Butler: The real champs
Vail, CO Colorado
So the plan for this column was to write about Tiger Woods.
I was going to write about how he may not be a great role model, but he’s one heck of a golfer. I was going to write about the Masters, and how it will be the best thing to shift the attention from Woods’ personal life to his golf game, where it rightfully should be. I was going to discuss how Tiger is still the best golfer in the world, regardless of his morals.
But as I sit here at my computer, I can’t bring myself to do any of that.
Why? Because Tiger has received far too much publicity in the last few months, and for all the wrong reasons. Woods’ face has graced every magazine cover in America not because of anything he’s done on the course, but because he’s been fooling around in the wrong kind of clubs.
In a culture where we place our athletes on a pedestal, elevating them to superhuman status, we forget all too frequently why we watch sports in the first place. Sports aren’t about multi-million-dollar contracts, nightclubs, and gossip. They’re about what takes place on the field or court, and the athletes that give everything they have for their team, not their contract.
And absolutely no one exemplifies what sports are supposed to be more than the 2009-2010 Butler Bulldogs men’s basketball team. So while Tiger (and to a lesser degree, Duke) soak up the headlines this week, here is a tribute to the runners-up, the champs that could have been, and the best sports story in years.
It missed by an inch. Gordon Hayward’s last-second desperation heave to end last Monday’s national championship game hit the backboard with just enough force to push it over the front edge of the rim, ending the Bulldogs’ chance to pull the biggest upset in a Division I championship game in years.
But even as Duke players ran onto the floor to celebrate their championship, one couldn’t help but feel empty; robbed of the triumph of right over wrong, and good over evil. North Carolinians (at least Blue Devils fans) celebrated while the rest of the country mourned.
Over the last few weeks, Butler had truly become as close to “America’s Team” as any team has been in awhile. Nobody expected the Bulldogs to contend for a national championship; many expected them to lose in the first round to UTEP.
But the tough, scrappy Bulldogs defied expectations time and time again, taking down Goliaths like Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State en route to their first-ever national championship game. Even once they made it there, nobody expected the Bulldogs to compete with leviathan Duke, especially with the trophy on the line.
It really wasn’t a fair fight from the beginning. Duke’s bevy of blue-chip recruits were supposed to be in championship games. Some had been high school All-Americans, some were currently college All-Americans, and the rest were still highly-recruited stars coming out of high school and into one of the most successful programs in NCAA basketball history.
These superstars were coached by a living legend in Mike Krzyzewski, one of most respected, successful coaches ever. Despite some struggles in recent years, nobody was surprised to see the Blue Devils in the championship game this year.
But Butler’s team had a much different story.
Butler’s squad wasn’t comprised of superstar, elite recruits, but primarily kids from Indiana who wanted to stay in their home state. They had no All-Americans, but two Academic All-Americans in Hayward and Center Matt Howard, something extremely rare for scholarship athletes on a team competing for the national title.
Their head coach had barely coached 100 games, and was young enough to be Krzyzewski’s grandson. They were led by a scrappy, quick point guard (Ronald Nored), a baby-faced, clutch playmaker (Hayward), a super-athletic, lights-out shooter (Shelvin Mack), a gritty senior-leader (Willie Veasley), and an awkward but tough-as-nails big man (Howard).
There wasn’t a man on the court who wouldn’t sacrifice his body to go after a loose ball. Their team-first, defensive approach wasn’t designed for superstars but for a unit, working together. And as they reeled off 25 straight wins, the 2009-2010 Butler Bulldogs epitomized the perfect plot for a Hollywood blockbuster.
It was the classic David vs. Goliath (or multiple Goliaths) story of a little-known underdog winning it all and shocking the world. Well, almost.
When Hayward’s shot rolled off the front edge of that rim in Lucas Oil Stadium and the confetti poured down, it was an astoundingly poignant moment; I couldn’t help feeling sad.
Perhaps it made for an even better move-script ending. It was Rocky Balboa losing to Apollo Creed and Mike Winchell coming up an inch short against Dallas Carter all wrapped into one. Except the difference was it was real.
When Butler players collapsed to the floor and then tearfully marched into the locker room, that wasn’t acting. This is what is lost in sports today. We often forget that the athletes we venerate are real people with real emotions. Nowhere is this more obvious than college sports, where no fame or fortune is ever guaranteed
They say nobody ever remembers second place, and maybe that’s true. There’s a good chance none of Butler’s players will make a name for themselves at the next level, and most of them won’t even get the opportunity. But the 2009-2010 Butler Bulldogs reminded me why I love these games so damn much in the first place.
Their passion and enthusiasm were contagious. Their work-ethic and determination were unquestionable. But most of all, by pushing Duke within an inch (literally) of elimination, they reminded us all that sometimes the little guys can hang with the giants. By getting that far in the first place, they reminded us that miracles can still happen in the ever-narrowing world of parity in sports. I, for one, will remember this year’s Butler team for what they were – a group that believed in themselves, overcame all odds, and almost achieved the impossible.
And one thing is for sure: No matter who fate pits opposite Butler in next year’s bracket, I know that I’ll be cheering loudly for the Bulldogs.
Ascher Robbins writes a weekly column for the Vail Daily. When not channeling his inner-Bulldogs, he is a communications major at UC-Santa Barbara and Battle Mountain alumnus.