It’s April 3, 2010, the WVU men’s basketball team is making its second-ever appearance in the Final Four, and the Mountaineers are trailing Duke University’s Blue Devils by 15 points with nine minutes left. Fans are still hoping for a comeback, and that hope rests on the shoulders of star forward Da’Sean Butler.
Butler takes the ball and drives for the basket, but collides with a Duke player. He plants his left leg to make a jump shot. His knee buckles. He crashes to the hardwood.
No one knows the extent of Butler’s injuries yet. Later we’ll learn that, in that fleeting instant, he sustained two bone bruises, sprained his medial collateral ligament, and tore his anterior cruciate ligament. But one thing is immediately clear: He’s out of the game.
Butler knows this, too. And he knows his injury will cost WVU the game. He bites his thumb, grabs at his face, and pounds the floor with his fist as a trainer inspects his knee. Then WVU head coach Bob Huggins appears by his side.
At first, Huggins crouches to pat the gold-outlined 1 on Butler’s stomach. But in just a moment, he’s down on his knees, arms surrounding the player’s head.
“I could hear Butler apologizing,” says Mike Casazza, who covered the game for the Charleston Daily Mail. He was just feet away when Butler went down. “I think that’s what broke Huggins up.”
Television cameras do not capture audio of their conversation, but fans around the world see Huggins nose-to-nose with Butler, wiping tears from his face. “There were tens of thousands of people there, but there were two people at that moment,” Casazza says.
It was a tender moment from a coach better known for his tortuous practices, unrelenting defense, and red-faced sideline rants toward officials and his own players. But Huggins’ players were hardly surprised.
Truck Bryant still remembers his first practice at WVU. It lasted three hours. “We went straight back to the dorm. It had to be about 5 o’clock, and we slept the rest of the night.” Huggins’ obsession with defense made practices particularly grueling for Bryant, a point guard. “It was me and him all the time,” he says.
But no matter how things went during practice or a game, the bad feelings stayed between the sidelines. “If something happened in practice—if he yelled at you, screamed at you—it never came off the court,” says former WVU forward Kevin Jones. “It was never personal with him, and you knew that.”
Off the court, Bryant and Jones say Huggins takes on a paternal role with his players. That relationship doesn’t end when players go off to the NBA, or European basketball leagues, or life beyond the backboards. Like several former WVU basketball players, both Bryant and Jones still have homes in Morgantown, where they train during the off season.
Huggins had an alumni locker room set up for them at WVU’s practice facility. “He was tired of seeing us get changed in the court,” Bryant says. “He told me he was going to do it, and he really did it.”
And Huggins—who’s one of only 10 NCAA men’s coaches to top 800 career wins—doesn’t play favorites. “He treats everybody the same, whether you were a star player or a role player,” Jones says.
After those eternal minutes on the floor of the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Huggins got up from his knees, allowing his players to help Butler off the court. Duke continued to run up the score, winning 78–57.
The Blue Devils would go on to win the NCAA Division I championship. But at least for a while, the only thing cable networks, sports radio hosts, bloggers, and newspaper columnists wanted to talk about was that moment between Huggins and Butler.
“I don’t care how old he gets,” Casazza says. “I don’t care how many years he’s gone from coaching. He could win a national championship, but that’s what you’re going to remember.” — ZH
photographed by (top to bottom) WVU ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS, DALE SPARKS; WVU ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS, SCOTT LITUCHY; WVU ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS; WVU ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS, DALE SPARKS
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