A Smile That Says It All
He kept nodding, smiling, patting his hands together, exhorting the building on. Lamar Butler, the lithe senior guard with the halogen grin, always dreamt of this, as far as back as childhood when his father was Duke and he was North Carolina and last shot in the back yard won. No do-overs.
But here's the amazing thing: When Butler was scanning the stands for family and friends, it was long before he was snipping the net after the most meaningful, late-round upset in NCAA tournament history. Instead, Butler was beaming as U-Conn. was getting up again, still seven minutes from going down.
The game had so much theater and pulsating moments left, and Butler paid it absolutely no mind. In that moment after a timeout, George Mason's incomparable senior guard was letting the glass-half-empty crowd know it was all right, that the Patriots would be all right. His soft complexion, easily the sweetest and most charming face in college sports today, was awash with an unbridled joy and confidence in the middle of the chaos.
Somehow, he managed to keep a running facial dialogue with the green-and-gold fanatics in the lower bowl and the rafters. In an arena pushing 20,000, Butler was a one-man crisis counselor in the crucible of Mason's miraculous season:
"We got this," he said. "We got this."
Except for Lamar Butler Sr. -- the father he embraced tearfully in a bear hug after the madness had ended, the man who told him, "Don't let anyone ever take your dream away from you" -- who would have believed Lamar Butler Jr.?
See, kids reassure the adults all the time on national television. It takes away the butterflies, the churning of nerves inside. But Butler did this for his father and the rest of that growing Mason Nation, not for himself. Insane as it sounds with future NBA first-rounders trying to end your season, Butler believed before anyone that U-Conn. was going down and Mason -- George "Livin' On A Prayer" Mason! -- was going to Indianapolis.
Maybe this is what overlooked players develop as they grow up in the shadow of big-time college basketball. Maybe when Maryland knocks on your door too late and Georgetown never shows and Virginia is off trying to find an identity outside of the area, you end up with a supreme confidence in yourself and your game.
Butler scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half of the greatest college basketball game most of us will ever see. He knocked down three of the most crucial three-pointers at junctures in which the Patriots desperately needed them.
His team down one with 10 minutes 37 seconds left, he converted the second four-point play of his life, drawing a foul from Mr. Big Shot, U-Conn.'s Rashad Anderson, after he released behind the arc. When Anderson wanted to return the favor late, Butler stuck to him like sock lint.
The roster generously lists Butler at 6 feet 2, 170 pounds, but he probably goes 6-1, 160. Anderson is 6-5, 215 pounds of muscle mass. But Butler was not going to let the most clutch sixth man in college basketball end Mason's majestic ride to the Final Four, the way Anderson shot down Washington to force overtime Friday night.
If there were any Philistine vs. Shepherd metaphors left, this was it -- the kid from Prince George's County shadowing the most dangerous marksman left in the tournament.