When March Madness circles around every year there is always one question on everyone’s mind: Who is going to be the next Cinderella story?
Or before these fairytale runs became more frequent: Which team is going to be the next George Mason?
In 2006 the George Mason Patriots from Fairfax, Va made their improbable run to the Final Four, taking down behemoths of the sport in the process. The Patriots toppled Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to become the CAA’s first-ever representative in the Final Four. Each upset more far-fetched than the last.
Their accomplishment was nothing ever seen before from a non-traditional program.
Loyola Marymount’s 1990 push to the Elite Eight was the furthest any program of its kind had reached. A mid-major going to the Final Four? That was inconceivable. George Mason did it, and they did against the best in college basketball. They battled through a sea of bluebloods, capturing America’s heart in the process.
They also indirectly stole my heart and changed how the rest of my life would transpire.
Seeing Lamar Butler grab the lose rebound at the buzzer and skipping over to the corner of the court after beating one of Jim Calhoun’s dominant Connecticut teams is one of my earliest sports memories. A point to the crowd and a couple of Butler’s body-controlled fist-pumps are all I prominently have stored in my memory bank from that contest. Shameful, really, for how much the game likely transformed the rest my life.
I watched the game from afar and like any middle schooler of the time had my newspaper bracket nearby. The result had no bearing on how I did, I had North Carolina – who Mason beat two rounds prior – in the Final Four. Little did I know that less than 15 years later that school, and perhaps that moment, had such a huge bearing in my life.
George Mason was the lone in-state, public university I applied for during my senior year of high school. As a courtesy to my parents, I sent in an application to the suburban-D.C. institution simply because I knew of their famous flash-in-the-pan Final Four run.
Well, it all worked out and I became a Patriot. I’m a two-time graduate of the school (2016, BA; 2019 MA). They gave me my first post-graduate job while also paying for my second degree. Spending a better-part of a decade at the school, I also met my fiancé there. By George, that school gave me a lot and who knows what would have happened had Denham Brown’s three went in for UConn that day.
George Mason is the ultimate Cinderella Story. Sure, Jim Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State squad won a title as a No. 6 seed along with several other underdog programs. N.C. State, though, is far different than George Mason. Outside the state of Virginia, no one knew who the Patriots were and that all changed in March of 2006.
My story is not the only one. After Mason’s historic feat, it soon became less of a rarity. Butler, VCU and Loyola-Chicago all have all since followed with magical runs of their own. The Patriots blazed the trail for future mid-majors and each year we will all be looking for another to follow in their footsteps.
But it all started with the Patriots and ever since the dream has been alive.