On Villanova (Basketball).

Posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Over the past few days, my social media has become a bluish blur of avid Villanova support. I've been posting on Facebook, Instagramming the only Villanova shirts that made it to France with me, retweeting sports articles from the NYTimes and Sports Illustrated and 6ABC and beyond. Last weekend I spent more than a few minutes Googling places to watch the Final Four matchup while in Heidelberg for the weekend, disappointedly accepting defeat when nothing came up. I've been 'liking' more Villanova posts than I can count over these past few days, reading more about sports than I've ever read in my life, thinking about and supporting a team whose members I could not even name. Why?

I've been turning the question over in my mind today, trying to explain the attachment I feel to Villanova basketball, the pride I'm experiencing today for a group of guys I've never met, the extra spring in my step all day, the butterflies that keep coming back. I'm not the first one to ask myself the question - I've had more than one person comment surprisedly in passing recently that they didn't know I was so into sports.

I think to answer the question, I've got to go back to the beginning, because before Villanova basketball comes Villanova.

When I was deciding where to go to college, I applied to Villanova as a fairly safe bet. My sister was in her junior year as I was applying, and she was very happy. I had visited her, I knew the campus, and I liked it. I knew I could be happy there, but didn't really consider it a top choice, preferring other schools that I thought would be a better fit. In spring 2008, though, I attended an accepted students' day with my mom, and I decided on Nova there and then. Sitting next to my mother, in a room filled with other nervous students and even more nervous parents, I got ~the feeling~ and knew beyond doubt that Villanova was the place for me. I remember the moment vividly, and the whole sunny day - the balloon arches and the blue t-shirts, the light streaming into the Villanova Room.

My feeling of certainty grew over the time I spent as a student at Villanova. After the initial hiccups of the college transition, I grew to love the campus, the students, the black bean burgers at Connelly, the small classes and helpful teachers. I met my closest friends at Villanova, people that started out as total strangers in 2008 that today are among the most important people in my life.

Amidst the blur of freshman year, between the "awkward luau" and the Fiji Mansion parties and the time spent figuring out the fastest route from Tolentine to Bartley, one thing became very clear: at Villanova, basketball was more than a sport. Upon arrival we were given Nova Nation t-shirts, and invited to the Pavilion where Jay Wright preached to bleachers full of believers. We were new to it all, but we eagerly shouted back NATION every time he said NOVA, giddy to feel a part of the excitement. We learned the chants, the whoosh-go, the fight song. With time, we learned how to be proper Nova fans. We wore and re-wore our Nova Nation t-shirts, to the games, to the Spit, to class, to the gym (or not). As the season got into full swing, we learned the players' names: Scottie, Reggie, Dante, Peña. We eagerly awaited the text messages that we'd gotten game tickets, or that we didn't, or that we were wait listed. When we didn't get tickets, we crowded into dorm rooms on South campus to watch the games, all season long. We traveled to the Wachovia Center, sneaking beer into stolen cups from campus, tailgating in the frigid parking lot.

We were baptised by fire that first year, when the 2008-2009 team led Villanova to the Final Four (it was also the year that I got written up by the Dean for trying to bring beers into Stanford for the game...). I remember when we won the Elite Eight game, when Scottie scored that last basket, the campus went wild. We jumped up and down, hugging and laughing, before running down from the fifth floor of Stanford into South campus, cheering and whooping and sprinting up Ithan to Lancaster, singing and throwing our V's up and celebrating. The energy was everywhere, coming from everyone, it felt like that moment was everything.

(Incidentally, that year, we shared disappointment too.)

Here's the thing, though. It wasn't really about basketball, in 2009, nor in the years that came after. After freshman year the team didn't get as far in the tournament, but the energy continued. The basketball wasn't as great, but the energy didn't change. We kept cheering, and whoosh-go-ing, and gasping, and stomping. We kept filling the bleachers, kept looking for tickets, kept wearing our Nova Nation t-shirts. Even when the game wasn't exciting, we were excited. At Villanova, basketball was a tangible energy that drove the students forward, brought us together, united in our celebrations and in our disappointments. It was the rhythm that we moved to: Hoops Mania was the start of the fun and we hoped March Madness would be the end. We watched on South, on West, off campus, at Kelly's. We held our breaths together, time after time, and heard the collective cheers or groans echo around campus. Over four years, Villanova basketball was a constant for us, a common point of interest, a shared passion. We "browsed" the store at Kennedy, just in case the sale section might have a shirt that wasn't XL. We posted our sizes on Facebook group proposing student-created t-shirts: from the ever-classic "Jay Wright for President" to the ever-regrettable "Nova Girls Are Wild - UConn Girls Are Husky."

I chose to study in Paris in the Fall of 2010 because I didn't want to miss the 2011 basketball season. I considered staying enrolled in Spring 2012 so I could go to student games, even though I'd finished my credits. At graduation, we posed with our "V's up," the campus-wide sign of Villanova support. We threw our arms in the air, holding champagne bottles in one hand and making V's with the other. Sunburned and with Miller Lite headaches, we moved out of our apartments in Villanova Seniors 2012 t-shirts, moving on from Villanova to New York or Boston or California, or... Paris.

The first year after graduation was hard. I missed Villanova. I missed the proximity of friends, the dollar drinks at Kelly's, lazy breakfasts at Bagel Factory, iced coffee and people-watching in the quad. I missed my seminar classes, the author readings at Connelly, chatting about French literature. I missed the way campus looks on a sunny day, on a snowy day. I missed Father Cregan's free yoga classes, pizzas from Second Storey, late nights in the library spent giggling instead of working.  I missed complaining about Tolentine, about early classes, about the bookstore prices. I missed the life I'd built at Villanova, the relationship my classmates and I had built together over four years with that place. When I've been asked in the years since graduation if I liked my college experience, I've made people regret their question more than once with the length and enthusiasm of my answer. Villanova is where I met my closest friends, where I became an almost-adult, where I loved and lost and laughed and cried.

I haven't been back to Villanova since 2012. I've followed the academic news (A new Center for Irish Studies! A new Creative Writing minor!) and felt proud of my alma mater more than once. I've followed along when my friends returned for Homecomings, for basketball games. Living abroad, I'm no stranger to FOMO (fear of missing out, for the unfamiliar), but the Villanova events always felt a little bit harder to miss. I would have jumped at the chance to go back to campus, back to Kelly's, to the renamed-since-freshman-year Wells Fargo Center. Still, though, FOMO is par for the course, and generally I manage to comparmentalize it and accept a certain disconnect.

This year, though, was different. As the momentum increased in this year's March Madness tournament, so did my attachment. I saw that Villanova made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and felt glad... And gladder still when they entered the Elite Eight. Once they reached the Final Four, though, is when I really started to feel it. It wasn't FOMO, necessarily, but a different kind of energy. I wasn't afraid of missing out, because I didn't feel that I was missing out. Actually, I felt like a real a part of it. I felt like I was part of the Nova Nation that Jay Wright kept thanking. In my studio in Paris, I donned my worn-in Villanova t-shirt and followed along with the team happily. As the excitement mounted, I felt closer than ever to the action, despite being so far. Waking up to the news last weekend that we'd made it to the final, I felt as joyful as I'd felt during the 2009 run to the Final Four. Though I'm long graduated and thousands of miles away, I felt like MY team was making it, MY school was making it. I felt a part of the roaring crowd, even at a great distance.

When I saw the final was on at 3 a.m. Parisian time, on a school night, I knew I wouldn't be watching it. And yet, even without an alarm I found myself wide awake at 5 that morning, texting my sister to know the score. She told me it was almost over but worth seeing, so I tried to tune in. When the streaming website wouldn't work from Europe, my sister and I video chatted and she propped me up in front of their TV in Park Slope for the last five minutes of the game. I joined in on the chatter on my friends' group chat chain, from Seattle to Houston to Boston to New York to Florida to Paris we all watched together. With bedhead and bleary eyes in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, I watched the five most exciting minutes of basketball I've ever seen, and watched as Kris Jenkins scored the shot of a lifetime. While my sister and her fiancé jumped around their living room in Brooklyn I jumped up and down, too. Every social media outlet I use went haywire; triumphant tweets and Facebook posts and photos and Snapchats and texts, soundbytes and photos and emojis and videos. We were ecstatic, we were walking on air. As the team held up their well-deserved trophy, I teared up and my insides felt like they'd melt from happiness. That day at work, in my corporate office outside Paris, I wore a Villanova Wildcats t-shirt proudly (perhaps to the confusion of my co-workers).

Why, though? Why did I care so much?

I'm not athletic, I don't care for sports in general. I'm happy to watch rugby with my family, but not much else. Why was this win so important to me?

I can't speak for the rest of my classmates, for current students or other graduates, but for me, the importance is linked to the first night all those years ago that we learned the Villanova cheers with Jay in the Pavilion. It's also linked to the chilly March night in 2009 that we ran in the streets from South campus, propelled by adrenaline and an unnameable joy. It's linked to that same energy that continued throughout our four years on campus, and I think that this year's championship game was a return to that years-old feeling.

I'm so proud to call Villanova my alma mater. I will keep watching the replays of the final seconds of the game, to watch reaction videos. I'll continue to find gifs of Jay Wright's cool and collected reaction to the result (BANG.). I'm sure I'll keep getting a thrill out of seeing Villanova headlining articles on The New York TimesThe GuardianThe Washington Post, a swell of pride in my chest when I see the photos from Monday night.

For me, supporting Villanova whole-heartedly and completely this year was a reminder of the common ground that I still share with my fellow Wildcats; that no matter where we are or what we're doing, we still care. To me, supporting Villanova basketball is supporting Villanova. It brings me back to the best years of my life, to a place I love intensely and to memories that I cherish. When I cheer for Villanova, I'm cheering for more than the players on the court. I'm cheering for a place i truly believe in, cheering in solidarity with others that have been affected by the same place. In the past few days I've talked about Villanova basketball to anyone that will listen, but I find that the most interested are other graduates. The energy we feel can only be understood by each other. Though general opinion is that Villanova played a great season, that the title is well-deserved, that it was a hard-won championship. More than an athletic achievement, though, for Villanova basketball fans all over the world the victory was personal. They won the championship, but so did we. Current students, recent graduates, alumni of all ages... This year, we all got to remember what it felt like to be a part of Villanova, to share the energy that Villanova was and continues to be.

This past couple of weeks has been such an exhilarating ride, in large part because we're enjoying the glory together - wherever we are, whatever we're doing. Watching a video of current students in the Pavilion, I felt just as excited as they did at the final basket, as if I were there. I hope I can hold on to this feeling for a long while yet. Whoooooosh.... Go!



Anonymous said...

Class of 1990 and reading this brought a huge grin to my face. I am so glad that your Villanova experience mirrored in many ways mine and that you shared, from the other side of the world, everything that makes Villanova a special place. Go Cats.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful essay and, as another Villanova alum, a perfect description of how I (and, I think, many others) have felt about our beloved Wildcats on Monday and in the past few weeks.

NC said...

Thank you both, Anonymous!! I only wish you'd left your names so I could thank you personally for taking the time to read my thoughts. I'm so glad my experience resonates with others. We're a lucky bunch, to have enjoyed the privilege of being Villanova students!! Thank you!

mjgave said...

The feeling never goes away. I was in the class of 1982 and my old college chums and I were texting and fbing each other like we graduated yesterday. I still count them among my very best friends.