BROOKLYN, N.Y. – After a few phone calls and some Internet research, I’ve been able to confirm that there is not, in fact, a VCU satellite campus in the New York metropolitan area.
But you’d have a hard time selling that to impartial observers at Barclays Center during last season’s Atlantic 10 Championship. It seemed as if there were Rams fans everywhere. Official numbers are not available, but anybody with a pulse and a ticket last season could’ve told you that VCU fans outnumbered other schools at the tournament by a wide margin.
They were boisterous, backed by VCU’s dynamic pep band, The Peppas, and they were impressive. VCU fans seemed to embrace the experience more fully than perhaps any other league school.
And it wasn’t just at Barclays Center. VCU fans flocked to Brooklyn in droves, flooding the city with black and gold. Die Koelner Bierhall, a German beer hall practically in the shadow of the arena, became the de facto headquarters for Rams fans. The pep band gallivanted around town in a bus wrapped in VCU graphics and the marketing slogan “Havoc Lives Here”. Normally, that means Richmond, but in March, Havoc was highly mobile. The Peppas also shoehorned their way onto the “Today Show”, blaring their eclectic mix of bombastic tunes from atop the bus. And of course, there was Spike Lee.
The extracurricular events were nice, but the real benefit to VCU fans’ willingness to follow the Rams to the Big Apple was on the court. Players may have been focused on playing the game, but they weren’t wearing blinders and earplugs. They saw the sea of humanity. They heard the brass-based rallying cries. And they say it made a difference.
“We can take a deep breath because we’re not just here by ourselves,” says junior guard Briante Weber. “[It’s] a sign of relief when we see people that come out from Richmond to all the way from wherever we are. It just shows how much our fan base follows us and how much they really love to watch us play and we appreciate it.”
“Any game we go to, we always see black and gold,” added junior Treveon Graham. “So us being in the tournament, we pretty much knew the fan base that we had, and it was going to be a sellout crowd for the most part, so it really doesn’t surprise me.”
VCU has sold out 50 straight home games at its own Verizon Wireless Arena, so it should come as no shock that Rams’ fans are also known for buying up tickets in other buildings. It’s often easier than securing entry into the Siegel Center. This isn’t necessarily new for VCU fans. The Rams, at least during the program’s recent decade of success, have traveled particularly well. But Brooklyn was different.
“It surprised me,” admits sophomore Melvin Johnson. “Being a freshman last year, I was always nervous on the road, especially thinking back to Saint Louis last year. When we got to the tournament last year, we saw all the black and gold when we went to watch the Xavier/Saint Joe’s game, and it just gave me a level of comfort. I like hitting threes and hearing fans cheer for me.”
For Johnson, the experience at Barclays Center is even more personal. A native of the Bronx, Johnson expects anywhere from 30-50 friends and family from his hometown to come see him play this weekend. But don’t expect him to crumble under the pressure of familiar watchful eyes.
“It’s great for me,” he says. “It’s no pressure. I’ve been playing in front of my friends and family my whole life, and they accept me for who I am. They know I’m not windmill [dunking] or anything like that. They just know my game and come in expecting me to just do what I do. For the most part I’m just doing it for my teammates and I’m just locked in on what we need to do as a team.”
No one has been more expressive about their reverence for VCU fans than Head Coach Shaka Smart. Press conferences at home games typically open with an assessment of his team’s play that particular evening, followed by platitudes for rabid throng of fans that jammed into the Verizon Wireless Arena to watch it. It may seem like a broken record to the beat writers, but that doesn’t make it any less sincere.
But even he could surely muster up surprise at the effort on the part of the program’s fans to flock to Brooklyn…or not.
“I can believe it because I’ve come to know our fans,” Smart said Monday. “But I definitely appreciate it, and we appreciate it, and I think the biggest thing is the comparison to other schools. And this is not to talk about other anyone else, but I believe that we had the most fans there. It seemed like we did, and so for that to be the case in New York, which isn’t necessarily around the corner, in our first year in the league…I think that spoke volumes about our fans and the support that we have, and we’re looking forward to having a lot of black and gold up there again this year.”