MINNEAPOLIS — As Mark Jerome approached the front desk of his downtown hotel to check in last week, he paused and did a double take. On the main wall just beyond the receptionist was a bigger-than-life image of a jubilant Virginia basketball team with the two hands of his son, Ty Jerome, helping hoist the NCAA South Regional championship trophy.
It’s an image — the raising of the trophy — that has yet to be realized.
That image‚ signaling Virginia’s trip to the 2019 Final Four, took Mark Jerome back to a year ago in the aftermath of top-seeded Virginia’s historic first-round loss in its opening game of the 2018 NCAA tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina. As the family — Ty, his parents and younger brother — got behind closed doors of his mother’s room in the team hotel, the four collapsed in each other’s arms and wailed.
“One of my toughest days because, as a parent, you just want to fix your kid and fix the situation,” the elder Jerome said. “But that night he was on the wrong side of history. There was no fixing that night.”
There’s no fixing that 20-point loss to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that night, the first time in NCAA tournament history that a No. 1 seed was toppled by a 16-seed.
But Virginia has the possibility of achieving redemption in Monday’s NCAA basketball championship game against Texas Tech, a matchup of schools each looking to win its first national basketball title.
“We’d love to cut down the nets. I would be speechless if we’re able to do that,” Ty Jerome said Sunday. “It’s what every kid hopes for. But, like coach [Tony Bennett] said, the joy is in the competition.”
Jerome, a junior, scored a team-high 21 points April 6 in the Cavaliers’ shocking (and controversial) 63-62 win over Auburn in the semifinals. That’s two straight 20-point games for Jerome, who’s averaging 14.2 points in five tournament games.
For Jerome, 20 might be hard to come by Monday, as Virginia faces a Texas Tech team that ranks third in the nation in scoring defense (58.8 points per game, allowing just over three more points per game than the top-ranked Cavaliers at 55.5 PPG).
The Red Raiders were impressive in strong-arming the bully known as Michigan State in their 61-51 win April 6 in the semifinals, using quick rotations and a physical style that held the Spartans to their lowest point total this season.
You can expect Texas Tech to begin the title game with full frontal assault against the four starting Virginia guards, who, except for De’Andre Hunter, don’t look the part of ballers who’d strike fear in an opponent.
Even Virginia coach Bennett admitted Sunday that Jerome likely flew under the radar in his recruitment because of first-glance perception.
“You look at him and he’s not the most intimidating guy athletically,” Bennett said. “You say, well, is he quick enough? Can he do things? … did he pass the eye test?”
Maybe not. But when you examine Jerome’s upbringing, playing against top competition on some of the toughest basketball courts in New York City, you come to realize that the way his dad raised him has him well-prepared for any task.
Eye test be damned.
“I’m not athletic, not long, I don’t look strong — I hear about the eye test all the time,” Jerome said. “But the one thing my dad taught me was mental toughness.”
On the day Ty’s mother placed him in his crib for the first time after his birth, his father provided his son some company.
A regulation basketball, placed in the crib right next to his son.
“People laughed at me,” Mark Jerome said. “But I wanted him to love basketball as much as I loved the game. He’s been watching basketball with me ever since.
By the age of 2, Ty was turning heads as he dribbled two basketballs at once while walking the streets of the Manhattan, New York, neighborhood of Washington Heights.
By 8, he was playing for the Riverside Hawks, the once-respected basketball program that the likes of Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Ron Artest and Elton Brand represented. Jerome typically played for two teams at Riverside: a team with players his own age, and a team where he competed against kids who were typically two years older.
Jerome was coached by his father, who didn’t want anyone to think he played favorites. The solution: Mark Jerome lit into his son, often going overboard.
“Yeah, I screamed and yelled at him probably too much because I didn’t want anyone to think I was playing favorites,” Mark Jerome said. “When he made good plays? I was beaming inside, but I just couldn’t show it, I couldn’t promote it with everyone watching. It was tough.”
The Jeromes traveled all over the city for a game, playing tournaments in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, Dyckman Park in the Bronx and the legendary Rucker Park in Manhattan. The kids played baseball as well, and Mark Jerome remembered one weekend where Ty played in five baseball games and six basketball tournaments throughout the city.
“That was over the top,” Mark Jerome said, laughing. “Someone should have called ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] on me.”
The “eye test” that Tony Bennett mentioned began in those settings. Here was young Ty — thin, small, and straight-haired — stepping into these meccas of basketball that often ate precious kids alive. Even though Mark Jerome was well-known in basketball circles throughout the city, Ty Jerome often got the side-eye based on his appearance.
“I’m biracial — my mom’s black and my dad’s white — and Ty’s biracial,” said Mark Jerome, whose mother was active in the Congress of Racial Equality and whose father, Fred Jerome, is a journalist who covered the civil rights movement. “I’d bring Ty into all of these parks, and when people saw him for the first time, no one thought he could play.”
As a kid, Ty Jerome played with and against the likes of NBA star Donovan Mitchell, Malachi Richardson (the former Syracuse star who played with the Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors) and Dakari Johnson (the former Kentucky reserve who played a season with the Oklahoma City Thunder).
They were all talented as kids, but Jerome approached each game as if he was the best player on the court.
More often than not, he was.
“When you’re playing around the city in that atmosphere, you have to survive on your own,” Jerome remembered. “There’s no team ball, no guy in the gap behind you when you’re guarding on the perimeter. It’s physical, and playing in that atmosphere helped me with my mental toughness.”
The travel throughout the city basketball circuit continued even after Jerome’s mother moved just north of New York City to New Rochelle. Mark Jerome lived in both the Bronx and Harlem, and his two boys — Ty and his younger brother, Kobe — were always at his side.
“They introduce Ty in games from being from New Rochelle, and that eats me up,” Mark Jerome. “My son grew up a New York City point guard.”
Jerome was about 13 when his Riverside team traveled to Orlando, Florida, to play in the national AAU tournament that included such talented players as Thon Maker (Detroit Pistons) and Michigan State guards Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford.
As Jerome played his typical heady game in leading his team to a win, a talent evaluator approached his dad. “Your son is really good,” the evaluator said. “He’s going to play in the ACC one day.”
As Jerome flourished on the high school level at Iona Prep, he began to be recruited by schools such as Harvard, Temple and Davidson. The two times Bennett first saw Jerome, he was recruiting other players but came away intrigued by the kid whose appearance didn’t initially “wow” him.
“Sometimes you have to trust your gut,” Bennett said. “If guys are mentally tough and have courage and heart, maybe in certain areas they’re lacking … a minimal level of athleticism or whatever it is. There’s something in [Jerome] that is just so special.”
Jerome played sparingly in his first year at Virginia. In his first year as a starter in the ACC, as a sophomore, Jerome averaged 10.6 points while leading the Cavaliers to a 31-2 record, a No. 1 ranking and a top seed entering the NCAA tournament.
Jerome and the Cavaliers were ready to show a national audience just how good they were until they were shocked by a UMBC team that, ironically, didn’t pass the eye test.
Jerome had to endure every moment of that loss until the final whistle and, in the aftermath of his nightmarish night, bravely sat on the postgame podium, facing a room of ravenous reporters eager to feed off the momentous occasion.
The elder Jerome, with three minutes left in that game, rose up from his seat, walked up the aisle and left the building.
That three-block walk to the hotel? “Longest walk of my life,” Mark Jerome said. “Just heartbreak and pain.”
Strolling through the lobby of the team hotel in Minneapolis on Sunday, Mark Jerome’s feeling the joy of a proud pops. For every five steps he takes, there’s a handshake, an embrace and one or two “thank you’s” for a job well done.
It’s a taste of success that eluded him during his brief basketball career at Lafayette.
“I look around the hotel and my son’s pictures on the wall here and it takes me back to the first time I saw his name on the back of his jersey during his freshman year,” Mark Jerome said. “I just thought, that’s my last name, that’s my parents’ last name and this feels like a dream. This is the kid that people, his whole life, said he couldn’t play.”
As Mark Jerome shakes another hand, security asks everyone in the lobby to step behind the stanchion that’s been set up. The Virginia team has just finished its practice and is scheduled to arrive soon, and the security staff has created a space to allow a safe passage through the hundreds of fans who have joyously crammed the lobby.
It’s a room that’s part elation, a portion of exhilaration and a slice of astonishment following the improbable 63-62 win April 6 over Auburn following the three free throws by Virginia’s Kyle Guy with less than a second remaining.
A year removed from an embarrassing loss, Virginia is playing for a national title.
“Kids are resilient, so last year, Ty went on with his life in about a week while that loss still stuck with me,” Mark Jerome said. “I was suffering, and a few weeks after the game, it took a 45-minute conversation with Tony Bennett that was therapeutic for me.”
For Ty Jerome, the start of this year’s tournament has resulted in renewed interest and queries into a moment of his life that he’d like to forget. He’s hoping a win on Monday night will put the questions about last year’s loss to rest.
“I get asked the question [about last year] every single round,” Jerome said. “To still be playing at this point in the season with one other team on the stage that you dreamed about since you were a kid, it’s an unreal feeling. We’re going to do everything we can to finish the job.”