The father picked up his small son and placed him on his shoulders. The boy touched a strand of net. A camera flashed.
“Take one last look,” the father said to an older son standing nearby. “They all stood right here.”
This is the fantasy part of Butler making its first Final Four. Here, inside an old, wonderful gym that seats 11,043, where the court creaks when you walk across it and in the distance comes the sound of a steel gate being lifted to allow others entrance.
Gene Hackman didn’t walk inside Hinkle Fieldhouse on Friday with Jimmy and Ray and Ollie and Strap and the rest, but you could imagine they did. You could see them measuring backboard to foul line, rim to floor. That’s where Chitwood took the shot. That spot right over there.
Just down the road, in one of the nation’s newest special-events venues, in a pristine Lucas Oil Stadium that seats more than 70,000, is the reality part of Butler’s journey to a national semifinal today against Michigan State.
Everything about the Bulldogs is Cinderella, and everything isn’t.
Here, inside a place where Butler plays its home games and the state championship scene in “Hoosiers” was shot, where grown men and women milled about in a trance Friday morning, searching, wondering, hoping, dreaming of the possibilities for the school of 4,200, is the storybook version.
But as much as we want it, as much as it would mean for Butler to beat the Spartans and whoever survives West Virginia-Duke for an NCAA championship Monday in the pristine building down the road, as much as a script of the Horizon League’s best standing atop the college basketball world would seemingly alter the landscape of the sport, a truth exists that would temper such a memorable finish.
Butler is no fairy tale.
It can win it all. It’s not some feel-good George Mason moment, not after being ranked 11th in the preseason and winning its last 24 games, not after making the NCAA Tournament nine of the last 15 years. Butler is really good. Has been for some time. It can be the team cutting down nets Monday, and nobody should wonder when the movie will be shot if it does.
“The gap (in college basketball) has closed dramatically,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think it’s because of scholarships. I think it’s because more people put money into basketball. There are better players out there. Players don’t want to go somewhere and sit, so they go to different schools. Parity has come.”
It’s great for every weekend other than this, because in a time when selfish suits and their never-ending search for more zeros on a rights-fee paycheck are about to damage the one flawless sporting event we have with needless expansion, wouldn’t it be ironic if the team that plays in the gym where Hickory won its on-screen title knocked off one from the Big Ten and then either the Atlantic Coast Conference or Big East?
Wouldn’t it be perfect?
“Hoosiers” was more than a basketball movie. It was a true story of Midwestern values about a team from a small Indiana town in 1951, a story of trust in family and strength in community. There was a sense of that in Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday afternoon, when Butler finished its open practice, gathered as a team at center court and broke from its huddle.
One by one, in a count that reached nearly 30,000 and many wearing the shirts of other participating teams, fans stood and began to clap. Butler players scattered to all sides of the court, returning the appreciation. There are people who have attended more than 25 Final Fours who said they have never witnessed a better and more genuine sight than at the Friday session.
There are six miles between Hinkle Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium, between a movie set nearly 25 years ago and Final Four drama today, between fairy tale and reality. Six miles. A 10-minute taxi ride.
“Bottom line is,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said, “you’re shooting on 10-foot goals. All the lines are the same and everything else.”
Just like you’ll find back at the gym in Hickory.
A couple wearing Butler shirts walked off the creaky court Friday, looked back and snapped another picture. The husband turned to leave as his wife looked this way and that, up into the rafters and beyond the sunlight shining through the large windows atop the red-brick fieldhouse.
“It’s a magical thing,” she said.
Down the road, Butler can win this. It’s good enough.
It’s not Cinderella.
And yet in many ways, it is.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618.