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Union Made

3 national titles. 12 conference championships. 5 regional crowns. How Dave Robbins turned Virginia Union University into the best little overlooked basketball school in Richmond.


An electric bass adds some spark to the pep band, but for most of the spectators there's nothing funky here. History suggests what the outcome will be: Enough championship banners — signifiying national, regional and conference crowns — dangle from the ceiling to outfit a small clipper. This is where stars have gotten their footing, where they learned how to win the hard way, the old-fashioned way, punishing visitors with defense, swatting away jump shots like flies. On this February night, the players take to the court, and the expected carnage begins. In the opening minutes the most excitement the visiting team adds is an errant pass that wallops a cheerleader in the head. She appears angry; the players on the bench cover their faces in their shirts to hide laughter.

That's the only distraction. It's hot on the court. Every pass looks perfect, and every shot comes at the right moment. Every block and steal looks preordained. The home team rockets to an 11-0 lead. The players move with breathtaking speed, and they make their foes pay for the smallest of mistakes.

By halftime, it might as well be over: Virginia Union 40, Livingstone 14. The Panthers, blocking more shots than Livingstone had baskets, put up their largest halftime lead of the year. From there, VUU rampages to an 81-48 victory, making it one of the nine times this season it has held the opposition to less than 50 points.

It's another game at Virginia Union University, the best little overlooked basketball school in the Richmond area. While Richmonders may have heard of Union's success, the team continues to thrive in an environment of relative obscurity.

With a lower profile and less money, VUU has produced more NBA players than Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond combined. In the last 28 years, as VCU and UR have endured ups, downs and 11 coaching changes, VUU has remained steady. It has the same coach, the same approach, the same success: three national titles, five regional crowns and 12 conference championships.

Sure, VUU plays Division II, a smaller division than its Richmond counterparts. But only three other state schools have produced more NBA players than the Panthers. And none approaches the impact of former Union standouts Charles Oakley, who retired two years ago, and NBA star Ben Wallace. Not UR's Johnny Newman. Not the University of Virginia's Ralph Sampson. As for the team's hometown competition, VUU handily beat VCU in preseason exhibitions for the past two years.

What may be most unusual are the conditions under which VUU has maintained its place at the top. The NBA continues to devolve into a fast-breaking highlight reel filled with dunks and ball-hogging superstars. Even some of the respected team-first college programs in Division I basketball have flash — Duke has J.J. Redick, for one.

Union, however, is a throwback. It plays an almost faceless game.

Against Livingstone that February night, Coach Dave Robbins uses the entire bench, playing his reserves nearly as much as his starters. The players buy into the team-first defensive basketball — a remarkable feat in this age of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, where individuals and shoe contracts trump any concept of team. (Quick: Which team does LeBron play for?)

The key to VUU's success is incredibly basic:

It's the way Coach Robbins, Union's equivalent to North Carolina's Dean Smith, conducts the program and strategy, known around the gym as "The System." It's the way that "System" gives players a framework that, in turn, keeps things simple, allows them flexibility and fosters on-court intelligence. It's the way the athletes buy into the program because of its proven track record.

The Union basketball family stretches far and wide, even into the women's program. Once the players believe in what they might accomplish, they blossom into overachieving, disciplined team members.

Such core principles won't turn heads — nearly every coach in the country wants the same thing — but actually accomplishing such a classic approach is another matter, and creates a true success story on the city's North Side.

Virginia Union and VCU are within a few blocks of each other. Yet the contrast between them is night and day.

VCU has provided its team with the flashier, corporate environs at the Siegel Center — complete with an elaborate skybox and pedigreed coach, former Duke star Jeff Capel — and it aggressively markets its basketball team.

Robbins, who took over the Panthers when Capel was just 3 years old, still bases himself in a small office in the bottom of venerable Barco-Stevens Hall. A space heater on top of a worn carpet helps warm things up. Players pop in and deposit a nickel in an old gum-ball machine for something to chew. A trophy shaped like a golden ball sits on his desk, and old team posters line the wall. The phone keeps ringing.

"We don't have a secretary, so I'm the secretary," Robbins says.

Robbins' cell phone rings twice with calls from family members. His daughter asks him to take out the dog. And he rips one of many scraps of paper off a notepad and scrawls down a reminder. A former player calls, wanting a ticket to that night's contest against Shaw University. He puts the pass next to a trophy — "this thing you helped me win," he remarks — and rips another piece of paper from the pad. The phone rings again — another inquiry about the game, the cost — "I think it's $10, but I'm the coach. … It shouldn't be more than $10." The person doesn't take the hint (Robbins can't give out passes to everyone) and asks about parking. All in a day's work.

The approach seems light years away from VCU, despite a one-mile difference between the teams' home courts. But Robbins has this to show after 27 years: an undefeated regular season, six All-Americans and five NBA players.

The Robbins era started strong. In his first season, 1978-79, he guided the Panthers to their first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association crown in 25 years. A year later, Union captured its first Division II national championship. The program has set a benchmark for consistency and stability. Robbins has endured just two losing seasons.

Why a higher-profile school hasn't snatched up Robbins remains something of a mystery. The man himself plays a bit coy when the subject comes up. "I look at it a bit as fate," he says. "I've been extremely happy. … I've had quite a few lateral movements I could have made."

Although he declines to name them, Robbins says he's interviewed at four Division I universities in the state — "and I don't want to say they're major universities in the state — but I've never been offered the job."

His record is sublime. So what gives? Perhaps, Robbins speculates, he didn't set out to wow the interviewers. Maybe he just didn't want the job.

"I'm not interested," he says. "My family's here. I met my wife here. We're both from North Carolina. But we came here as teachers. And our children were born in Richmond, and they went to school here.

"I think coaches that will go anywhere to get a job — I could've been there, but I just wasn't willing to go."

His tenure has paid off for the tradition-rich, historically black institution at the corner of Lombardy Street and Brook Road. Just before the February game against Shaw, the latest Division II coaches' poll comes out ranking VUU No. 1 in the country — again.

Yet coaches and players follow the seemingly ancient ritual of downplaying the honor. It's challenge that begets all champions: being the best but nurturing that animalistic hunger.

"We don't look at polls," Robbins says. "In my opinion, polls are what other people think of our program. And we've got to take care of business and win." He's said it a million times.

Running his basketball program hasn't been without setbacks. Robbins recalls the season following his first national title when the school slashed his budget to almost nothing (he won't say how much).

And since he achieved success his first two seasons with players left by his predecessor, Bob Moore, he nearly blew his entire stipend recruiting a big man from Alabama, Charles Oakley. He won Oakley's heart, and in return, Oakley became the centerpiece of the Panthers' longer run of success, setting the prototype of VUU's great players: big, hardworking low-post players who excel at defense.

Oakley remembers his days at Union fondly: "A small school, a familylike type of place," he says. "It wasn't the biggest, [but] it had a lot of good things to it."

His years at Union prepared him for an 18-season NBA career, highlighted by the 1993-94 season, when he spearheaded the New York Knicks to the NBA Finals. Perennial All-Star Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' longtime center, received much of the glory, but the rugged Oakley led his squad to the NBA's best defense in 40 years. Under head coach Pat Riley, the Knicks' hard-fouling defense took on the personality of Oakley, who earned the nickname "Oak" for his sturdy immovability.

Union, Oakley says, prepared him for that long-standing career. "The school, when you get there, you've got to grind," he says. "It builds you up for later."

The complex that includes Barco-Stevens Hall served as the Belgian Pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair. The building became one of the most fondly remembered structures at the event and serves as a textbook example of the International Style of design. Original plans called for it to be shipped back to Europe for use as a university. But the Nazi blitzkrieg overran the small nation, and organizers began accepting solicitations from American schools. Of the 27 schools who made a request, Union was the most in need of academic infrastructure. It received the pavilion, along with a bonanza of new riches: a library, a science building, a bell tower and a basketball gym that seated 2,000.

Sixty-five years later, however, the once sleek, modern building feels more like a gritty, inner-city boxing gym. Exposed pipes climb the walls. Metal covers the hall's second story, though plans to do something with that space date back to the 1940s. Bleacher covers, brought in on Robbins' pickup and carried into the place in part by the players, help give a stark metallic look with the plastic maroon seats. As players shoot around, waiting for the start of practice the night after their win against Shaw University, Robbins looks like an old-school boxing promoter. His hair is Trumpesque, and his big, black whistle is pure 1970s.

"Coach Robbins is one of the best coaches I've had," says Darius Hargrove, a senior guard from Brunswick County. "He talks to us about our character. Every day in practice we've got to come in with our shirttails tucked in and that goes a long way."

Hargrove, a preseason all-CIAA player and two-time CIAA tournament MVP, has struggled a bit of late. But with other teams keying on him, it's opened up more opportunities for other players, often for easy baskets.

Duan Crockett, another senior all-CIAA selection, benefited from the situation the previous night, leading all scorers with 22 points. Crockett, who grew up in the Gilpin Court housing project down the street, says Robbins stays on top of his players. "You drop your head and he'll run you out," he says. "He's hard on you, sometimes … but I've never had someone discipline me that much, so coach did."

Looking sleek and skinny at just 175 pounds on a 6-foot-6 frame, Crockett sports a few hairs on his chin, the beginnings of a tiny beard that makes him look younger than his age. But he's thinking about his future. "I want to go and play ball for some money or something," he says. "I've just got to stay humble and do what I've got to do to get there."

At a recent practice, the players begin working on layups and rebounds. When players miss, Robbins shouts some variation of "Ah!" Sometimes it's a long and anguished "Aaaaah!" It might be a short bark or simply a gravelly sound.

"That's the way to make them wiggle," Robbins says at one point when a player shimmies with the ball. Maurice Manning, a junior, drives to the basket, and rarely used forward B.J. Stevenson guards him closely. Perhaps too closely. The more athletic Manning jumps high, literally dunking on top of Stevenson. It's a devastating moment, and the players roar with laughter. Stevenson, laughing and wearing an embarrassed grin, tosses his practice jersey in the air over and over again.

Veteran assistant coach Willard Coker, who played for Union before Robbins arrived and served on the head coach's first two editions, has seen it all before.

"We had a situation where we still run the majority of the stuff now that we ran when I played," he says. "It's a lot easier for me to tell a kid who's saying 'It won't work,' or 'That's not good,' or something. I can say: 'Now, look, you can't tell me it won't work, I ran it. The working part is you. You've got to work hard on making it work.'"

Coker's served on the coaching staff for 20 years. Robbins mentions his longtime apprentice would make a fine head coach, even saying his one real regret of serving through such a long career was that it kept Coker from taking over the program's reins. But the assistant says he loves Union basketball and Robbins' System.

And there it is: "System." Both Hargrove and Crockett use that word in passing. It clearly carries weight, and as with a classified government operation, those who utter the term must understand its significance without explanation. It's the code. It's The System.

And yet The System means many things to many people. At its core, it covers the basic formations the team uses and how they expand into a galaxy of different offenses and defenses. A team appearing so complex to opponents emerges out of a simple framework. But pull back a bit, and it also symbolizes the team discipline. All coaches cajole, lecture and yell at their players, but when Robbins performs those eternal coaching tasks it all emerges from The System. Players know it's coming, realize it's not irrational anger and eventually understand why it happens.

Look a little beyond those core basketball tenets and it covers the sense of community that binds the program. Ask a different team player or coach, and they'll give you a different variation of The System's purpose.

"It's our style of play," Coker says. "We have a set style, that it's like we can fast break, slow it down, we can play any style — but we have a certain way we're going to do it, and that's why we call it The System."

"I'd say most corporate people have a system [in] which they follow these rules," Robbins says. "You just take care of business. We have good players; we don't have the greatest players in the world; but we believe in The System. And once you get them believing in The System, then that's half the battle."

Still, The System doesn't come easily at times. "I ride them hard," Robbins says. "I'll get in a guy's face pretty hard — but I always have. Some of our early players didn't understand it."

Robbins has some powerful salesmen in alumni like Oakley. "You've got to have a system," he says. "When you go there, you got to be willing to work to get better. You get the best out of you, if not, you won't play." Robbins, he says, is a tough coach who "stands on what he says."

At practice the day before Union faced Livingstone, Robbins underscores the virtue of bludgeoning an opponent. Despite their quick start the night before, the team pulled off the accelerator in the second half. "They came out of here thinking they could play with us," he tells them. That's a mistake, he says: Never let the opponent think they can play with you; it breeds confidence. The players get the message.

As practice comes to a close, Robbins reflects on this season. In a rare reprieve, the discipline talk takes a back seat. "Ah, they played great last night," he says. "They really got after it. We scored 51 points in the first half, and that was a super first half. But most of it came on defense."

"I really like this group," he says. "Last year was a really special group. They were the finest kids I ever had, and — [he pauses for a second and offers kudos to a passing player] — this group is awful good. They've got good personalities. Most of them are silent." He stops again to chat with a passing reserve player who made six free throws in a row, allowing him to leave the practice.

"You made 'em, John?"

"Yeah, Coach."

"All right, good job. You had a good practice. Way to go hard."

In White Hall, Ala., the population is 1,014. The per capita income stands at $10,062. Stuck between Montgomery and Selma, and 98 percent black, the area saw the triumphs and tragedies of the civil rights movement. The Selma to Montgomery March route, the true apex of the movement, passed nearby.

"I tell you what, Richmond is New York from White Hall," says Bryan Underwood, 24, who is sweeping the floor an hour and a half before Virginia Union plays Livingstone at Barco-Stevens Hall. His first visit here, Underwood says, "was amazing for me. Richmond doesn't have many big buildings, but I saw a big building."

Underwood's no ordinary man from the country sweeping a gym floor. He's the nephew of NBA star and former VUU player Ben Wallace. Underwood came to Richmond, put in a solid career as a ballplayer and landed on Robbins' staff. When longtime women's basketball coach Moses Golatt retired midseason, Underwood took over on an interim basis. Now he's melding what he learned from Robbins, applying it to the women's program.

"They listen," he says of his new charges, many of whom seem to learn The System quicker than the men. "You can put five out there and go over a new play. You can take the whole five out and put in the next five." He knows people hold an interest in his new job. Uncle Ben and his wife, Chanda — the pair met at Union — keep in close contact with Underwood.

Wallace, the 10th of 11 children, was overlooked by colleges. But one man noticed his future — Oakley.

"He was the only player Charles recommended to me," Robbins says. "I told Charles, 'We need a big man.' … He calls me and he says, 'Coach, I've got you a player.' I said, 'Is he a big man?' He says, 'Well, he's not real big, but he sure is a man.'

"Ben was a man."

Undersized for his position, Wallace starred for the Panthers, earning all-American honors in 1996, setting a school record for blocked shots and spearheading Union to the final four. But no NBA team drafted him.

So he worked his way onto the roster of the Washington Wizards, toiling in relative obscurity for four years as he generated a niche as a defensive specialist. When he joined the Detroit Pistons in 2000, something clicked. He became the first player in franchise history to lead his team in rebounds, steals and blocks. The next season he topped the league in rebounds and blocks per game and grabbed NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors. Since then he has starred as the Pistons stunned the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers for the 2004 NBA crown and helped guide his squad to the finals the next year. He's racked up two more Defensive Player of the Year awards and become a media favorite. Before each game, fans speculate whether he'll sport his oversized Afro, his sign that the game is a big one.

Wallace helps out at Union, too, sponsoring a scholarship and directing Underwood and another nephew, Wayne Wallace, to the program. "I used to come up here every summer and play better," Underwood says, reflecting on the first time he left Alabama. "We talked one day, and he asked me where I was going to school. And I told him I was about to try to go to the South Alabama or I would probably join the Navy. He said, 'I can get you in at Virginia Union,' and it was as far away from Alabama as possible. So I chose Union."

Soon, amid the bouncing balls as the Livingstone women's squad takes the floor for a warm-up — they'll play before the men — Underwood resumes sweeping.

Nearly five hours later and after the Union men demolish Livingstone, the small crowd works its way out of the building and into the drizzly night. Friends, family and fans walk to their cars and head home.

One of the departing fans, Mandel Sutton, surveys the landscape outside Barco-Stevens. "Hovey Field here," he says, as he points across the street to the school's football field. "I played high-school ball over there, for John F. Kennedy. I worked there for the post office. It's all here, right together."

Union's fan base largely matches its student body of 1,500: small, black and with a strong sense of tradition. Most fans are alumni, many of whom have earned advanced degrees. Many Union observers feel that things are beginning to improve after some lean years. But Sutton captures some of the troubles the institution faces. He attended VUU in the 1980s with sights set on becoming a legal assistant. He interned at the John Marshall Courts Building, but eventually found the U.S. Postal Service paid better. He left school after two semesters, but he takes an interest in the university befitting an alumnus. He bemoans the university's facilities, pointing out that most middle schools and high schools are better maintained.

He frets about Union being overshadowed by VCU's rapid growth under President Eugene Trani. Family members attended both schools, and he believes the smaller, older school on the North Side still has a role in Richmond.

It's there for "the student that probably couldn't get into the Division I school and his grades might need some help," he says. "But they've got a good heart, and they might be the first person from their family to even go to college.

"They start here and move on to greater heights," he says. "It's a nurturing school. It's a school that will take you in, wherever you're at, and help you."

And on nights like these, when the best Division II team in the country does what it does best, it makes a veteran postal worker proud to be Panther. S

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