'That was the best year.' Butler honors back-to-back Final Four teams with Hall of Fame night
INDIANAPOLIS – Brad Stevens was explaining, better than I could in 20 years on this beat, why it is so difficult to capture all the components of the Butler Way. And not only during the magical runs of 2010 and 2011, but other years, too.
What is it, the former Butler coach said he is often asked, that makes Butler different?
“It is important to write it down. It’s much more important to feel it,” he said.
You could feel it Thursday inside Hinkle Fieldhouse.
It was billed as a ceremony for inductees into the Butler Athletics Hall of Fame, featuring two teams, college basketball’s back-to-back runners-up. It felt more like a family reunion, with familiar faces, stories retold and everyone’s kids running around.
For the family of the late Andrew Smith, there was a “bittersweet” quality to the night, as Smith’s father, Curt, put it. The date coincided with the 31st birthday of Andrew, who played in both Final Fours and died from cancer in 2016.
“There’s a lot to celebrate here,” Curt Smith said. “I was playing a trivia game with my wife, and the question was, ‘if you could go back and re-live one year of your life, what year would it be?’ I thought a minute.”
His voice broke.
“I said, ‘From the Final Four in Indianapolis to the Final Four in Houston.’ That would be the year. That’s the best year.”
One speaker representing the Final Four teams, new Pacers assistant coach Ronald Nored, recalled being in a hospital room days before Andrew’s death.
“Andrew said, in that room, kind of underneath his breath, ‘I’ll never leave Hinkle.’ And man, you’re right, big fella,” Nored said.
It has been more than eight years since Stevens last coached at Hinkle, and yet those in attendance must have sensed he never left, either. He is the Boston Celtics’ president of basketball operations after coaching the NBA team, but he cannot be uprooted from Indiana.
When I asked his 15-year-old son, Brady, a sophomore at Wellesley (Mass.), how hard it is to play high school basketball as Brad Stevens’ son, he responded it would be harder here. So we know Brady is smart like his father, because he is right.
Brad Stevens, honored with a special service award, closed his address by reading from a letter he was once asked to compose for his daughter, Kinsley.
“When times are good, be a great teammate that others want to celebrate with. When times aren’t, be a teammate to offer a shoulder to be leaned on,” he read.
“When you get older, you’ll realize it wasn’t about the good or bad times. It’s about who you navigate those times with. The lessons that you learned, the relationships you forged.
“The reason I wanted to share that was because I will shut up about it. It’s not about me, right? The Butler Way is not about an individual. The Butler Way is about team.”
Then, his voice breaking, he pointed to the players seated behind him.
“And those are the best teammates in the world.”
Season turning points
Although 2010 and 2011 are lumped together, the 33-5 team from 2010 was “different from the standpoint of depth and talent,” Stevens said. Those Bulldogs were 20-0 against Horizon League opponents, and they won 25 in a row after an 8-4 start.
Nored said the coaching staff goaded the players in late December by stripping the locker room bare, removing all motivational slogans affixed to the walls. Message received.
“On this floor, some of the best practices, some of the most physical, trash-talking, tough focused practices that I’ve ever been a part of in my life,” Nored said.
The 2011 team sank to 14-9 after a third straight defeat, losing 62-60 at Youngstown State. To think that was a Final Four contender was preposterous. When the tournament started, statistician Ken Pomeroy made Butler 500-to-1 to reach the championship game.
The morning after Youngstown, in a players-only meeting in a Cleveland hotel room, Shelvin Mack addressed the team, something he never did. Matt Howard said Mack went player by player and told him his role.
“We went straight to the national championship, and it was beautiful,” Shawn Vanzant said.
That season ended with a 53-41 loss to Connecticut in which the Bulldogs shot 18.8%, worst ever in a NCAA championship game. Nored said he learned something from the tearful locker room.
“In that moment, the level of camaraderie and togetherness and embracing of one another really defined what this group of men are all about,” Nored said. “I coach now, and what I’ve learned in coaching is, it’s not always about who you can win with. A lot of times, it’s about who you can stand to lose with.
“There’s not another group of guys I’d rather lose with than this group of guys right here.”
Gordon Hayward not looking back
How good would the Bulldogs have been in 2011 if Gordon Hayward had returned for a third season? Could they have won 30 games and been a No. 1 or 2 seed? Won a national title?
“I actually have never gone there. It was one of the most difficult decisions, as I think I said when I left,” Hayward said. “To leave Indy, my family, my friends, and try to go to the NBA. Certainly, I think it worked out.
“But it’ll never replace the memories I have here at Butler. It’s just a decision I had to make.”
Hayward, 31, heads into the second year of a four-year, $120 million contact with the Charlotte Hornets. In 44 games last season, his scoring average was 19.7, highest since 21.9 ppg in an All-Star season for the Utah Jazz in 2016-17.
Signing with the Hornets ended a Boston reunion with Stevens. Now, Stevens is off to a new job. Switching to the front office has been “invigorating,” he said.
“I don’t know what the future may hold. If it doesn’t work out, then maybe I’ll coach again someday," Stevens said. "Listen, I know how much goes into it. I have a great deal of respect for the people that have done it.
“The people that do it into their 70s, I knew I wasn’t going to do it that long. Forty-four was probably on the low end of where I initially thought. But I wasn’t going to be a guy that went much further.”
Mack, 31, played eight NBA seasons for seven teams. He most recently played for Panathinaikos in Greece. He left that club in June and said he hopes to sign with another European team.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.