The Tale Of A Tourney Souvenir
The following essay is an adaptation of the foreword I wrote for Kyle Whelliston's book One Beautiful Season, which chronicled his tour through 2009-10. I'm running it here, on the first real morning of the 2011 NCAA tournament, in hopes of conjuring up more Butler-level memories.
I came home from last year's NCAA tournament with one souvenir. It was for a friend who IM'd me while I was sitting in the press room of Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena on March 27, 2010, trying to finish a story about fifth-seeded Butler reaching the Final Four. He wanted something Butler. A t-shirt, maybe. His team had long been out of the bracket and the Bulldogs were his new team. It would be that way for a lot of people in the week to come -- not just in Butler's hometown of Indianapolis, which was hosting the Final Four, but all over the country. The Bulldogs were nothing if not adoptable.
There wasn't time to chase down a shirt in Utah; I was on deadline and needed to find a quieter place to write. I've never found much comfort in press rooms, and impatient arena workers were on the periphery of this one, stripping down AV equipment, overwhelming my noise-canceling headphones. That's how I ended up in Butler's locker room, shortly after it had been vacated. It offered silence, solitude, a good worktable, and in the sweat-tinged air, residual energy from a celebration of the fourth mid-major Final Four bid in the history of college basketball. I hoped that the setting might offer some inspiration.
I wrote the final third of my story there, re-read it, and e-mailed it to SI.com's overnight newsroom in Atlanta -- where the friend, Bill Trocchi, is a producer. As I was packing up to leave, I noticed a rack of NCAA-issued water bottles, emblazoned with that ubiquitous Vitamin Water logo. They were the only thing the Bulldogs' managers left behind, and they were game-used. Each one had a player's number and initials written on it in black marker. I had found Bill a one-of-a-kind piece of Butler memorabilia.
He'd be receiving Gordon Hayward's Elite Eight water bottle, unwashed. I just hoped he'd have the sense of humor to appreciate it.
A few weeks after the Final Four, after Hayward's last-second half-courter missed by inches in the national title game, and his debut hip-hop track, Too Big Yo, had cycled out of fans' ironic playlists, I shipped the bottle in a Priority Mail envelope from a post office in Brooklyn. Included in the package was a short note that served as official documentation of the bottle's provenance, should it ever be called into question. That was my final task of the 2009-10 season.
I've been on the college basketball beat for six years at SI.com, and 2009-10 was my strangest campaign, mostly because I had to abandon the sport for a month to cover the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. That assignment was an extended adrenaline rush. The same kind of adrenaline usually kicks in at the beginning of the NCAA tournament ... but when I returned to the U.S. with the tourney looming, I was in a state of extreme exhaustion and mild panic. I worried that my hoops hiatus had kept me from spending enough time around the would-be principal figures of the postseason. If I didn't know them well enough, I wouldn't be able to write about them. I was too detached.
I floated through conference tournament-final visits to Indianapolis (for the Horizon League), Richmond, Va. (CAA), Hamden, Conn. (NEC), and New York (Big East) like a zombie. A few hours spent wandering around Butler's hallowed Hinkle Fieldhouse briefly revived me, but my synapses were so fried that, even after watching the Bulldogs in the flesh on March 9, I had no notion they were capable of a historic run into April. I went to New Orleans for the first and second rounds of the NCAAs, and stayed out late each night lamenting that the tourney was passing me by. BYU and Florida played an epic in Oklahoma City, and Northern Iowa upset Kansas there, too; Ohio knocked off Georgetown in Providence; Cornell pulled off two upsets in Jacksonville. Kentucky and Baylor's emergence from NOLA was a chalky footnote. I flew to Salt Lake for the West Regional the next week, wondering if I was heading further into exile.
But everything changed in Utah. Butler ousted top-seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and Kansas State and Xavier played the game of the year, a double-overtime thriller. In the Elite Eight, Butler beat Kansas State and became the story of the year, the Indiana kids from the Hoosiers barn who improbably reached their hometown Final Four. I snapped out of my daze. There was finally something worth writing.
The story I finished in Butler's locker room that night was the first file I'd been happy with all month. It was about brick walls -- how coach Brad Stevens had given sophomore point guard Ronald Nored a copy of late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture before the tournament; how Nored had chosen a Pausch quote for the team's final huddle before taking the court against K-State, telling his teammates that "the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough"; and how they broke through the biggest brick walls of all, the exterior of Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium, to get a shot at a national title.
I kept covering the Bulldogs until the end. Writing about them, in a way, saved my season. The Hinkle kids' story gave hope to fellow little guys that someday, they too might play into April, and it even resonated with the pros: When my return flight landed in New York on April 6, the first voicemail on my cell phone was from Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti. We hadn't met before, but he'd been reading the Butler stories online, and put in a call. When we talked, it was clear he felt a sort of kinship with Stevens; they were both 33-year-old former Division III players who'd already had a stunning amount of success building their respective teams. Hoopheads high and low had become fans of The Butler Way.
And what happened with that water bottle? Bill eventually found me on IM to say thanks. "Really? You liked it?" I asked. I'd worried about how it would be received.
He told me he'd given it to his 9-year-old son, Tyler, who's entering his prime years of sports fandom. "He loves it," Bill said. "It's funny to see everything through his eyes. He still likes reenacting Hayward's halfcourt heave." His son began taking the bottle to youth football games the following fall, and his team, the Ravens, went undefeated through its regular season, eventually losing a semifinal playoff in overtime. There are plans to break the bottle out again this fall. Its lifespan has already been much longer than two games in Utah. A remnant of one beautiful season has carried on into the next.