Seasons can’t be judged solely on whether a team raises a championship banner. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way a young woman’s lanky frame was shoehorned into a quiet corner of a locker room two weeks ago, her fingers dancing along the computer keyboard perched perilously on her lap. Her UConn basketball teammates were immersed in a card game a few feet away, laughing and cheering while another game played on TV. Natalie Butler, however, was putting the finishing touches on an essay she’d been crafting for days.
She tuned out the reporters peppering her teammates for quotes, their frantic questions and flashing cameras filling that concrete bunker like a dizzying fog. Natalie is not the “get,” the important quote to add to that column before deadline. She’s not one of the players getting extensive playing time and national television exposure; she doesn’t fill up the stat sheet.
No, Natalie Butler is simply everything that’s right about college sports.
It’s hard to fathom why she’s not among the most sought-after interviews. She was named Sportswoman of the Year at Lake Braddock High School, an honor roll student and multi-sport star who set school records for scoring, rebounds, and blocked shots. She moved on to Georgetown University and was named Big East Freshman of the Year, becoming the only Hoya to start every game. Natalie endured a turbulent season with two different head coaches before deciding to jump directly into the fire that is UConn basketball.
Coach Geno Auriemma recruits for more than talent on the court; he recruits self-confidence, work ethic, and the desire to sacrifice for the goals of the team. Luckily, Natalie’s parents both served in the Navy: She learned those values early. Yes, she struggled to adapt last year after a thumb injury slowing her progress, but she’s faced some of the best post players in the country this year while making significant contributions to the historic winning streak that ended with Saturday’s loss to Mississippi State.
All the women on this team are exceedingly polite and articulate, but Natalie stands out because of her fortitude. She sat out a year for the privilege of losing her star status as the result of her transfer, then endured withering criticism from UConn’s legion of armchair coaches when she finally returned to the court. Watch their practices and listen to Auriemma scream at her every mistake, but be sure to note the grace with which she receives this coaching. Watch her at every team function: She goes out of her way to make sure every question gets answered and every little girl’s poster gets autographed.
A conversation with Ms. Butler reveals a sweetness we don’t often see in someone demonstrating such tenacity. In short, she’s a study in balance: Her politeness off the court belies the single-minded focus she brings to it. She juggles the demanding curriculums of both her school and head coach with equal facility. She is the role model we all wish we’d had growing up.
I find myself rooting less for specific teams these days, and even less for individual players. As I get older, I just root for people. The words written across the front of a uniform stopped mattering around the time I realized the players in those uniforms would one day become our doctors, scientists, teachers; suddenly, the games mattered less than the lessons gained in playing them.
Rough weather makes for strong timber, and Ms. Butler is made of strong stuff. I believe in the paradox that sacrificing for the team makes for better individuals. By this measure, seeing Natalie rise up to her many challenges this season has been every bit as rewarding as that championship banner would have been.
Hers is a winning streak that will benefit us all, someday. I can’t wait to see her performance in the arena that really matters.