Traveling Violations: A lesson in spin
RICHMOND, Va. – He says little. He smiles rarely. He shouts, perhaps, never – at least on the sideline. He doesn’t stomp or preen or showboat. All the dramatic histrionics that define the generation of coaches Anthony Grant, 40, is quickly ascending to the top of, seems lost on him.
Even here in the delirium of a jammed and jumping Richmond Coliseum as his Virginia Commonwealth Rams stormed back in the final minutes to dramatically beat March’s eternal darling, George Mason, 64-59, he never afforded himself a smile.
At least not until the sophomore guard whose will he once questioned imposed all of it on the game.
It’s an intriguing coach-star duo here at VCU (27-6), one that just may make major noise later this month. The point guard, Eric Maynor, is emotional and loquacious and daring. The coach, Anthony Grant, is serious and focused and intense.
The similarity, however, is simple. Both want to win in the worst way.
And so there was no panic as they found themselves down 57-52 with less than two minutes remaining against Mason, who after an up-and-down season looked like they had recaptured the magic of last March and were on the brink of another NCAA tournament where heaven knows what miracles could await.
Grant was his usual calm in the huddle, telling his Rams their time was about to come. Maynor was enthusiastic, nodding his head and clapping his hands. Fire and ice were about to mix and George Mason didn’t have a prayer.
“Coach Grant had told us we were all right,” said Maynor. “So I felt like someone had to make a play. And I made it.”
He made more than one. First there was the open court steal, lay-up and free throw that cut the lead to 57-55. Then there was another steal and another lay-up to tie it. Then a defensive rebound and another lay-up for the lead. Then another lay-up and two free throws to ice it, with a rebound thrown in to boot..
Final two minutes for Eric Maynor: 9 points, 2 steals, 2 rebounds and one CAA title in the bag. He even got Grant smiling.
“Eric Maynor is special,” said Grant, with an air of serious authority. “I haven’t seen many like him in my years of coaching in terms of being able to impose his will on a game.”
Or as Maynor described it: “when I made that play … hey, man.” Or as he later added: “When I got it, I thought, let me go finish this thing.”
Then there was the point where Grant was praising Maynor’s defense and the player let out a “yeah, man.”
These two could be a comedy act, one who can’t say enough, the other who’s steely will to win got a team that was predicted to finish sixth in the league to believe in themselves, each other and the greater purpose of what he was trying to teach here.
Four months later they completed a dominating run through the CAA, champions of both the regular season and tournament, and now awaiting what should be a fairly strong seed in the NCAAs.
“We’re not finished yet,” said Jesse Pellot-Rosa, Maynor’s backcourt running mate. “We’ve got a lot more damage to do.”
Grant may have walked into a good situation here, a program loaded with both top talent and quality kids thanks to now-Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. But this was about him immediately getting the team to buy into his style and his system.
After 12 seasons as an assistant under Billy Donovan, Grant was serious from the start, increasing the demands and the discipline on his team, challenging them every day, raising the bar with every practice.
They believed in him, but, then again, they were a little baffled by him. He somehow figured out how to convey more information during games with fewer words and less emotion than they imagined possible. He even got the ultra-confident Maynor to prove his inner toughness by completing a brutal training regimen designed to make or break a player. They sensed he liked them, although it wasn’t always obvious.
“The first few months I didn’t think he smiled,” forward Wil Fameni told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Eventually he would, just not during games. But that, too, became a relief. The players would watch opposing coach’s storm around and make a scene and they came to appreciate that their guy was always under control, always one thought ahead of things.
Down five to a Final Four program with a champion’s heart? Without Grant they weren’t sure if they could have stared that down with a shrug.
“It’s all a mental thing,” said forward Calvin Roland. “He pushed things to the limit. He got the best out of us.”
Eventually, after the crowd stormed the court, after Maynor danced while a throng of VCU fans around him roared, after forward Michael Anderson bawled like a baby in Grant’s arms as a way of thanks for all he had taught him, after they played “One Shining Moment,” after all the fun-loving players climbed to the top of a ladder to clip the championship net, it was Grant’s turn to get up there.
And so the guy who doesn’t say much on the court climbed up there, snipped the final strand and held it aloft while the crowd chanted “VCU, VCU.”
Grant finally smiled, because sometimes the players rub off on the coach, too.
“VCU” he said. “VCU.”