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At the core of my love for sports lie the VCU Rams.

My impressionable four-year-old mind was irrevocably jolted in the winter of 1992, when I strode through one of those swinging grey doors inside the Richmond Coliseum. A tantalizing new world sprawled before me in a confusing array of bright lights, competing noises and easily excitable grey-haired men wearing ball caps, all mixing into an air filled with the sweet smell of popcorn and the booming voice of a mysterious man who must have been in charge of it all.

A life-long passion for basketball was born just minutes later, as ferocious dunks by the incomparable Kendrick Warren brought high-fives from my dad and created a sea of exuberance shared by thousands of black-and-gold-clad spectators. My old man bought VCU season tickets three years later, and he, my brother and I have been die-hard fans of the city's local basketball team ever since.\nDuring my 15 years of attending VCU home games, I never once considered the possibility of them advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament. Just setting foot onto that big stage was our team's most lofty goal, and one which was very seldom realized. Indeed, the Rams had been invited to the Big Dance only three times in my life before I went off to college, and each of those appearances seemed as fortuitous as winning the lottery Christmas morning. After all, VCU was a program content to make the big jump from the Sun Belt Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association; a program which aimed for local triumphs over cross-town rival Richmond and arch-enemy Old Dominion rather than look beyond the horizon for undefeated records or national championships. It is a program long-accustomed to watching top-notch local recruits flock to places such as North Carolina, Duke or even Virginia, leaving the Rams to scrounge for kids with more heart than talent.

My family only associated VCU with the Final Four during those few years our team made it to the tournament, when we would fill out "joke brackets" placing VCU in that coveted elite just to give ourselves something to laugh about. That was never more true than this year, when VCU players were just as surprised to hear their names called on Selection Sunday as we were. With the departure of Larry Sanders to the NBA and the team's subsequent 11 regular season losses, I was quick to label 2011 a down year. A trip to the Big Dance appeared highly unlikely; a trip to the Final Four was simply unthinkable. The image of second-year coach Shaka Smart hoisting the Southwest Regional trophy in the air with a net draped around his neck remains the most mythical thing I have ever seen in the world of sports. If I hadn't witnessed the team's Sweet 16 triumph in person, I'm not sure I would believe any of this actually happened.

Four years ago my family stood in Buffalo to witness the most glorious moment in VCU basketball history to that point. Tied at 77 with less than two seconds to go, Eric Maynor sent our cheering section into an uncontainable frenzy when he nailed "the dagger" to eliminate Duke from the 2007 Tournament. Although it was only a first round game, the victory felt like winning the Super Bowl.\nFlash forward to 2011 and again I'm buried in a crowd of gold and black with my arms wrapped around my brother and dad for support. This time we're down by one with under five ticks to play in overtime against a Florida State team which refused to give up easy buckets around the basket. But somehow, someway, Bradford Burgess got free in the paint and delivered a game-winning layup that catapulted VCU into the Elite Eight, rendering Maynor's famous shot a distant memory. For the three of us the next five minutes were spent jumping on seats, hugging strangers and yelling ourselves hoarse.

VCU has given me so many lasting memories. There were summer basketball camps under the tutelage of Rams players who seemed more like superheroes than college athletes; learning the meaning of rivalry against teams such as Richmond, Old Dominion and UNC Wilmington; watching the most outlandish pep band leader in college basketball help make the Siegel Center one of the toughest places to play in the country; beholding the brilliance of VCU greats such as Lamar Taylor, Domonic Jones and Nick George.

There was Bo Jones' 70-foot game-winning buzzer beater in OT against East Carolina in '01; a heart-breaking one-point defeat at the hands of a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team in the '04 NCAA Tourney; beating Louisville in '99 in the Siegel Center's inaugural game after trailing 54-35 with 18:06 left in the game; watching Eric Maynor single-handedly beat George Mason in the final 1:55 of the CAA Championship.

There was the time I acted as a towel boy for a game, only to get run over on the end of a fast-break by George Mason's 225-pound wrecking ball, George Evans, who then nonchalantly lifted me up with two fingers. There was the time I met Charles Barkley at a VCU fundraiser. After asking me how my grades were doing, Barkley told me, "Keep hittin' the books, son. Too many stupid people in the world."

More than anything, though, there was the time I sat next to my brother and my dad at a bar and watched the Rams upset the mighty Kansas Jayhawks to advance to the unchartered waters of the Final Four. Unable to even cheer in our sheer amazement, the three of us simply exchanged hugs, even shed a few tears. It turned out VCU, the hometown team we had followed for so many years, meant even more to us than we thought.

VCU's historic run confirmed several of my pre-conceived beliefs: sport holds the enduring power to unite people, post-season seedings don't mean diddly-squat and Shaka Smart is absolutely and unequivocally the man - and he'll be back in Richmond next year, by the way.

Beyond that, when your team completes the most improbable run in college basketball history, you learn that the most amazing things in sports don't always dwell on the fabled screen of SportsCenter. Sometimes they can be found in your own backyard.

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