Seeking Cinderella


Part Two:Lamar Butler

Part Three: Jai Lewis

Part Four: Tony Skinn

The phone line crackled with static. Lamar Butler's voice faded in and out.

"Can you hear me?" he said, his memory clearer than the overseas connection.

Butler was recounting a moment from George Mason's historic run to the 2006 Final Four, but not from the day he and his teammates upset Michigan State in the opening round, or the day the 11th-seeded Patriots stunned North Carolina and reached the Sweet 16, or the day they felled mighty Connecticut in the Elite Eight, then cut down the nets and captured the attention of the nation. No, this moment took place after the cheering stopped and the limelight began to fade.

It was about an hour after George Mason had lost to Florida in the national semifinals in Indianapolis, after the players had showered, changed clothes and dried their tears, and no one looked more despondent than Butler. He walked into the stands, found the section of George Mason faithful and trudged through the consoling fans before the assistant coach who recruited him to the school stopped him.

"Cheer up," Bill Courtney said. "You know how much money you made yourself?"

As this weekend's Final Four approaches – populated by heavyweights Florida, UCLA, Ohio State and Georgetown, none worse than a No. 2 seed – Butler can hear the words as if they're playing on a looped tape recording, with the volume cranked up as loud as Dick Vitale.


Butler still isn't sure. Neither are Jai Lewis or Tony Skinn, the other departed seniors who helped turn an obscure basketball program into one that during the 2006 NCAA tournament generated more than $1 million in merchandise sales, more than $5 million that George Mason will share with other members of the Colonial Athletic Association and a ratings-friendly storyline for an event that nets the NCAA about $550 million a year thanks to its $6 billion, 11-year contract with CBS.

A year later, one thing is clear: the notion that Butler, Lewis and Skinn would get rich because they helped author one of greatest Cinderella stories in college basketball history is pure fairy tale.

The big payday never came – and likely never will – as they chase their hoop dreams overseas. They play for the likes of BK Prostejov of the Czech Republic, Maccabi Ironi Ramat-Gan of Israel and Clermont of France, and they make wages that are laughable by NBA standards.

Meanwhile, in Fairfax, Va., without the three Final Four leaders, George Mason still broke home attendance records this season. But the Patriots failed to win 10 conference games for the first time in more than a decade, faltered in the final minutes of the conference tournament championship game and failed to make the NCAA tournament or the NIT.

Butler, Lewis and Skinn tried to keep up with their alma mater while enduring their own struggles.

Lewis, the burly forward, is in Israel, where he walks into malls and sees 18-year-old kids toting M16 assault rifles. Skinn, the point guard, is in France with his third team in five months. Butler, the versatile shooting guard, is in the Czech Republic, where every morning and night he kneels by his bed in prayer and asks God to give him the strength to stick it out in a country he already threatened to leave.

"It's kind of hard going from one of the main players on the Final Four team to this, " said Butler, speaking from his apartment in the Czech Republic. "It hasn't been easy at all." It's been nothing short of emotional whiplash. After all, a year ago they were coming to terms with their instant fame and its purported financial impact.

After George Mason upset Michigan State in the opening round, the players signed countless autographs. The next day, the players discovered many of the items were for sale online, with an autographed ball listed for $300.

"That's when I realized maybe I should get a ball and get it signed and put it on eBay," Skinn said.

Instead the players made a pact: No more autographing items in bulk, especially if the person asking was an adult. But items kept ending up online, and eventually others profited from the team's magical run.

Jim Larranaga, George Mason's head coach, got a five-year contract extension, a raise that doubled his base salary to $375,000 and a $100,000 bonus from what the school called "promotional considerations" during the Final Four. Tom O'Connor, the school's athletic director, got a five-year extension and a raise. So did George Mason's president, Alan G. Merten, with the chairman of the school's board of trustees saying he pushed for the new contract in part because Merten's visibility during the Final Four made him an attractive candidate to other schools.

With people around them cashing in after the Final Four, Butler, Lewis and Skinn thought they saw an opportunity to do the same – and not just because the former George Mason assistant coach suggested as much.

Sports agents started calling. By the dozens. The players wondered how the agents got their phone numbers, but they didn't care. They were happy to be in demand.

And there was even better news: All three earned last-minute invitations to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, which features 64 of the country's top college seniors and is played in front of scouts, NBA coaches and general managers. So three days after the loss to Florida, Butler, Lewis and Skinn went to Portsmouth, Va., as newly minted celebrities.

Their fame, they found, was fleeting. Here's a closer look at the disparate paths their careers have taken since.