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Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: Aron Stewart's lingering grudge with UR

Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: Aron Stewart's lingering grudge with UR

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Aron Stewart, 70, can’t let it go. He thinks he was done wrong by the University of Richmond almost a half-century ago. The 6-5, 205-pound basketball player says he was “a pioneer … the school’s first Black super-star. They used my name to recruit other Black players … and I didn’t get anything in return. The school never did anything for me. I wasn’t treated fairly.”

This is Volume 47 in our sometimes bumpy trip down memory lane. Call it: “No Matter What You Say … You Can’t Tell Me My Number Shouldn’t Be Retired.”

From Jersey City, N.J., Stewart played two remarkable seasons at UR after stops at Essex County College (two years) and Temple University (briefly). In 1972-73, he averaged 30.2 points and 11.9 rebounds to be named Southern Conference player of the year and Helms Foundation All-American. The next season the Spiders had their first winning record in 16 years (16-12) as Stewart averaged 26.5 points, 12 rebounds and earned SC tournament MVP. He was two-time all-conference … and his career average of 28.1 points remains a record at UR, which has been playing basketball since 1913.

On the occasion of his final game at the Robins Center, the school honored Stewart with a proclamation from Richmond city Mayor Tom Bliley, a letter from Gov. Mills Godwin, and a trophy presented by school president E. Bruce Heilman. Then Spider icon Mac Pitt, who was 77, went off script and said no one would ever wear Stewart’s No. 30 again.

“They said Coach Pitt was not supposed to say that … [but] how can you make a promise and not carry it out, regardless of who said it, or whether he was supposed to say it or not?” Stewart said last week. “No matter what you say, you can’t tell me my number shouldn’t be retired.”

To date, Richmond has retired three numbers: 23 — Warren Mills (1952-55); 20 — Johnny Newman (82-86); and 14 — Kevin Anderson (2007-11).

In 2010, Stewart was enshrined in UR’s Hall of Fame but, by then, he already was upset by what he considered “racially motivated treatment” and didn’t attend the induction ceremony.

He was recruited by Richmond after averaging 36.6 points, best in the country among junior-college players, in 1970-71. After a short time at Temple, Stewart said he called one of Spider head coach Lewis Mills assistants and told him he wanted to transfer.

What made UR especially attractive, Stewart said, “ was he told me Claiborne Robins was going to buy the Virginia Squires and make a lot of money. That’s beside the point now. I came to Richmond because it was a good opportunity. They hadn’t been winning … I found out later Lewis Mills said, before I came, that I wasn’t good enough to play for him.”

(Robins Jr. had just started his five-year ownership of the Richmond Robins, a professional ice hockey team, and, we’re told, had no intentions of investing in pro hoops, too.)

At UR, Stewart majored in sociology. Twice the student newspaper named him the school’s athlete of the year. “I never had any problems [as an undergraduate],” he said.

Things went downhill from there. He had a tryout with the ABA’s Squires and was cut. “I went home, laid around, did odd jobs, whatever … tried to [extend his basketball career], but didn’t have it any more,” Stewart said. “Came back down here in 1977, sold life insurance, worked for the city … couldn’t get none of those good jobs [like] working for the beer company … advertising. Couldn’t fund raise because of the racial stuff out there … and not everybody is cut out to work for Philip Morris.”

He insists he isn’t bitter. “I just tell the truth. It’s how I feel,” Stewart said. “All those people who made the [UR] hall of fame before me didn’t have as good numbers as I did. I never got the approval of some people because of the color of my skin.”

In 2012, Stewart suffered a stroke that effected several parts of his body. A friend says, “He was paralyzed for while, but that’s OK now.”

Still, if you listen carefully, this sounds like a man crying out for help. “I couldn’t get no job like any of those white boys got. I called Lewis Mills, when he was athletic director at VCU [1976-86]. He said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ He didn’t.

“When I was having health problems, I called a guy out there [in the UR athletic department]. ‘Can anybody help me?’ No one could help me. ‘We can’t help you,’ he said.

“They’re making changes all over the city. They’re tearing down monuments. I’ve been trying to talk to [UR president Ronald Crutcher] for six years, a Black president, and no one will talk to me. I’m not the only Black player this has happened to. They do it all over America.”

We weren’t the first Stewart has reached out to to get his story told. We won’t be the last. He’s persistent, that’s for sure. One more thing:

“You don’t have to feel sorry for me. Nobody’s felt sorry for me all these years. Why do you feel sorry for me now?” Aron Stewart said.

OK, so it has been a college basketball season unlike any other but, pandemic or no pandemic, how to explain the screwball Atlantic 10 tournament? In fact, in all the years we’ve been watching hoops, nothing compares. Virginia Commonwealth was all but handed a free pass to the championship game when the conference allowed the Rams to play their semifinal at the Siegel Center. Why?

Before we attempt to explain, citing a conspiracy theory that only makes sense, there’s the question of waiting eight days between the semifinals and final. Say what? Has that ever happened? Supposedly it had something to do with Dayton, Ohio, being closer to Indiana, where the entire NCAA March Madness will be staged. Like playing the A-10 championship game in Richmond, where it was originally scheduled, made any difference to the winner and its travel plans.

If you really understand why the conference decided to start the tournament a week earlier than scheduled, raise your hand. (I know, they announced it was to get a jump on possible virus problems, or something like that. They lucked out, that’s all.)

Keep it raised if the explanation for allowing VCU to have homecourt advantage — when it would have been just as easy to switch its matchup with Davidson to UR’s Robins Center — makes any sense. Something about messing up the brackets, come on! The pandemic turned the entire world into one big mess.

Understand, this is not a shot at VCU, which wasn’t to blame. The Rams certainly weren’t going to refuse to perform on a familiar floor, which certainly didn’t hurt as it turned out. In a game that neither team played well, the Rams shot better in the second half and won by 12. Homecourt advantage helped. So did their interior defense when Davidson refused to go inside and get the VCU big men in foul trouble after an early attempt was swatted away. The Wildcats kept shooting — and missing — open shots from beyond the arc.

That is what basketball, college and pro, has become: win by the three or die by the three. In the short span of 24 hours-plus, the Wildcats ran the gamut.

Now, about why the Rams were shown favoritism. It’s quite simple, really. In this nutty year of no spectators and loss of revenue, the A-10 had to maximize its money-making potential. In seasons past, the conference usually could be counted on for three or more teams in the NCAA tournament. This go-round, however, it was guaranteed one, possibly two. Considered a bubble team, VCU couldn’t afford even a semifinal loss in the A-10 event or the conference could be faced with receiving only one share of the NCAA’s TV-driven millions.

It was all about the money. Isn’t it always? Normally, fingers are pointed, usually at the commissioner, but the A-10’s Bernadette McGlade is getting a pass. Why? The conference athletic directors made her do it. Offically, the vote was unanimous. Again, raise your hand if you think all 14 were in favor. Yeah, right!

In the end, the conference got what it wanted. St. Bonaventure, the league’s best team, earned the automatic berth as A-10 champion, beating VCU on a neutral floor. The Rams got the other slot, as a No. 10 seed and, according to CBS graphics, 39th best team (of 68) overall. Of the 37 at-large teams, they were among the bottom eight but not First Four that included Michigan State against UCLA, proving the selection committee had a sense of humor. Also, next time someone makes the inevitable complaint about favoritism to the power-conference schools, the comeback will be predictable: Look what we did with Michigan State and UCLA in 2021. There’s no bias here. Of course not.

In a crazy year that saw Kentucky and Duke both fail to make the field for the first time since 1976, the NCAA’s 10 wisemen missed a great opportunity to strike a blow for the little guy by overlooking Nashville’s Belmont University, a 26-game winner (with no seniors on the roster). Nobody won more.

Go figure. Belmont, best known for its top-rated school of music, was left singing the blues a second time when the NIT also decided not to invite the Bruins (52-11 over the last two seasons). Better Belmont than, say Toledo, the Mid-American regular season champion which rolled over to an undermanned but clearly better-coached Richmond team that got three big-time threes from sophomore Tyler Burton to keep from being left behind and wasted early. Defense at one end, teamwork at the other took it from there, 76-66.

Jim Crockett Jr., 76, died March 4 of liver and kidney failure compounded by COVID-19. If you owned a TV set in the early ’70s to late ’80s, you were likely to run into Jim Crockett Promotions ‘rasslin, like it or not. Locally, WTVR-6 carried Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and assorted offspring, all guaranteed to generate large viewership.

Crockett somewhat reluctantly took over the family business when father Jim Sr. passed in 1973 and built it into the last of the great territorial promotions. “Jimmy,” as he was known, apparently was one of the good guys in a mean business, paid his performers well, and “probably ran the second-most successful [wrestling] promotion of the 20th century,” according to Jim Cornette, who was totally immersed in every role imaginable during that time period.

Numero uno was Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now WWE), which ended rasslin’s golden age, buying up the territories and stealing all the top stars. Crockett held out until some bad business decisions left him on the verge of bankruptcy and he sold the company in 1988 for $9 million to Atlanta’s Ted Turner, who renamed it World Championship Wrestling and took on the WWF in the “Monday Night Wars.” McMahon bought WCW in 2001. That’s one way to beat the competition.

Crockett Promotions, with the late Joe Murnick in charge, ran the grunt-and-groan here at the Coliseum and paraded a who’s-who of big-time talent like Ric Flair. On his podcast, Cornette told of the loyalty the wrestlers had for Crockett, Jr. “Flair cussed out the Virginia commission guy one night in Richmond because he let McMahon come in and run against Crockett who had been there for 30 years [including Crockett, Sr.] and helped all the state commissions,” Cornette said during one of his weekly podcast available on YouTube.

On July 29, 1977, fewer than two years after surviving a small-plane crash that killed the pilot and left him with a broken back, Flair beat Bobo Brazil at the Coliseum for the NWA United States belt.

Cornette, who delights in recalling his many feuds and disagreements, seldom says anything nice about anyone outside the ring. Crockett was different. Working for him, “was wrestling heaven,” Cornette recalled. “I never had a cross word with him.”

One bad business decision Crockett considered, but didn’t make, was taking over the doomed-from-the-start Richmond Wildcats of the Southern Professional Hockey League which died a few days after the Wildcats in January of 1977.

So the Seattle Seahawks are miffed that Russell Wilson has said — publicly — he should be heard when it comes to future player personnel decisions. After all, he’s their franchise quarterback, and he’s tired of being sacked so much (even if, as critics suggest, he tends to hold the ball too long too often). The implied (?) criticism of coach Pete Carroll also led to rampant speculation the Richmonder (Collegiate School) wants to opt out of the no-trade clause in his mega-contract. He even listed five teams he would consider, none of them from the Nation’s Capital, then insisted he wants to remain in Seattle.

No sooner had national talk show know-it-all Colin Cowherd said the franchise formerly known as Redskins would be the best destination for Wilson than your Washington Football Team signed aging QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, leading to instant speculation he was hired to mentor (a) a first-round draft choice like Alabama’s Mac Jones; or (b) Sam Darnold, to be acquired in a trade with the New York Jets.

Meanwhile, the New York Post quoted Richmonder and former Seattle fullback Michael Robinson as being critical of ex-teammate Wilson. “I don’t know what Russell wants,” Robinson said. “He’s paid [and] the front office, with a few exceptions, got rid of the Alpha males [including him] so that it would be Russell Wilson’s team. Now this.”

If the Seahawks really wanted to unload him, all they had to do is sign free-agent receiver Golden Tate, who has some nasty history with Wilson — and he’d gladly be outta there. Quick, which way is the door?

Until next time … when we catch up with football’s Weldon Edwards, first Black athlete to suit up for UR ...

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