What happens to NCAA Cinderellas when the glass slipper doesn’t fit?


Every March, a new Cinderella story magically unfolds during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Some are over as fast as they begin. Others last a little longer. The lucky ones make it farther than they could have ever dreamed. But only one Cinderella has ever won a National Title.

In 1983, Coach Jimmy Valvano and the North Carolina State Wolfpack beat No.1-ranked Houston University and Phi Slama Jama to win the National Championship. The glass slipper fit. The fairytale came true.

For every other Cinderella team in NCAA Tournament past, the happy ending didn’t arrive. The glass slipper didn’t fit. The fairytale didn’t come true.

But that doesn’t mean the journey was any less magical.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images /

Chase Fieler always expected the lob. Even if no one else in the entire arena did.

When his Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) teammate Brett Comer, tossed the ball up behind his head without looking, an audible hush fell over the entire Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. There were only a few minutes left in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament game. Georgetown, a perennial college basketball powerhouse, was making a late run. They were pressing on defense. They were determined to pull out the win and move on in the tournament as so many college basketball heads had expected them to.

Comer says FGCU panicked for a moment. On the next inbound play, he got the ball just above midcourt and saw an opening. But as he drove down the lane, the long-outstretched arms of Otto Porter appeared out of the corner of his eye.

“I knew I probably wasn’t going to be able to finish a layup on him,” Comer laughed. “A second later I saw Chase cut and I kind of just threw the ball up behind me, trusting he was going to be there. And he was.”

Fieler finished the dunk with such force that, at his peak, his elbow was higher than the rim. The momentum swung back in FGCU’s direction, signaling Cinderella’s arrival at the big dance. The team was dubbed “Dunk City.” A 15-seed had conquered a two-seed for only the seventh time (there are now eight teams that have accomplished this feat) in NCAA Tournament history.

“It was funny when reporters kept asking about the lob after the game like it was a risky play,” Fieler, now 24, said over the phone. He’s currently living in Holland and playing in his second season in the Dutch Basketball League. “We had done that lob so many times before in other games. Of course, I expected Brett to toss a lob. And if anyone had watched Brett play, they would have known he wanted to throw the lob because that’s what he always did.”

After knocking out Georgetown in impressive fashion, the buzz surrounding FCGU went from a small hum to a reverberating bass by the time they reached the Sweet Sixteen. Everyone wanted a piece of this new and unexpected Cinderella. And the players were more than happy to oblige. They soaked up interviews by numerous national media outlets and reveled in highlights and appearances on ESPN.

“It went from zero to 100 and for us it was so exciting,” Fieler said. “During those couple of weeks, we got to do a lot of things and talk to a lot of people we wouldn’t have had a chance to otherwise. Before the Sweet Sixteen, Sherwood [Brown] and I did an interview with Craig Sager. We had to do some kind of rap and I don’t know if it was ever shown, but just to have been able to meet Sager is something I will always remember.”

“Scott Van Pelt reached out to me through Twitter and made a couple comments about how well he thought I was playing,” Comer recalled. “He shared some moments with me about things he went through when his father passed away because I was going through the same thing at the time. That meant a lot to me. That was special.”

But like the real Cinderella fairytale, the clock eventually strikes midnight. The dance comes to an abrupt and sometimes cruel end as teams exit before they are ready to go. The lights and cameras and magic disappears. The stagecoach turns back into a pumpkin. Reality sets in.

For FGCU, losing in the Sweet Sixteen to Florida by double-digits was only part of the sting. The other was their coach, Andy Enfield, leaving for the University of Southern California.

“When [he] left, it sucked. He wanted to play fast and loose, and throw lobs and it was the kind of style of play that I loved. Having him leave after everything we created was heartbreaking for a lot of us,” Comer confessed.

Fieler echoed a similar sentiment. “That was like a blow to the gut. It took the wind out of our sails and we weren’t sure what it meant for the next season. We were trying to look at it like we did something incredible and defied expectations. But we still felt there was more we could have done. It was hard to accept in the moment.”

Former Kansas coach, Joe Dooley took over as head coach of Dunk City. But the team had trouble adjusting to a different style of play and it took almost a full season for them to regroup. Fieler graduated and went overseas to play in Spain for a season. He says he likes the style of European ball and that it suits him, though he wouldn’t mind an opportunity to play in the NBA.

Comer still lives in Florida. He started playing for the Orlando Waves of the American Basketball Association (ABA) last fall after a short break from basketball. And everywhere you drive around the Florida Gulf Coast, he says, you’ll see signs that say, “Dunk City.”

“That run we made in the tournament gave me opportunities that I never would have gotten. I had a tryout with the Miami Heat. I signed with a good agent and got a lot of overseas options. And then I was drafted in the D-League by the Grand Rapids Drive. Ultimately, I want to get back to coaching someday.”

Comer and Fieler both say the thing they will remember most from their Cinderella run is the one, single play that came to define their entire team — the lob.

“That moment was the highlight of our tournament run,” Comer said. “It helped define our team and showed everyone how much fun we liked to have. It’s crazy to see how much Dunk City still resonates with people.”

Photo by John Biever /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Photo by John Biever /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images /

Three inches.

That’s how close the 2009-2010 Butler Bulldogs were to fitting the glass slipper.

With only a few seconds remaining in the 2010 NCAA Championship game against Duke, a tall and still somewhat lanky Gordon Hayward snagged the rebound as Brian Zoubek purposely missed his second free throw. Hayward dribbled feverishly down the sideline and threw up a prayer just beyond half court. It clanged with the rim. The buzzer went off.

The dance was over.

Butler’s incredible run is considered to be one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA Tournament history. But if you ask Ronald Nored, Butler’s point guard at the time, the “Cinderella” tag doesn’t quite fit.

“I think people in the country forgot that we were a top 10 team at the beginning of the season,” he said. “We were undefeated in our league and 35-8 overall. Yeah, we were a small-town Indiana school, but we were good.”

Coached by a then relatively unknown Brad Stevens, Butler entered the tournament that year as a five seed. They knocked off No. 1-ranked Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history. After beating Kansas State, they defeated Michigan State in the Final Four. They were only the second “mid-major” school to ever reach the NCAA Championship game. The first was the University of Las Vegas (UNLV) in 1990.

The fairytale surrounding Butler, Nored believes, had less to do with being a Cinderella as it did with the team being underdogs from rural Indiana. They played their games in Hinkle Fieldhouse — the same arena where the classic and beloved sports movie, Hoosiers, was filmed. Many basketball fans appreciated the link and jumped on the bandwagon the further Butler made it in the bracket.

“I got so many e-mails and Facebook messages. People would tell us stories about when exactly they started following Butler. They could relate to us because when we were going through warmups, we looked outmatched by the other team. But then we played the game and won. And we kept winning. I still have some of the e-mails saved because it was just so cool. I even got an e-mail from my first grade teacher.”

Nored says Butler was a good program before his 2009-2010 team came along. They had made it to the Sweet Sixteen twice in the early 2000s, and have remained a competitive program throughout the past decade.

“We just took the torch and kept it going,” he said. “I don’t consider what we did as a ‘Cinderella run.’ Not in an arrogant way, but we always believed that if we played the way we knew we could play then we would do well. We paid attention to what people were saying and we knew people were picking against us each round. We just approached it one game at a time. Before we lost in the Championship, we were on a 25-game winning streak.”

The loss, in a way, was bittersweet. So many good things came out of it, Nored says. They got to chat with former President Barrack Obama, because he had been so impressed by their heart and play on the court. The additional media attention brought the small school some well-deserved notoriety, and Stevens was given an opportunity to coach in the NBA for the Boston Celtics.

As for Nored, he took the coaching route, too. Since graduating from Butler in 2012, he’s bounced from high school to college to the NBA and D-League. Currently, he’s the head coach of the Long Island Nets — the Brooklyn Nets D-League affiliate team. But his heart will always be with Butler.

“I’ve wanted to coach at Butler my whole life. And maybe someday I’ll find my way back there. I’m just so lucky to be where I am now and to have had the opportunities that I’ve had. I learned so much from my time at Butler and from Coach Stevens. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for them.”