Susan Neville's Butler's Big Dance: the Team, the Tournament, and Basketball Fever isn't just a book about the Butler Bulldogs' thrilling dash through the 2010 NCAA Men's Basketball tourney. Oh, it is that, all right, but it's also a meditation on community, the religious impulse, youth and mortality, education, place, the nature of collective ecstasy and experience, and why the way we live matters.
Neville is a creative writing professor at Butler, a position that gives her account two immediate and significant strengths. She was on the Butler campus throughout the spring of 2010, a participating witness to the frenzy that unfolded around one of the smallest schools to ever make the Final Four. She brings her considerable gifts as a writer to bear upon the import of what happened. "It had started to feel like a movie set," she writes, "and we were all extras."
A movie set is an especially appropriate analogy for Neville's narrative. As the team progressed through the tournament, the media endlessly invoked the classic 1986 Gene Hackman film Hoosiers for its underdog parallels, its Indiana origins, and its use of Butler's legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse for some of its scenes. Neville gives us an excellent sense of what it's like, as she notes, to be living inside of a national myth. Employing a multitude of perspectives from faculty, students, alumni, and city residents, she illuminates, with critical distance as well as appreciation, why we can make such profound emotional investments in a sports team.
As a personal yet wide-ranging investigation of Hoosier Hysteria, Butler's Big Dance will resonate with almost any longtime Indiana University hoops fan who remembers the joyous surges of energy that have accompanied the school's spate of prolonged tournament runs in the past several decades. It shapes the superficial hyperbole of fleeting headlines into a transcendental tale arising out of a Midwestern ethos. The last shot failed to fall and the final game ended for Butler; but the life that goes on everywhere, all the time, seems enchanted anew by Neville's testament to a storybook spring in Indiana.
Watch the last minute of the 2010 Butler-Duke NCAA title game:
This article originally appeared in Bloom Magazine.