Monday, April 05, 2010

One Shining Moment

In light of Butler's appearance in tonight's NCAA Championship game (a sentence I cannot believe even as I write it), I thought it would be appropriate to adapt and revise some thoughts I posted here two years ago when the Bulldogs were on a Sweet 16 run and my former Butler classmate Thad Matta was about to coach Ohio State to the Final Four.

In 1987, I left home for Butler University in Indianapolis for my freshman year of college. They had an excellent broadcasting program (which was my interest), and a beautiful, semi-urban campus. It was not, however, a pleasant year. Living in the Ross Hall dormitory, I did my best to dive in and become a Hoosier. The soundtrack for that year was Seymour, Indiana native John Couger Mellencamp's new album The Lonesome Jubilee. I read Season on the Brink and began watching Bobby Knight on television wherever I could find him (since, in addition to Butler, which was small potatoes, you had to pick one of the state's real teams to root for: either IU, Purdue, or perhaps Notre Dame). I took visiting friends and family to the Indianapolis Speedway. The memories now are mostly fond, but for some reason at the time, it didn't take. I liked city, I liked the school, I liked the people, and I've maintained the Mellencamp and Knight devotion up to the present, but...I think I just wasn't ready to be out on my own yet. I was homesick and lonely, and wound up transferring as a sophomore to the University of Missouri-Columbia where I already had lots of old friends from high school (thus beginning my attendance at what became a truly breathtaking succession of colleges and universities).

During that difficult 87-88 school year, one of my lifelines was Butler Bulldog basketball. My roommate and I, and the two guys across the hall [I wish I'd kept up with all of them; they were good guys, and impossible to find now except one who I recently located on Facebook. My roommate's name then was Pete Smith. That should narrow it down to a few million...] had season tickets and went to every game, where we were part of an average crowd of about 500. It was so sparse at the games that we broadcasting majors could just stroll in and plop down courtside and "broadcast" the games into a tape recorder for practice if we wanted--no press pass or clearance necessary.

The Bulldogs played (and still play) in this incredible old-time field house where the championship scene of the movie "Hoosiers" was shot the year before I got there. To this day, it's the greatest place I've ever watched a basketball game. When the team wasn't using it for a game or practice, we'd sometimes play late-afternoon pickup games right on that court; it was open to everybody.

The season I was there, I think Butler finished something like 14-14 playing teams like Wabash, Valparaiso, and Indiana State. I remember one night watching ESPN with my friends (our dorm had just been wired for cable) and getting really excited that they actually mentioned the score for the game we'd just attended. It kind of felt like it might feel if you played ping pong in your basement one evening and later saw Dan Patrick give the score on the air.

Which is why I keep using the word "inconceivable" about this game, even cognizant of that term's potential misuse [thanks to The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."] The Butler Bulldogs are playing Duke for the national championship tonight. Of course, it's unlikely that they will win. Duke is a number one seed and a perennial powerhouse. 4,200-student Butler is the smallest school to reach the NCAA finals in 40 years. But stranger things have happened. Butler's already knocked one top seed out of the tourney, and you don't get to the NCAA finals by merely being lucky. This is a legitimate championship contender. Just the notion of Butler playing in the biggest game of the Big Dance is beyond anything I would have ever let myself imagine.

As recently as a few months ago, whenever my time at Butler would come up in conversation, the usual response was, "Butler? Where's that at?" Whatever happens tonight, Butler will hereafter be a school that's been in the NCAA Final. Now, everybody knows where it's at.

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