CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — John Paul Jones Arena is usually a place of excitement, fun, thrilling fast breaks, game-winning buzzer beaters and roaring 3-pointers.
Built on a hill overlooking 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 in ’19 claimed the school’s first national championship crown.
In its lobby, shiny gold trophies sit inside a glass case. All-American portraits hang from its walls. And banners adorn its beams.
But there was no game here on Saturday afternoon. The fast breaks, the buzzer beaters, the 3-pointers were replaced by somber prayers, by torrential tears, by heart-wrenching thoughts from the family and friends of three football players who were murdered a half mile from here six days ago.
More than 9,000 Virginia and Cavaliers fans, most of them decked out in their orange and blue, solemnly marched into that venue and sat quietly 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 wide receivers Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. and linebacker D’Sean Perry, each of whom was shot and killed Sunday night while on a charter bus after returning from a field trip.
“This tragedy has pushed me to my limits,” athletic director Carla Williams said to the crowd. “But God is faithful, and my faith sustains me.”
On this day, in this arena on a campus engulfed in disaster, the incident itself was reported as normal, the gunman’s name unspoken, the questions that still surround the tragedy unasked.
They gathered here to remember the victims, a moving two-hour memorial that even included a serenading melody by Grammy Award-winning gospel singer CeCe Winans. The Virginia band played “Amazing Grace.” Former coach Bronco Mendenhall was also in attendance.
Poems were read, prayers said and memories shared.
Instead of playing a football game on campus Saturday — the Cavaliers were scheduled to host Coastal Carolina — UVA players voted to drop the case and instead remember the victims. Not only those who lost their lives, but also Mike Hollins, who is recovering at a local hospital after two surgeries to repair a gunshot wound to his back, and Marlee Morgan, who is recovering at home from injuries.
More than 20 students, a faculty member and a bus driver were on a charter bus when suspected gunman Christopher Darnell Jones, a former football player, opened fire in a targeted attack on football players.
As the bus arrived on campus after a trip to Washington, DC, it was filled with gun smoke and terrified screams as shots rang out. It unfolded out of an on-campus parking garage visible from the top of John Paul Jones Arena.
“It wasn’t a typical loss, if there is such a thing,” school president Jim Ryan said. “To break through the peace and innocence that graced our soil, he 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, single file, filed into the arena. The families of the players followed, around them the thousands in readiness stood in silence. In a reminder of perspective, Ryan announced that the basketball locker rooms had been converted into counseling spaces. Grief counselors and members of the clergy set up cupboards for those in need.
On stage, coaches, administrators and teammates remembered the dead.
There was Chandler, a Tennessee native who transferred from Wisconsin this offseason. He was an honor student with an infectious personality, always first to celebrate touchdowns.
There was Davis, the most accomplished on the field of the group. A giant of a man from South Carolina, he stood 6’7″ and emerged as the team’s starter who missed last season with an injury. He caught a pass in each of the first eight games, had a career high in catches in one and scored the first touchdown of the season—a 56-yard reception.
Perry was a linebacker from Miami who himself set a career high in tackles earlier this year. Friends described him as a Renaissance man: creative, colorful and skilled in art. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, says Hunter Stewart, a junior linebacker, but one of Perry’s favorite musical artists was Adele.
“My dad used to talk about great men,” sophomore linebacker Josh McCarron says. “From the moment I got 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, said friends. Their bright futures were cut short, none of them lived to the age of 23.
“It was never meant to be,” running back Cody Brown said. “You lit up our lives like a bright star in the sky.”
They brought laughter to the lives of so many. For example, Davis had three numbers painted on his hand: 187. Friends always thought it was the area code for his small hometown of Ridgeville, SC Turns out it was the highway exit number to the town.
Tattoo exit number? Cornerback Elijah Gaines laughed as he told the story.
“I’m struggling to find words to express how much Lavel will be missed,” junior running back Jared Reiman said. “Even though I’m two years older than Lavel, I looked up to him – literally.”
He towered physically and figuratively above those around him. He was also determined to win every argument. In his favorite talk-who is the greatest basketball player of all time?— No one could ever sway him from his answer: Kobe Bryant.
Defensive tackle Ben Smiley III, one of Davis’ closest friends, admitted to the crowd that he thought about getting revenge on the man who shot his friend. And then he thought about Davis’ outlook on life. “I know you had peace and love,” Smiley said.
Here in Charlottesville, the page must now be turned.
Virginia, 3–7 on the season, is scheduled to play at Virginia Tech next weekend. No decision has been made for this game. A criminal investigation into the incident is ongoing and so is a separate campus investigation by the university.
A quaint quaint college town, Charlottesville has grabbed the spotlight for the second time in five years. In 2017, alt-right neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched across campus and across the city, an event spurred by the removal of Confederate monuments.
Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency and a white activist deliberately 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 as he ran from his residence hall to UVA’s historic lawn in the center of campus. Five years later, a new terror has arrived here. “It’s a dagger to the heart,” says Sabato.
This week, students called him in tears. He has worked to get a student, friends with one of the victims, into counseling. He plans to get his students back into the classroom. The university directed professors to avoid giving exams or required assignments until Thanksgiving.
As a political junkie, in light of the shooting, Sabato points to one of America’s most hotly debated issues: gun control. “Guns are too easily available to too many people,” he says.
This week’s event affected a unique place. Virginia is known for having one of the strictest admissions processes among public institutions. It has become an attractive option for academics who do not wish to attend a small private college.
UVA’s athletes are tightly integrated into its 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 was evident this week when thousands of students marched across campus for a 90-minute vigil of silence and tears.
“Without a doubt, the things I hear from people in this area are, ‘How can this happen, especially in a place and on a campus like UVA?'” Littlepage says.
“People feel this is a great college town,” he continues. “But these acts of violence happen everywhere. There is no room for immunity. But everyone would like to think that their community is a community in which this could not happen.”
The answers to Why that happened is for later. On Saturday, inside John Paul Jones Arena, a community gathered not to watch jumpers and free throws, but to mourn those lost too soon.
“You’ll see them again,” Williams told the families sitting in the first row of the arena floor. “We love your sons and will make sure their legacy at the University of Virginia never fades.”
More Virginia coverage:
• Mike Hollins’ Mother Recounts The Aftermath Of The Shooting
• After the tragedy, UVA students were left with one question: Why?
• Coach Elliott: Shooting with UVA looks like a ‘nightmare’