The Drama of the Big Dance
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four (a.k.a. The Big Dance) is one of my favorite non-running sporting events. I love following the emotional highs and lows. I get excited listening to the hyperbole during the pre-game “Prelude to a Championship” show. And I get goosebumps watching the tournament highlights at the end of the telecast while the song One Shining Moment plays. I think the NCAA Basketball Championship tournament represents athletics at its best and this year there were some especially interesting story lines that touched me.
David vs. Goliath
Much has already been made of the David vs. Goliath match-up of Butler against Duke. It was perfect that this year’s Final Four was in the state of Indiana.You couldn’t read or listen to any coverage of the championship game that didn’t have some reference to the 1986 movie, Hoosiers.
Playing the part of David were the Butler Bulldogs from the mid-major conference, the Horizon League. Butler’s total enrollment is 4,438 students. In terms of basketball lineage, this was their first ever appearance in the Final Four and first ever appearance in the NCAA Championship game. Previous NCAA Championships: zero.
Playing the part of Goliath were the Duke Blue Devils from the basketball powerhouse conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Duke’s total enrollment is over 13,000 students. Prior to this season Duke had played in fourteen Final Fours, nine NCAA Championship games, and had won three NCAA Championships.
It was a great match-up and a quote from Hoosiers kept popping into my head during the game, “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.” And if Gordon Hayward’s hail mary from half court at the buzzer had somehow bounced into the basket, it might have been the greatest win by David of all-time. Alas the shot missed. But isn’t it great that David had a chance?
Hometown Butler and their young coach
It was certainly noteworthy that not only was Butler the David in this drama, they were also playing in their hometown of Indianapolis. They were the first team to play in the Final Four in their hometown since 1972 when UCLA played in Los Angeles. Ironically, in the movie Hoosiers, the championship game takes place in Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler University! Butler University is located six miles away from Lucas Oil Stadium, where the championship game took place.
The Butler team did stay in a hotel in downtown Indianapolis so they could participate in all the usual Final Four festivities. But during the game it was mentioned that eight of Butler’s players attended class on game day morning. Coach Brad Stevens arranged for vans to shuttle players to campus to attend their morning classes. What a refreshing thing to know – the student-athletes of Butler University were in class before the big game! None of the players had to worry about Tuesday’s classes because in honor of the basketball team, the school cancelled classes the day after the big game.
Butler’s coach also has a great story. At thirty-three years of age, he was the second youngest coach to coach in an NCAA Championship game. In comparison, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) has been coaching at Duke for thirty years (meaning Stevens was three years old when Duke hired Coach K). After graduating from DePauw University in 1999, where he had a solid college basketball career, Stevens found himself working as a marketing associate for the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. He was still involved in basketball, however, coaching a high school and a club team. In 2000 he decided to pursue his basketball dream and he quit his job at Eli Lilly. Butler’s then head coach Thad Matta hired him to be Butler’s coordinator of basketball operations. Matta recalls Stevens as “a hungry young kid that was desperate to get into coaching. He had a great passion and was willing to take a risk to get into the coaching profession.” The next year he became an assistant coach at Butler, and then in 2007 was hired as the team’s head coach.
Duke’s Nolan Smith
Duke junior guard Nolan Smith had an extra burden in pursuit of the national championship. Thirty years ago at the 1980 NCAA Championship game in Indianapolis, Louisville defeated UCLA to win the championship. A key member for Louisville was Derek Smith. Derek would go on to have a lengthy professional basketball career.
After retiring, Derek was working as an assistant coach for the Washington Bullets when he, his wife Monica, and his two children Nolan and Sydney were on a cruise ship. Early in the day on August 9, 1996, eight-year old Nolan got upset when he lost a pick-up basketball game and he threw the ball off the ship into the ocean. Derek reminded his son, “if you’re going to play this game you have to have the right attitude.” A few hours later Derek, age thirty-four, collapsed and died from a previously undetected heart defect.
Nolan honors his dad with a tattoo on his right bicep. The tattoo reads “Forever watching,” then there’s an image of Derek Smith, and under that the words, “Derek Smith 1961-1996.” Hopefully Derek was watching as his son Nolan repeated family history by winning an NCAA Championship in Indianapolis, thirty years after he did.
West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler
The West Virginia Mountaineers made it to the Final Four but lost to Duke in the semi-finals. With 8:59 left in the second half of that game Da’Sean Butler drove to the basket and fell awkwardly. He was writhing on the ground in pain and it appeared that this future NBA draft pick may have suffered a career threatening knee injury. On the television screen, with Butler clearly in physical pain and mental anguish, the West Virginia coach Bob Huggins literally got down on the ground and hugged Butler, cradling his head, stroking his face, and talking to him. Huggins face was inches from Butler’s and every time Butler tried to move his head to look at his knee, Huggins would move Butler’s face back to look at him. It was a powerful moment that showed the love Coach Huggins has for his players.
During the stoppage in play, while the trainers attended to Butler and his knee, the television commentators talked about Butler’s community service work. Then they told a great story to exemplify what a terrific person Butler is. You often hear about the close games during the NCAA tournament giving fans a heart attack…well in early March, seventy-four year old Agnes Channel, a diehard West Virginia supporter really did suffer a heart attack while watching West Virginia play their regular season finale. Three weeks later, West Virginia pulled off an upset over Kentucky to reach the Final Four for the first time in 59 years. And two days later, Butler went to visit Channel in the hospital. Channel, who’s been following the West Virginia run to the Final Four from her hospital bed with her lucky plastic basketball, immediately recognized the six-foot-seven-inch Butler when he came into her hospital room. Butler wished her a speedy recovery and thanked her for cheering on the team.
It appears that Butler tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and also sprained the medial cruciate ligament and suffered two bone bruises. He is scheduled for surgery. After hearing the story about him visiting the lady in the hospital, I know I will be rooting for Butler to make a full recovery so that he can have a successful NBA career.
Yes, there was a lot of great drama and many great story lines coming from the NCAA Basketball Championships. Enough to compel me take a break from writing about running and track.