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Bradford Burgess and father Keith Burgess shoot hoops in the driveway of their Midlothian home.
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Clockwise from top left: Myla stands in front of the Reliant Center before the game; Bradford and assistant coach Mike Rhoades in the first half of the Butler game; Bradford with video coordinator Matt Fleming after the Final Four loss.
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Clockwise from left: Bradford works out on jump cables; Bradford leaving Broad Street dorms en route to his political science lecture; Bradford, Keith Burgess and Joey Rodriguez at the Hoopstown celebration April 12; Bradford and David Hinton stroll across campus.
Growing up in Greensboro, N.C., Myla Burgess had attended a few NCAA Final Fours "but never for somebody I really knew."
That changed after March 27, when the VCU Rams stunned Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, and moved into the top ranks of the NCAA tournament.
Now Myla, the principal of Jacobs Road Elementary School; her husband, Keith, a machine operator at Philip Morris; their younger son, Jordan; and a posse of family and friends are leaving Richmond for San Antonio, en route to Houston, to see son Bradford's team take on the Butler Bulldogs in the Final Four at Reliant Stadium.
Myla jokes that someone from every part of the Burgess family "village" came on the April 1 trip — their pastor from Spring Creek Baptist Church, Micah McCreary, and his wife; their dentist and college friend Antone Exum; fellow principal Patrice Wilson and her family; and Bradford's godmother, VCU alum Sheryl Gregory. Meeting them in Houston will be godparents flying in from New Jersey, friends driving down from Martinsville, Chesterfield County teachers arriving on the VCU charter planes and Bradford's close friend DeRon Brown, 23, who's flying in from his consulting job in Chicago.
After getting picked up in San Antonio and driving 200 miles to Houston, the Burgesses head to the Westin Galleria in hopes of spending just a few minutes with their son on the eve of the Final Four. Instead, they wander into a VCU Alumni Association rally at the hotel, where the energetic pep band is pumping and cheerleaders twist and shimmy — but not a player is to be found.
While the Burgess family gets lost in the crush of fans at the hotel, Bradford, a VCU junior majoring in homeland security, is under the radar, headed to a team dinner. He already visited the Galleria, a multilevel mall near their hotel, where he bought a pair of Air Jordan VII Retros for Jordan, a rising senior and basketball player at Benedictine High School.
Guard/forward Bradford has maintained a low profile throughout the Rams' impressive tournament run. No nonstop tweeting, no dances and, most distinguishably, no visible tattoos. But on the court, after five games with 20-plus points this season, two more during the tournament and a game-winning layup in overtime to send VCU to the Elite Eight, Bradford has become a force to be reckoned with.
The family doesn't get to see Bradford that Friday, but Myla speaks with him on the phone.
"I talk with both my sons on their game days," Myla says. "I tell them to go out and do their best and pray for the safety of both teams and that they will come out on the side of victory."
Standouts in the Stands
Myla and Keith usually have a scant 20-minute trip from Midlothian to see Bradford play at the Siegel Center or to watch their younger son, Jordan, play at Benedictine High School.
At every VCU home game, Myla always wears her black-and-gold spirit beads and brings her pompom, which her husband would like her to lose.
During the week, she sometimes drops off homemade spaghetti or a case of Gatorade for Bradford and his teammates. If she's driving through VCU, she calls to check in; a common plea is a delivery from McDonald's or Burger King, since most of the players don't have cars, and those fast-food places aren't nearby. She has even let Bradford and "the boys" borrow her car for road trips to other universities and Washington, D.C.
"Bradford has an incredible family and terrific parents that are phenomenal supporters of our program," says VCU Coach Shaka Smart. "A lot of our guys come to VCU from all over the country, so it's great to have Brad's parents here to almost create a secondary set of parents right here in Richmond that can be in the stands every night."
Myla and Keith have done a lot of sitting in the stands.
Bradford and Jordan were both enrolled at age 4 in soccer through the Manchester YMCA — and then came basketball, baseball and golf.
"Bradford just had so much energy that I wanted to get him active and develop some social skills," Myla says. "He just fell in with anything with a ball, and Jordan, too. If it had a ball, they seemed to know what to do with it."
At 5, Bradford could dribble with both hands, thanks to his dad, Keith, who played basketball at Martinsville High School, wearing the same number 20 that his boys now wear.
Bradford progressed, playing on legendary coach Boo Williams' AAU teams and playing for Benedictine alongside future NBA player Ed Davis.
Recruited by former VCU coach Anthony Grant, Bradford came onto a team with two other standout players who have since moved to the NBA, Larry Sanders and Eric Maynor. In the past year, he's been encouraged to become more aggressive, to step beyond his well-meaning team-player role.
"I think that the biggest thing about Bradford is that he is so full of potential, and the best part about it is that he has yet to realize just how good he can be," Smart says. "He's so incredibly unselfish, which is something that all great players have in them."
The Burgess brigade arrives at Reliant Stadium around 3 p.m. the day of the Final Four. They want to make sure they're in the front of the line to claim their tickets at the family ticket counter, located on a quiet side of the stadium. Reliant Stadium's south entrances and parking lots are filled with tens of thousands of college students and fans.
While standing in the muggy heat that feels more like an August day in Richmond, they are joined by the families of other VCU parents over the next hour. "Wooo!" Myla exclaims as she fans herself with an oversized gold foam finger. "I knew I was going to be hot, but not this warm! But that's OK, I don't care, I don't care!"
"We're ready to throw it up and get it going," says Keith Burgess. "I know these guys can take this game, but we're going to have our best effort, and that's from everybody. I feel they can do it. I believe."
Bradford's brother, Jordan, is very quiet. He says he was nervous about the last game in San Antonio, and he's very nervous about today's game.
When they were younger, he and Bradford played ball together in their driveway and on the court at nearby Alberta Smith Elementary. Today, they watch each other play. "We never give each other credit. We don't want to get too cocky," Jordan says. "We usually tell teach other what we did bad, so we have something to work on."
As the Burgesses wait for their tickets, the team bus arrives the north loading dock of Reliant Stadium. Bradford steps off the bus wearing earphones and a meditative look. The team heads to the locker room.
Asked about the most surreal moment of the tournament so far, Bradford replies, "The first time we walked out on the floor with 70,000-plus people."
The game begins with the Butler Bulldogs and the Rams trading baskets, and it stays tight through most of the game. But the meaning of the team's motto — "Our time, right now" — is fading as Butler surges ahead midway through the second half. The Rams can't seem to charge through Butler's unrelenting defense, which allows only two players to shoot in double digits, Jamie Skeen with 27 and Bradford with 15. Finally, the clock runs out, and VCU's incredible run comes to an end, 70 to 62.
After "Cloud Nine"
Bradford sits in the far end of a partially filled, dimly lit lecture hall as a professor explains, with bullet points, how the United Nations is organized.
Eight days have passed between this class and Final Four weekend, and it's still difficult to settle back into campus life.
"It's so hard being gone for almost a month and coming back and jumping into school mode just like that, after you've been living on cloud nine for like a month," Bradford says. "But it's something we gotta do, something we gotta move on with."
That said, there was still plenty of celebrating left to do. In the first week the team was back, the players were honored at the Virginia General Assembly, with a spotlight on commonwealth natives Bradford and Brandon Rozzell while the rest of the team stood in the gallery. Graduating senior Joey Rodriguez appeared on George Lopez's talk show on TBS.
And it didn't end there. The second week brought an April 12 citywide Hoopstown celebration with the mayor and lots of autograph signing at downtown's James Center, and then came the White House invitations for Coach Smart and Joey Rodriguez. Smart will attend the White House Correspondents' dinner on April 30 and will join the president at a pre-dinner reception. Rodriguez will attend the White House's Cinco de
For remaining players, individual workouts began again on Monday, April 11.
"We're going to have to work even harder this summer because we're losing so much with all the seniors leaving this year," says Bradford, who also will be taking a few classes in the summer. "I'm going to make sure all the guys are staying in the gym, stay lifting weights, doing the right things to help us prepare for a great season next year."
Bradford, along with Toby Veal, will be the team's only returning seniors. "I'll have to be a more vocal leader next year, because you know Joey, Brandon and Ed [Nixon] were definitely our vocal leaders, and Jamie was our leader by example."
Coach Smart knows that next season every team's scouting report will focus on Bradford. "[Bradford's] going to face new challenges, but as a coaching staff, we have all the faith in the world in his abilities and leadership."
It's 6:30 p.m., and Myla, Jordan and Bradford are stuck in traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia. They are crawling home after an overnight stay in Pittsburgh where Jordan played three games with his new AAU basketball team East Coast Fusion.
Things are very much back to Burgess business as usual, just two weeks after a family trip of a lifetime to the NCAA Final Four.
"It was [East Coast Fusion's] first tournament this weekend," Myla says. "They won two and lost the third game. And we saw some things they need to work on before next weekend's tournament."
The needs-to-work-on lists will keep both sons busy through next season.
"This will be a huge summer for Jordan, making his last impression on college coaches and figuring out what type of college and what he'd like to major in," Myla says.
As for Bradford, Myla, herself a graduate of Hampton University, is encouraging him to really enjoy his last year in college. "I told him that my four years at Hampton were the best years of my life. My friends then are still so involved with our lives even now. I just want him to soak it all up and stay close to his coaches."
Touching base with home is important, too. After those two crazy NCAA tournament weeks, Myla says it was vital for Bradford to get back home to Midlothian, to see his friends in the neighborhood and visit his coaches at Benedictine.
The NCAA experience has changed the Burgess family. "I will never think about life the same, and I think it's because of the people we've met, the conversations we've had," Myla says.
She met a couple in San Antonio who wanted a ball signed. They had a son who had been attending VCU but died before finishing school. "They just wanted to be part of the experience and talked with us."
And then there's the story that would hit home with any educator. "Another woman came up and told me her young, elementary-age son had no aspirations of going to college at all until he started to follow Bradford and the Rams. Her son now wants to go to college, and the mother was crying when she told me this.
"I just think it's God's way of using these young men's lives to have impact on other people's lives. This experience has been about more than a basketball game. It's about hope, faith and dreams and togetherness. And it was wonderful so many people stopped their lives for a while to be with us."