Thankfulness involves being truly grateful when things go well. But equally or perhaps more important is to be thankful for what you learn in the hard times, and to have the wisdom to grow from them.
Before Jim Larranaga became the head men's basketball coach at George Mason in 1997, he roamed the sidelines at Bowling Green. It was his first Division I job, after he put in 12 years as an assistant at Davidson and Virginia. His first three seasons at Anderson Arena, "The House That Roared," amounted to meek peeps. The team fought hard to maintain a winning record in the Mid-American Conference. In the regular seasons of 1990 and 1991, the Falcons rose to challenge Ball State and Eastern Michigan, the MAC powers at the time, but came up short in March both times and accepted NIT bids. Then, Bowling Green fell back into mediocrity.
Larranaga was a bright young X-and-O coach who was working on developing a full-court "scramble" defense. But something was missing. He couldn't get his teams over the hump to compete for league championships. It was a constant struggle to win more than half his games. Larranaga was afraid of becoming another middling mid-major coach who never made it to the Big Dance, just another of the hundreds who came into every season hoping to do well enough to keep their jobs. Those were the coaches who slowly faded away, who traded business suits for sweatsuits and became Basketball Guys.
Bowling Green had a home-and-home scheduling agreement with Wisconsin-Green Bay. The first game in the short series was at Anderson Arena in December 1993. The visitors won by three points. The December 1994 return game in Wisconsin was a similar result: a 69-62 Phoenix victory. Coach Larranaga was impressed by Green Bay. Their coach, Dick Bennett, built the program into a perennial contender. The Phoenix won the Mid-Continent in 1993-94 and, as a No. 12 seed, upset California in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That summer, the school was part of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference's massive poach job, but the Phoenix easily settled into the proto-Horizon League. In March 1995, Green Bay beat La Salle, Northern Illinois and Wright State in the conference tournament, then came within a point of a 14/3 upset of Purdue.
With their home-and-home series over, Larranaga asked Bennett for a friendly summer meeting. He wanted to come up to Green Bay and find out why the Phoenix played so well as a team. When Bennett accepted, the Bowling Green head coach asked if he could bring along a friend.
Barry Collier was in charge of a men's basketball program that was in even worse shape than Bowling Green's. Since Tony Hinkle's mandated retirement in 1970, Butler basketball had slipped into sad obscurity and oblivion. Seven years of George Theofanis, a clean-cut fellow with thick rimmed glasses, produced only two winning seasons. Joe Sexson took over in 1977, and he led the Bulldogs from independent status to the new MCC. With forgotten warriors like Tony Warren, Lynn Mitchem and Chad Tucker, Butler spent the "Me Decade" giving away wins, and closed the 1981-82 season with 13 straight losses. Before Sexson was finally fired in 1989, his last four Butler teams failed to advance past the first round of the conference tournament.
Collier was a Butler graduate, and finished his playing career there as a senior captain and letterman on Theofanis' last team. On his Senior Day at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Bulldogs beat DePauw University -- the future alma mater of Brad Stevens, who was still five months away from being born -- by a 92-52 score. It was Butler's biggest win of the year, but a single victory wasn't going to save Theofanis' job after a 12-15 record. Collier began his own climb up the coaching ladder that autumn, at the Rose Hulman Institute. He later took assistant gigs at Idaho, Oregon and Stanford before he came back home for the first time in 1989.
The reunion could have been happier. In Collier's initial season as Butler head coach, the Bulldogs were the worst team in the conference. After a 12-game midseason losing streak, Butler was put out in the MCC first round again, this time by a resounding 86-61 score. It was Xavier and good old Pete "Bag-O-Donuts" Gillen, getting geared up for the Musketeers' long run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Things didn't, and couldn't, get worse than that. But Collier found himself on the same treadmill Larranaga was on. Butler hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament in three decades. There was a winning season, then a losing season, freshmen would come, seniors would leave, and there was no consistency. The best Butler could do was make the NIT. So Collier joined Larranaga on that summer trip to Wisconsin, to find out what Dick Bennett's secret was.
The three coaches met in Chicago, and travelled together by plane to Green Bay. Larranaga brought along a thick looseleaf binder full of plays and diagrams, expecting a long discussion about championship basketball strategies. The Phoenix head coach wasn't interested in paperwork.
"Our meeting with Coach Bennett had less to do with X's and O's and more to do with philosophy," Larranaga wrote in a column, which appeared on the opinion-editorial page of the Washington Post
in March 2010. "Not just basketball philosophy, but a philosophy about life and a coach's responsibility to his players. Coach Bennett shared with us his philosophy of 'humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.'"
Five simple words, a small enough collection to fit on a napkin, post-it note, or bumper sticker. Behind each was a fully-fledged value. Humility:
The sober acceptance of one's own strengths and weaknesses, the knowledge of the self as both a special entity and a small thing in a big universe -- finite against the infinite. It was the strangest and most out of place of the five, especially in a sports world manufactured by ESPN, full of basketball players stuffing stat sheets, giving themselves nicknames and dreaming of SportsCenter highlights. Passion:
An eager and sustained drive to compete and excel, despite the day-to-day fluctuations of mood. A single word made flesh. Unity:
The idea that a whole is greater than the sum of parts, that team interests and goals supersede one's own individual desires. Servanthood:
The dutiful responsibility to give of oneself without want or need for reward, the concept of leading others by sacrificing for them. Thankfulness:
Graceful gratitude for every experience, each high win, low loss and hard practice. The pleasure of realizing that each occurrence is a teaching opportunity, a lesson that can be applied to a future challenge.
"After the meeting, Coach Collier went back to Indianapolis and built his program into a winner," Larranaga wrote. "He won so often that other schools started calling him and asking him to take over their programs."
Five words, that's all. One for each finger. But there are differences between platitudes and principles -- or rather, Principles -- between success posters and success, between winning and talking about it. One can repeat words like "passion" and "unity" so often that they stop meaning anything anymore, for anyone. Anybody can be a philosopher, any coach can write words on a whiteboard and act the professor. Turning words into flesh is alchemy of the highest order; water into gold is a cinch in comparison.
But the following is true, and you can look it up: each of the three men in that room, on that day, later led a team to the NCAA Final Four. ***
When the clock struck midnight at Lucas Oil Stadium, when it really, actually struck midnight, there was such profound sorrow there. If you have ever wanted something so much, to influence an outcome you were powerless to control, you might have felt this way yourself. If you have ever cried so hard that the vacuum in your lungs knocked you forward, and if you've ever attempted to heave out your soul and replace it with a new, clean and less painful one, you know
. That was the kind of sadness that Butler students and alumni felt that night, and that was the kind of crying that was taking place in that parking lot. It wasn't time to draw any sort of lessons from the experience, not yet.
My favorite player on that Bulldogs team wasn't Hayward or Howard or Mack, it was Avery Jukes. He wore the No. 24 shirt, a 6-foot-8 senior forward from Snellville, Georgia who averaged less than three points per game on the season. During the long run to the National Championship game, he only received playing time as part of a fixed sub-rotation triggered by Matt Howard's constant foul trouble. Jukes' four-year college basketball journey was a story that had to be dug out to be discovered.
He was recruited and signed by the University of Alabama, primarily on a speculative basis -- protein powder and weights would turn him into an SEC power forward. When his 200-pound frame wouldn't accept any additional weight, he was summarily discarded. Jukes ended up at Butler University. There, he became an embodiment of The Way. Brad Stevens gave him a role on his team (a small one), but he retained his passion for basketball and did his best to fit in. He took servanthood seriously, and started the Jukes Foundation for Kids
after a sports mission trip to Uganda during the 2008 offseason. And he was the first Butler Bulldog to turn the corner after the devastation of the last-second loss.
He also happened to play the game of his life in the National Championship game. He led all scorers at the half with 10 points. Had Butler won, he would have been a star. Considering the tens of thousands of words spilled at the Final Four by a football field full of journalists, considering the hours of television analysis that are produced afterwards, he would have been properly lionized. Well, Seth, Hayward hit the shot that everyone will remember forever, but let's talk about Avery Jukes. He kept this team in the game during the first half, one might say single-handedly.
When that reality became an alternate one, Jukes had no regrets. As the sad scene played out in the parking lot, he was at the press conference dais. He was thankful. "It was a long, great season. Enjoyed the ride. Still thinking about it, really," he said, smiling. "The thing that goes through my mind most isn't even basketball. It's about the bond that I have with my teammates, the fun that we had off the court, our trips, our away games. It was a great, great time." ***
Setting out to write "One Beautiful Season,"
which includes a passage that appears at the beginning of this text, required a full review of the 125,000 or so words that I wrote in this space during Season 6, otherwise known as the 2009-10 general college basketball campaign. Nearly all of those words were unusable.
With the luxury of offseason retrospect, it really surprised me how angry I was. I wrote angry, outlined angry, tweeted angry, and even drew cartoons angry. There was nothing passive about that aggression. I was angry at the people and organizations that let me down, and there were all the lingering prior circumstances -- health, marriage, job. I tried my best to suppress it, to slap palm over fist, but it came out. That's just the way art goes: it all seeps out the vents somehow.
My colleague and friend Luke Winn, in the foreword of the book, wrote about the redemptive power of Butler's run. In an exceedingly eloquent 1,200 words, he described how the Bulldogs saved his season. They saved mine too. They might have even saved my career. Every step, every win, every extra day without an Epilogue, each new friend and each surprising experience reminded me what a wonderful thing this is, Our Game.
Butler 2010 reminded me of something I knew from the beginning, six years ago tomorrow
: that college basketball is connected to just about everything else, and at its best, it can connect to the best of who we are. Those of us who are privileged enough to write about it have no excuse not to be thankful for the opportunity.
The Butler Way really isn't the Butler Way. There's no trademark on it, and no valid claim of ownership. The Way is public domain, borrowed from a wise old sage who handed the tablets down to the next generation, who from failing hands threw the torch. Dick Bennett, after a lifetime of honing and perfecting his philosophy, jumped to the Big Ten shortly after the fateful meeting and had one last long run in him before burning out: Wisconsin 2000. After earning the job with his excellence at the lower levels, Bennett used The Way to turn one of the worst programs in the Big Ten into one of its best.
In addition to Larranaga, who used The Way to lead George Mason to the Final Four in 2006, and Collier, the Butler athletic director who watched from behind the bench as his protege took things one step farther, Bennett passed the five core principles to his son Tony. He's now the coach at Virginia in the ACC. But it's different up there, more difficult. We all know that. Collier's brief time at Nebraska is another reminder.
The Way belongs to all of us if we choose to take the five words to heart and follow. It's available to everybody, all of us, each of us. ***
The boxed words at the beginning of these most recent five pieces belong to Dick Bennett, and they can be found in printed form in the coaching compendium "Court Sense."
The lead photos are via the Associated Press and Getty Images. The song in the Season 6 closing montage was "Don't Forget Me" by Neko Case. The extended "One Beautiful Season" excerpt was written by me, but presented courtesy of Flat Roof Press. Special thanks also to John Desmond, who pushed me to make the book better, and of course to everybody who's bought it so far.
One of the wonderful things about the end of each TMM season is the outpouring of thanks via The Form™. Reading through them on the plane back to Providence on April 6, seeing that word over and over (not unlike Homer Simpson's head ringing with "dental plan"
) was a bludgeoning reminder of the fifth pillar of The Way. Season 7, I hope, will be a five-month, ongoing, rolling return of that thanks. My efforts represent gratitude for your ongoing support.
And now Essay Season is over for another year. There are games tonight. They may not be good games, but there are games tonight
. Tomorrow, we'll talk about the architecture of the Beautiful Season to come. First, though, later, and just before the first official tip-off, an annual tradition.