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Path to redemption

CRAWFORD | 6 life lessons from Virginia's NCAA Championship story

  • 9 min to read
Virginia basketball

Virginia players huddle late in a victory over Louisville.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – All you have to do is Google the words "redemption" and "Virginia" and you’ll find a body of work that will keep you busy for a few hours after the Cavaliers completed their remarkable road from top-seed loser to top of the college basketball world in Monday night’s NCAA Championship game victory over Texas Tech.

None of us can fail to identify with a team and coach who felt as low as you can feel after being the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. But few of us have probably ever experienced that embarrassment, that crisis of faith, that kind of ridicule.

In the event you don’t have a few hours to read all the stories, I thought it might be worth noting in a quick way what steps actually were undertaken by head coach Tony Bennett and his players to absorb that blow, recommit themselves and resume the journey that eventually led to the national championship.

In some ways, recounting those steps is a bit too simplistic. It implies that there was a simple roadmap, check these boxes and you’ll be champions. That wasn’t the case. Each coach and player had to work through the disappointment and failure individually, and they had to do it collectively, in a variety of ways.

What I’ve tried to do here is collect those ways, so that others looking for their own roads to redemption might draw something from the story. And I should say right here, at the start, that I recognize we’re talking about a basketball game.

Let’s not pretend that life is as simple as sports, that victories are as clear, that defeats are as easily dealt with. There are people in hospitals, jail cells, or in their own private but profound situations that have far more serious opponents and obstacles.

“Again, it's a game,” Bennett acknowledged. “We talked about it, but they had to deal with things, their own stuff inside and the opinion of others.”

Still, maybe something in their development can help any of us looking for lessons in our own lives. And there are some lessons from Virginia's coaches and players here.

1). THEY EMBRACED THE POWER OF THEIR STORY. Bennett, in searching for ways to deal with the loss with his players, was pointed to a Charlottesville TED Talk by Donald Davis by his wife, Laurel. Andy Staples in Sports Illustrated told the story about how Davis’ talk, “How the Story Transforms the Teller,” convinced Bennett of the importance of him and his players’ telling their story, not walking away from it.

Davis, a Methodist minister from North Carolina, told the crowd that included Laurel Bennett a story about how his father injured his leg as a child and couldn’t work on the farm. But how that injury led to him being a well-respected banker. And he told of his grandmother’s insistence that his father, from a young age, tell the story of his injury, not to change what happened with his leg, but to change himself.

“When something happens to you, she said, it sits on top of you like a rock,” Davis said. “And if you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. But as you begin to tell the story, you climb out from under that rock and eventually you sit up on top of it.”

When the Cavaliers arrived for their first practice the next season, Bennett didn’t open it with a workout or with game video. He showed them the 17-minute TEDTalk below. He wanted them to embrace their story, and to tell it. Not to change what happened, but to change themselves.

It’s not a new concept. There is power in memory. “What do we do with our memories?” the great writer, professor, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel always asked his classes. “My goal is always the same: To invoke the past as a shield for the future.” It was something Kyle Guy did instinctively. He took to Facebook last April to post a letter he had written to himself about the anxiety he dealt with during the season, and later wrote a follow up on his challenges after the UMBC loss.

"Not everyone knows, but you've been taking medication for your anxiety attacks all season. You've kept it a secret because you didn't want to be viewed as weak," he wrote in the Facebook post. “They weren't with you when you burst into tears in the middle of practice and you didn't know why. And despite that, you kept pushing. They weren't there every time your fiancé [sic] helped calm you down night after night when the pressure seemed to consume you, but you kept pushing. They don't understand you couldn't smile through the latter half of the season because the anxiety and pressure was eating at you, but you still kept pushing."

Virginia’s championship is a testament to the power of memory and story. It was Step No. 1 for Virginia, for each player and coach, in his own way.

2). THEY DID NOT HIDE FROM THEIR FAILURE, OR MAKE EXCUSES. The way in which Bennett and his players handled their loss to Maryland-Baltimore County was just as remarkable for something they didn’t do. They didn’t make excuses.

This is one of the most difficult things to do, because it is a built-in defense mechanism for many of us. I know it is with me. Find somewhere else for the blame to go. Find a slant through which to slide responsibility.

Virginia had a ready-made excuse. De’Andre Hunter, who will be an NBA Lottery pick, was sidelined with a broken wrist.

On a team that relies on individual talent, injuries are setbacks, but not crucial. On teams that function truly as teams, with five players filling roles that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, injuries can be catastrophic. The loss of one player can be bigger than the loss of one player.

I was amazed at how little was said about Hunter’s absence. Bennett probably knew that it was of no use to mention it. UMBC has nothing close to the resources of Virginia, with or without Hunter. People would’ve laughed even more.

Still, UVA players and coaches didn’t look to slide responsibility for the loss anywhere else. They didn’t point to bad luck or anywhere else. They did one of the most difficult things you can do in any setback, they took on the full weight of it, and didn’t shy away from it.

Much has been written about Bennett’s decision to bring Guy and fellow guard Ty Jerome to the news conference after that loss. He did it because those players were coming back the next season, and they were the ones who were going to have to play with the weight of the loss. He wanted them to start dealing with it then.

“We’re going to go up there, and it's going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do,” Bennett said he told them. “But it's going to mark your life, and this is going to be something we're going to try to overcome.”

When ACC Media Day rolled around in October, Virginia’s contingent stayed in the same hotel where they had stayed before the UMBC loss. As luck would have it, the media day was held in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, where they had lost to UMBC. Guy and Bennett walked in and told their stories again.

Virginia met its setback head-on. There’s a lesson in that.

3). THEY ADAPTED THEIR APPROACH. Bennett went to lunch with Jerome some time after that tournament loss to talk about the team’s offense, and how it could be more effective.

While Virginia didn’t change its core principles, the offense did open up. It made more room for the creativity of Jerome and Guy. They took some shots, made some plays that some might see as reckless, but which were in keeping with their talents on the court.

Virginia played the same stingy defense. It still played with the slowest tempo in the nation. But it was even more efficient offensively (and it already was an efficient offensive team).

It could pick up its pace against better defenses to create more possessions in an effort to create more scoring.

Against a like-minded Texas Tech team, it won because it was just a bit better offensively. And this Virginia team finished the season as the first of Bennett’s teams there to be more highly ranked in offensive efficiency than defensive.

“It drove me,” Bennett said after the championship game. “I think as a staff we became better. We had to look at how can we change if we're in this spot again and we play certain teams, and we adjusted to things.”

Sometimes adjustments are needed. Virginia was open to making them.

4). THEY GOT SOME BREAKS. Life isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair when Hunter got hurt last season. It wasn’t fair when Texas Tech’s Tariq Owens got hurt, or Auburn’s Chuma Okeke this season.

To win an NCAA championship, it’s never done completely under your own power. Sometimes the other team misses. Sometimes you hit a shot you’d normally not make. Virginia trailed in the second half of five of its six tournament wins. It defied basketball odds more than once in this tournament.

A young woman in the Virginia cheering section Monday night held up a sign with a well-known quote from Thomas Jefferson (this reported by the great Mike Lopresti writing for NCAA.com): “I’m a great believer in luck, and find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

That, of course, is true. Some breaks you do make. Yes, Virginia caught a break when an Auburn player was whistled for fouling Guy on a three-pointer with less than a second to play.

But how many players could stand at the free-throw line in that situation, with all this team has been though, with all the anxiety that entails, with 70,000-plus fans screaming, and make three consecutive free throws.

Everybody talked about that call. Fewer talked about what it took to toe the line and make those free throws. Some breaks you make.

Yes, some breaks you just get. Life isn’t fair. It never will be. That’s also something we all have to accept. We can work to make it more fair – but the playing field will never be level. Some teams, schools, people, nations will always have more, will always seem to get the calls, will always seem to catch breaks or not catch them. It’s how you respond to the whistle that ultimately matters even more.

5). THEY FOUND MORE FAITH. To bounce back from loss, these players and coaches had no choice but to deepen their faith in each other. And in some cases, they deepened their faith in God, or in something more.

The point here isn’t that God blessed Virginia and not others, or that God decided to take an active role in the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament. The point is that individuals for a very long time have turned to faith in times of difficulty and it has helped lift them to greater things, and they credit a higher power with lifting them up.

“Coach Bennett always talks about staying faithful, and he told us don't grow weary in doing good, and that's for -- that's an every-possession mindset. It's a life mindset,” Jerome said after the championship game. “Just play till that buzzer sounds. The fact that I missed that floater in regulation and coach Bennett called the exact same play (in overtime) just shows how much my teammates believe in me, how much he believes in me. We just play until that buzzer sounds. We all believe in each other, and it's the most special team I've ever been on.”

Bennett has said he probably turned more unabashedly to matters of faith in the wake of what happened last season than at any other time in his career.

“I told them before the Auburn game, Just bring your two fish and your five loaves -- that's a story in the Bible -- I said, It will be enough,” he said after the championship game. “It will be enough for the masses. When you guys play the right way, the collectiveness of it takes over, and I've watched it and stepped back and I've seen them mature through everything. For them to do what they did and how they've won, it's a great story. It really is.”

Bennett did not shy away from this subject after the championship game, or at any point during the season. It’s very much a part of his team’s story.

“I mean, you have scars, right?” he said after the championship game, talking about the loss to UMBC. “You have a scar, and it reminds you of that, but it's a memory. Does it go away completely? No, I wish it wouldn't have happened in some ways. Now I say, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it. I'm thankful in a way for what happened because it did, it drew me closer, most importantly, to my faith in the Lord, drew me closer to my wife and children, just because you realize what's unconditional. In those spots when the world's telling you you're a failure, you're a loser, and you're the worst thing going, and all that stuff, you say, OK, what really matters? And it pushed me to that in a way.”

Before the season, Benentt took the team rafting in West Virginia.

"I remember saying to myself, 'OK, all right Lord, what’s this year going to bring?'" Bennett said. “I remember . . . it was the most beautiful setting, just floating down the river with these guys, and I remember saying that in my mind.”

6). IN VICTORY, THEY KEPT LEARNING. The story doesn’t end with the victory, with the nets being cut down, with this chapter re-written.

Bennett had one important thing for his team to remember after the game. And for himself to remember.

“I think there was a bigger plan going on here, and I didn't need it, but I was used in it,” Bennett said in his post-game news conference. “I hope that it's a message for some people out there that there can be hope and joy and resiliency. I'm thankful for what happened. That's why . . . when that horn went off, I just put my head down and said, ‘Thank You. I'm humbled, Lord, because I don't deserve to be in this spot, but You chose me to be here, and I'll give thanks.’

“And I told our guys in the locker room, I said put your arms around each other, take a look at every guy in here, look at each other. Promise me you will remain humble and thankful for this. Don't let this change you. It doesn't have to. . . . Stay humble and stay thankful. It's a great story. That's probably the best way I can end this. It's a great story.”

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