This was a night for the underdogs.
The Richmond Rockets, the city’s new American Basketball Association team, defeated reigning conference champs the Bay Area Matrix 78-71 in their debut game.
“I’m overwhelmed and overjoyed,” said owner Eric Marquis just seconds before the end of the game.
When the final buzzer went off he yelled, “I do believe we just won,” before running off to high-five his staff.
For the Rockets, the win comes after a week of uncertainties. How many people would come to the game? Who would make the final roster? How would the Rockets perform against a champion team?
Like many things this week, those answers came down to the last minute.
Last week, fewer than 200 tickets had been sold online for the game, held at Civic Center Memorial Auditorium, a venue which seats 2,200. But when the marquis opened on game night a long line of Richmond fans were ready to get a ticket. The numbers were not enough to pack the place, but sizable enough to occupy about half of the first floor seating and several rows of the top floor balcony.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Alex Raj, a player who tried out for the Rockets on Tuesday. He was the final addition to the team, which has been recruiting players since the summer, and he’s happy he made the last ditch effort to try-out for the team.
“It feels like we had a chemistry right off the bat,” he said. “There’s a winning atmosphere.”
But a win for the team wasn’t a sure bet early on in the game.
Both teams had trouble scoring in the first quarter with shots clanking off the rim.
“The Rockets need to settle down a little bit,” said Michael Davenport, a fan and the head of the security service company the team hired to cover the game. “I think they need a little bit more teamwork in passing the ball.”
But even with the initial bumps, the team still led 22-13 at the end of the first quarter.
During the game fans began chanting, “Let’s go, Rockets!” Some brought signs for the players they count as friends or family.
Melanie Verrico waved around a sign she made for her longtime friend Tita Davis, a shooting guard on the team. She said when they were college classmates he went to all her softball games, and she went to all his basketball games.
Perhaps the sign was good luck. Davis led the Rockets with 20 points.
At halftime the team was still in the lead 39-37.
However, when the team huddled in the locker room, Coach Lamar Baker was less than pleased.
“I wish I could say that was a good half,” he said. “We went on a seven minute drought … we’re not executing.”
Then he added, “We’ve got this if we can play the game right.”
While the players took a break, the audience took advantage of the concession stands in the foyer. People bought shirts and hats with the team’s logo. The Rainbow Italian Ice Company honored the team’s colors by selling blue and orange snowballs– “the Rocket Combo.” And kids from the Police Activities League sold nachos and candy. PAL is the Rockets’ primary community partner, and a handful of kids from the program also served as water boys for the team.
Early in the 3rd quarter Coach Baker was still looking for more from his players.
During a time out he told them, “Keep the ball under control. We need to close this game out.”
With 2:31 remaining in the period the Rockets were up 61-48. But the Matrix closed in on the margins leaving the score 61-54 by the end of 3rd quarter.
The crowd energy was still high. A group of young boys standing in the audience continued chanting the team’s name and clapping their hands.
Near the start of the 4th quarter Coach Baker told his son, player Justin Baker, to lock down the wing on defense and go for steals.
At 9:52 in the 4th quarter, Royce Mitchell made a tough layup in traffic and drew a foul, completing a key 3-point play to put the Rockets up 66-56.
A few minutes later Davis drained a long 3-pointer, bringing the Rockets score to 71-60 and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
With 2:15 remaining, Robin Houd, stole the ball and ran the length of the court to convert a layup and stop a Matrix run, putting the Rockets up 75-66.
Davis hit one of two free throws with 22 seconds left to give the Rockets a 78-71 advantage.
When the final buzzer sounded Marquis wasn’t the only swapping high fives. Fans were jumping out of their seats and cheering.
But when the players returned to the locker room Coach Baker had a sobering reminder for them.
“We just won one,” he said, “But it’s just the first one.”