RICHMOND, Va. – In the third floor office of his Richmond home, longtime VCU Basketball fan Mark Dalton combs through his impressive treasure trove of Rams memorabilia.
“For some reason, I hoard stuff. I don’t know why,” he says.
Inside an otherwise nondescript office space, shelves display schedule cards and magnets dating into the 1980s, neatly arranged in chronological order. He stops to lament that VCU did not issue a schedule magnet for the 2011-12 season. VCU tee shirts, polos and jerseys hang from the eggshell white walls and ceilings. Tucked under a love seat are binders of articles, trinkets and artifacts, and in front of a TV stand, there’s a pile of shirts and rolled up posters from bygone eras. Dalton begins to unroll a poster and stops.
“This is the greatest schedule poster VCU ever made,” he declares. “It’s not even close.”
The poster, a throwback to the early 80s, shows Calvin Duncan, Rolando Lamb, Michael Brown and Mike Schlegel at Franklin Street Gym, strolling towards the camera, sweating as if they’d just played five straight games. Brown’s tank top is thrown over his left shoulder. Their faces are stone serious, as if to say, ‘This is our house.’
In another box, VCU Basketball media guides, every one since the 1973-74 season, are preserved in near-mint condition in individual plastic pouches. It’s a collection so thorough, in fact, that he was able to provide me with two media guides from the 1970s that our athletics communications office did not have in its archives. He had duplicates, of course.
Hung to the right of the desk is a framed, cross-stitched VCU Ram head logo from the 80s, an early gift from Dalton’s wife of 31 years, Terry. On the opposite end is a Final Four bench chair, signed by each member of the 2010-11 team.
There are binders full of signed NBA rookie cards from Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders. On one shelf, a photo of Shaka Smart, Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozzell, Joey Rodriguez and Ed Nixon accepting VCU’s ESPY for “Best Upset” in 2011. Dalton is probably the only man in Virginia in possession of a 1974-75 color team photo of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves, which featured Ram Bernard Harris. And that’s only the beginning.
Dalton, a season-ticket holder of 30 years, has managed to hold onto nearly every one of his tickets from the games he’s attended, categorized in order in a binder – except for the 1987-88 season. Dalton points to a single ticket stub from that campaign, his silent protest to Mike Pollio’s tenure. His earliest ticket stub dates to 1974.
And it’s not just VCU memorabilia. There are two cases of immaculately preserved vintage cigarette lighters from Marlboro, Camel and others in the office from Big Tobacco’s 20th-century heydays. Dalton gave up the smoking habit a few years back, but the collecting habit remains. The majority of Dalton’s energies, however, are reserved for VCU.
Wearing a yellowing VCU ball cap and white VCU polo shirt, Dalton, 61, with a trim, white goatee, sips from a 2011 Final Four pint glass and sheepishly tries to explain his proclivity for collecting. Without a doubt, he’s proud of it all, this homage to his alma mater’s men’s basketball squad. But he also seems to recognize how divergent this path is from the casual fan.
“My wife thinks I have too much,” he says, admitting that the office, while neatly kept, is nearing its capacity.
It’s not just the obvious collectables that appeal to Dalton. There are plenty of items that might seem ordinary to others, but carry a certain importance to him. A radio shot sheet from a Dec. 29, 1981 game against James Madison, a 54-46 loss at the Coliseum, sits in a thin, black frame. It was different, and it was something VCU, he explains.
“I spend so much time at the office working, that you only have so much time for so much other stuff, and I don’t go out to dinner all the time, I don’t really have time to go out and socialize and go to parties and stuff,” Dalton says.
An accountant by trade, Dalton has always had a penchant for this, it seems. His reverence for VCU hoops dates back to 1973, when he transferred to the school after two years at Florida Presbyterian College (now known as Eckert College) in St. Petersburg, Fla. In those days, they were Chuck Noe’s “Runnin’ Rams”, and Dalton and his buddies would stomp on the bleachers at Franklin Street Gym until the final horn sounded.
Dalton graduated from VCU in 1975, but kept coming to games. Eventually, a mindless habit gave rise to the vast collection he possesses today.
“I ended up noticing I had batches of ticket stubs that I just tossed in the same place. I found them in a couple of different places, so I said, well, maybe I should sort of keep up with these,” he says.
In the early 80s, as the fiery, mop-topped J.D. Barnett led the Rams onto the national scene for the first time, Dalton got swept up in the movement. He maintained thick scrapbooks that included newspaper and magazine clippings, photos, game programs, posters and whatever else he could find of the 1982-83, ’83-84 and ’84-85 seasons.
For three decades, Dalton has maintained his seats directly behind the VCU bench and attends nearly every home game, as well as all the drivable road contests he can manage around his work schedule. On a shelf, there’s a somewhat famous photo of a frenzied Shaka Smart, crouched in a defensive stance on the sideline as Briante Weber guards an opposing player. Visible in the background, looking on from the front row, is Dalton.
As an early member of the Rams Club, donors were often paired with players for different functions. The exercise gives each side an
appreciation of the donor/student-athlete relationship. Donors meet the student-athlete who benefits from their annual support, while the student-athlete gets to know the donor that is motivated to give. Over the years, these meetings fostered Dalton’s friendships with a number of players, including Bernard Hopkins, Michael Doles, Dom Jones, T.J. Gwynn and Ed Nixon. When Dalton’s sons, Addison and Corey, were young, he’d take them to VCU’s basketball camps.
“He’s a really caring dude,” says Nixon, who has built a friendship with Dalton since graduating in 2011. “He’s always about your best interest. I’ve had father figures along the way, but I’m up here on my own now. But he helps me out along the way with encouragement and advice.”
Dalton says building relationships with players keeps him young.
“I don’t see me when I’m talking to these guys, because I’m looking at them. I’m not looking at me,” Dalton says. “When I’m talking to them, it’s just VCU Basketball. Whether I’m 60 or 80 or 100, I’m not looking at me, so I don’t realize how old I am. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. “
Even after VCU players graduate, Dalton can be spotted from time-to-time taking in a semi-pro summer league game featuring a former Ram. But even that doesn’t prepare former players for Dalton’s museum of VCU basketball history.
“The first time I walked up there I was amazed by the collection he had,” says former VCU star Michael Doles. “The amount of stuff he’s got, and it’s all in mint condition. That’s impressive.”
While Dalton’s collection is ostensibly a material one, what he’s really preserving isn’t old posters or a shelf full of booster buttons and Rams Club pins from the 90s (he has those too), but a lifetime of memories.
Each trinket, every clipped newspaper article, every signed basketball is a window to an experience. There was the time in the 80s when he was out of work, and he and a couple of buddies piled into his Toyota Corolla liftback and drove to the 1981 Sun Belt Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., where they camped out in tents for $5 a night. He fondly recalls the rowdy bus trips to James Madison, the long drives to UAB, the intimate charm of games inside austere Franklin Street Gym and his courtside folding chair at the Richmond Coliseum that kept UAB Coach Gene Bartow within heckling distance.
“It was fun back then,” he says. “Those UAB and South Florida games. It was almost as loud as the Siegel Center. We would have eight, nine thousand people at those games, screaming at [UAB Coach] Gene Bartow – screaming at him. Those were pretty amazing games.”
He points to a stub from VCU’s 1981 second round NCAA Tournament game with Tennessee in Charlotte, N.C., won 56-54 by the Volunteers on a last-second jumper by future NBA star Dale Ellis. A VCU win would have given the Rams a meeting with top-seeded Virginia, led by Ralph Sampson, in Atlanta. As if unlocked from a safe deposit box, the frustration and disappointment, true as it was the day of the game, washes over him.
“God, that was upsetting,” he sighs.
Later, we exit the office down the stairs, past a framed newspaper clipping commemorating late VCU radio voice Terry Sisisky’s lengthy consecutive games streak, as well as an editorial cartoon honoring the animated broadcaster when he died. We stop at the bottom of the stairs at wood and glass display case which holds baby-boom era Kool cigarette lighters and advertisements. At his feet, Dalton spots one of the family’s black cats, poking its head where it shouldn’t be.
“Get out of there, Shaka,” he says.