NOE LOBBIED FOR A ‘YES’, HELPED LAUNCH VCU-RICHMOND RIVALRY

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Former Rams’ Chuck Noe helped usher in the Richmond-VCU rivalry.

RICHMOND, Va. – Not many people know it, but the roots of the University of Richmond are tangled with those of VCU.

On the corner of Ryland and Grace Streets, on the eastern fringe of Richmond’s Fan neighborhood and very much within VCU’s footprint, sits a gateway that marks the former location of Richmond College. The college picked up and moved out to the West End in 1914 and became the University of Richmond. Today, you can stand at the gateway and watch fans on the next block trickle into VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.

VCU’s beginnings are also modest, from Richmond Professional Institute – once an arm of William & Mary – to the 1968 merger with the Medical College of Virginia that created the University as it exists today.

The origins of the VCU-Richmond basketball series, a rivalry that has often roused this city for nearly 40 years, are similarly humble. Separated by just eight miles, the two institutions might as well be worlds apart. VCU is a large, public institution located downtown, while Richmond is small, private and tucked away in a leafy neighborhood in the West End. For those and a number of other reasons, the rivalry has maintained its edge despite changes in coaches, administrators and conference affiliation.

Although the RPI-MCV merger produced VCU in 1968, it wasn’t until eight years later that it would meet Richmond on the basketball court. There are a number of possible explanations as to why VCU and Richmond didn’t face each other until 1976. Most agree, however, that Richmond, as an established member of the Southern Conference at the time, chose not to play VCU because it simply didn’t have to.

“We always wanted to play Richmond, but they were an established school. VCU had been an independent up to that point. The schools just never had a chance to play each other. We’d always see the guys in the summer time, and we’d go back and forth,” says Gerald Henderson, a VCU star from 1974-78.

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CATCHING UP WITH BERNARD HARRIS

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Bernard Harris (center) with Gerald Lee Sr. (right) and Ervin Latimer (photo credit Gerald Lee Jr.).

Although the wild, expansive afro from college is long gone, Bernard Harris doesn’t appear far removed from the 6-foot-9 string bean from Roanoke who helped guide the VCU Basketball program through its formative years.

Now 62, Harris could pass for a man 10-12 years his junior. His lean frame is intact, but with some added muscle.

“I guess my conditioning is partly good genes, and the fact that I enjoy playing and working out,” Harris said recently, via email. “It’s not easy!”

He’s aged well, but not just physically. Harris’ career has also remained vibrant over the years. Nearly a decade removed from his days as a player and coach in Finland’s top pro league, where he became a star and earned national celebrity, Harris seems to have transitioned smoothly.

VCU fans may still know him as “Supernard”, but these days, Harris is more commonly referred to as Benkku, an oft-mononymous Finnish basketball institution who came ashore more than 30 years ago.

Benkku is how most of the kids of the Get In The Game program, Harris’ 10-year-old youth sports initiative sponsored by Finland’s Ministry of Education, know the former VCU star. That, and the and children’s book on basketball he wrote in the late 80s and the spin-off cable TV program that ran for two seasons in the 90s.

Get In The Game, for which Harris serves as president, aims to use athletics to promote fitness and healthy living, while steering kids clear of drugs and alcohol. Harris conducts tennis and basketball summer camps and also speaks at high schools about the dangers of substance abuse. According to the organization’s website,  Get In The Game has made visits to more than 250 schools in the last 10 years. The program has produced a number of TV programs with Finnish sports stars to the same end, including “Benkku’s All-Star Bowling“. Get In The Game has also held a number of youth tennis camps in Finland with VCU Tennis Coach Paul Kostin.

For a guy whose basketball career looked at one point as if it would continue in perpetuity, he seems to have comfortably eased into this stage of his career, one which blends teaching, wellness and health activism.

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