Light-Hearted Bennett Takes Center Stage at Team’s Banner-Raising Celebration

I was lucky enough to attend Virginia’s national championship banner-hanging and ring ceremony Sept. 13 at John Paul Jones Arena. It was a night worthy of this wonderful group of Wahoos as fans and UVa administrators got to show their appreciation for such a great group of young men and coaches.

At first, I was surprised that the arena did not sell out. I believe the attendance was about 10,000, with tickets in the upper bowl selling for $25 and $50 in the lower bowl. Down on the floor, fans could have dinner with players and coaches for much higher prices. (I was indeed in the rafters, not sitting next to Coach Bennett downing a nice filet mignon.) But after thinking about it, it did make sense that it was not a full house. Fans were allowed to be outside JPJ in April when the team returned from Minneapolis, and then a big celebration was attended by 20,000-plus at Scott Stadium the following Saturday that was free to attend. I can understand fans who attended one or both of these free celebrations deciding to skip the one that required payment. Especially in this day and age of media and video, fans knew there would be highlights of the speeches available online, and the banner-raising itself was cool, but sort of anti-climatic, a point even made by some attendees. The drama, excitement, and adrenaline rush happened in March and April. The banner-hanging was more of a symbol of what had already been accomplished, a feat that had resonated in the hearts of Virginia fans for months. Speaking of the banner itself, it looks great, but I do wish Virginia’s V-sabres logo was somewhere on it.

With that said, I thought the players deserved to see the place packed. Had the celebration been held before one of the first home games of the year, it likely would have been. But the benefit of the event being handled this way was that the night was all about the championship team and that set of players. Bennett would not have been as loose or funny had this event been held opening night at JPJ. Even though Virginia’s first home game of the season is against James Madison and the Cavaliers should cruise to a win, Bennett would have been laser-focused on the Dukes and not able to enjoy the festivities as much as he did. For that reason, the school made the right decision.

The biggest reason to have the event when it was, however, was that it enabled De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy to attend.  Had the banner been raised before the first home game, all three of those players would have had issues with their responsibilities to their NBA teams and most likely would not have been able to attend.  For that reason alone, the school made the right decision.

For the few people who seemed to complain that the school tried to make some money off the night, my response is, so what? The school deserved to earn some of the fruit from the labor of such a good season, and I’m sure merchandise and other commemorative items from the tournament run have been flying off the shelves. I have no issue with the school profiting a bit from the championship. And had the event been held before a home game, say against JMU, the tickets for that matchup would’ve been more expensive than they’d normally be, far surpassing the price of a $25 upper bowl ticket. Also, as I mentioned, fans had already had two chances to celebrate the title with the team for free. One money-making night was fine by me.

I consume just about all the speeches and press conferences and videos that come out of the Virginia basketball program. So I had already heard some of the stories that were shared, such as Bennett making Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy talk to the media after the UMBC loss, but there were a few interesting nuggets, and here are just some thoughts on the night:

• I loved the video that played as Bennett came up onto the stage to speak. It showed his introductory press conference from way back in 2009, when he spoke of “integrity” and “passion” as his building blocks for a program. “That’s the only way I know how to do it,” he said a decade ago. The video showed players from the past who got it all started under Bennett, such as Jontel Evans, Mike Scott, Joe Harris, and Justin Anderson. It showed highlights of the ACC tournament championship against Duke – the team’s first ACC tourney title since 1976 – and the Sweet 16 win over Iowa State, which put the program in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995. It also spotlighted the disappointment the team has felt over the years, but with the message “joy will come in the morning.” It let fans into an intimate moment with the team huddled in the locker room following the Texas Tech game, with former UVa players present as well, as Bennett told the players to look around at everyone in the room and soak in the moment, and to also remain humble. Finally, the video ended with the clip of Bennett taking a moment for himself at the end of the championship game, sitting silently on the stool as he took it all in with gratefulness. Chills. Once Bennett started speaking he said, “I think joy has come, don’t you?”

• It’s pretty cool that Bennett, who has been a player in the NBA and a coach at various levels, said the Purdue game was “the most high-level game I’ve ever been a part of.” Seriously high praise. He mentioned how spectacular Purdue’s Carsen Edwards was, then said the end of the game was amazing, yes, but what was just as significant was the way the team answered punch after punch by the Boilermakers right from the opening tip. Then, one by one, he began mentioning each player by name, giving credit for big plays, then quipped, “Dre, you did some good stuff, too, actually, you made a nice drive,” referring to the go-ahead basket in overtime.

• Bennett mentioned how Guy, Jerome, Jay Huff, and Hunter were on their official visits together, and the first three had already committed, and Bennett and the others were trying to convince Hunter to join them. He told them the foundation had been laid, and they were trying to build the next level. Bennett revealed he knew the class was special, and he was thinking it needed to be to take the program to the top. Bennett said, “Guys, if you’re willing, will you come and take the next step for this program? It’s gonna be the hardest step … the next level, maybe the penthouse. It’s not for everybody.” He said he was so excited later that evening when he was having dinner with Hunter and his brother, Aaron, and Hunter told Bennett he wanted to come to UVa. Bennett said he called the other players to let them know about Hunter’s decision.

• Bennett mentioned how he told Guy and Jerome to take in the moment when Florida was crushing the Wahoos in the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament, to remember it and get better from it. Then he recalled having them join him on the podium after the UMBC loss so that Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins wouldn’t have to endure the aftermath of the worst loss in NCAA tournament history. Bennett said they all knew it was going to be tough, but he told Guy and Jerome, “This is the start. We’re gonna grow from this. This is going to be one of the hardest things, but you’re gonna sit on that podium, and we’re gonna take all that criticism, and we’re gonna take all the questions.” Bennett said he thought of them when this year, during tennis’ U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal, who won the title, said, “Every champion must be willing to endure suffering.” I thought that statement put a neat bow on the Florida and UMBC episodes. The Cavaliers, and specifically Guy, Jerome, and even Bennett, did indeed learn and improve from those terrible losses.

• It was a nice moment when Bennett referenced the recent turmoil Charlottesville has gone through, and how he thought the championship run helped bring some healing and unity to the community.

• I thought it was funny that Bennett specifically said Guy was fouled against Auburn and Jerome was grabbed before double-dribbling. The foul on Guy ended up not being controversial and was accepted by the basketball world. But the Jerome “missed” double dribble is what people talked about after the game, but Bennett shut down the criticism with a, “No way, we know the deal there.” That was something he would have only said post-championship and on a night when the team wasn’t playing. So, as I sort of mentioned earlier, the feeling and timing around this event allowed Bennett to be more humorous and candid than he would have been otherwise.

• Bennett gave a really cool anecdote about crying in his hotel room by himself after the Auburn game. “I realized at that moment, all of the ridicule, all of the criticism, all of the humiliation, all of the things that happened, at that moment it was crystal clear, that it was all worth it.” His story didn’t come without more humor, though, as he revealed he was by himself because his wife, Laurel, was at the bar doing shots with his mom. “I learned a lot about my mom in this NCAA tournament run, too, I gotta be honest with you.”

• Bennett mentioned the TED Talk the team drew inspiration from, and that if you use adversity the right way, it could buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone otherwise. Then he produced two tickets from his jacket: one from the UMBC game, and one from the Texas Tech game. Trump. Card. 

• When Guy told his story about recruiting Hunter, I love how it started in the “Red Rocket,” and I had no idea the vehicle had been passed down through the generations of players. It has an iconic spot in Virginia basketball history. It was the truck Joe Harris drove over to Tony Bennett’s house on New Year’s Eve after the embarrassing Tennessee loss in the 2013-14 season. His actions turned around the fortunes of that season and perhaps the program for years to come. Guy said he told Hunter, “We are raising a banner with or without you.” Hunter, of course, said, “I was just trying to get through the visit,” and he really didn’t remember that moment. Jerome said he agreed with Hunter, and Guy then revealed that Hunter wasn’t a big fan of Jerome’s at first, which Hunter confirmed. “Eventually,” Hunter said, when asked by Dave Koehn if he warmed up to Jerome.

• I thought it was revealing for Jerome to admit that he was “really scared” when Virginia was down 14 to Gardner-Webb. The players said the halftime of that game was much different than the UMBC halftime. There was no panic, according to Guy and Jerome, since the team had already calmed down and was starting to make its comeback.

• UVa president Jim Ryan was a good speaker, occasionally hilarious. He told a great story about how he was in Minneapolis, staying in the same hotel as the team. He was with his son and saw Jerome walk out of the elevator he was entering. Ryan said he was like a little kid, exclaiming, “You’re Ty Jerome!” He said Jerome didn’t notice him because he was wearing headphones, which drew a big smile from Jerome in the crowd. I thought that was a cool, humanizing moment from the president, showing he was as wrapped up in the run as the rest of the fans. When I was a little kid, I would idolize UVa athletes. And now, I’m in my 30s, and so it seems a little weird to be older than these players, but I still idolize some of them. Ryan said as president, he is able to keep it together around a lot of famous people, but he still gets giddy around athletes. Sports can turn us all into little kids who are just watching everything in amazement.

• The other great story from Ryan was one about his wife, Katie. He said that she was not a basketball fan before the season, but came to be one of this particular team, because as he put it, “Who could not fall in love with this team?” At the end of the season, he said it was like they were watching their own kids play, and for Katie, it was “torture.” He said that as the final against Texas Tech went to overtime, she turned to him and said, “I’m all done with this. I can’t take it anymore.” I remember sharing a glance with my mom at JPJ the night of the final that meant the same thing: Not sure how much more of this I could take. And that was probably everyone in Wahoo Nation after enduring the Purdue, Auburn, and Texas Tech games – and it’s not like the Gardner-Webb game got off to a stress-free start. But it all turned out just fine, didn’t it? Joy came in the morning.