- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

George Mason’s Cinderella story is a fairy tale written on the concrete basketball courts and in the high-school gyms of Maryland, where friends and family of the Patriot players are basking in the madness and magic of the team’s NCAA tournament run.

“It’s just a neat thing for the entire school and entire community,” said Richard Hart, who coached Patriot starter Jai Lewis at Aberdeen High School. “It has people walking around, talking about it and sharing in the pride factor. It’s a big thrill.”

All five members of the starting lineup for Fairfax County’s George Mason University basketball team — Lamar Butler, Folarin Campbell, Tony Skinn, Will Thomas and Lewis — grew up in Maryland.

In Fort Washington, a cracked and pock-marked asphalt basketball court sits behind a home where Butler grew up playing backyard games of football and basketball.

Inside, his proud parents yesterday displayed photos of their son, once an Oxon Hill Boys and Girls Club star and now a Sports Illustrated cover boy.

“It still hasn’t hit us,” said Butler’s mother, Pamela, who works at the Department of Agriculture, a day after the Patriots beat Connecticut to make the Final Four. “I kept saying to myself, ‘They beat UConn.’ To have a son out there on one of those teams, it’s unbelievable.”

Butler’s father, Lamar Sr., played basketball at Bowie State University and pushed all three of his sons to excel in sports and in life.

The “miracle” of his son’s team playing in this weekend’s Final Four is the result of hours of team and individual practice that have finally paid off, he said.

“It may sound crazy, but that’s part of the plan,” said Mr. Butler, who owns a Temple Hills sporting goods store. “You hope and you dream and pray for things like that. It’s like a dream come true.”

Butler’s teammate in the backcourt, Skinn, is also heading to the Big Dance with lots of moral support — his friends and family in Takoma Park and Rockville are backing him up in prayer, said his mother, Juliana Tubi.

“We are very grateful that this is happening,” she said. “I’m grateful that he’s my son, and I’m grateful about what the Lord is doing in him and through him and for him.”

Skinn attended high school at Takoma Academy, a small Christian school in Takoma Park, and school officials said they are asking for some divine intervention on behalf of their favorite son this weekend.

“I think everybody has been praying for him from the beginning and they’ll be pretty much continuing it,” Takoma Academy assistant coach Doug Whalen said. “We are hoping very good things for him. Everyone is watching over him.”

Mrs. Tubi said her son’s trip is just part of his destiny. From the time he was a little boy, she said, he has always had a basketball nearby — he used to sleep with one, she said.

“Always, when he was very little, he’s always been sleeping with it,” she said.

Campbell’s former coach and close personal friend said he’s bouncing off the walls in excitement for his student.

“Man, I am so excited,” said Keith Adams, who coached Campbell at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring and now coaches at Hood College. “It’s very, very surreal right now and for not only Folarin. I’m very happy for them, I’m very happy for his teammates.

“It’s like you’re a part of it, too, so I’m happy for me, too.”

Pat Clatchey, Thomas’ coach at Mount St. Joseph High School, said his former player “had just as much of an impact on me as I had on him.”

“He is one of the most determined, coachable, hard-working young men I have ever met,” Clatchey said. “It would take a seven-alarm fire to drag me away from the TV [on Saturday].”

Mrs. Tubi and Mr. Adams said Skinn and Campbell chose the mid-major Mason after some local schools — including the University of Maryland — passed on the players.

Mr. Butler said his son chose Mason because of one reason: Coach Jim Larranaga.

“Coach Larranaga was the only coach who came to every event,” Mr. Butler said. “You go where you’re loved.”

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