On July 18, 1991, Ace's 19-year-old stepbrother, Anthony, was shot to death in a neighborhood argument. On the day before Anthony's funeral, Ace had to decide whether to attend the service or join his AAU teammates for a tournament in Jonesboro, Ark. With a heavy heart, Ace went to play ball. "I wanted to pay my respects to Anthony, but I had to do my best to get somebody to notice me," Custis recalls.
Sure enough, it was during that tournament that one of Foster's assistants spotted Custis and began recruiting him. Foster eventually offered him a scholarship in the early signing period in November, and Custis accepted on the spot.
But just two months later, lightning struck again. Just like his brother, Ace fell asleep at the wheel while driving home on Route 13. Soon after midnight on Jan. 25, 1992, his car flipped and landed on its side in a ditch, about three miles from the spot where Antonio had lost his life. Ace suffered a broken nose and jaw and some facial lacerations, but he stumbled to a nearby relative's house, where, after seeing his injuries in a mirror, he fainted and was rushed to the hospital.
Custis missed two months of his senior season while on the mend and lost 18 pounds during the time his jaw was wired shut, but he arrived fully intact at Virginia Tech the next fall. Then on Nov. 22, 1992, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during practice and was lost for the year before the season had even begun. A week later he called home, determined to quit school. "He told me he was giving up," his mother says. "I reminded him that he'd come so far, survived so many heartbreaks, there was no way he was leaving school."
After redshirting for the '92-93 season, Custis returned the following year and made the Metro Conference All-Freshman team as the Hokies finished 18-10, their first winning record in six seasons. As a sophomore last season, he averaged a double double and topped the conference in rebounding—despite standing only 6'7"—while leading Tech to its second NIT title. He was the first Hokie since the inimitable Bimbo Coles, now with the Miami Heat, to be voted first-team All-Metro.
"When I look back at my life, it's like a puzzle," Ace says. "It's hard to figure out. I've had my share of setbacks, but I've grown stronger each time."
Custis, who averages a team-high 15.0 points and 10.7 rebounds, is the centerpiece of a team stocked with replaceable parts, a group so alike that three Hokies are named Shawn and three others are named Jackson. Nine Virginia Tech players have already scored in double figures this season.
The word TRADITION, in maroon block letters, is bolted to the wall of the Hokie locker room, but until recently a fair question would have been: what tradition? After all, Tech hasn't even participated in the NCAA tournament since '86. Last year the Hokies finished the regular season with a 20-10 record but were snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. "In the eyes of the NCAA establishment, Virginia Tech is like a bastard at a family reunion," Foster says. "Our acceptance is a slow process, but we're becoming harder and harder to ignore."
In the five seasons that Tech has been a football-playing member of the Big East, the Hokies have played on national television 25 times, more than the previous 12 seasons combined. They will have six regular-season basketball games on national television this season, the first such games since Foster became coach. Tech is now grasping the meaning of revenue sports. The football team earned $3.5 million from its affiliation with the Big East last season, and the basketball team will finally turn a profit, as a member of the Atlantic-10. Even the women's basketball team has reached the NCAAs each of the last two years, its first bids ever.
"The secret is getting out about our little school lost in the mountains," Braine says. "Hey, a lot of people don't know where State College is, but they know Penn State. People don't know where Blacks-burg is, but they know Virginia Tech. I hope people will start to see us as the Penn State of the South."