DAYTON, Ohio, March 16 -- Lamar Butler Sr. is sitting inside the University of Dayton Arena on this chilly Thursday afternoon because, really, where else would he be? He is wearing a green George Mason warmup suit and a black cap with "Mason" stitched across the front because, really, what else would he wear? His son, Lamar Jr., is in Dayton with George Mason for the NCAA tournament, which means that he is there as well.
"He might as well be part of the team," said Butler Jr., a senior guard with the Patriots. "Put him on the payroll. . . . I have one picture -- it's me, Gabe [Norwood], and Tony [Skinn] on the bench -- and you can see my father in the background. Wherever I go, he's always there, no matter what I do."
On Friday evening, Butler Jr. will help lead 11th-seeded George Mason against sixth-seeded Michigan State in a Washington Region first-round game. The 6-foot-2 Butler still has the sweet shooting stroke that made him an All-Met in high school. He has always been a winner; in three seasons at Oxon Hill, the Clippers went 71-7, had a 35-game winning streak and won the 2000 Maryland 4A title. He has won more games than any other player in George Mason history (81 wins, 40 losses).
But it hasn't always been easy. Butler was the runner-up for the Colonial Athletic Association rookie of the year after averaging 10.4 points as a freshman, but then he missed his entire sophomore season in order to let a torn groin muscle and hip flexor heal.
"I realized so much by sitting out," Butler said. "At first I was down. Nobody knew this, but at one point I didn't want to play basketball. I didn't want to go back to school. . . . Basketball was my medicine. Sitting out and starting over, I learned a lot."
If anything, he learned how devoted his father is. Butler Sr. still showed up at George Mason games that season, even though Butler Jr. was on the bench. Butler Sr. -- who figures that he missed only four or five games in his son's college career -- was there the following season, when Butler Jr. returned and became one of Patriots' indispensable players. He led George Mason in scoring as a junior, with 15.7 points per game. This season, he is averaging 11.4 points.
Butler Sr. is a familiar figure in Prince George's County basketball circles; he's worked as an assistant coach at Oxon Hill, Gwynn Park and Suitland. He owns a store that supplies uniforms and sports equipment to area teams, and that allows him to travel as much as he wants.
He estimates he spends four days a week on the road during the winter, traveling to his sons' games; his blue conversion van has 195,000 miles on it. He went to Puerto Rico to watch his youngest son, Joey, play guard for Mount St. Mary's in the San Juan Shootout; he flew to Wichita when the Patriots traveled there for the Bracket Buster. Once the NCAA tournament is over, he will head to England to visit his oldest son, Kenny Roberts, who is playing professionally in Manchester.
All the travel has been worth it. Butler Sr. said he had a plan for his sons; he wanted them to do things that he never did in college. He played basketball at Bowie State from 1972 to 1975, but he never graduated from the school. That's why it's so important to him that Kenny, 24, graduated from St. Vincent (Pa.) College, and Lamar, 22, has already earned his degree in communications from George Mason. Joey, 20, most likely will major in accounting.
"I love him to death. He's done so much for me and my basketball career," Butler Jr. said of his father. "I owe everything to him. When I was born, he put a basketball in my hand -- I just didn't accept it until I was 12. I loved football, but I didn't have the body for it."
Butler Jr. is certain that he will one day become a coach -- "It's in my blood," he says -- and George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga already refers to him as "Coach Butler." Last week, he went to a middle school basketball game in Fairfax County to watch an eighth-grader he worked with at camp the past few summers.
"Last week! It's not like he's not busy as can be," Larranaga said. "That's the way Lamar is. He makes others feel good."