- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

Lamar Butler realized his American dream last year by leading George Mason on an astonishing run to the Final Four. Now the former Sports Illustrated cover boy with the electric smile yearns for a few simpler American things.

Like flapjacks.

Butler was named the most outstanding player in the Washington Region last spring after the Patriots completed their unprecedented march to the Final Four with an overtime upset of Connecticut at Verizon Center. Now he plays professionally and anonymously in the small town of Prostejov in the Czech Republic.

Few people speak English or know anything about George Mason’s magic season in Prostejov, where sports talk is dominated by soccer and hockey. So the shooting guard takes the two-hour trip to the Czech capital of Prague every chance he can to get at least a little taste of home.

“Prague is beautiful,” Butler said by telephone from his apartment in the Czech Republic. “It is like being back home. Everybody speaks English. I can get real breakfast food like pancakes and bacon.”

Butler isn’t the only member of that George Mason squad chasing his hoop dreams abroad: The Patriots’ top three players from last season traded their Final Four pins for passports to pursue careers overseas.

Center Jai Lewis began this season in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then moved to Israel. Point guard Tony Skinn started in France, moved to Croatia, then returned to France but with a different team. Butler is the only one still with the team with which he originally signed.

Those players are a full year and half a world away from the pinnacle of college basketball, but last spring’s inspiring run never is far away from their thoughts.

George Mason was a surprise entry in the tournament and received a No. 11 seed. The Patriots stunned perennial power Michigan State in the first round, followed by a still more shocking upset of defending champion North Carolina, then a defeat of Wichita State.

Then came the most unlikely upset of them all. A George Mason team with no future NBA players defeated a top-seeded Connecticut squad stocked with players now in the NBA. That victory put the mid-major Patriots into the Final Four, where they lost to eventual champion Florida in the semifinals.

“It feels like it was yesterday, especially this time of year,” said Butler, who now watches games over the Internet in the middle of the night. “I still get chills when they show flashes of the Connecticut game. It sunk in last summer that we did it, but I still have times when I think, did we really accomplish that?”

Lewis also keeps close tabs on the tournament by watching games on the Web. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound center briefly tried out as an offensive lineman for the New York Giants, then realized his heart and future remained in basketball. That led him eventually to Ramat Gan, a town close to Tel Aviv.

The Maryland native usually stays up into the wee hours to watch games, and he was riveted as George Mason went all the way to the final of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament before narrowly missing out on another NCAA berth.

“It brought back memories,” said Lewis, who is averaging about 16 points and six rebounds. “Time has flown. I didn’t think this year would go so quick. I do remember everything about the UConn game. It really was a lifetime of memories.”

Lewis is having a much more positive experience overseas than Butler. The Israeli culture is similar, he says, to that of America. He gets recognized when he wears George Mason gear, and fans ask him about last season’s experience.

“It is like being at home because everybody speaks English,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t mind coming back here.”

Skinn could not be reached in Clermont, France, where he is playing with his third team. Skinn and the coach of his original team did not get along. The coach asked him not to shoot, a request George Mason coach Jim Larranaga likened to asking Allen Iverson not to shoot.

Skinn moved on to Croatia but left after the financially troubled team missed one of his paychecks. He is now averaging 12.3 points with the French “A” league team Clermont, located 35 miles outside of Paris.

“One of the dreams of every college basketball player is to continue playing professionally,” said Larranaga, whose son, Jay, plays in Naples. “If not the NBA, then Europe feels pretty good. There is an element of the international game you can’t prepare for. There is a reality Lamar has found out: There is a lot of politics. You might have a GM who signs you and a coach who has never seen you play.”

Butler is getting a hard hoops education as he lives in isolation in Prostejov. He was happy his team, fighting for playoff position, won its game Monday. But he wondered why he played only 11 minutes, a short span that limited him to six points.

“It’s funny over here,” said Butler, who scored 22 points on 5-for-6 shooting from 3-point range the previous game. “I am just about getting this season over and playing somewhere else next season. One night I play 30 minutes. The next it’s seven. It’s a lot of politics.”

Butler and Lewis each feels he is playing in a highly talented league and has had to adapt to a slower, halfcourt European style of play. The arenas and fan interest also vary. The Jerusalem team in the Israeli league can draw 12,000, others around 1,000. Butler plays in a 1,700-seat gymnasium.

The ultimate goal still is to get to the NBA, and Butler, Lewis and Skinn hope to be invited to play on an NBA summer league team. For now they earn a pretty good living — when the paychecks are delivered, that is — and spend free time monitoring the NCAA tournament and the Final Four.

And, inevitably, the ex-Patriots are reminded of that 86-84 upset of Connecticut.

“When Denham Brown missed that [potential game-winning 3-pointer] and I got the rebound, I thought, ‘We’re going to the Final Four!’ I couldn’t believe it,” Butler said. “As a kid, you dream about going to the Final Four. As you get older, you stop dreaming …

“I always catch myself reminiscing, but now I am a professional and want to make money. You have to move on.”

Even when the past is so memorable.

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