SAN ANTONIO -- The power of a first impression comes from how forcefully it floods the vacuum of the unknown, how it fills a blank slate so completely. Before actual experience with a place and the people there, it's just another dot on a map. My first contact with Richmond, Virginia came in March of 2004, in the days before The Mid-Majority, while taking a conference tournament vacation. The first RVA local I talked to was a policeman. On the day of the CAA title game between VCU and Old Dominion, he pulled me over on Interstate 95 on the bend near Boulevard. I handed over my papers upon request.
"Is this how they drive in Rhode Island? Is this how people up there respect other people's local laws?" he asked angrily, raising his voice as he spoke. I didn't answer him, figuring he was provoked enough by 62 miles per hour in a 55 zone. "Nothing to say for yourself?"
He walked back to his patrol car, ran my title and registration through a computer system, and returned with a ticket. It was the third I'd ever received. "I'm going to personally make sure you pay every penny of this," he seethed. "This, here, is your court date. If you show up, or if you send a lawyer, I am going to be there in that courtroom to testify against you. So remember this face. You hear me? Remember this face.
As I pulled away, he tailed me closely for a few miles until I pulled off the highway, headed for the downtown grid. I recognized this all as an act in the name of protecting the local revenue base, but this was my initial impression of Richmond: angry, inhospitable. The traveler's assumption is that the first few people we meet are representative of a place as a whole, and we stereotype accordingly. Cities are either "nice and friendly" or they're not. We all do this. It's why a hotel concierge's smile is wide enough for a comic strip.
Two years later, I was in Richmond again, this time on business. The 2006 CAA tournament turned out to be a historical event, the first two-bid season for the league in a pair of long decades. There was an infamous crotch punch
, an even more infamous NCAA Tournament snub, and a tourney champion (UNC Wilmington) that wouldn't make it a quarter as far as the second-seeded semifinal loser (George Mason). It was also the first year of the conference in its newly expanded 12-team state. So, before quarterfinals could occur, a four-game first round was necessary to sort out the bottom eight teams. On Friday, March 3, after nearly 12 hours of basketball, the sixth-seeded VCU Rams -- the virtual home team -- dispatched No. 11 William & Mary. It was midnight, and we were free to go.
I walked out to where I'd parked my rental car on a downtown street near the Richmond Coliseum. There were three police cars, blue and red lights flashing, a tow truck, and a single parked car with all of its windows smashed in, its alarm yelping. I thought I'd taken a wrong turn onto the wrong block.
But it was my rented dark blue late-model Toyota Corolla, surrounded by thousands of safety-glass shards, smooth and gleaming and shining under the whirling colored lights. Years of detective training, or even a passing knowledge of "Law and Order," weren't necessary to reassemble the case. Somebody had used a crowbar to enter the car, found nothing of value except for a cheap dash-mount XM radio (thrown on the floor, its spiderweb of wires pulled out), and was sufficiently frustrated to destroy the rest of the windows. The windshield had caved in from the force of three bashed, blunt, thin concave dent lines.
"Good thing you came by when you did," the officer on the scene told me. He was taller and thinner than me, a little younger and a lot stronger. "Ten minutes later, there'd be nothing here but broken glass."
I called my wife of two years. The cracks were starting to show, even back then. "I know we haven't been very good at dealing with emergencies lately, you and I," I said as calmly as I could. "But I'm in real trouble. I'm stranded in Virginia, I'm not going to make Binghamton tomorrow afternoon, the car's been smashed in, and I have nowhere to stay tonight. I'm not really sure what to do now."
"I don't know what you want me to say, Kyle," she said. "I'm going back to sleep."
"Are you okay?" the officer asked me after the call ended. "Do you need a ride somewhere?"
"The airport, I guess," I said. "I'll wait there until the rental car desk opens in the morning."
I collected my rental paperwork and luggage, strewn through with shatter. I signed a police report, and climbed into the back seat of a Richmond police car. There was a thick pane of safety glass between me and the driver, and we made small talk through the wire-grate window. "What do you do?" he asked.
"I travel around and go to college basketball games," I said. "I write about them."
"So you're a traveling journalist-storyteller type," he replied.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"I didn't know there were any of you left."
At RIC, a small regional airport that was long since closed for business at 1:30 a.m., he gave me his card and told me to call him if I needed anything. It was larger than a regular business card, two-sided. On one side, a clip-art image of a pair of eyes on a black background. Underneath, in simple white type, I am your eyes on the street. I will watch over you and protect you. You can trust me.
The other side of the card identified him as a specialist in working with young kids affected by gang violence.
"This has to be such heartbreaking work," I said. "I can't imagine."
"Richmond has one of the highest violent crime rates
in America," he told me. "Some of the kids I work with, I lose. Just two weeks ago, another one. It is heartbreaking work, you're right. My job requires a lot of positivity and hope, and it's not for everybody. You have to show up for work every day and believe that something good's going to happen. I'm just grateful that some days, something good does."
I slept that night in a thin row of segmented armchairs, which were aligned in a row along a wall across from a ticket booth. As night slowly turned into morning, baggage carts and rolling luggage banged up against my extended legs, as people got in line for their weekend flights to Charlotte and Baltimore. At 7 o'clock sharp, the rental car counter opened. I presented my rental paperwork, the police forms, and the phone number of the tow lot where they could retrieve what was left of the broken Corolla. I would not be liable for the damage. They gave me another car, which I made sure to park in a garage during the four CAA quarterfinal games. I was immensely thankful.
As one person with a single small, outsider perspective, that night transformed Richmond for me. Before, it was a mean and backwards Southern city with a collapsing downtown Coliseum and an ugly space alien basketball
arena uptown. It was the kind of place I wanted to get out of as soon as possible. After March 3, 2006, thanks to one police officer, I saw it as somewhere where horrible things happened but hope was possible. And most of the people I've met from Richmond since are friendly and easy to talk to, despite the strange Virginia accents. Thanks to college basketball, I have friends from there now.
Following a series of events far more random than ordered or logical, the men's basketball teams from the city's two Division I universities are here in south Texas. Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond are on opposite sides of the remaining bracket shard of the Southwest Regional, and will play tonight against Florida State and Kansas (respectively), for the potential opportunity to face off on Sunday. And unprecedented RVA representation in the Final Four hangs in the balance. I can tell you this: there are more people from Richmond, Virginia here in San Antonio than at any point in this city's history.
This week, there was a big happy pep rally back there. Richmond's new status as the power center of mid-major basketball has helped take the locals' minds off the city's tragic aspects for a while, and has given them a reason to be proud of their town. There were more teams from Richmond in the Sweet Sixteen than Big 12 representatives. And on Wednesday, thousands of people gathered in the streets, and Richmond mayor Dwight Jones, UR president Edward Ayers and VCU president Michael Rao were there too.
Until proven otherwise, however, this basketball thing ends with a loss -- we've all know that for a long time. But right now, the future for the Rams and Spiders is still wide open. Something good's going to happen.