Bitter pill not so hard to swallow

Butler starters (from left) Ronald Nored, Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack helped elevate the Bulldogs to new heights and will return for another run at a national title.

Two years ago, I was in media row at Conseco Fieldhouse when Gordon Hayward’s runner at the buzzer won an Indiana Class 4A state championship for Brownsburg High School. It was a moment which brought an involuntary reaction I have chastised others for over the years, as I sprung out of my seat and yelled in spontaneous joy for a kid I saw grow from a tiny skeleton into a major talent and leader during his high school years.

When my ticket was secured for the Final Four in Indianapolis last week, I began having a vision of the perfect ending for Hayward and the Butler Bulldogs. I pictured Hayward with the ball, nailing a long-range 3-pointer as time expired for the national championship.

As I stood with my brother and 71,000 others at Lucas Oil Stadium Monday night, that vision came agonizingly close to remarkable reality. But when Hayward’s heave from just inside half-court bounced off the backboard and front of the hoop, what would’ve been the greatest shot in NCAA history turned into the sad realization that one of the more memorable tournament runs ever was over.

Out of the many hundreds of events I have attended or covered, Monday’s title game with Duke will eternally be in a class of its own. Somewhere in my subconscious now resides a parallel universe, one in which Hayward’s bomb swished though the net, and security was steamrolled by thousands of Butler fans as they stormed the court in a stadium awash in tears and spilled drinks in the most raucous celebration since V-J Day.

Perhaps a life full of Colts and Pacers disappointments prepared me for Monday’s jaw-dropping conclusion, because as I filed out with the other Bulldogs supporters, which outnumbered Duke’s by at least 6-to-1, pain was surpassed by a feeling of fortunateness. We were lucky to be there, not only to see an instant classic, but to bear witness to Butler’s unveiling to the world.

The Hoosier State has long known about “The Butler Way” — a system of selfless commitment which this year’s team personified — and now the nation knows. It’s a big reason why Indiana and Purdue won’t play Butler anymore, and why media experts ate crow time and time again over the last few weeks. Even with shooting that would’ve doomed almost any other team, Butler survived in the tournament with grit and heart which are instilled from Day 1 in the program. It’s why nearly every player graduates on time, and why academic honors are hailed as much as athletic accomplishments. For a sport often mired in shadiness and scandal, Butler — much like Duke — maintains standards many programs and coaches can’t fathom.

Anyone thinking Butler’s national runner-up finish is an aberration should prepare themselves for future chagrin.

Brad Stevens, the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach through three seasons (89-15), is the hottest commodity in his field. But while Oregon and/or others will come calling, Stevens isn’t leaving anytime soon. The 33-year-old schematic and motivational genius seems to love Butler and Indianapolis as much as the sport he coaches. He is not one driven by cash, personal ambition or ego, and the university will do everything in its power to make him a lifetime resident of Hinkle Fieldhouse. Outside of the educational realm, that has to be the school’s top priority.

Fueled by a feeling that there’s some unfinished business, Hayward isn’t parting, either. The NBA will still be there in a year or two, and Hayward is smart enough to know he’s part of something priceless. With Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes as the only senior contributors, Butler will return nearly intact while welcoming a solid recruiting class.

How good could they be, especially if they realize their offensive potential?

“They’ll probably win it next year,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after Monday’s championship game. “They’re the best team we’ve played. No one played us any harder or any better than Butler.”

Butler’s brand is forever changed, and this year’s run will pay dividends for many years to come. The Bulldogs will start next season ranked in the top five nationally, and never again will they have to worry about being grossly underseeded by the NCAA selection committee. Butler Nation has grown immeasurably, even if some members are only part-time — like President Barack Obama, who was so inspired by the Bulldogs that he called them on Tuesday.

As I got ready to leave Indianapolis Tuesday morning, I swooped downtown to pick up some half-priced Final Four gear at a merchandise stand, items to remind me of the tremendous season that was. While Butler’s players no doubt remain devastated, for this fan, a crushing loss never felt so good.


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