Virginia Beach, Revisited

Hampton Roads won't be getting a relocated Sacramento Kings franchise, and may not get a team for some time. That doesn't mean the region doesn't deserve it.
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Per the Richie Cunningham theory of nostalgia—hate the most recent decade/revere the second-most recent decade—we should be culturally obsessed with the 1990’s right now. For the most part, we’re fulfilling our societal duty, there: Bill Clinton is more popular than ever, Claire Danes is in a critically acclaimed drama, and somebody left a comment on the YouTube video of Spacehog’s “In the Meantime” as recently as three weeks ago.

There is, however, one thing about the 1990's that nobody much loves. This would be that decade's expansion era, and the attendant tides of teal, aqua and black and marauding swarms of mascots endangered, vicious, punny or popularized by some forgotten blockbuster. Diamondbacks (you get it). Hornets, Raptors, Grizzlies. Sharks, Jaguars, Panthers and Panthers again. Nashville went meta and decided to go with the concept of a dangerous animal and dimly remembered blockbuster by naming their hockey team the Predators. Minnesota, having apparently run out of battle animals, ushered in the Baroque-Sports-Nickname Period by naming their hockey team the “Wild.”

These teams have ranged, for the most part, from forgettable to outright depressing. Even their successes come with caveats: the Marlins’ two World Series, which came at the expense of Indians and Cubs fans for added punitive measure, can be seen as a bleak, Miami-set satire on the idea of sports teams having any civic obligation at best and convincing proof that a benevolent God does not exist at worst. The Diamondbacks won a World Series at the one moment in human history in which the New York Yankees were sympathetic and likable. But the same lesson holds with all the teams of the expansion era: if you would be embarrassed to say the name of the team to your grandfather, we maybe should not be watching their wild-card games. The idea of a professional team in Virginia Beach—which was in the running for the apparently relocation-fated Sacramento Kings franchise until very recently, and will come up whenever the next NBA team sees fit to issue some rumbles about leaving town—sounds another example like this sort of thing. It’s not.

***

Of course, a relocated franchise in Virginia Beach—its relative justice or injustice notwithstanding—would not be an expansion team; it would be, to refer you to the beginning of this sentence, a relocated team. But, in a deeper sense, Virginia Beach feels like an expansion city fit for a ‘90s-style expansion bumout—another random metropolitan area with suitable demographics and not much else; another likely woodland or jungle cat nickname; more teal and more black, literally or figuratively; more intimations that we’re alone in an uncaring universe.

Except that Virginia Beach is not a random place for a professional basketball team, or even a novel one; it had its own ABA franchise, back when that was a thing cities could have. It’s this franchise, but not only this franchise, that marks Virginia Beach as not a lazy geographic punch line but as a deserving NBA city. There are surely a number of demographic reasons why Virginia Beach actually deserves an NBA team, but as they are demographic reasons and therefore hugely dull, let's leave those aside. Let's start somewhere else.

Let's begin with the fact that only one NHL player has ever come from San Jose, zero from Columbus, two and a half NBA players from Orlando—Darryl Dawkins can’t ever be labeled as just one person, even if it cuts against my central argument—and no NFL players from Jacksonville. (Technically, a massive number of NFL players are from the Jacksonville area, but one of them is Tim Tebow which automatically resets the number to nil.) Contrast these grim totals to Hampton Roads, the greater Norfolk-Virginia Beach metropolitan area. The H.R.—which is not at all how people from down refer to the region—is, as creepy recruiting websites say, a rich and fertile territory for athletes. A list of recent notables includes Alonzo Mourning, Joe Smith, J.R. Reid, George Lynch, the brothers Vick, the football brothers Barber and baseball brothers Upton, Plaxico Burress, Bruce Smith, Percy Harvin, David Wright, and enough role players to fill the bench of any fantasy sport team created over the last twenty years.

The most interesting of those, Ronald Curry, is probably best remembered for a brief and not terribly remarkable NFL career that marked him as yet another Al Davis delusion. He was, though, once a truly transcendent athlete; I remember reading, in a newspaper left by a previous patron at the Burger King off a Virginia Beach highway, about Curry’s incredible high school exploits as the star of a Hamption High School Crabbers team that won a state championship while outscoring opponents 768-83. Whether it was my ninth consecutive fast food meal, The Sports Babe on the radio, the eyes of Wendy staring at me from across the street like those eyes in The Great Gatsby, but in that moment any athletic feat seemed possible, and especially possible for Ronald Curry of Hampton, Virginia. It wasn't, mostly due to injuries, but his legend is secure, still. Half bad luck and half unfaded awe, it's a microcosm for how the region does sports. All this and Allen Iverson, the sport's foremost embodiment of complicated pasts and enduring influence. Hampton Roads is a place of long memory.

And there is some sports history there to remember, too, thanks to the Virginia Squires. In a state with both the Jamestown Colony and Colonial Williamsburg—Virginia Colonial Triangle purists are free to add Yorktown here—the Squires provide a bit of strange, '70s-haired heritage. They are the link to the past, and could have been proof that what once went bankrupt during the Ford Administration can return in the present, greater than ever and possibly with Jabari Parker to boot. If Virginia Beach won't be getting the Kings, there is still the chance that it could get back some of what the Squires once gave it, and that some team—say, one stuck in a loveless marriage with the city of Charlotte, North Carolina—might benefit from what Virginia Beach once gave the Squires.

***

The Kings, for their part, have already played in Rochester, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Omaha. This is not the Colts leaving Baltimore. Virginia Beach isn’t Indianapolis. But I grew up, like many people in Hampton Roads, in a house haunted by the Senators’ last desertion of the District; I was never quite comfortable with wanting the Kings to bolt. But the next time Virginia Beach is mentioned as a possible team destination—and it will be—it shouldn’t be written off as a goofy Pensacola-north outpost. (Although, to be fair, watching Billy Hamilton steal bases at Pensacola's Bayfront Stadium & Community Maritime Park last season was something of a Ray Kinsella fever dream.)

The point, though, is that Virginia Beach is not a Sun Belt megalopolis where teams go to golf for a bit and then die. The Squires played in distinctive arenas like the Hampton Coliseum and the Norfolk Scope, which was designed by the renowned architect Pier Luigi Nervi. Cherished Cincinnati Reds play-by-play man and native son of The H.R. Marty Brennaman was the voice of the Squires; poaching a team wouldn't be complete without adding him to the mix.

The Squires' first court was the gym of Old Dominion University, which featured pull-out bleachers and hosted a number of hoops immortals. Among these were George Gervin, Swen Nater, a ridiculously dominant Charlie Scott—when he jumped to the NBA in 1972, he took with him whatever remaining boomer innocence existed in my Squires-crazy parents—Doug Moe, Neil Johnson, Larry Brown, Jumbo Jim Eakins, and Fatty Taylor, the soul of the Squires. Oh, and a young Julius Erving.

We know, now, everything about basketball players, starting roughly in their eighth grade year. We know what Florida State coeds are tweeting to Andrew Wiggins. We’ve been with LeBron since his junior year of high school, Kevin Durant since he was a college freshman; Magic and Bird played in that 1979 game that CBS never gets tired of telling us about. We’ve been with their professional careers the whole way. Young Julius Erving was something else: an oral legend told and retold, a myth that dunked, something seen in action with Sasquatch-ian infrequency. What video evidence once existed of his work with the Squires is mostly gone. Look for "Virginia Squires" in general on YouTube and you're in for a lot of this.

Which is maybe as it should be with legends. We know that Erving existed, as we know that Mr. Miyagi once cracked skulls in Okinawa, but we don’t know the particulars. We’ve seen Dr. J in the 1980’s, live or on tape, but what's left of his Virginia Beach Period are, mostly, some implausible-looking statistics. At the age of 21, right there in Virginia Beach, Erving averaged 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game. The next year, his 31.9 points led the ABA. Then he was gone, and three seasons later, after a year in which the team employed five coaches and none of them managed a winning record, the Squires were, too. Ground into dust, or less metaphorically into a .181 winning percentage and bankruptcy.

Virginians who saw Young Dr. J have only their memories to draw upon, rich though those memories are. They walk among us with the knowledge of the ancients; they’re our basketball magi, but we are deaf to them. Why not, if some team must leave some city, let them approach this particular temple? Those humbled Kings would have approached the temple bearing the only gift worthy of those wise ancients within: an NBA franchise that hasn’t won over 25 games since before Barack Obama was President. Any other relocated team would bring similarly humble offerings. But there is some magic already resident here, which never left: ghosts and memories and faint whispers. Virginia Beach can be what it was. There is more than one type of expansion. Forget the demographics. Remember everything else.


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