It’s a 15-minute drive from Natalie Butler’s home to George Mason’s campus, making the school’s basketball facilities as familiar as the living room couch. Butler’s dad has a membership to the RAC, the school’s Recreation and Athletic Complex. She and her younger brother visited the gym dozens and dozens of times together: to work on their shooting and ballhandling, to run quickness and agility drills, to practice post-up moves. (“Someone would get a ‘bow to the face, because we were always going at it,” she said.)
The three Butlers — dad, daughter and son, all basketball stars — sometimes played pickup games together on Mason’s campus, because it’s the neighborhood Division I school. After the workouts, there would sometimes be family meals at Brion’s Grille, the longtime standby for Mason fans, just a midrange jumper up Route 123 from their Fairfax Station home.
Butler’s career GPS, though, introduced a few short detours. First there was a season at Georgetown, where the late-blooming 6-foot-5 center became an unexpected collegiate force and the Big East freshman of the year. Then came three years with the most famous program in the sport: Butler played in two Final Fours with Connecticut, won a national championship and graduated with a degree in communications. And then — recalculating, recalculating — the route finally wound back home to Mason.
“You know, life never happens the way you expect it to happen, so you’ve just got to roll with it,” she said recently, sitting inside that same facility she visited countless times with her family. “It’s nostalgic in a way. It’s just weird to be back home, but it’s like a dream come true.”
Butler arrived back in Fairfax as a graduate transfer, obtaining an NCAA waiver that allowed her to compete immediately for the Patriots in her final season of eligibility. She became a team captain before playing her first game, and then started dominating like few Mason players have. After recording 13 points and nine rebounds in a season-opening loss to Michigan, Butler has turned in 17 straight double-doubles, the most in the country and the eighth-longest streak in Division I history. She earned at least a share of the Atlantic 10 player of the week award five times in her first seven weeks. And she is averaging 15.2 rebounds per game, nearly two more than any other player in Division I basketball, male or female.
“Pretty astonishing,” Mason Coach Nyla Milleson said.
“It’s incredible,” said her brother, James, like Natalie a former All-Met from Lake Braddock High.
“It’s crazy; impressive crazy,” teammate Jacy Bolton said.
“I never thought that this year would be going the way it is right now, honestly,” Butler said. “I’m just very thankful, because I know it could be going the other way.”
That’s because neither of her previous stops went exactly as planned. Butler came on late in her high school career, choosing Georgetown over Virginia Tech, James Madison and Delaware, and not reopening her recruiting as her stats began spiking. (She averaged a triple-double in points, rebounds and blocks as a senior.)
She arrived at Georgetown just in time to see coach Keith Brown placed on administrative leave amid complaints about inappropriate conduct and abusive language, playing her freshman season for interim coach Jim Lewis. She excelled as a low-post fixture for the Hoyas, averaging better than 13 points and 13 rebounds a game, finishing fifth in Division I in rebounding, recording 24 double-doubles — and starting every game. After the season, Georgetown named Natasha Adair its head coach, making her Butler’s third head coach in seven months.
“It was really rough,” she said. “Everything but basketball was going on.”
So Butler decided to transfer. This time, she was choosing a school not as a developing high school talent, but as one of the most decorated freshmen in the country. She chose Connecticut over Virginia, at a time when Geno Auriemma was accepting few transfers into his powerhouse program. And she wasn’t showing up as a low-profile afterthought, either.
“Butler’s arrival is a godsend,” the Hartford Courant wrote.
“Quite frankly I would not be surprised to see her as an all-American one day,” Seton Hall’s Tony Bozzella said at the time.
“We don’t do this unless it’s a game-changer, and she’s going to be a game-changer for us, no question about it,” Auriemma said.
Heady stuff. Then came more recalculating. First, Butler had to sit out her transfer year, something she called “tougher than I had ever imagined.” She concentrated on changing her body: lifting weights, losing 20 pounds, playing pickup games with guys after practices, running the floor better than she ever had. She paid her own way to the Final Four to watch the Huskies win their third straight national title, and visited the White House with the team.
But during an October practice the next season, she injured her thumb catching a ball; the popping noise was loud enough that everyone in the gym stopped and stared. She thought it was a sprain, until a stretching session two days later, when her thumb flopped back entirely toward her hand. She had torn a ligament; the resulting surgery kept her out for more than two months and required her to wear a splint when she returned.
“That was heartbreaking,” she said. “By the time I came back it was [almost] January, and the starting five and the top seven players are already established by that point. So it’s very hard to integrate yourself, especially at Connecticut, where you have such a talent level.”
She averaged 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds that season, playing sparingly in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies won a fourth straight championship, this time earning Butler a ring. She remained a reserve the next season, averaging 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds as Connecticut went to yet another Final Four. She was set to graduate and thought she was ready for grad school.
“My mind-set, when she made the decision to pursue her master’s and step away from U-Conn., was that basketball was over,” said her father, Vernon, the former Navy star, who remains second all-time in points and rebounds at the academy. “We had all pretty much accepted that.”
The graduate-transfer option was her last out, and she pursued it. Mason had a program in global affairs with a concentration in global governance and public management, the sort of program she was looking for. (Butler has studied German for 10 years.) Mason also had proximity: the 15-minute drive, the years of history, all those summer workouts in the RAC.
“People can get so caught up in playing time; when you’re part of a team like U-Conn. that’s breaking records, has a coach that’s been coaching for 30 years, has a phenomenal coaching staff, and just to be a part of that was a great opportunity,” she said. “I’m very thankful for my experience, but I knew that it was time for me to come home.”
When Butler arrived on campus, the coaching staff told her they would be “reprogramming” her from a role player back into a focal point, from a pass-first reserve in the U-Conn. system to a shoot-first standby in Mason’s more traditional offense. She was back home, and trying to morph back into the player she had been before she left.
“When you’re not the first, second, third or fourth option in an offense, it’s definitely different, and you can very easily fall into a comfort with playing like that,” said her brother, with whom she still works out. “And when she came to a new school, a new program where she’s ‘The Guy,’ it takes some adjustment. It’s almost like you have to rework your mental psyche.”
That process is ongoing — coaches still tell her to “go score” when she is one-on-one in the post — but the results have been remarkable. In her first league game, she tied the Atlantic 10 record with 28 rebounds, breaking a 40-year-old school record. In another game, she went for 35 points and 20 rebounds. The Patriots equaled last year’s win total in the first week of January, starting 13-3 for the first time since joining Division I. She might not have become a game-changer for Connecticut, but she was that instantly at Mason.
“I knew she would put numbers up — I had enough faith in what we do and in her ability — but monster numbers like she’s putting up?” Milleson said. “I sit there and watch her some days and think, gosh, what I wouldn’t give to have her for a couple more years, what she could do.”
That seems like an unavoidable thought: What if Butler hadn’t made two stops before George Mason? What sort of playing career might she have had if her route skipped those detours? Butler and Milleson had that conversation, and they decided the whole trip was necessary.
“I think I’ve learned more than some people learn in a lifetime,” Butler said. “It’s surreal for me to be able to come back to this environment, but you can’t ask for anything more. You’ve just got to be grateful. Things don’t usually go like this, you know? So you might as well enjoy it.”