But George Mason had one of the best Cinderella stories of all time. OF ALL TIME!
On March 29, 2006 here is what I wrote:
Talk about clichés.
Okay, let’s talk about clichés.
When it is impossible to avoid cliché (because usually you want to do anything you can to avoid cliché, unless you don’t know better, in which case you may be a cliché without ever knowing it and ignorance, of course, is bliss), you are usually in that rare territory that transcends cliché, a place that obviates cliché, you are experiencing something bordering on sublime, the type of feeling that compels forced and fake imitation. In other words, cliché.
So how to talk about GMU’s improbable (impossible? inconceivable?) run to the final four. Can there be occasions that are so cliché that they get beyond cliché, exploding cliché, requiring a reevaluation of how clichés are classified and what they are capable of inspiring?
Let’s put it another way: the GMU Patriots are in the fucking FINAL FOUR!If you watch college basketball, you love this story; if you watch sports you love this story. If you don’t love sports, that’s okay, you can get behind the underdog. If you don’t love underdogs then you are a Republican…But seriously, this is too serious to make light of, and it truly transcends politics. And sports. And what can (and should) usually be shrugged off as the sophomoric rituals of collegiate competition. This is the real deal. Even if you are not an alumnus the bandwagon is big enough: hop on and enjoy this ride.
Nice shirts, huh? That is entirely the inspired result of Nathan Naylor (the hirsute man in the middle) and his typical genius. See, even before Mason went to the Final Four, they had already done the unthinkable. They won a game. Against Michigan State. And then they won another game. Against UNC. The, um, defending champions. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but…they beat the defending NCAA champions. So this was already one of the great, improbable stories in college sports (in all sports?) history. Let’s put this in better perspective: GMU just advancing to the Sweet Sixteen would certainly be one of the all-time great tournament stories. But putting the madness in March, they beat two of the powerhouses of college hoops to get there. So Naylor (the man I first met on the quad at GMU at a public screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1988) had his stroke of genius and quickly got the t-shirts made.
Now, if only we could get to one of these games, since (the story only gets more improbable, even on personal levels) the next part of the tournament just happened to be taking place…in Washington D.C. That is where the other visionary in that picture, Shieldsy (Mike Shields) did his part of the heavy lifting to get things to the next level. Long story short: it just happened that he worked for someone based in Washington state, and of course Washington was in the tournament so there were a couple of available tickets…(like I said, the story remains improbable enough without the personal elements, but at the time it really was like the proverbial planets were all aligning and we almost had to question if some of these coincidences were actually happening). Like running into Lamar Butler’s father in the concourse after Mason dispatched Wichita State.
Or running into Lamar Butler after Mason dispatched with U-Conn.
Of course, that didn’t really happen.
My friends and I still have this discussion all the time. It usually follows one of two identical scripts.
Version one: Usually involving any random, unlikely act. As in “That would be crazy; like Mason beating U-Conn or something…”
Version two: Nostalgia tempered with lingering disbelief. “Can we stop for a minute and remember that Mason actually beat U-Conn?” “No they didn’t.” “Ooops, right. My bad. I actually lost control for a second there and deluded myself that Mason beat the best team in the nation that year, on national TV, in one of the most exciting games in tournament history.” And then, for good measure, we’ll turn to the videotape. Yes, it really happened.
Where were you that day? I know where I was. Courtside. About five rows up. We could see the disbelief in the color commentators’ eyes. We could see the panic rising in the face of Billy Packer, that cranky curmudgeon who had infamously whined that a mid-major like GMU had no business being in the tournament. And then doubled down, like a sulking brat, as Mason continued on their improbable run. “Well Billy, I guess it’s safe to say Mason should have been given a bid, huh?” “No, I still don’t think they deserved to be picked.” To say that Mason’s run was considerably sweetened as a tonic to Packer’s killjoy assholery is an understatement along the lines of…well, that Mason’s run was one of the great Cinderella sports stories of all time.
Anyway, we don’t need a play by play. You were there. You saw it.
But do yourself a favor, if you haven’t rewatched in a while, and check out that YouTube clip above. I mean, winning that game was one thing. Winning it in overtime another. The way it went into overtime was another. The way it ended, in overtime, is another still. That whole game is the definition of another thing. The one memory that stands out most of all was the moment right before tip-off. The two teams sauntered out to center court and it hit me like a sobering splash of stagnant water: every single U-Conn player is a full head (or more) taller than every single Mason player. I mean every single player: their center was taller; their forwards were taller; their guards were taller. A lot taller. And realizing that every single starter on U-Conn was a legit NBA draft pick waiting to happen. That is when I turned to Shieldsy and said “Man, we are on national TV. I just hope it’s not truly ugly. It would be a shame to get this far and get run out of the building.”
Of course, even if they had been, it was totally understandable (mid-major teams don’t often fare well against NBA squads), and we had already done more than enough. We kept saying, at the time: this is going to be so great for the university. Not just the basketball program (though each second Mason stayed alive in the tournament was priceless exposure and hype for Coach Jim Larranaga to utilize), but the entire school. Nothing would ever be the same again, and everyone knew it.
Too bad it never happened. There is no way that happened.
Except it did happen.
I was there. And so were you.
I saw it.
And so did you.