a better defender than Marbury was. These numbers are seemingly at odds with that one time in 2007 that Marbury told WNBC host Bruce Beck that he would average “like 12, 13 dimes, like 2, 3 assists and about 4, 5 rebounds” while playing on the Knicks.

The final appearance of Stephon Marbury in an NBA uniform was on the Celtics during the late stages of their 08-09 campaign and in that season’s ultimately unsuccessful playoff run. Marbury played nice for his brief tenure on the squad, playing a gentle pass-first form of his game because his shot had dried up after years on the bench in New York. I think he shot like, 30% from the field in Boston. Rajon Rondo, on the other hand, was completely out of his mind during the playoffs and was a stone’s throw from averaging a triple-double. But hey, remember how this was the year the Magic won the East? When we think of Rondo now, we have begun to think of this as our ideal (in particular the first round series against Chicago where he smoked Derrick Rose and tried to fight Brad Miller): a perfect vision of strange, yet delightful statistical madness in addition to the wide-eyed tomfoolery of trick passes.

Although, here is a relevant fact, for those who are still into those things: the five times that Rondo scored more than 20 points in the 2009 Playoffs is one more time than he has all of this season. And besides one particularly Rondoesque game against Memphis last week, the look of his work has seemed adrift, slower and unfocused, coincidentally since the trade of his personal friend Kendrick Perkins in mid-February. I wrote about Rondo's semi-serious “straight up missing you Perk” condition in the Injured Players Power Rankings a couple weeks ago, and it’s likely true, in an unconscious motivator style of way.

In offensive possessions since the trade, Rondo has often been late into throwing the play in motion, leaving not enough time for the players he finds to find a good shot when he finally makes a first pass. Typically, this has led into a forced attempt as the shot clock expires, and the evidence is in the final outcomes of games, as well as their scores. After a handful of breathtaking Bill Walton-called games against up-tempo Western teams in early March, the floor general has led his team into startling mediocrity: eleven games of not putting up over 100 points (and barely 90 points for the most part), as the omnipresent voice of mainstream sports media calls the Celtics’ title chances over. This is a deep, funky slump rooted in all kinds of profound things that people who have lost friends to seemingly insurmountable distance understand. He could also just be in pain. The confidence is different, swagger lessens, and Mike Wilbon or Peter Mayor or the entire Boston Globe sportswriting staff proclaiming that the Celtics are finished from towers of flame doesn’t help anything either. If you look into your cold, dark heart, you probably can appreciate this slump too, for what it is: a temporary thing.

What makes this gag work is that the mere thought of trading Rondo for anything – and I would put anybody who jokingly or non-jokingly said “bench him!” in as well – is so completely repugnant is that substitutes the heart and humanity of the circumstances the Celtics are in and instead favors the single-minded thought of number crunching at the detriment of one of the most riveting players in the league. Even when he sucks, he's still one of the best point guards in the world, still a being beyond our world's capabilities, et cetera. It’s lovely to think of switching a statistical model of Rondo for a statistical model of Westbrook (because who doesn't want somebody to score 23 points per game for their home team!), but this doesn't take into consideration actual human beings. But trading Ray Allen? Friend, that's another story.

Negative Dunkalectics co-editor/founder Chris Sampson is a young man who lives off the Red Line in Somerville, Massachusetts. Find him through his archaic Twitter handle.

ND Classique: The Age-Old Question - Why was Brad Lohaus a player in the original NBA Jam?

Apologies for the hyperbolic title, but I like to convince myself that at least one other person cares about the same minutia I do. When the subject of NBA Jam comes up, most people want to talk about the catch phrases (He's heating up!) or the fact that you couldn't play as Michael Jordan but could play as Bill (or George) Clinton. With the newest version of the classic arcade game coming out in its various console forms a few months ago, I think it's as good a time as any to share my fixation with Brad Lohaus.

The fact is that the 1992-93 Milwaukee Bucks weren't the most memorable NBA team. Outside of the greater Sheboygan area, you didn't find too many people at the arcade dying to take the controls of Blue Edwards. But the question remains....Brad Lohaus? Of the "Original 54" players included in NBA Jam, his lifetime PPG (5.9) was the lowest. The next lowest was Stacey Augmon at 8.0, though the Plastic Man was in the prime of his career in 92-93, averaging 14 PPG. A quick look at the 92-93 Bucks roster also shows that there were several players more worthy of NBA Jam status than Lohaus.

One late night during an extended stretch of joblessness, I decided to do some investigative research and e-mail Mr. Lohaus himself to see if he had any insight. After all, this is a guy who owned a bar with an NBA Jam arcade machine wherein he would play the game as himself and refuse to take on any challengers. He was also once arrested for failing to deliver $2000 worth of fishing rods sold on ebay, but that's neither here nor there.

I found his contact info from some Aerospace company in Iowa he was currently employed at as a Sales Associate and sent the following tactful note:


Hello, I happened to stumble upon your contact information and had a question for you regarding your inclusion in NBA Jam. As a big fan of the game, I've always wondered why they selected you to represent the Bucks. No offense meant, as you were a very solid player, but there were a few Bucks such as Eric Murdock, Frank Brickowski, and Todd Day who had better statistics, and NBA Jam usually included the top 2 players on each team. Do you have any insight into this? Also, did you play the game a lot as yourself? Did you ever break the backboard? Haha.

Thanks, and good luck with your new career.

Much to my surprise, I never got a response. You would think he would at least appreciate that someone remembers his place in video game history, but apparently not. All I'm left with is more questions. Did he pay someone off? Was this his prize for winning a Mortal Kombat tournament? Was there a racial quota to fill? Since I have nothing else to add to this subject other than more baseless speculation, I'll instead give a shout out to probably the most obscure member of "The Original 54", Mike Iuzzolino: a 5'10" Italian-American who played 2 years in the NBA, on one of the worst teams in history, the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks. He was quickly substituted for Jimmy Jackson once NBA Jam hit the home consoles, and was never heard from again.

But in case Mike is reading this, why were you a player in the original NBA Jam?

(Click here to read more Negative Dunkalectics!)

The Bleak Index: Race to the Bottom in the East

In the Eastern Conference Playoff race's 5th through 10th place teams, we've got a little shop of team effort horrors. You couldn't assemble more frustrating teams if you tried.

At times this season, each of them had tremendous games and seemed like they might the bejesus out of a higher seed in the playoffs. At other times, each looked like they'd be soon flipping a coin to decide between adding Perry Jones or Jared Sullinger to their already sullen rosters.

Here's the rub: we're in the season's home stretch, the time when good teams finally begin to look like Good Teams. Late March and April is also the time of year where everyone beats up on the Atlanta Hawks. But much to the delight of the Hawks' four fans, the other teams competing for the bottom spots in the East have all decided to collapse simultaneously.

And while I'd normally offer up a single Toxic Team, all these teams are so bad that I decided to give them each a spot on a Toxic Starting Five.

PG: Atlanta Hawks
Playing point guard and standing 6'7” are a bunch of chuckers who can neither handle nor pass the ball. True: the Hawks sometimes pass as a Good Team. But then you remember that until very recently Mike Bibby was deemed their best point guard, while anointed heir Jeff Teague couldn't get off the bench. Thanks to lackluster point guard play throughout the season, this team's had an inconsistent and sometimes invisible offense. If they can win a playoff series, Joe Johnson will have earned his cartoonishly large contract.

SG: Philadelphia 76ers
Starting at shooting guard and standing 6'4" are the Philadelphia 76ers. In their defense, this is a pretty young team. (Excluding Brand and Iguodala.) But you wouldn't know that watching Doug Collins's recent rotation in which Andres Nocioni and Tony Battie provide “sparks” off the bench. Nevermind the fact Nocioni makes many more "rookie" mistakes than Actual Rookie Evan Turner.

Due to their youth, Lou Williams gets to act as their veteran leader, making the Sixers a real Jekyll and Hyde team. One game, they'll come out and beat Boston in exciting fashion. The next, they'll get rolled by the dregs of league. Appropriately for their spot in the Toxic Starting Five, shooting guard's becoming one of their more consistent positions as Jodie Meeks now consistently produces 12-15 points and a few made threes per game... along with zero rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks, and zero defense.

SF: New York Knicks
At small forward: STAT and 'Melo. As their recent losing streak shows, that's pretty much it for the Knicks, who are counting on the possibility that the next CBA will be kind enough to allow the Knicks to sign a third competent player. (Billups only counts half, by the way.) It was a high-risk, high-reward trade and it made the Knicks a popular choice for “team you don't want to face in the first round.”

Except that trading away three of your starters is always going to cause short-term struggles. To overcome them, they signed Jared Jeffries. (What?) But this trade wasn't made for the short-term. And in the medium-term, the team probably will gel together around the leadership of new Knicks Head Coach and General Manager Isiah Thomas.

PF: Indiana Pacers
They're already preparing to offer Butler coach Brad Stevens $10 million per year.

C: Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats realized it would be better to miss the playoffs and rebuild through the draft lottery, so they gave away Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline for free.

But then it turned out the rest of the East inadvertently joined their race to the bottom, throwing Michael Jordan's plan to rebuild around Kyrie Irving or Jimmer Fredette into doubt. And so their playoff chances have improved even as the team got worse. Most frightening if that happens: Kwame Brown would be starting in the playoffs.

Sixth Man: Milwaukee Bucks
A week ago, the Bucks looked like they might make a legitimate charge for the playoffs. And then they remembered they are the Bucks. But Michael Redd might be finally coming back.

Putrid Player: Lou Williams.
Remember him "bench-ridin" when he first came to Philly? Those were the good old days.

The Bleak Five
#1. Cleveland Cavaliers. Advice: don't pin all your hopes on Samardo Samuels.
#2. Most teams in the Eastern Conference that aren't the Bulls, Celtics, Heat, or Magic. At least one of them should work out playing competently so that we can have a competitive first-round playoff series.
#3. Sacramento Kings. Congratulations! You just beat the six-seed in the East.
#4. Washington Wizards. 1-34 on the road. Sigh.
#5. Detroit Pistons. Still old. Still dysfunctional. Still not really rebuilding. Still losing 25% of the population each time there's a census of the city.

Honorable Mentions: Minnesota, and anyone guarding Anthony Randolph until Sunday night's game.

(Click here to read more Negative Dunkalectics!)