The Greatest Basketball Story Ever Told

“And David put his hand into his bag and took from it a stone and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead.”

They say the story is here somewhere.

They say it could be epic, legendary — one of the greatest basketball tales of our lifetime.

Can you see it?

For some, it’s partially hidden, tucked away in a land where high school basketball gyms are more sacred than ancient cathedrals.

But for others — people that love the game and breathe the game and possess it in their veins — the story is everywhere.

These people see the story in the rusty basketball goals that hang from the roof of each garage. They hear it in the bouncing of the ball — the sound of worn leather hitting pavement at 11:15 p.m. on a Tuesday. The noise is a nuisance, a threat to their sleeping patterns. But it’s a necessary nuisance. The neighbor boy is working on his jumpshot — an endeavor that provokes feelings of admiration and respect.

These people know this story. They’ve heard it so many times.

And it always starts with a boy, a ball, and a basketball goal.

Next comes the coach. And he’s always a story unto himself. He shouldn’t be here. But he is, against all odds — and he preaches defense and toughness and teamwork.

Next comes the team — the heart of this story. The team isn’t supposed to be here. Isn’t supposed to win. But here it comes, winning games and changing minds and embodying the spirit of the underdog.

Next comes the miracle. The team from the little school in the little league beats the powerhouse from the big school in the big league.

This is story has it all. There’s the 6-foot-8 basketball prodigy who was raised to believe that this story can happen. There’s the 33-year-old coach who would get carded at any college bar in the nation. And then there’s the team — built and nurtured in the birthplace of the first miracle.

But… there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. This particular story is still being written. The miracle? Well, we’re working on that part.

But here it is…

Butler, a small university with an enrollment of 4,500, is in the Final Four.

Butler, a team from the Horizon League, is two wins from the National Championship.

And this Saturday, the Butler Bulldogs will play in their hometown of Indianapolis in front of upwards of 65,000 fans.

There are millions of people who believe the Bulldogs have no chance.

But here’s this story… and the narrative is so familiar… and the people want to believe again.

*****

OK. We will get to the story.

But first — before the prodigy and the coach and the miracle — we must answer this question.

Why do we love sports? There it is. I’ll just put it out there. It’s a question I think about a lot.

Of course, there are answers. But they always seem incomplete. They can’t explain the passion and emotion and adoration we feel. They just can’t.

Sure, we love sports for the drama and the theater and the unforgiving pressure.

Can this Phil make that 9-foot putt with the Masters on the line? Can Kurt Gibson limp up to home plate and go deep off Dennis Eckersley? Can Mario Chalmers sink that last-second three-pointer and send the NCAA championship game into overtime?

Of course, we love sports because of the unfiltered storylines.

There’s Texas Western’s all-black starting five defeating Kentucky’s all-white squad for the 1966 NCAA basketball title. There’s Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis winning the Super Bowl MVP one year after finding himself immersed in a murder investigation. And there’s Drew Brees leading the Saints to an upset win in the Super Bowl four years after New Orleans was decimated by a hurricane.

And, of course, we love sports because of the spectacle.

We take joy in tailgating with 50,000 other fans in frigid temperatures at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. And we’re awed that more than 1 billion people will watch the World Cup final this summer in South Africa.

But for me, the answer always comes down to this. We love sports for the moment.

The moment is when the theater and the drama and spectacle come together, when we’re transported to another place, when we experience a state of euphoria that only be explained by the people that witness it.

The moment is Michael Phelps beating Milorad Cavic to the wall by a fingernail in a Beijing swimming pool. The moment is a 21-year-old Tiger Woods burying his face into his dad’s shoulder on the 18th hole at Augusta. The moment is Michael Jordan moving to his right, then crossing back to his left, leaving a helpless Bryon Russell in his wake, and burying a game-winner against the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.

These moments last just seconds, but they never truly end. They stay in the back of our consciousness, triggered into a memory when the time is right.

Of course, the NCAA Tournament is a breeding ground for moments. MJ against Georgetown. Keith Smart against Syracuse. Laettner against Kentucky. There are so many moments in March.

And on Friday, we had another moment.

*****

There’s an old cliché in sports. You’ve probably heard it. Something unbelievable will happen, and an announcer will inevitably say something like, “You know what, this story is so incredible, a Hollywood screenwriter wouldn’t even write this, because he wouldn’t believe it could actually happen.”

Maybe that’s why this story is a little different.

This basketball story has already been a movie. And that movie was, of course, based on a real story.

First, we must start with a history lesson. And our lesson begins with the legendary Bobby Plump.

In Indiana, the story of Plump is passed down from generation to generation, like an epic basketball poem.

In 1954, Plump led tiny Milan High, a school with an enrollment of 161, to the all-class Indiana state high school championship. The Milan High Indians beat perennial power Muncie Central in the state championship.

The story of Milan High would become legend. And it would be co-opted into a movie 32 years later. The movie would be titled, “Hoosiers” — and would star Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale.

The character of Plump would morph into Jimmy Chitwood, a sweet-shooting guard with some off-the-court issues.

And Milan High would become the Hickory High Huskers.

But you have to remember. This is the greatest basketball story ever told. So the story couldn’t end with Chitwood and Dale and the Huskers.

The Milan High Indians would win the state championship at Hinkle Fieldhouse — the homecourt of the Butler Bulldogs.

And Plump, our protagonist, would go on to play college basketball at a little school in Indianapolis — you might have heard of it — named Butler.

*****

So by now, you probably know the framework of the Butler story.

The Bulldogs beat No. 1 seed Syracuse on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, and then followed that up with a 63-56 victory over No. 2 seed Kansas State in the West Regional final.

And you probably know the numbers: They Bulldogs are 30-4. They won 24 games in a row. They’ve beat Xavier and Ohio State and Siena. They’re 7-3 against NCAA Tournament teams.

But you probably don’t know these numbers. According to basketball statistician, Ken Pomeroy, the Bulldogs are sixth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.* And if you think the Bulldogs are relatively untested — given their membership in the Horizon League — consider this fact:

Butler played the second-toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. And they are 11-4 against teams in the top 100 of Pomeroy’s computer rankings.

*I admit, I’m not exactly sure what that means.

More than anything, Butler is the perfect team to embody this NCAA Tournament. Because when you strip away the artificial sponsors and the inane NCAA and the colossal stadiums, you are left with the game.

And to find the soul of the game, you have to peal away the acrobatic dunks and jaw-dropping blocks and blinding athleticism.

Yes, it’s there somewhere. The soul of the game. The essence of ball.

And when you finally do it, when you strip away everything, it comes down to this:

The game is really about passing and cutting and shooting.

Which team can pass? Which team can move without the ball? Which team can knock down shots?

Of course, these things should seem obvious. And yet, they are why basketball is the greatest game the world has ever seen. And why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world.

Listen to Kansas coach Bill Self, and he’ll tell you the same thing. In March, it really comes down to this: Which team makes shots?

So, yes, you can strip it all away, and it really comes down to the romantic notion of basketball.

The kid. The ball. And the basket.

So let’s start there. The kid.

*****

Gordon Hayward knows this story.

He’s seen it before. He’s felt it before. And he’s lived it before.

Some say that the state of Indiana has a way of producing basketball heroes.

Larry Bird came from French Lick, and he was once the protagonist in this play. Oscar Robertson grew up in a housing project outside Indianapolis and led Crispus Attucks High to the Indiana state title in 1955. Decades before that, a young man by the name of John Wooden led Martinsville to the state championship in 1927.

And by a little twist of fate, Hayward has already been the hero once.

On a calm Indiana night in 2008, Hayward led Brownsburg High to the 4A Indiana state title. If the story ended there, well, it would be still be amazing.

But, no, the story does not end there. Because on that calm Indiana night, the Brownsburg Bulldogs trailed Marion 39-38 with 2.1 seconds left.

Brownsburg’s in-bounds passer would heave the ball 70 feet down the court. The ball would be tipped… and a mad scramble would ensue.

And somehow, the ball ended up in the hands of Hayward…

Moments later, the Brownsburg players were dancing on the court at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Hayward’s short jumper had dropped through the net, and the Bulldogs were state champions.
*****

There’s an old cliché about Indiana high school basketball.

They say Indiana produces shooters. And, yes, Hayward can shoot.

But he can do more. At 6-9, Hayward can pass and rebound and create off the dribble.

He can hit step-back three-pointers and bang with the most physical of bigs.

And on Friday, with a little help from CBS’ Gus Johnson, he also gave us a moment.

The moment came in Butler’s game against K-State — and I can only assume this story will be told for decades in Indiana.

Johnson, of course, was broadcasting the game. And late in the second half, with Butler holding onto a small lead, Hayward skied for an offensive rebound, yanked the ball down, rose for the put-back and drew a foul.

In an instant, Johnson shouted these words:

“DON’T LET THE SMOOTH TASTE FOOL YA.*”

*If you didn’t know, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool ya” is an old marketing slogan for King Cobra malt liquor.

In retrospect, the moment was just as much Johnson’s as it was Hayward’s.

And, yet, in this moment, something else happened. Butler had already defeated No. 1 seed Syracuse. And here they were, hanging with K-State, who at the time, seemed to be destiny’s team.

But here was Butler. And for the first time, the ultimate basketball miracle seemed to be possible.

*****

Every one of these basketball miracle stories has to have a coach. That much is obvious.

But Butler coach Brad Stevens is no Norman Dale, the redemptive figure in “Hoosiers”.

But in some ways, Stevens’ story is more unlikely.

He graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana in 1999 after a four-year playing career. And he temporarily took a marketing job in Indianapolis while working as a voluntary high school coach.

Shortly after, he would take a gamble and dive headfirst into the coaching business. He joined the Butler staff under then-coach Thad Matta in before the 2000-01 season.

After one season, Matta would leave Butler for Xavier, assistant Todd Lickliter would take over, and Stevens would become a full-time assistant coach.

Nine years later, the 33-year-old Stevens has the Bulldogs in the Final Four in his third season at Butler. He’s 88-14 in three seasons — the most wins by any coach in his first three seasons.

And yet, Stevens’ trademark doesn’t seem to be his sterling record or his remarkable rise.

No, instead, Stevens is perhaps more famous for his boyish looks. It’s almost as if Ferris Bueller stumbled into Hinkle Fieldhouse and became one of the top young coaches in the country. He’s calm and he recruits and he is a wizard of mental preparation… now all he has to do is get up on a parade float and sing “Twist and Shout”.

*****

Lastly, there is the team.

There’s sophomore Shelvin Mack, a lead guard from Lexington, Kent., who was passed over by the hometown Wildcats. There’s sophomore Ronald Nored, a deep-thinking defensive specialist who devours books with messages of inspiration. There’s Matt Howard, a crafty, 6-foot-8 forward who was the player of the year in the Horizon League last season.

And there’s eight more players from Indiana — eight more players who know this story.

*****

Yes. The people want to believe again. In their dreams they can see Plump leading Milan High to the state title.

They remember Larry Bird rising from the poor streets of French Lick. And they remember one of their own, Oscar Robertson, slowly becoming the best basketball player in the world.

And when the close their eyes, they can hear it, the voice of Gene Hackman, bringing his team together before the state championship game in Hoosiers, moments before the dramatic denouement.

They can hear Hackman’s question: “Does anybody have anything else to say?”

And the answer is always this: “Let’s win it for all the small schools that never got a chance to get here.”

The can visualize the final scene: Jimmy Chitwood looking into his coach’s eyes and telling him calmly… “I’ll make it.”

They can remember it all. Because in Indiana, basketball miracle stories aren’t just possible — they also define the state’s heritage.

And so, on Saturday, thousands and thousands of Indianans will make the pilgrimage to Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis.

And Butler, a school of 4,500 from the Horizon League, will take on Michigan State, a school that has played in six of the last 12 Final Fours.

The story, of course, is still being written.

But here’s this story… and the narrative is so familiar… and the people want to believe again.

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