NCAA Tournament: Appreciating What Butler Did
It took a couple days to find the correct words to describe what the 2009-2010 Butler Bulldogs accomplished.
I read the columns by sports writers that had deadlines: Bob Kravitz (Indianapolis Star), Luke Winn (Sports Illustrated), Dennis Dodd (CBS Sports), and even writing against the clock they were able to capture the feelings of the moment and spark emotion into the reader.
"Another Butler student stood in the back of that section, frozen, defiantly making a No. 1 sign, pointing toward Lucas Oil’s roof. He was clinging to an alternate reality, one in which Hayward’s aim was true, and what might’ve been the greatest buzzer-beater of all-time didn’t hit backboard, front rim, and then floor, " wrote Winn .
"Let everyone else hail the Dookies, deserving national champions. This is about Butler. This is about a joyride that absolutely captured the heart of this community and this country. This is about the smallest school in the 64-team era -- and the fourth-smallest school in NCAA Tournament history -- taking us all to a place that seemed unreachable and unimaginable," said Kravitz .
I have a feeling I wasn't the only grown man to shed a tear. But these tears were an eerie feeling.
It wasn't an upset feeling that Butler had just lost in the national championship to Duke, but rather a feeling of witnessing something so special and so rare, that you couldn't help but cry out of happiness.
As a Hoosier, I had this feeling one other time, when Jim Harbaugh's "Hail Mary" fell inches short from sending the underdog Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl, but uniting a community even in the loss.
"Words can't even describe what this basketball team has done to Butler; a rejuvenated spirit was reborn- this team brought our campus together. Not only the campus--the city too," said Jackie Kompouras, a 2009 graduate of Butler University
But the Butler story is completely different than any professional team that was entitled to the "underdog" role. This would have been the present day basketball version of the 1980 USA Olympics Hockey Team.
Maybe even better.
The ending to Butler's story is like that old Gatorade commercial where Joe Montana's pass is incomplete, or Derek Jeter's throw is late to home plate.
Unfortunately, this was no digitally remastered ending.
Think of every iconic sports moment in history; one inch in a different direction and it's an entirely different outcome.
"Life's this game of inches."- Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday
Think if Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" fell incomplete, Christian Laettner took an extra dribble (or Grant Hill's pass was just a little off), Adam Vinateiri misses the FG, Mike Eruzione doesn't score, Joe Carter only has warning track power, or Bobby Plump doesn't hit the shot to inspire Hoosiers which inspires the Butler comparisons.
Butler's story and ending would have surpassed all of those if Gordon Hayward's shot was just a little bit softer.
"Those last 13 seconds seemed to last an hour, and all I know is that after the final buzzer, the atmosphere was eerily quiet; too quiet for an NCAA championship finale. America was pulling for Butler and you could feel it," said Kompouras.
What we witnessed with the half-court heave on April 5, 2010 would have been on the "deleted scenes" or "outtakes" of the working title movie, until Zack Efron (as Hayward) got it right.
Paul Haggis couldn't/wouldn't have written a better script.
It wasn't supposed to end like this, but it did.
The most gut wrenching fact is BUTLER (a private school with an enrollment of 4,000 outside of Indianapolis) came up an inch to the left from being mentioned in the same breath as the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team, or any other inspiring sports story you want to insert here.
This was Friday Night Lights on the biggest stage of amateur basketball, with or without the sad music at the end.
You can almost picture coach Brad Stevens dropping the names of seniors Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes off the depth chart at the end of the season, similar to Billy Bob Thornton.
Still there is more to be proud of, than saddened by.
Is this the same Butler school that is 10 minutes down the road, only slightly bigger than my high school, and where we went to basketball camp every summer?
Once again, Butler fans reiterated that they had tears of "What could have been" , but those were out-teared by "What they did."
Many Butler fans admitted they couldn't watch sports shows on the Tuesday after the game. They couldn't take hearing the thud of Hayward's shot hitting the rim and bouncing out, or the fact they couldn't do anything to comfort their friends on the team.
"The hardest part about this is that those weren't just basketball players out there, those guys are our friends. Butler's a small school--the loss affected everyone," said Kompouras.
However, they all agreed that they are just as proud of their Bulldogs in the loss, as they would have been in victory.
These are the same Bulldogs from Indiana that were always overlooked by the Hoosiers, Boilermakers, Irish, and heck, even Cardinals throughout the state.
However, the true sports fan, Hoosier, and Butler Bulldog can tell you this March run was NOT entirely as shocking as it seems. (See my Butler has been doing it for years, you just didn't notice column.)
The 2010 March Madness edition might have been the last pure tournament in college basketball.
The only thing missing was Luther Vandross' "One Shining Moment."
In 2011, the field will likely expand to 96 teams, for one reason and one reason only: money.
"It's for the money. Isn't everything? It's certainly not for the players, some of whom could be on the road for a week. The NCAA spoke of "opportunity". The rest of us lamented an American beauty disfigured by an ugly cyst the size of the NIT," said CBS Sports Dennis Dodd.
Gone is purity. What was left of it anyway.
Butler was/is the definition of the student athlete. Those kids are on campus for school and basketball. Other than Hayward, and possibly Mack, the kids on that team will never play in the NBA and maybe one or two of them will play overseas.
But they came together as a team with a dream.
Much like coach Stevens, who quit his job at Eli Lilly to take a chance on his basketball passion, they dreamed big.
To everyone else, Butler and a National Championship in the same sentence was a pipe dream.
To everyone else.
Stevens reiterated that his team had championship aspirations all season and believed in themselves and the system that this would work.
“Teams are going to see what we did and know that they have a shot,” sophomore Ronald Nored said. “They can know that if they play together, and do the right thing, and listen to their coach, they have a great shot at doing something special.”
Duke has taken an unnecessary bad rap over the years from overzealous fans. When you are great, people want to knock you down.
But this Blue Devils team was very similar to the Butler team, just a little, ok a lot, more high profiled.
Butler balls on a budget with a little over $1.3 million spent on team expenses. Duke has a basketball budget over $13 million.
Under Coach K, they do things the right way as well: excel in the classroom and on/off the court, and as usual, a gentleman himself after the game.
"This was a classic," Krzyzewski said. "A game we won. They didn't lose it."
"The guys are crushed, this matters," said Stevens.
What we should remember from Butler's run in this tournament is how much it matters to the small schools. These guys aren't playing basketball to reach the next level, but are playing through their passion.
The media is starting to move on this week. They will talk endlessly about Tiger Woods coming back to The Masters and harp on sports stories that are irrelevant.
However, there are a group of fifteen Butler Bulldogs (thirteen of them Hoosiers) that captured the imagination of a community, city, and a country one March/April that we will never see again in this money hungry era.
These stories are so few and far between, as Americans, we need to stop and appreciate what these boys gave us, before we move on to the next arrest or apology by a pro athlete.
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