A few weeks ago, I had a moment of déjà vu that brought me back to the final moments of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
That’s not a place I revisit that much, to be honest. You might wonder, “How could you not think about that and the way it ended all the time — especially this time of year?”
We were playing in Boston against the Celtics, who are coached by Brad Stevens, my former college coach at Butler. Like in the 2010 NCAA championship game against Duke, the game against Boston went down to the wire, and I had a chance to win the game with the ball in my hands. The way the play unfolded in Boston was pretty much exactly the same as the second-to-last shot in the national championship. I dribbled up, went behind the back, came back right and did a little step back shot.
This time, I made it, but the Celtics went on to win anyway on a great buzzer-beating play drawn up by Coach Stevens. I went up to him afterward and told him about how the shot I made reminded me of my miss in the final. Since we’d lost anyway, I told him, “I wish I could have hit the shot against Duke instead of the shot against you guys.”
We had a good laugh about that.
Because we’re always in the middle of our season every year when the NCAA tournament comes around, I don’t get too much time to watch college basketball, or really think about Butler and the run we had. The only time I really reminisce a little bit is when I’m talking with people about it, or if I see ads for the NCAA tournament on TV. It’s just that little reminder that it’s almost the end of March, and that time of year is coming.
Another reason I tend not to think about it is because my mind immediately goes to what could have been, and what should have been. That’s probably not necessarily what my memories should be. We had a great run despite the way it ended. But I can’t help remembering the last few shots, and thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could shoot those over again.’
BULLDOGS, NOT UNDERDOGS
I’m very proud of that time in my life and what we accomplished at Butler. We were a Cinderella story by the end of that tournament, but people forget that we were ranked pretty highly going in, 10th in the nation at one point. College basketball players and coaches knew we were one of those teams that you should watch out for.
People outside of college basketball didn’t, mostly because no one got a good look at us on TV throughout the season. So nationally, we weren’t expected to do that well in the tournament. We ended up as a fifth seed going into it, which is pretty good, but people kind of wrote us off. They didn’t think we would go that far.
We expected to win each game we played. Personally, I always expected us to go all the way and get a chance to win the whole thing. We had talked about that before the season. It was one of our goals all along. Then we went into the tournament on a 20-game win streak. It felt like we hadn’t lost in forever. So going into the tournament, we were like, “We can win this and we should win this.”
It wasn’t too hard to keep that tunnel vision as the tournament began. That’s just how we played, and who we were at Butler. We were so prepared for each and every game. Coach Stevens was the reason for that. He was a big believer, as most coaches are, in taking not only each game as it came, but also each day as it came, and just striving to get better each and every day. If we had practice that day, we were going to be better at practice. If we had a game, we were going to get better and win the game. He prepared us that way throughout the course of the season, and nothing changed when we reached the tournament. One of his goals was always to make sure that we were ready come March.
A lot of our practices and preparation were more mental than physical. Coach understood it was a long season, and that we needed to have our legs for the duration of it. So a lot of our on-court stuff was really intense and focused, but for a short amount of time. After that, we spent the majority of our time on game plans, execution, knowing personnel, knowing the plans and how we’re going to guard different things, and so forth. A lot of us at Butler were pretty high basketball IQ players, so we were able to execute the game plan pretty well. That helped us out in the tournament a lot. You only see each team once, so if you just execute the game plan for that game, you move on to the next round.
That said, we never took a team we played in the tournament lightly. They were in the tournament for a reason. And even though we’d been playing really well, rolling on this winning streak, it wasn’t like we were a powerhouse like Duke or North Carolina. We were still a smaller school. So for us it was easy to just play each game, and focus on that game alone.
The one thing that’s tough about the tournament is finding a rhythm. Because of the way the schedule is structured, you have two games in three days, then a break of almost a week between. Once you get past the first weekend, things reset a little bit. You have a whole week of media, a whole week of people hyping you up and talking to you, and you can definitely lose focus pretty easily going into the next weekend. It’s pretty interesting how it works, because you have to make sure that you’re focused each and every week and buckle down.
For us, it was a little more difficult early in the tournament because we had to go out to San Jose and then Salt Lake City, which are both pretty far away from Butler and Indiana.
But I think we handled everything really well.
GAME BY GAME
Going into our first game against UTEP, a lot of people were picking them to beat us as that traditional 12 over 5 upset. It was a popular upset pick. They had some athletes on their team, and a pretty big guy down low too, so some people felt they’d give us some matchup problems. Shelvin Mack had a huge game to pick us up, and help us get the win. But that game was really business as usual. We wanted to come out and play well, and afterward, we just wanted to know who was next.
In the second round, we faced Murray State. I remember being a little more worried about them because, in many ways, Murray State was like us. They were another school that nobody really talked about, but had also won a bunch of games in a row during the regular season. For most of the season, we were actually battling them for the longest winning streak in Division I. They were kind of small, and played the type of team basketball where any guy could get going and carry them. Their whole team was really balanced. All five of their starters averaged in double figures.
They came into the game against us clearly playing like they had nothing to lose after already knocking off a No. 4 seed in Vanderbilt. They were the underdog, which was usually the role that we played, so we knew it was going to be a tough game for us. It kind of came down to the wire, and I couldn’t get my offense for most of the game. But I made a couple plays late, including one to seal the game where I trapped the ball handler, got a deflection and dove onto the ball. I remember everybody was going crazy because I didn’t usually get on the floor. So for me to kind of dive on the ball and for us to win the game like that — it was pretty exciting for everyone.
For a lot of teams, nearly getting upset like that would be a cause for alarm. That wasn’t the case for us because it wasn’t the way we were conditioned to think. We treated each game the same, knowing that if we didn’t play our best, we could lose to anyone.
We were pretty excited to go to the Sweet 16. But because we wanted to play right away and keep our rhythm intact, the wait between the second and third game seemed like it took forever. We went back home to Indiana, and were supposed to be students just going to class. It was super hard to do that. Everybody was talking about us. Between the students and media, everyone wanted our attention during that week.
Butler is small, so the whole campus was caught up in the madness. All anyone talks about before the season, during the season and after the season is basketball. I remember when we came back, our dorm rooms were all decorated, the hallways were all decorated and everyone had made signs for us. Going to class people were stopping me and saying, “What are you doing in class? You’ve got to get ready for this game.” Teachers were saying very similar things like, “Hey, don’t worry about doing this. We’ll get you caught up. Just worry about Syracuse.”
But the week still seemed to take forever.
SALT LAKE SERENDIPITY
When we finally did get to play again, the finals of the West Regional took us to Salt Lake City, which is pretty cool and kind of weird to think about in retrospect.
When I was here in SLC for the tournament, I didn’t think about it the way I do now. I remember landing at the airport and thinking, “Wow, look at those mountains. That’s really cool.”
Once we got to the arena for practice, the one thing all of us talked about was that it was where Michael Jordan took his “last shot,” and that it was where Stockton and Malone played, which we all thought was pretty cool. All of us were pretty excited about playing at the same place where some of those guys had made their careers. But I really didn’t think at all about possibly ending up in Salt Lake as a player. It’s weird now to think about what I was thinking about back then. But it’s cool that our tournament run, which was such a big part of my life and my career, went through the place that I call home now.
While we were in Salt Lake, we had two more really tough games against Syracuse and Kansas State. Syracuse was the No. 1 seed, and everyone completely wrote us off going into that game. We didn’t have athletes, they said. There was no way we could compete with their length.
We were kind of motivated by that.
We got off to a good start and played really well early, thanks again to Shelvin Mack, who did really well for us in the first half. But we knew what we were in for, and that it wouldn’t be easy. You know going in what Syracuse is going to do — their zone, the kind of the looks they’re going to give you. But it’s always different when you’re on the court. They had a lot of length. Their zone was tough, and they made you take tough shots.
Despite all that, we had control of the game pretty much the whole time. Still, they made a run and got the lead late. When that happens, you can’t help but start thinking certain things. “They just took control and took the lead…There’s only a certain amount of time left for us to come back and win it.” I think it was a matter of the poise we had on our team and of our head coach coming through. We had won so many games in a row that we kind of figured out how to find ways to win games. We did the same thing in that one.
Up to that point where Syracuse pulled ahead, I really hadn’t done all that much in the game, and I remember thinking that I needed to get something going for us if we wanted to win. So I played a little more aggressively, got to the free throw line, made a couple jump shots and hit a big three. It was enough for us to get the lead right back. After that, we had the ball bounce our way a couple times, and ended up winning. The game ended with the ball in my hand.
That was special to me. For us to come out and beat Syracuse, to take down the number one seed after everyone wrote us off, we were really stoked. Add in the fact that we were down at the end of the game and came back to win, and it was just a really good feeling. Knowing that we were going to the Elite Eight, you understood that we were on the verge of something special.
In the next game, Kansas State turned out to be a big test for our defense.
They had two really good guards who could score. It was a matter of executing on defense for us to win. We had a game plan for what we were going to do and how we were going to guard people. The idea was to take the game out of their guards’ hands, and make another guy beat us. There was one forward — the plan was to let him shoot if he caught it. We didn’t want either of their guards to get going. The coaches had also studied so much film on the play of their guards that they noticed that Clemente, whenever he would drive, would throw up a floater. Half the time, he missed, but they usually got a put back out of it because he’d sucked the defense in.
So we decided if he drove, we weren’t going to help to try to block the shot. We were going to stick to our assignments and make him try to make that shot, and be in position so they couldn’t get the offensive rebound. We executed little things like that really well on defense, and neither one of their guards got going until the end of the game. On offense, they put a bigger guy on me. That was a little bit of a mismatch. It allowed me to handle the ball on the outside more, and I had success as a scorer as a result.
It was another one of those games where we were in control for most of the game, they came back and took the lead, but we closed out strong in the end, and again, found a way to win.
After we won that game, it was just total jubilation. I was filled with extreme pride and excitement. You don’t really know what’s going on. You’re not really thinking about anything. You’re just kind of living in the moment. I got the opportunity to cut down the net, and my parents were both there. To have my family there and see everyone just so excited – I mean Coach Stevens was right in there jumping up and down with our players — to do that and prove people wrong, it was really cool.
At some point during the celebration, it kind of hit me that we had just beat the number one and the number two seeds in the region, that there were only two games left, and that we were going back to Indiana to participate in the Final Four in Indianapolis. That in itself was wild. Then you start thinking, “We can definitely win this whole thing. A hundred percent we can win.”
On the flight back, it was hard to go to sleep that night.
BACK TO INDIANA
When we got back, it was crazy. I’m from Indiana, so I was hearing from all my friends and family. My hometown was going crazy. The campus — and Indianapolis as a whole — was super excited for Butler, and it was a really great thing to be a part of.
I’ll never forget the welcome we got when we came back the first time after winning the two games in San Jose. When we got back after Utah, it was about three times that. When we reached Butler on the bus from the airport, it was like 3 a.m. There were hundreds of people standing outside. They all had signs and went nuts when we got off the bus.
In that moment, you couldn’t help but feel like a rock star, pretty much.
On campus, it was incredible. Everyone was in the streets. The sorority and fraternity houses were all decorated. My buddies and I had made a rap song as a joke, and one of the frats had like a huge cloth sign that they hung from the building. It stretched all the way from the top to the ground and read, “Too Big Yo,” the name of the rap song. They were blaring it on speakers.
It was just unbelievably crazy and fun, an experience I will absolutely never forget.
Before the Final Four, we had a practice at Lucas Oil Stadium. I think we had about 30,000 people in attendance for the practice, way more than we ever had at any of our home games. We were nervous going out to practice because there were so many people watching.
All of Indiana kind of rallied behind us.
People kept comparing our run to the Hoosiers story. We were fine to embrace that role and everything, but at the same time, we didn’t feel like we were that. We were ranked 10th in the nation at one point. We weren’t your classic underdog, and we didn’t think of ourselves as underdogs per say going into any game. So it was definitely a crazy atmosphere and we were happy to take on that Hoosiers role for Indiana, but I don’t think we felt like that was the identity of our team.
After nearly a week off, we were more than ready to finally play Michigan State when Saturday rolled around. I remember having a very strong belief going into that game that we were going to win it. Everybody else was on the same page. We’d come so far to get to that point.
We had to win that game.
That confidence carried over for me after tip-off, and I came out of the gate on fire. I hit a couple threes and a stepback and ended up scoring 10 of our first 11 points. It was an incredible feeling to be rolling like that in such a big game.
Playing basketball in a football stadium was a very unique feeling at first. But I think it was good to have that first practice. Once you got used to it, there was something almost liberating about it. There was so much space behind the goals, to the right and to the left that it was like playing in a park because it was so open you almost felt like you were outdoors. Usually in arenas, the fans are right there on top of you, so you’re kind of enclosed, almost like in a cage. But playing there felt like playing outside when I was a kid because everything was so open.
Maybe everybody else felt like that too, because both teams got off to a really great start offensively. But as they game went on, it became more of a defensive battle. I ended up with a bloody lip when somebody elbowed me accidentally as I tried to hold my ground on defense. But we were pretty tough on other teams, so things like that happened a lot.
We kept grinding it out for the most part, and the game went down to the wire. Late in the fourth quarter, we had to get a stop and I was defending Draymond Green. I may or may not have fouled him, but they gave me a block instead, and we grabbed the loose ball. We had to hit free throws to go up three, and then we fouled. On their second free throw, they had a chance to get a tip to tie it, but I rebounded the ball and the game was over. Our team rushed the court. The fans were going crazy.
We were going to play for the National Championship.
THE SHOT THAT HAUNTS
The day between the Michigan State game and the Duke game was a Sunday. I went to church with my family, and it was probably the most surreal morning in church I’ve ever had.
People kept asking me to sign autographs on the church bulletin, which they give out to explain how the service is going to go. I remember thinking how weird it was, and “I shouldn’t be signing these.” We were home too, so this was a church I’d gone to since I was little, and the people there had known me forever. But everybody there was obviously really excited. The pastor even made a joke about it during the service.
For the most part, it was a really fun day. We were staying at a hotel downtown, and I remember sitting there thinking that the anticipation was just huge. We had to do a lot of media that Sunday and again, everyone was kind of writing us off against Duke. I remember thinking “I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
Going into the game, we knew that Duke was really good. They were the only other team in the tournament besides us that I felt really executed their game plan well, and played hard each and every possession. I don’t think they were the most talented team we played against, but they were the best coached, and they played just as hard as we did.
Part of that game plan they executed was to deny me the ball a lot, and as a result, I didn’t get a chance to do as much as I wanted to. As the game went on, and I got more frustrated with how they were defending me because I just wasn’t getting too many looks, I kind of forced things a little bit, which was a bad decision on my part. But we hung in there anyway.
Avery Jukes came off the bench and played really well for us in the first half, knocking down a couple threes that kept us in the game. He made one right at the end of the half to send us in down just one. Then early in the second half I got a break, got fouled pretty hard and went to the line to give us the lead.
But as the half went on we just slipped a little bit. There was a 10-minute stretch where every time we got close, they’d push the lead back to two possessions and every time we got a stop, we couldn’t convert on the other end. That’s where we were, down five, with about three minutes left and running out of time. But we kept getting stops and eventually, we started to score. Next thing you know, we’re down one with the ball and a chance to win the game.
I remember we tried to run something and didn’t get anything out of it. The ball got deflected out of bounds, forcing us to throw in from an awkward position in the corner. We called timeout and tried to run a play from there, but we didn’t get what we wanted there either, so we had to call another timeout. In that huddle, coach said, “Pop out at the top Gordon, we’re going to throw you the ball, space out, and Gordon make a play.”
I remember thinking “This is it. This is my chance right here. What am I going to do?”
I caught the ball in the backcourt and like I said, it was extremely similar to what happened in Boston a couple weeks ago. I dribbled left and they cut me off. Then I went behind my back and dribbled down to the baseline. Their big seven-footer Brian Zoubek switched out on me, and I shot a little step-back shot over him. His length made me shoot it a little bit higher, and I had to arch it a little bit more to get it over him.
But I thought it was good when it left my hand. I was standing on the baseline as it arched and from my angle it looked like it was good. It felt like forever before it came down. But when it did, it was long, hit the back rim and Zoubek got the rebound.
He went to the line, and at that point, I was kind of thinking the game was over with. We only had three seconds left. He made the first free throw and missed the second one. But we didn’t have a timeout, so my instincts just took over.
I grabbed the rebound and tried to race up the court. I heaved it up at the buzzer. Honestly, I thought it was way off because I wasn’t trying to bank the shot. So I didn’t think it was as good when it left my hand by any means. Of course, it was closer than I thought it was going to be, but I never expected it to go in. They always play that half-court shot because it was at the buzzer and banked and almost went in.
But that’s not the shot I think about when I think about that game.
I’ll always think about the stepback from the baseline. That’s the one I thought really had a chance to go in, and that I really thought was going in.
I don’t allow myself to think too much about how different things would be had I made that shot, or the buzzer beater. Since I’m still playing, there are a lot of other things for me to think about and focus on in my career. But whenever it gets brought up and I talk about it with people, I always end up thinking afterwards for a little bit about how things would have changed.
I probably would have had more recognition and more hype going into the NBA. I’m sure it would have had an impact in that regard. But there’s no regret as far as leaving and coming to the NBA, because I knew that’s not what I wanted to be known for for the rest of my life either way. I wanted to move on to the NBA, and achieve better things there.
But I think if the half-court shot went in, it would have be considered the greatest shot of all time due to the circumstances. Butler was such a small school, and to win the national championship over Duke on a buzzer beater, it would be hard to think of something that would top that.
I’m sure people would probably bring it up to me on an almost daily basis anytime I met someone new. But a lot of people still say things like, “Hey, you’re that guy that almost won the national championship.” Instead it would be, “Hey, you’re the guy that hit that shot.’”So that would feel a little different. It would certainly allow me to look at our run through the tournament differently.
Maybe later down the road, when my career is over, I might be able to look back on the tournament more positively than I do now and say, “Man, that was a hell of a run.” But that voice inside my head will always say, “Man, if you would have hit that shot, we would have won.” I think that’s just who I am as a person, because I hate losing. To be that close to winning and still lose hurts more than anything. I think I’ll always feel like we had a chance, and that we should have won.
I wish we would have won.
I wish I could shoot it again and get another chance to win the game. That’s something I’ll always carry with me.