Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

March Madness: Recalling the Verizon Center magic of George Mason in 2006

“Whenever you talk about the Final Four, you have to mention us. This is history. We changed the face of college basketball.”

— Lamar Butler Jr., 2006

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The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe discuss Florida Gulf Coast University’s historic weekend and predict which tournament underdogs will make it to the next round of the NCAA Tournament.

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The shooting guard in the George Mason green and gold, who smiled so big and played even bigger — his joyful mug splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated seven years ago — returns to the scene of the most jarring upset in NCAA tournament history this week.

“Got to catch up with Coach L and the staff,” Lamar Butler says nonchalantly.

Miami Coach Jim Larranaga will hold practice Wednesday with many of his old Mason assistants and his new team at Verizon Center, which Thursday will host the East Region of the tournament’s round of 16 for the first time since a bunch of mid-major kids from Fairfax slung the stone that dropped top-seeded Connecticut in overtime. The reverberations that afternoon sent a school from a non-power conference to the Final Four and made absolute cult heroes out of all the drama’s major players.

“To this day, it was just a very special Washington moment,” said Chris Caputo, Larranaga’s assistant then at Mason and now at Miami. “You think about where the school was located, where the kids were from, where the game was played — the whole thing is still so surreal.”

Indeed, before the slipper ever fit Butler or VCU — or just maybe Florida Gulf Coast, Wichita State or La Salle — there were a group of slighted kids from Maryland and Virginia passed over by prominent Division I programs, making do in the Colonial Athletic Association.

There was Larranaga, the corny basketball lifer who before the U-Conn. game renamed the CAA the “Connecticut Assassins Association,” and his carefree players who beat the previous two years’ national champions. There was Mason Nation and a pep band pounding out “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Before anyone heard of Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart, there was finally “Hoosiers”-esque hope for the little guy.

Remember?

“Every March,” Butler says, standing behind the counter of Varsity Sports, the sporting goods store his father, Lamar Butler Sr., owns in Temple Hills. “I love the small schools but when one starts winning I start hoping inside, actually saying to myself, ‘Please don’t let a mid-major win the national championship.’ I don’t want them to forget that we were the first to get that far.”

Tony Skinn, the point guard on that team, half-joking, adds, “Man, Florida Gulf Coast needs to chill. They’re working on taking away our claim to fame.”

Whatever happened to Coach L’s kids who twirled basketball fans on their fingertips in 2006?

One went to spring workouts as an offensive tackle for the New York Giants that same year. Another was told by Mateen Cleaves, the former Michigan State star, in the middle of a Russian league game as he was dribbling downcourt, “Hey, I like how you and George Mason play.” Still another has been hailed as “the Michael Jordan of the Philippines.”

All the Mason kids are pushing 30 now, either married with children or working on it. Even the boyishly exuberant shooting guard from 2006 no longer looks 16.

“No more baby face,” says Butler, 29, growing in a goatee. “We had to grow up someday. We couldn’t stay what everyone remembered us as forever, right?”

Folarin Campbell, the sophomore small forward nicknamed “Shaq” whose step-back jumper against U-Conn. nearly sealed it, has a 4-year-old son big enough to mistake for 9. Jai Lewis, the wide-body forward who went to Giants’ camp before choosing a pro hoops career overseas, is married with children. He’s now posting up in the Japanese league.

Will Thomas, the rail-thin power forward, is still so quiet, Butler said, he “could be a secret agent.” He’s actually been found; Thomas had 17 points in the Turkish league on Sunday night.

In fact, almost every contributing player during Mason’s 2006 run has played professionally. Skinn, who flourished in Europe, played for the Nigerian national team at the London Olympics last summer.

Yet, in maybe a greater tribute to their feat, none has logged a single minute in an NBA regular season game. Five U-Conn. players who played that day, including Rudy Gay, have dotted NBA rosters over the years.

Mason’s most popular international basketball star now was actually a role player in 2006. Gabe Norwood, a key reserve who climbed an invisible step ladder to throw down so many big backdoor dunks, has 40,000 Twitter followers. He’s a three-time Filipino league all-star and slam-dunk champion on the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. A Filipino commentator actually calls him “Mr. President” for his uncanny resemblance to President Obama. “I’m telling you, Gabe is Michael Jordan over there,” Butler says.

None ever expected to play before a crowd rivaling the RCA Dome in Indianapolis in 2006, scene of the Final Four, but when you’re in “in the middle of nowhere in Czechoslovakia, it’s cold, no one speaks English and the McDonald’s is the beacon of light for the whole community because they stay open past dark, you definitely think about those days at Mason,” Butler says.

He played with Patrick Ewing Jr. on the Reno Big Horns in the NBA Development League before giving up the game professionally three years ago.

Everything changes.

Larannaga, of course, is no longer coaching the Little Team That Could; he’s now part of the power-conference establishment. Having coached on both sides of the Goliath parable has its advantages. “He’s never going to take anybody for granted,” Caputo says.

“The day we played U-Conn., the possibility of us going to the Final Four didn’t exist,” he adds by telephone from Coral Gables, Fla. “Kent State got to the Elite Eight once, but thinking about going there for a mid-major program was so foreign. I don’t think as we walked into that locker room that day any of us really believed it could happen until we did it.”

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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