Sports Journalism Blog

By Christopher Wright

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON-– “The ball was in my hand perfectly,” San Diego State’s Lamont Butler remembered after being asked once more about his game-winning shot to beat Florida Atlantic Saturday evening, a buzzer-beater that earned the Aztecs a spot in the championship game against Connecticut Monday night. Butler retold his story casually, like he was talking about picking the paper up from the driveway.  “I was able to release it, I had a good finish, good form, and swished it,” he said.

Butler, “Mont” to his teammates or “G Man” to his family — the “G” stands for his garage: his mother went into labor getting into the family car — calmly retold the room of reporters about the most gratifying moment of his burgeoning basketball life, all within the context of a year of both triumph and turmoil for himself and his family.

“I used to have a court in the driveway,” he said. “I would always count down to the buzzer.” All that training worked when the fantasy suddenly became reality, because Butler’s last-second pull-up over Tyler Boyd of Florida Atlantic continued to make NRG Stadium buzz on Sunday afternoon. Brian Dutcher, San Diego State’s coach, said it might go down as one of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history – if the Aztecs win the tournament.

On Sunday, Butler was asked to relive the moment and everything that happened afterwards, including the visit in his parents’ hotel room and the chance to see his moment replayed, again and again, on ESPN. “Which was crazy to me,” he said.

Three themes that emerged in conversations with Butler’s teammates, trainer, and coaches were his family, his naturally hard-working habits, and his ability to lead through his humility.

“He’s just very laid back and very humble,” said Cade Alger, a junior forward, Butler’s teammate and neighbor. “He doesn’t talk about the work that he puts in outside of practice, but he’s one of those guys that’s always in the gym, always working out with his trainer.

“He might not be the vocal guy,” Alger went on, “but we all know how much work he puts in, how much he cares about it, and how much he cares about all of us. Everybody leads in different ways, and that’s his way of leading.”

Butler’s experience at Riverside Polytechnic High School included multiple honors and Advanced Placement courses. “He’s a special guy,” said J.D. Pollock, San Diego State’s Director of Player Development said, “and he commands respect and attention just by being a great person.”

Chris Acker, an assistant coach for the Aztecs, has known Butler since he was 14. “When you watched him as a young player, you just knew he was something special in terms of his approach,” Acker said. “You knew he was a guy that’s always going to have a positive attitude, he was going to be infectious in the locker room.”

Acker continued, “The first time he came on campus, his words were, ‘I want to win a national championship.’ Whether he’s making mistakes or having success, we always remind him, ‘Hey, that’s what you said you wanted to do, so we’re holding you accountable on that.’”

Phillip Scott, Butler’s trainer, said, “He doesn’t look for praise, he just does what needs to be done, and that’s why he’s such a special kid … I honestly believe he’s the best two-way guard in the country.”

Even though Butler’s offense was the headline Saturday, his defensive mindfulness and work ethic were repeatedly what coaches wanted to highlight. “It’s his footwork,” Scott said. “Footwork and his defensive awareness. I think his defensive awareness is a 99 … When you watch him play defense, it doesn’t look like he’s trying that hard, it comes effortlessly to him. His father was an athlete, his mom was an athlete, so he’s naturally just got lateral quickness.”

That quickness has earned Butler the reputation of a lockdown defender in the Mountain West Conference as a member of the conference’s all-defensive team this year as voted on by the coaches.

The lateral quickness has also created a couple of uniform malfunctions.

“He blows his shoes out within two to three weeks,” Pollock said. “It’s how violent he moves, no one can really keep up with him on either side [of the ball].”

With a knowing smile, Butler said his coaching staff gives him a hard time about it often. “They said I’m either playing really hard or that I need to pick a new brand,” Butler said. “I actually blew out my shoe last night too, right before half-time.”

Scott verified the shoe story, “This is the second game in a row where his shoe has exploded,” he said.

Butler grew up in Moreno Valley, Calif. as the youngest of four with three older sisters in a working-class family. “He’s the quietest out of all of them, he’s the baby of the family being the youngest,” Scott said. “But they’re a hoop family, Amani Butler [Lamont’s oldest sister] was a McDonald’s All American.” Amani Butler played at Arizona, then Seattle University from 2008 to 2012.

Butler’s other sister, Asasha Hall, was shot and killed in January, 2022. “She was one of my biggest supporters, and I know she’s up there happy right now, watching me play the game that I love,” Butler said.

He thought of his sister not long after the biggest basket of his career. “She probably guided the ball in a little bit,” he said.

“I miss her. I’m just happy I’m able to do this for her.”