Believing again

Barring Gary Williams taking the Oregon job for 4 million dollars a year (he hasn’t been offered), this will be my last college basketball post till the preseason top 25 in November.

And while I have yet to, and may truly never will, get over Butler’s loss to Duke Monday night I take solace in knowing the story renewed my love for sports.

How dramatic of me. How silly. A college with which I have no affiliation and know nothing much about giving me a story I’ll tell my kids about for years to come? Why?

15 years of an eroding belief in the magic of sport.

Follow an athlete, or a team long enough and it will disappoint you. Tiger, A-Rod, Barkley, Kiffin, the Orioles links to steroids, McGwire, Bliss, Vick, they all contributed to the current fact that heroes and sports truly fail to coexist.

And on a lesser scale, the current state of college basketball that encourages one and dones for the top programs. Rent a win players for coaches that likely had to at least massage the rules to garner the petulant prodigies’ presence. It often paints an ugly picture.

Thanks to my job, the privilege to peak behind the curtain of professional and major college sports has occasionally made me want to gouge my eyes out. Seeing and hearing how so many players really feel about fans, or the game itself, sucks the life right out of ones fandom.

Don’t get me wrong, I always have, do, and will love the games. I still scream at the TV for a great play, and even louder for the boneheaded variety. There is no more palpable feeling of energy than that of an NFL sideline during the last two minutes of a tight game, and I relish every opportunity my job affords to enjoy that.

The nobility and magic though of the games? Like my niece who just learned the Easter Bunny and Santa are fantasies I no longer believe.

That changed this weekend.

Butler’s trip the NCAA title game made me feel like a kid again.

The Bulldogs list of impediments to reaching a championship game is comically long. A tiny school, small athletic budget, no athletic dorms, no special circumstances for the players (ie: those that had class actually went this past Monday), rarely chartered trips, and a small unimpressive conference. How Brad Stevens recruits any serious talent to that little school is a tremendous mystery, until you hear him speak.

Stevens delivers true humility, appreciation, and love for the game, while never seeming to give it too much importance. A balance so rarely achieved, made even more impressive that it comes from a 33 year old, third year head coach.

So Stevens leads, his kids go to class (Butler is the only school this year with a pair of Academic All-Americans), and they join forces in a style of basketball that’s as much a throwback as the Hoosiers movie heritage that engulfs the school. The Dogs employ lock down defense followed by walking the ball over half court. Watching them play, I wish my TV had a black and white feature.

This team that does not belong in the world of big time college basketball willed itself through the door and just wouldn’t leave. Not until a pair of last second shots, only inches from perfection, fell painfully to the floor Monday night did the Bulldogs yield to the powers that be.

They fought, they inspired, and they proved it can be done without 8 figure budgets. Butler was no fluke. Butler was just good. It’s a group of kids able to find a university that suited them, go to school, and commit to team as well.

I know we shouldn’t expect this from everyone. But I will take time to revel in this story, to applaud their efforts, and to say thanks for doing it the right way so well.

Butler did it, the Bulldogs made me believe in a little magic once again.


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