Unity is best illustrated by this adage: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Basketball, more than any other sport, is one in which a team can come together and achieve greatness without having the greatest individual talents.
Before George Mason, there was no George Mason
. No team from a small Division I conference, without the aid of high finance or shadowy advantage, had achieved a berth in the modern Final Four. No "mid-major" had ever won four games at the NCAA Tournament, under the pressure of relentless media coverage. There was no frame of reference for any of it. Four years later, folks at least knew how to react. Butler 2010 was like the second man on the moon, the second black ballplayer, the second kiss. In the weeks, months and years following the Patriots' run, there was a lot of discussion about who "the next George Mason" would be. The real answer to that question was that there would never be a next one, because the experience was irreproducible. There would never again be another first
Beyond the highlight reel version of the story, even George Mason wasn't George Mason
until the third act. The Patriots finished 16-13 the year before, sixth place in the Colonial Athletic Association, and came back with five returning starters. John Vaughan, the highest scorer among their rising sophomore class, tore his ACL two months before the season. They were picked to finish fifth in the CAA in 2005-06. In November, the Patriots were blown out by 20 points by Creighton of the Missouri Valley, held to 29 percent shooting on their own home court. At the time, it was a measurement of how good the other team was.
Jim Larranaga's team was ordinary, frail, fallible and prone to failure. In early March, GMU was held without a field goal for the last nine minutes of regulation in the CAA quarterfinals by a Georgia State team that finished 7-22. That was an elimination game that could have ended the season right there. The Patriots survived in overtime, but in the semifinals, guard Tony Skinn's selfish and mindless outburst -- punching Loren Stokes of Hofstra in the groin -- was one of a wide variety of self-defeating factors that cost George Mason the game. These Patriots were not perfect.
I was privileged enough to have witnessed one of the first glimpses of what could be. The Patriots beat Northeastern in the third CAA game of the season, 71-68. Along with 1,206 fans at Boston's old Matthews Arena on January 2, I watched GMU play as if one man with a single first and last name. "When all the gears are meshing correctly, the George Mason offense resembles a precision timepiece,"
I wrote at the time. "On a perfect Patriots break, the ball effortlessly moves from player to player, from far end line to basket, in what seems like the single stroke of the second hand."
On their own, each player was stoppable. Five together, they were the Justice League.
Dayton. The word is loaded with connotations at this level of Our Game. For me, it's shorthand for March 17 through 19, 2006, one of the strangest, craziest and most beautiful weekends of my writing career. I was assigned there by chance, but I ended up having to cover the Auburn Hills pod as well. The company had left it open, figuring that not much would happen there, given the brackets. It turned out that everything
happened up there in Michigan. In the long tunnel of UD Arena, with a digital recorder between my ear and my mid-2000s flip-phone, I gathered quotes from the Northwestern State players about beating Iowa, and from Bradley head coach Jim Les about making it to the Sweet Sixteen. I was pushed beyond my limits, going beyond myself to help the team.
I had all the inspiration I needed right in front of me. No. 11 seed George Mason, without the suspended Skinn, had four double-figure scorers in a 75-65 win over Michigan State on first round Friday. On Sunday, the reunited five -- point guard Skinn, widebody Jai Lewis, swingman Folarin Campbell, rangy Will Thomas and sharpshooter Lamar Butler -- dug out of a double-digit deficit against North Carolina. They made it to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend for the first time in school history.
Two days later, in Fairfax, Virginia, the George Mason players and coaches arrived at the Patriot Center for a Tuesday afternoon practice. A proud arena worker had lit up all the scoreboards with the final count from the UNC game: 65-60. "Turn that off," Larranaga ordered. What followed was one of the hardest, most intense practices I've ever witnessed. Players were slipping on the floor from the sweat, and had no choice but to mop it up themselves. After 90 minutes, the head coach mercifully blew his whistle, called the team in to center court, and addressed them with a speech.
"We've made it this far," Larranaga said. "There's no reason we can't go even farther. But it's up to all of us, and it's up to each of us." He gestured with both hands as if measuring with a scale. "All of us, each of us.
When there is no difference between those two, anything is possible for this team. When we get selfish, when we don't play together, when we don't pick each other up -- and we know this very well -- we all fail together."
And then a pause. "Now we're going to play a little baseball."
The players clapped and whooped. From an equipment closet came a large foam bat. A manager fetched a rubber ball from Larranaga's office. The head coach set up in the center circle, which became the pitcher's mound. The unmarked middle of one foul line was home plate, and the other became second base. The T-lines where the middle stripe met the sidelines were first and third. The collapsed bleachers? The Green Monster.
The yells and grunts of the sweat session were replaced by laughter and trash talk. "No batter, no batter! I'm serious, you ain't even half a baller!
" In the game's deciding moment, Skinn smacked a line shot off the wall and used his blazing speed to leg out a triple. A fumble in the outfield by Campbell, and Skinn was rounding third and heading for home. The 100-foot throw flew over the court and into the hands of Lewis, who played plate-blocking catcher as Skinn slid in. But without an actual home plate or an umpire, the play was in dispute. "Safe, safe!" yelled Butler, waving his arms wildly.
Sports, when played properly, can inspire unity and camaraderie. Everyone on a team is bound by shared commonality, united in competition against the same thing. On a basketball court, it's easy to tell which side everyone's on, because the other team is wearing shirts and pants of a different color. Beyond the boundaries, it can be difficult to tell who one's teammates are. Groups of co-workers, political parties, and even families tend to perform best when there is an opponent in clear focus.
In March of 2006, Us v. Them wasn't very ambiguous at all. The enemy was the Columbia Broadcasting System, more specifically CBS employees named Jim Nantz and Billy Packer. On Selection Sunday, they declared that George Mason wasn't deserving of an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, and that conferences like the CAA and Missouri Valley weren't capable of winning games there. The Tiffany Network's abstract symbol of an eye became a good dartboard for fans.
Whether or not it was all for show, and it probably was, Packer and Nantz were easy targets. Even Larranaga was weighing in. "Ask them how many times they saw George Mason play this year," he said after his team beat North Carolina. "Definitely not in person. Probably didn't even watch any video on us, so they had no idea going into Selection Sunday what George Mason is all about."
In Dayton, after that win over the Tar Heels, David Pierpont and Chris Metsala from the CAA Zone website found a stack of handwritten index cards scattered along press row. They were cue cards, made by the CBS production staff to keep the announcers on track. They were filled out with things to say after a UNC victory. And so North Carolina is on to Washington, D.C. to play in the Sweet Sixteen. Back to Greg Gumbel in the studio.
They were scrawled in advance, all in fair assumption that a No. 3 seed was going to beat a No. 11, but now these cards were more evidence that CBS was biased against the little guys.
The cards, at face value, were worth as much as the opinions of two old men. Changing people's minds, earning "respect," really wasn't that important.
important was that these things strengthened the bonds between those of us who weren't out on the court playing. They helped bring together proud George Mason alums, rallied the entire Eastern seaboard conference behind the cause (the C! A! A!
chants still ring in my ears, all these years later), and deepened the emotional investment of the unaffiliated. Those of us reporters who were paid by the column were all in; I would be going home for the summer whenever the Patriots did.
When the pep band played "Livin' On A Prayer" as a cheesy Tommy-and-Gina karaoke singalong (and they did, over and over), it was all cute and everything. It would become as dull and nostalgic as the Bon Jovi original in later years. But in the moment, just beyond the surface, there was a dead seriousness to it. We've got each other, and that's a lot.
At the Sweet Sixteen, a short drive away from GMU's Fairfax campus at the Verizon Center, the Patriots beat a sluggish Wichita State team that was trapped by its own internal hierarchy. The Shockers were no match for a five that played as one. Two days later, George Mason was beyond Elite. Against UConn, Larranaga didn't substitute, not once, after the 12-minute mark of the second half. The magic quintet held the line against a team far more talented, and won in a startling and transcendent overtime session. The Patriots were in the Final Four.
And all along the way, Larranaga said all the right things. He was an affable quote machine with no shortage of buzzwords and catch-phrases. We're kryptonite! Connecticut Assassins Association!
Hidden in all of them was a shared code: We Are The Same. All of us, each of us.
In Indianapolis, George Mason played hesitant, unsure, overwhelmed. It was in large part due to the alien atmosphere in the RCA Dome, and the sheer talent of the eventual National Champion Florida Gators had something to do with it too. With so much to react to on an individual level, each player couldn't meld minds with the other four. The game slipped away like a dream. "Not until I looked up at the clock and there were under two minutes left, when we were down 14 or 15 did I realize, 'Gee, we're not going to have a shot at this,'" Larranaga said afterward. "All through the second half, I thought at some point we'd start going into a nice offensive rhythm of inside-outside, taking the ball to the basket."
It's almost five years later now. None of the players on that 2005-06 GMU team played a second in the NBA. I covered that team to the end, but I'll readily admit that when I remember back on those days, I forget some of their names, or transpose firsts and lasts (Tony Campbell?). As every year goes by, George Mason 2006 becomes more and more of a green blur in my mind. I'm sure that future generations will know those Patriots only by their team name, by what they did, only in the abstract.
And then I think, maybe that's the point. We're not supposed to remember five names, just the one.
"It's motivation for all those teams that thought that they had no chance to do something like this," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager told me the day after George Mason was eliminated. "It's going to have kids believing in themselves and each other. They'll hit the weight room and work hard and stay together as a team. They'll tell each other, 'if George Mason could do it, we can do it.' Whether this is exactly replicated or not is immaterial, but it's going to give a lot of people a lot of hope."