The opening appeared on the left side of the basket and Da’Sean Butler’s path to the basket had only the massive body of Duke’s Greg Zoubek hindering what would be a certain two points. Butler made his move and went to the hole the only way he knew how, and that was hard. As his basketball mind processed what to do in a microsecond, a jump stop – a move he had done thousands of time in his hardwood career – was in order.
As he planted, something went wrong. Something, with 8:49 left in the game and West Virginia University down 63-48, went horribly wrong.
Da’Sean Butler, a player who had suffered nothing more serious than an ankle sprain in countless hours on the court, found himself in a heap on the floor. Going down hard wasn’t completely unusual for Butler. Under the tutelage of Bob Huggins, where his silky smooth game got a decidedly more aggressive edge, hitting the floor was acceptable collateral damage. This trip down, however, was accompanied with pain of an intolerable nature.
“My knee just gave out on me. When I tell you there was barely any contact on the play, I literally mean there was almost no contact,” said Butler recalling that fateful moment. “I just went to plant after doing a hop step and it was over. I don’t know how it gave out or why it gave out, but it did. Looking back, the best thing I can say is that things happen.”
This thing, which was a torn ACL, happened at the most inopportune of times. While there’s never a good time to blow out your knee, for Butler and the Mountaineers the timing couldn’t be worse. Not only were the Mountaineers in their first Final Four since Jerry West had donned a uniform, the game – at best – was the next to the last Butler would ever play in. As it turned out, it would be his last. Had he remained in the game, who knows what the outcome would have been?
While Butler said Duke was the better team that night, he insists there was little doubt in his mind that despite the deficit facing the Mountaineers that there would be a run. And if anyone knows how many times Butler not only brought WVU back from impossible situations that season to win games, they know that’s not hubris.
“They were up double digits consistently throughout that game and, give them credit, they were just knocking everything down. I still felt whether we won or lost, we were going to make a comeback,” Butler said. “I could feel us being competitive until the end of the game because if I was going to lose, I was going to go out fighting. Then, it just happened.”
The only problem for Butler was that he was having a hard time trying to process what exactly had happened after his hard drive to the basket. The pain was something he wasn’t used to; pain of an uncontrollable, throbbing nature.
“I couldn’t walk and was in so much pain, but I also was thinking immediately to have someone hurry up and take care of this so I can get back into the game,” Butler said. “There was just so much pain and so many things going through my mind. You can’t imagine what your mind’s doing to you at that point.
“There was a moment or two where it quit hurting, but my leg was stuck in a bend,” he continued. “That was when they took me in the back.”
Before Butler was carried off the court by his teammates and onto the concourse area where teams walked onto the court, Huggins, who is thought of as surly by those who don’t know him and beloved by those who stay to play for him, let his publicly perceived guard down. A player whom Huggins had developed a special relationship with needed him, and the veteran coach was soon to be a star participant in what proved to be one of the most touching moments in not only West Virginia University basketball history but arguably that of the NCAA.
Huggins knelt down and with his right hand he cupped the back of Butler’s head. While Butler may not have known what was going on as to the severity of the situation, it’s a certainty Huggins did. And like a father would do for his own child, Bob Huggins provided comfort. With 71,000 people watching at Lucas Oil Stadium, the man whose emotions on the court were almost exclusively reserved for rants and glares at the officials showed that there was indeed something more important to him than playing for a national title. What was more important was not only the physical well-being of his player, but the immediate emotional well-being of Butler.
More than two years later, Butler will quickly tell you that the moment was something special to him. And he’ll talk in depth about the man that Huggins is.
“That was extremely important at that time because there was so much going through my mind; it was racing and coach calmed me down,” Butler said. “I look back and I appreciate him even more. He put so much time into my career and helped me become a better man; helped me become an adult.
“When I met coach I was 19. He became a father figure because the things I learned from him were the things I would learn from my dad, but coach was like that with everyone,” Butler continued. “In that moment it was important to him to let me know that he appreciated everything that I did during my three years with him. I want him to know I appreciated everything he did for me.”
Once Butler was helped off the floor, and once he departed from the concourse into the locker room, he was started to believe that the worst had happened. After seeing a doctor and meeting with his parents, he knew things were bad.
“The doctor just double checked everything and he said ‘I’m not getting anything from the knee.’ I finally got the gist from (Head Athletic Trainer) Randy (Meador),” Butler said. “To hear that, honestly, just sucked. Then I started thinking about what’s next.”
What would be next would be a selection in the NBA draft; 42ndoverall to the Miami Heat, despite still trying to recover from his knee injury. The Heat would waive him and then he would latch on with the San Antonio Spurs before getting waived again. There would also be a second knee surgery and, just last week, a third. All three ACL surgeries, he said, were in the same knee.
The most recent surgery took place in Cincinnati. While the swelling is gone, the rehabilitation is just starting.
“I’m looking at six to eight months of rehabilitation again,” Butler said. “People may think I should give it up, but I’m more determined now than ever to come back. The goal is get better and do what I’ve spent my whole life wanting to do, and that’s play professional basketball.”
After three surgeries, some may believe Butler should call it night. Butler said that he’s not ready to give up on his dream.
“I’m actually more determined than ever and my goal is to get better and get back into the game. I want to do what I love to do, or at least do everything in my power to at least make it possible,” the 24-year-old Butler said. “If I was 29 or so, that’s different. I can still play.
“To know that the thing you love to do every day is something you’re not allowed to do for the next several months is a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re by yourself and your mind starts to play tricks on you,” he continued. “I decided the first time it happened and even now, that I need to be around positive people. That way your mind will stay focused on the right things and allow you to give yourself physically to have a chance to return.”
Certainly, if anyone has deserved a chance, it’s Da’Sean Butler. Anyone that has paid attention, knows he’s earned it.
Editor's Note: Photos courtesy of WVU Sports Communication. Top photo by Scott Lituchy. See related story on Butler's first-ever WVU basketball camp and how you can have your kids take part by clicking here.
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