I am not a Butler fan, per se. (At least, I wasn’t before tonight.)
However, I can honestly say that before tonight I had never cheered harder for a basketball team to win a game that did not have “INDIANA” written across its chest.
And in what truly is the measure of one’s level of investment in a sporting event, I felt absolutely crushed when Gordon Hayward’s last second heave bounded off the backboard, clanged the front of the rim, and the bounced to defeat. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.
Now, after about a half hour of reflection plus the joy of “One Shining Moment” to ameliorate my disappointment, I’m sitting here smiling because I finally realized why it became so easy to fall madly in love with the Butler Bulldogs tonight.
Butler reminded me of everything that I grew up loving about the game of basketball, and it was all signified in the most shining moment of all: Hayward’s shot that could have won it all.
photo credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images via ESPN.com
Growing up an Indiana fan in Bloomington during the 80s and early 90s, you naturally develop the belief that team is infinitely more important than I. You also come to understand the effect that coaching can have not just on the outcome of a single game, but also its influence on the fingerprint of an entire basketball program, year in and year out.
Perhaps most importantly, kids who grew up in Indiana in the 80s and early 90s – the era of Bob Knight and a thriving single-class high school basketball tournament – grew up believing that a team able to truly embody the essence of that word – team – always has a chance to win, no matter the opponent or the odds.
Bob Knight no longer coaches at Indiana; in fact, my beloved IU basketball program is now a shell of its former self as it continues to pick up the pieces from a flagrant era we all wish had never happened. Similarly, the single class high school basketball tournament is no more, having changed to a four-class tournament while I was still in high school.
I read an article recently discussing the dire straits that the world’s most famous high school basketball tournament currently finds itself in. This would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. (Almost as unthinkable as IU winning 16 games in two seasons.)
Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve gotten older and things have changed, and it’s been awhile since I felt the love for my childhood passion that I felt tonight.
You see, I was the insane kid who used to spend a half hour shoveling snow off the driveway just so I could go outside and shoot, pretending I was Calbert Cheaney or Damon Bailey or Jay Edwards…or myself wearing Cream & Crimson.
I am that brainwashed Hoosier who counts Steve Alford’s book “Playing for Knight” as the single most influential book of my childhood. It was easily the most inspirational factor in me going from being a chubby, post-playing, bench-warming B-team turd to becoming a starter on an undefeated JV squad and then a two-year starter on varsity who broke the school record for 3 point percentage in a season.
I don’t tell you this to make myself seem special. Believe me, I wasn’t. The only thing that was special about me was that I loved basketball. More than anything. I could play it all day, then play it again at night, then dream about it while I was sleeping. Hell, I used to announce the games while I played, then run to my computer to use a spreadsheet I’d set up to record the stats.
Yeah, I was that kid.
And watching Butler reminded of all that tonight. It all came flooding back. Like a tidal wave of happiness. There is a perhaps nothing more purely joyful and full of life than a boy, a ball, and his dreams.
Every shot Butler made tonight, every defensive stop they got, seemed like an affirmation of everything I believed when I was a kid out there banging the pavement over and over and over and over.
Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.
Team is more important than I.
You don’t have to be better than your opponent forever, just for 40 minutes.
Over time, I’m sad to say, some of those acute affinities for the most pure aspects of basketball dulled in my mind. I guess when you’re a kid like me and three of your basketball anchors – Bob Knight, the single class tournament, and all the time in the world to play basketball – are no longer around, it’s easy to lose sight of many of the reasons why you loved the game in the first place.
Well I remembered tonight. Butler is why I loved basketball in the first place.
You see friend, it’s not that Butler was an underdog tonight. They weren’t. And it’s not that Butler had to play out of its collective minds to keep it close with mighty Duke tonight. They didn’t.
It’s that Butler, the school, is an underdog in general. And it’s that Butler, the school, at one time would have had to play completely beyond itself to compete with Duke.
Yet somehow, this small little school in Indianapolis is now on equal footing with the giants.
Because of a belief in team. Because of a belief in defense. Because of a belief in the abilities of kids who might not have elite athletic ability, but who have an elite love for the game. And because of a belief – starting with Barry Collier, then Thad Matta, then Todd Lickliter, and now Brad Stevens – in building a program around kids who embody these characteristics.
I was never good enough to play basketball above the Division III level in college – I chose to go to Indiana rather than play small school ball because I was born to be a Hoosier – but I was able to become a good high school player because I believed in team, I believed (enough) in defense, and I made up for the rest of my many shortcomings by genuinely loving the game of basketball and playing it every chance I could.
So I cheered for Butler tonight, despite never really having cheered for them before, because it felt like cheering for myself, and for Reed Hoyer, and for John Weida, and for Kevin Bertolini, and for Brent Gregory, and for Jay Bernhard, and for Prentice Stovall, and for all the other guys that I spent my childhood playing basketball with in middle school, in high school, in AAU, and in the driveway.
Tonight, and throughout this tournament, Butler represented the best of all of us. Butler was the manifestation of the best we ever could have hoped to play. I don’t know if Reed or John or Kevin or Brent or Jay or Prentice or any of the other guys I played ball with saw the same thing as I did…but I suspect somewhere in their memories and their heart of hearts that they did.
For a kid who grew up in Indiana, how could you see anything else?
Butler showed us, and more importantly all the kids still young enough to be chasing their basketball dreams, that you really can live your dreams by practicing hard, playing hard, and having a passion for the game.
Whether Gordon Hayward’s last second heave went in tonight was irrelevant; that he was in a position to shoot it – with everything on the line – is what meant everything.
Who would have thought that Butler – Butler! – would ever be in a position to win a National Championship.
A kid who grows up in Indiana, that’s who.
And this is why it is not a coincidence that a team from Indiana, led by a lot of kids from Indiana, and coached by a guy from Indiana, became one of the greatest underdog-becomes-an-equal stories in the history of college basketball.
Remember, Hoosiers is not fiction. It’s a true story. And we all grew up dreaming about being Jimmy Chitwood one day. What I learned tonight is that Jimmy Chitwood (or Bobby Plump, as it were) was not Jimmy Chitwood because he made the shot. He was Jimmy Chitwood and they were the Hickory Huskers because they were in a position to take the shot.
In the game of basketball, that’s all you can ask for.
Jimmy Chitwood happened to make his. Gordon Hayward happened to miss his.
In many people’s eyes, the comparisons between Butler and Hickory High ended when the final buzzer sounded and Duke came out on top. The “Cinderella story” was over; Butler’s glass slipper had to be returned.
For me, someone who hadn’t bought into the Butler/Hickory comparison up until now, the final 3.6 seconds are exactly where the comparison began.
Some 56 years ago, Bobby Plump made a shot that gave hope and belief to many generations of Indiana kids who grew up loving the game of basketball and believing anything was possible. Some 56 minutes ago, as I write this, Gordon Hayward did the exact same thing, even though his shot happened to rim out.
As an old poster in my room used to say, You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Butler took their shot tonight, ultimately falling just short on the scoreboard. In my book, however, to channel the essence of Norman Dale, they were winners.
And 5, 10, 20, 40 years from now, another kid and another team from Indiana will do what no one thought was possible, and they’ll be compared to Butler. What they won’t realize is just how many hopes and dreams and memories were hanging on their every play or still waiting to be inspired, just as was the case with Butler.
That, my friends, is how the legacy of Indiana basketball will live on. It’s how our proud legacy has always lived on. From one underdog to another.
And for those of us who cherish it, we could not have asked for better ambassadors for the Indiana basketball legacy than Brad Stevens, Gordon Hayward, Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, and the entire Butler program.
Thank you for giving me not only two hours of incredible basketball, but also a brief reminder of why I loved this game in the first place and why, even today, I’ve still spent more time playing basketball during my lifetime than doing any other single activity besides sleep and eat.
If that doesn’t sum up what it means to be a Hoosier, I don’t know what does.
Butler, you epitomized that word for me tonight.
You may have lost the game, but you won a legacy. It’s been 56 years and people still talk about Milan. In 2066, people in Indiana will still be talking about you.
* – Gordon Hayward shot photo credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terril via ESPN.com