CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The John Paul Jones Arena is typically a place of excitement, fun, exhilarating fast breaks, game-winning buzzer-beaters and roaring three-pointers.
Built on a hill above the University of Virginia campus, the 16-year-old venue is a theater for basketball. There is history here – the good kind. Since opening in 2006, the Virginia The men’s basketball team has won six conference titles here and won the school’s first basketball national championship in 19.
Gleaming golden trophies sit in a display case in the lobby. All-American portraits hang on the walls. And banners adorn its rafters.
But no game was played here on Saturday afternoon. The rapid pauses, the buzzerbeats, the three-hands have been replaced by somber prayers, by cascading tears, by heartbreaking reflections from the family and friends of three football players who were murdered half a mile from here six days ago.
More than 9,000 Virginians and Cavaliers fans, most of them dressed in orange and blue, solemnly marched into this venue and sat silently side by side before an emotional outburst on a raised stage.
They wore orange ribbons, bloodshot eyes, and sad expressions. They prayed, sang and remembered the lives of receivers Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. and linebacker D’Sean Perry, both of whom were shot dead on a charter bus Sunday night after returning from a school trip.
“This tragedy has pushed me to the limit,” said athletic director Carla Williams as she addressed the crowd. “But God is faithful and my faith sustains me.”
On that day, in this arena on a devastated campus, the incident itself was barely mentioned, the shooter’s name unuttered, the questions that still surround the tragedy unasked.
Gathered here to commemorate the victims, a rousing two-hour memorial that even included one a serenade by Grammy Award-winning gospel singer CeCe Winans. The Virginia marching band played “Amazing Grace”. Former coach Bronco Mendenhall was also in attendance.
Poems were read, prayers said and memories exchanged.
Instead of playing an on-campus football game Saturday — the Cavaliers were scheduled to host Coastal Carolina — UVA players voted to call off the affair and instead commemorate the victims. Not only those who lost their lives, but also running back Mike Hollins, who is recovering at a local hospital after undergoing two surgeries to repair a gunshot wound to his back, and Marlee Morgan, who is recovering from injuries at home.
More than 20 students, a faculty member and a bus driver were on a chartered bus when suspected gunman Christopher Darnell Jones, a former walk-on football player, opened fire in what appeared to be a targeted attack on football players.
When the bus arrived on campus after a trip to Washington, D.C., it filled with gun smoke and horrified screams as gunshots rang out. It unfolded outside of an on-campus parking garage visible from the headwaters of the John Paul Jones Arena.
“It wasn’t a typical loss when there is such a thing,” said school president Jim Ryan. “To break the peace and innocence that graced our compound, it changed our world. We will move forward together, not to dishonor the lives lost, but to honor them.”
Images of the three players flashed on the jumbotron as football players filed into the arena. The players’ families followed, with thousands standing around silently holding hands. As a reminder of the perspective, Ryan announced that the basketball locker rooms had been converted into counseling areas. Grief counselors and members of the clergy set up lockers for those who needed them.
Coaches, supervisors and teammates commemorated the dead on stage.
There was Chandler, a Tennessee native who transferred from Wisconsin this offseason. He was an honor student with an infectious personality who always celebrated touchdowns first.
There was Davis, the most successful on the field of the group. A giant of a man from South Carolina, he was 6ft 7in and became the team’s breakout player after missing out last season through injury. He caught a pass in each of the first eight games and had a career of many catches in one, scoring the first touchdown of the season—a 56-yard reception.
Perry was a Miami linebacker who had a career-high tackle of his own earlier this year. Friends described him as a Renaissance man: creative, colorful and art-centric. You wouldn’t look it, says Hunter Stewart, a junior linebacker, but one of Perry’s favorite performers was Adele.
“My dad always talked about great men,” says sophomore linebacker Josh McCarron. “When I came to Virginia, it was obvious that D’Sean was one of those great men.”
These were sons and grandsons, leaders and friends, players of the highest character, friends said. Their bright future was curtailed, none of them lived to be 23 years old.
“It was never meant to be that way,” said running back Cody Brown. “You lit up our lives like a shining star in the sky.”
They brought so many laughs to life. For example, Davis had three numbers emblazoned on his arm: 187. Friends always thought it was the area code for his small hometown of Ridgeville, SC. It turned out to be the exit number for the freeway into town.
A starting number for a tattoo? Cornerback Elijah Gaines chuckled while telling the story.
“I’m struggling to find words to express how much Lavel will be missed,” said junior quarterback Jared Rayman. “Even though I’m two years older than Lavel, I looked up to him – literally.”
He physically and figuratively towered over everyone around him. He was also determined to win any argument. In his favorite debate—Who is the best basketball player of all time?– No one could ever take him away from his answer: Kobe Bryant.
Defensive tackle Ben Smiley III, one of Davis’ closest friends, admitted to the crowd that he was considering getting revenge on the man who shot his friend. And then he thought about Davis’ attitude towards life. “I know you had peace and love,” Smiley said.
Here in Charlottesville, the tide has to be turned.
Virginia, 3-7 into the season, is scheduled to play at Virginia Tech next weekend. A decision on this game has not yet been made. The criminal investigation into the incident is ongoing, as is a separate university campus investigation.
Charlottesville, a quaint, scenic college town, has snatched the national limelight for the second time in five years. In 2017, alt-right neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched across campus and throughout the city, an event spurred by the removal of Confederate monuments.
Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency and a white supremacist intentionally drove his car into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring more than 30 others.
Larry Sabato, a 70-year-old politics professor, confronted the neo-Nazis when he ran from his apartment on UVA’s historic lawn in the center of campus. Five years later, a new terror arrived here. “It’s a dagger in the heart,” says Sabato.
This week students called him in tears. He was working to get a student who was a friend of one of the victims to counseling. He plans to get his students back in class. The university sent an order to professors not to turn in exams or assignments until Thanksgiving.
A political junkie, Sabato points to one of the most hotly debated US issues in the wake of the shooting: gun control. “Guns are just too readily available to too many people,” he says.
This week’s event impacted a unique place. Virginia is known for having one of the strictest licensing procedures among public institutions. It has become an attractive option for academics who don’t want to attend a small private college.
UVA’s athletes are tightly integrated with the student population, says Craig Littlepage, a former Virginia athletic director who retired in 2017 and has lived in Charlottesville for more than 40 years. That became clear this week as thousands of students marched across campus for a 90-minute vigil of silence and tears.
“No doubt I’m hearing from people in this region, ‘How can something like this happen, especially in a place and on a campus like UVA?'” says Littlepage.
“People feel that this is a great college town,” he continues. “But these acts of violence happen everywhere. There is no place immune. But everyone would like to think that their own community is one where something like this couldn’t happen.”
The answers to why This happened for later. On Saturday, a community gathered in the John Paul Jones Arena not to see jumpers and free throws, but to mourn those lost too early.
“You’ll see her again,” Williams told the families sitting in the front row on the arena floor. “We love your sons and we will make sure their legacy at the University of Virginia never fades.”
More Virginia Coverage:
• Mike Hollins’ mother opens up about the aftermath of the shooting
• After the tragedy, UVA students left with one question: Why?
• Coach Elliott: UVA Shooting Feels Like ‘A Nightmare’