David Hoppe

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:: The Butler Way

Still buzzed  

By David Hoppe

It's been over a week since the Final Four, but I'm still buzzed about Butler. The games were electrifying. The "storyline," as the media liked to call it, was inspiring. The sense of community that rallied around the team was buoyant.

All this was great fun, a marvelous kind of entertainment made even more exciting by the way it unfolded in real time.

But the public response to the Bulldogs, not just here in Indianapolis, but around the country, suggests that the Butler story resonated with people in a way that was bigger than basketball. For once the clichés about how sports can sometimes show us more than what it takes to win or lose came true.

In the newspapers and on TV, a shorthand developed to try and describe this feeling.

At first, Butler was referred to as an "underdog." This is one of America's most popular labels. It means that someone who's not supposed to win - someone who's not big or rich or powerful, lacking the usual advantages - can still come out on top. The great jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus called his autobiography Beneath the Underdog as a way of saying his journey began with even less than nothing.

We love underdog stories. They're democratic parables about how supposed experts can be wrong and odds don't have to matter. Underdogs remind us that wit and determination can be the bootstraps we use to pull ourselves up.

Butler's small student body, emphasis on academics and comparatively low athletic budget made it an underdog. Occasionally one sports pundit or another would mildly dispute this label, pointing out that Butler entered the NCAA men's basketball tournament with a high ranking. But the ranking, it turned out, didn't mean much when it came to the experts' perceptions of Butler's chances. In round after round, from one game to the next, I never once saw a sports pundit pick Butler to win. The experts were wrong until the very end - and then they were just barely right.

After its ecstatic Saturday night victory over Michigan State, Butler became David to Duke's Goliath. This brought the underdog theme into focus, giving it a Biblical patina. David, of course, was the shepherd boy who downed the towering Goliath with a well-placed stone from his slingshot. Asked how he liked having his team compared to the diminutive David, Butler coach Brad Stevens smiled and said this was fine with him because, "David won."

As we know, David, er, Butler didn't win the National Championship. They came within a second and a shot of making it happen. The remarkable thing is that when the game was over, Butler's fans weren't crestfallen or bereft the way fans usually are when their vicarious hopes are dashed. Never has defeat felt more like victory.

We often console ourselves with platitudes that emphasize process over product, the journey over the destination. We know there is wisdom in looking at things this way. That wisdom, however, is a lot more satisfying when those processes and journeys have a pay-off. Had Butler lost, say, in the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight, the impact of what they accomplished would have been a satisfying vindication of their process - it would also have been down to size. But this time the story - a run that literally lasted until the last second of the last game - really did matter more than the outcome.

As the tournament built to its climax, more and more was made of "The Butler Way," a set of five principles the basketball team uses for self-governance. Those principles are humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Together, they amount to a recipe, framing the team as a community that calls on its members to face the reality of the moment and make the most of their situation, using the tools they have at hand.

As the tournament unfolded, it became clear that the Bulldogs' success was based on the way they embodied The Butler Way. And so, yes, they were underdogs, yes they seemed a lot like David, but they also stood for something that rang true to a growing number of people.

It wasn't just that Butler's basketball budget is small - $1.7 million compared with Duke's $13.9 million. In a world where we've been conditioned to believe that you grow or die and that progress equals always getting bigger, Butler showed limitations needn't pre-empt excellence.

It's nice to think that Butler's achievement owes something to Midwestern character, a modesty that is no less rigorous for its preferring a well-rounded life defined by what it includes over the single-minded devotion to someone else's definition of success. We see this in Coach Stevens' insistence that scholarship and teamwork necessarily reinforce each other.

But Butler's story is relevant wherever people see the virtues of the local, the handmade and human scale. It's about how what you are able to get your arms around can actually contain a world of meaning.