By now, most TMM readers are familiar with Chris "Pavarotti" Crowley, the self-described "that VCU guy" and the Rowdiest Ram of all. He's been a mainstay at Rams basketball games, through thick and thin, with his gold shirt and ever-present horn-helmet ever since his days as a student and a team manager, (and this season he's been accompanied by a black and gold VCU Team Ballz)!
It's been an amazing ride for him from Dayton to Chicago to San Antonio to Houston (with brief stops back home to Richmond to tend to real-life issues like "work"), and most unbelievable of all, he was going anyway... he won an expenses-paid trip to Houston in a superfan contest on a website, and gets the added bonus of seeing his beloved team play. After downing celebratory horchata margaritas on the Riverwalk, we discussed how he got his nickname and who gave it to him (Pavarotti, not Paparazzi), the superfan's place in the collective/individual dichotomy, and the night VCUBally nearly got lost at the Siegel Center.[Equal time! Check out our interview with Botler sensation Ron5Robot]TMM: You're back in Richmond this week, flying down to Houston on Saturday. What's the scene like there?Pav:
It's been a little bit of a shock to the system to go back to the "real world." Everything is the same, yet at the same time, everything is just a little bit better. I walk down the street, and I'll hear people talking about the game. In the past two days I've heard more people say "Go Rams" at places that weren't the Siegel Center, then I have in the past two years.
I had the opportunity to go to the team send-off again today [Wednesday]. It was similar to last week's, only even more people. Last week seemed to be a hurry up and wait atmosphere, people were sort of excited, but many were just there to see the cameras. I'm told I spent 20 minutes talking to them about the meaning of this all, and getting them excited. I ran out of steam, and the team still hadn't come out yet.
This time, I hardly had to say anything at all. The chants were loud, excited. People were even cheering with our cheerleaders, which never happens. I did get them going with chants of "We Believe" and "Our Time, Right Now." Honestly, I don't remember exactly what I said, but one of the local news folks put a lapel mike on me right before, so if I see that footage I'll shoot it over to you. Perhaps I missed my calling, maybe I'll be a street corner preacher when I grow up.
When your co-workers are Facebook-stalking you to find video of interviews, you know real life and basketball life have officially become one.TMM: The way you're getting down to Houston is the stuff of March/April legend. You were going anyway. Tell us how that happened.Pav:
Back at the start of the tournament, someone passed along a tweet that SBNation was doing a "Samsung contest." They wanted pictures of fans cheering on their team in the big dance. I sent along one from the CAA tournament on a whim. Honestly I was thinking it would be nice to maybe get a discount off a Samsung TV, since I'm one of the last people I think to not have a HDTV, or maybe a replacement for my lousy phone.
Fast-forward to one week ago, the day of the pre-sweet 16 rallies and my phone starts blowing up with congratulations from Twitter for winning the contest, which was pretty cool. I was pretty busy with the rallies so I fired a couple of quick tweets back giving my e-mail address. After the rally was over, I was on my way back to help my wife clean the house (my sister- who got me to the round of 64 was coming to Richmond for a conference, and needed a place to stay). I checked my e-mail and read this:
Hi Chris- Congrats on the win in the Samsung Tweetstakes! The SB Nation editors hand picked you from all the entries and felt that you embodied a true 'super fan'. As the winner, you'll get two airline tickets to Houston, two tickets to the Final Four, and hotel accommodations for you and your guest (1 room).
I just about fell out. I called my wife, who suddenly wasn't as mad at me for abandoning her for San Antonio.
Then I called my boss, who had already so kindly given me time off for the sweet 16. I caught her in her car on the way home, and she was dealing with a screaming child. She said she would get back to me when she had a chance to look at the schedule in the morning. Her husband is a pretty big basketball fan, and I think he helped her understand the magnitude of going to the Final Four. She called me back that night and she said that we'd work something out, and I should plan on going.
From John Tatum's ironman up and back drive to Dayton, to my sister calling me 22 hours before tip and telling me I had to go to Chicago, to a generous airline and hotel donation from another friend, now to SBNation. It's been an amazing, and humbling ride. All I can do is say thank you, and then cheer as loud as I can, because thats why they want me there, and I'm honored to do it.TMM: I hadn't realized since Dan Steinberg's Bog post that Mack McCarthy gave you your nickname. He's a friend of ours too. How did that come about, and did you have any dreams of what's happening now back then?Pav:
Coach Mack, along with Coach Ellis (who now does color for RamRadio) were a big part of the reason I came to VCU. I wanted to continue managing after high school, and they welcomed me with open arms. When I told Coach Mack that I was switching to becoming a voice major he took one look and said "You're Pavarotti," which between the full beard, big belly, loud tenor voice, and even the occasional over the top personality, fits pretty well. Pavarotti proved too hard to say regularly (and besides that, I had a player ask me "why do they call you "Paparazzi," you never have a camera?), so it shortened over time to Pav. Depending on where the speaker is from, gets pronounced with a long or short a, I'll usually answer to both.
You always have to dream about one day playin in the dance, and maybe even winning. After all, winning is the goal. My last year as a manager we got that opportunity for the first time in the 21st century, and just the second time since the great VCU teams of the 80's. Back before youtube, when I needed to get psyched, I would pull up a quicktime vid of this
, and overlay it with my recording of "One Shining Moment" and dream of what it would be like to be on the sideline. I put it up on youtube, just because i wanted it to be somewhere that if my computer crashed I would have a clip of this memory. Plus you can see my roommate and future best man going nuts in the bottom right corner, which is awesome.TMM: About how many games do you get to every year? Did you get to all of them this season?Pav:
Typically I've been to 20+ games a year. This is the first I've managed to break 30 in a season since leaving the bench. Leaving my teaching career and starting at the hospital where I have a flexible schedule has helped a lot. Getting to work Sun-Mon-Tue-Thu-Fri work weeks helps when you have a Wednesday and Saturday bus trip to go on. Working nights has helped too, since I can work a Tuesday night, get picked up and sleep in the car on Wednesday, and arrive at the game Wednesday night, then turn around and come back. I can't say I've taken care of my self sleep wise the way I should this season, but hey, that's what the rest of April is for, right? Trips that take more than an up-and-back drive or flying are usually my barrier. I still haven't been to the two CAA expansion schools, Northeastern, and Georgia State. They're on my list though to check off soon, I hope.TMM: How has VCU Ballz held up over the course of your season travels, and how did he get his sweet hat (which obviously didn't come standard). Has he had any particularly incredible adventures?Pav:
I may not be a camera whore, but I'm pretty sure he is. He's taken the blasphemous name of VCUBally, even though he's not techically a bally, but I think much like Pinocchio, he aspires to be a real Bally. Perhaps one day a magic fairy will come and give him his boing (wow, that sounded dirty).
He's been everywhere I have this season, and then some, which is a lot. We got to start at Wake Forest, then played at Madison Square Garden, which at the time I though was the coolest thing ever. The history of that place is incredible. I will also say, the fact that they don't sterilize and neutralize the arena for the NIT is great. We got to jump ball on the same floor as so many legends. I only wish we had the same opportunity in Chicago (seriously, DJ Haley jumping ball on the same Bull as Luc Longley and Bill Cartwright? That would be spectacular).
Great stories? Well, besides getting to do a photoshoot at Madison Square Garden, he got to (accidentally) spend a night at the Siegel Center. After the loss at home to ODU (a bad night), he stayed behind on his throne (the basket's crossbeam support), because his irresponsible owner forgot :/ By the time I realized it was too late to pick him up that night. Fortunately the women's team had a game the next day, so I went and played with the pep band hoping he would still be sitting on his spot. He wasn't, I looked all around the basket, and even the lost and found. I was devastated.
After halftime, I was about to leave, dejected. I had to work that night, hadn't slept very well, and I was packing up my clarinet ready to go. I looked down, and I saw a flash of black and gold flying through the sky and a group of kids playing. You see, this was a National Women in Sports game, and as part of that I think they let any elementary aged girl be a "ball-girl" and hang out on the side and baselines. They had been crawling around and under the basket all half time. I ran down, and they looked up, saw my horns and said "he looks like you, is he yours?" He was behind the wheel under the basket, in a place only a child would have ever looked.
Ironically, I think he was mad, because he was in disguise. The kids had found one of the false mustaches I had cut out for the students in preperation of Blaine Taylor. I took a pic with all the kids who rescued Bally and watched the rest of the game. Side note, the ladies put on a clinic in the second half, turning a tie game into a 9 point victory. Took a lot of the sting off the ODU loss (which as it turns out would be the first of 4 CAA losses in a row).
Since then he's gotten to go everywhere. When the pep band is there, and I'm not, he goes too. Since I didnt think I was going to Chicago, I sent him on the band bus from Dayton. He hangs out with the piccolo players, and has gotten some pretty swag rooms. He just left for Houston, I'm jealous.
When you sent him to me, I took one look and realized something was missing. To truly be VCU, he would need some horns. So I went to a craft store, got some felt, pipe cleaners and gold ribbon, and made him a set. Strategically pinned it in place. The best comment I've heard "He looks like Kirby (from the old video games) ate you and stole your powers."
He's up to 96 photos (told you he is a camera whore) and counting here.TMM: Superfans usually take it upon themselves to attract attention to themselves and try to get on TV. You talk a lot about serving Ram Nation with your efforts, not the camera. How did you come to that philosophy?Pav:
To me a true "superfan" is team-first. Otherwise what are they a "superfan" of? I don't really consider myself a superfan, because to do so would be arrogant. Nothing would make me happier to blend into a crowd, because everyone else there is going as crazy as I am. If CBS wants to put a camera on my face, I wont say no, because there's a chance it could get fans back home to be excited.
However, I'm not going to go and ape for them, because it takes me away from the fans who are there to cheer, and sometimes they need a pick-up. I guess I would say I'd like to be more like a "pass first point guard." I'll set them up our fans for the shot, but I'm happy just to get the assist.TMM: What do you hope people out there learn about VCU as a result of this run?Pav:
I honestly hope they learn that we are more than just a basketball school. I hope that they go beyond the boxscore and brackets, and take the time to learn about the school behind the team. VCU has a reputation for being an "art school," but it is so much more. We have award winning business, medical and advertising schools as well. I'm partial to it's music school as well. I hope they also learn about our diversity. When I see a comment on Deadspin referring to our fans as "eclectic," it makes me smile.
In middle school, when you first starting noticing these things, I grew up as a teacher's kid in the rich part of the county where everyone else's parents worked for goverment contractors making two or three times as much. My family was well-off compared to 98% of the world, but when you're living with the top 1%, and you're in middle school, it doesn't make you feel like much. High school, moving to the other side of Fairfax County was a step in the right direction, I was one of those kids who floated from group to group, but never really had just one clique. I could talk with the jocks who I managed, and the chorus and band kids who I sang and played with. However, I didn't really "fit in."
When I came to VCU in 2001, I started as a sports management major, and quickly realized I didn't want to both manage the basketball team, and talk about managing all day every day. I decided to explore the music school when I met my adviser, Dr. Guerard. I told her how much I had enjoyed VCU, because of how different it was. You had kids with popped collars, you had kids who's body was their art canvas. She told me this line, which I will never forget, and tell the world every chance I get: "VCU is a place where everyone fits in, because none of us fit in any place else." Where as other schools have a student population where you can point out common characteristics, our common characteristic is that diversity. I told the kids at the rally today, we may not have the history of a UVA or William and Mary. However, because our students are willing to work harder, they have the opportunity to create their own history, just like the players are doing right now.TMM: Finally, have you figured out a way to distill this feeling into words yet? There are a lot of schools out there who've been given a lot of hope by what you and Butler have done this year, give them a sample of what they're working for and can look forward to once they make the Final Four.Pav:
I'm pretty certain they haven't invented a word yet that describes how I'm feeling. Proud, joyful, blessed, all describe parts, but it's more than that. When I figure out the word to cover it all, I'll let you know, but for now I'll leave you with #swag.
All I can tell you about what they're working for, is that they should keep working. In this age of an increasing wage gap between rich and poor, you can see it play out along the redline as well. My fear is that one day this will be broken up, as the BCS teams leave to form their own league. Perhaps a VCU or Butler national championship would be their impetus. I fear the day we get a "1AA" status like in football. The bigs like to segregate themselves into the sports equivalent of a gated community. Others can come in, but only if they're getting paid for their services.
The NCAA tournament however is the great equalizer. Neutral courts, (sometimes) neutral sites, where TEAM matters more than money. In the sports world, as in the real world, every once in a while a story comes along and reminds you that sometimes, hard work and a sense of family can overcome odds that seem impossible, but really are possible. Someone who didn't have all the advantages growing up can go to college, start a company and push their way past those gates and come out and say, we are here. You are our equal, like it or not, and if you don't believe me, then I'll beat you and take it to another level, until you have no choice but to look up and respect what I do.
VCU is playing like that, and I'm proud to tell their story. Thank you for that opportunity.
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