INDIANAPOLIS — When Butler centre Matt Howard needed an assist, it was little-used freshman Emerson Kampen who made the shoestring save.
Howard broke a shoelace before Friday’s practice — the one in front of 30,000 people at Lucas Oil Stadium — and Kampen quickly untied his left shoe, handed over the shoestring and spent the next 50 minutes shooting baskets with, essentially, one good foot.
It was Kampen’s biggest contribution to the Bulldogs’ Final Four run.
“We’re all about each other, I think that’s what all 15 of us do,” said Kampen, who has played in only eight games this season. “We’ll do whatever it takes to make each other better, that’s what has gotten us here.”
Many teams have an us-against-the-world credo, some kind of touchstone used when players describe how they compete — a fill-in-the-team phrase that is almost universal. Butler’s players and coaches are no different, insisting they’ve made it to their hometown Final Four because they’ve stayed true to their principles and played basketball the Butler way.
The 19-word sentence — “The Butler Way demands commitment, denies selfishness, accepts reality, yet seeks improvement everyday while putting the team above self” — is open to individual interpretation. But the words truly mean something on the 4,200-student campus of a school founded by abolitionists in 1855, when the slavery question was pushing the nation toward civil war.
Take 2003, when Butler reached the NCAA tournament regional semifinals. Three senior players — two of them starters — spent the morning after their upset of Louisville selling tickets to their own Sweet 16 game in the Hinkle Fieldhouse lobby. One of those players, Darnell Archey, is now an assistant coach on Brad Stevens’ staff.
That memorable scene may never occurred without the assistance of another backup, Rob Walls.
During the closing minutes of the Louisville game the day before, forward Joel Cornette ran over a water cooler while chasing down a loose ball. Walls, the only other player who wore size 15 shoes, quickly took off his sneakers, handed them to Cornette and watched the rest of the game in his socks as Cornette played on.
“I think it’s a lot easier to give up your shoelace than it is to give up your shoes,” Stevens said with a smile after being reminded of that 2003 scene. “But that is something we never talk about unless it’s asked. We want to show what The Butler Way means with our actions.”
A month ago, Howard dived into the Hinkle Fieldhouse crowd to save a loose ball late in what turned out to be a 25-point victory in the Horizon League tourney championship game. Last February, these same players helped assistant coach Kevin Kuwik cope with the death of his girlfriend, who was killed in a plane crash.
On Friday, they were celebrating with the hometown fans who helped carry them from the West Regional back home to Indiana, walking off the court to a standing ovation.
But what is most unique is that Butler hasn’t changed its ways.
It plays defence first, relies on precision passing and celebrates team accomplishments with more fervour than individual awards. Players still go to class, even if it means taking a shuttle bus back to campus during Final Four weekend. They never reflect on past victories, only looking ahead to keep the momentum going for the next group of Butler players and coaches.
“What I take from it is it’s about having this accountability for yourself and your teammates, and when you’re accountable, you’re going to do your job, you’re not going to leave your teammate out to dry,” Howard said, explaining his vision of the Butler Way. “You’re not going to do something stupid that’s going to hurt your family, your coaches, your team and the university. It’s about doing your job, doing the right thing every day, every moment.”
In today’s college basketball world, rife with one-and-done players who always have one eye on the NBA, team ball can be a tough sell.
At Butler, it’s the rule.
With most of their roster coming from Indiana schools or bordering states, recruits are well-versed in the school’s expectations before they arrive on campus. If they’re not interested in playing that way, well, there’s no assurance Butler wants them anyway.
“I’m sure that’s happened in the past 10 years for whatever reason, but I’ve never seen it,” Archey said. “Some player might not be a good fit, but it goes both ways. The kid might not be interested in playing that way, either.”
Stevens insists that even this season’s mind-blowing success won’t change anything.
Yes, the Bulldogs need two more wins to bring home a national title and the big stage has certainly given Butler an opportunity to make its sell to dozens of high school players.
Yet the 33-year-old coach said of recruiting: “If somebody didn’t understand that we’ve had success and how we’ve made it here, then we probably don’t them anyway. It’s not for everybody.”