- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Six games follow Joey Rodriguez. Each day seems to bring another person asking about Virginia Commonwealth University’s shock run to the Final Four two years ago.

You know, when analysts derided the team for even being included in the bracket before they dispatched a string of big-name schools and introduced the country to the Havoc defense, Shaka Smart diving for loose balls during practice and, of course, the Peppas band whose gyrating leader ripped off clothes during games.

The madness found a home in Rodriguez, an undersized point guard who couldn’t seem to stop moving or talking. Didn’t matter if he was on or off the court. He didn’t slow down and neither did his team.

Rodriguez swears March changed his life, six games that live forever in television highlights and game tapes he hasn’t watched since two weeks after the run ended. That’s the power of March to transform otherwise anonymous basketball players into household names as they beat buzzers and bust brackets and, for a few weeks, make the impossible seem one basket away.

A few days ago, Rodriguez waited in Richmond. Weather postponed his flight to Puerto Rico for a day.

“People still call me to play,” he marvelled.

A baby cried in the background. That’s Jaylen, his 18-month-old son.

Rodriguez finished his first season as assistant video coordinator at the University of Central Florida. Turned down a chance to play another season in Turkey, after spending time with Darussafaka in 2012, to take the entry-level job. Coaching is on his mind.

“Coach Smart,” Rodriguez said, “makes you want to be like him.”

So, the point guard assembled game tapes and, with no postseason for the university, looks ahead to applying for jobs and playing a few months in Puerto Rico for San Germano. The paychecks are good, no small consideration with a girlfriend, Ciera, and son back in Richmond.

Rodriguez texts Smart after most VCU games. Picks the coach’s brain about every new wrinkle he spots. And, really, Rodriguez is a fan. Spoke to VCU before the Atlantic-10 tournament. Texts players before games. Pride oozes through the phone when he talks about Darius Theus, VCU’s senior point guard who backed him up as a spindly sophomore.

That makes Rodriguez feel old, much as a 20-something can.

“The thing that excites me the most is watching Darius, how much he’s grown up,” Rodriguez said. “He’s such a good leader. I read articles about what he does for the team and it just makes me happy. … To see what he’s become, I really enjoy it.”

Maybe Rodriguez’s NCAA tournament bracket (of course he’s filled one out) is no surprise. This time around, fifth-seeded VCU isn’t a surprise, either. The point guard has them in the national championship game in Atlanta, though he acknowledges some degree of bias. First up, though, is Thursday’s second-round game against Akron at 9:45 p.m. in Auburn Hills, Mich.

“I really think they could make a deep run,” Rodriguez said. “I think they’re really talented, man. How they play is so much fun to watch. They play so hard.”

He adores this time of year, a basketball junkie’s junkie. There’s always another game. Always another chance for the unexpected.

“Really, sitting on a couch for two days watching basketball?” Rodriguez said. “There’s not much more you can ask for. … And it’s cool to see yourself on television every now and then, too, so that’s pretty awesome.”

Ah, those highlights dusted off each March. One shining moment and all that. Instants that transform Joey Rodriguez into, well, Joey Rodriguez.

One of them came in the Sweet 16 against Florida State. Final seconds of overtime. VCU trailed by one. Rodriguez inbounded the ball underneath Florida State’s basket. Switched the play to an “11” to fake a pass deep to Brandon Rozzell. A couple of minutes earlier, Rodriguez missed two critical free throws. He barely slept during the tournament, passed time with late-night Skype sessions and video games, and, finally, the whole improbable run rested in his hands.

Seconds dripped away. Rodriguez fake the deep pass. Defenders bit. Then he bounced a pass between two defenders to Brandon Burgess who slipped to the undefended basket for the winning layup.

A few seconds, really, that seemed like a lifetime.

Memories rush back each time a stranger approaches to ask about the run. Rodriguez loves the conversations and recognition. But his memories are different. Less about the fingernail-biting moments that transformed VCU into the country’s next powerhouse mid-major or even the White House visit and late-night television appearance. No, the people Rodriguez shared them with emerge. Teammates like Ed Nixon. Jamie Skeen. Rozzell. Burgess. And on.

So, the madness and havoc has given way to an aspiring coach, father and professional basketball player. Time has pushed aside those six games, but, really, they’ll never be far away.

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