Bryce Weiler, a blind college student in Indiana, and Louisville Coach… (Colton O'Day/ )
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino did not climb the ladder Saturday to snip himself a piece of the net after he earned the sixth Final Four berth of his career. But he did instruct Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng to cut two pieces and give one to him.
Dieng complied and, upon descending from the ladder, handed his coach an inch-long piece of white netting. Pitino quickly slid the gift into his left pants pocket and resumed soaking in Louisville’s 72-68 win over Florida. As much as the comeback victory meant to him and his program, that piece of netting meant even more to its intended recipient.
“I think he need it, and I cut it for him,” Dieng said of Pitino. “He wanted to give it to someone.”
Roughly 1,700 miles away, in a dorm cafeteria at the University of Evansville in Indiana, sophomore Bryce Weiler had just finished listening to the game on television.
Weiler isn’t easily shocked. He’s close with Butler Coach Brad Stevens, and the Bulldogs advanced to the past two national title games. That was surprising. After Butler won its Elite Eight games to advance to the Final Four the past two years, Stevens cut down a piece of netting and gave it to Weiler. That was surprising, too. He carries those items around with him wherever he goes.
But Louisville’s win on Saturday? The Cardinals may have trailed by 11 with just more than eight minutes remaining, but Weiler said he never doubted Pitino would pull out a victory.
“I’ve listened to a lot of basketball, and with the two runs that Butler has made in the past two years, I don’t become surprised anymore,” Weiler said. “I was somewhat surprised that [Pitino] got a technical foul, but during the games when I was sitting at the Yum! Center, he kind of yells sometimes at the officials.
“But he’s definitely a different person off the floor. He’s one of the most wonderful and nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and he definitely does a lot more than what he even should do for me.”
A coaching connoisseur
Weiler was born four months early with an eye condition called retinopathy of prematurity. He is blind, and that makes following his favorite sport somewhat challenging.
While attending the Indiana School for the Blind in Indianapolis during his high school years, Weiler took summer school classes at Evansville, where he met Purple Aces men’s basketball Coach Marty Simmons in 2009. Simmons invited Weiler, who is majoring in sports management, to sit on the team’s bench during home games, and Weiler gladly accepted the offer.
In November 2009, before Evansville’s game against Butler, Weiler struck up a conversation with Andrew Smith, who then was a freshman center on the Bulldogs’ roster. Smith encouraged Weiler to get in touch with Stevens and, to Weiler’s surprise, Stevens called him three weeks later.
What began with a phone call turned into a tour of Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s historic home court in Indianapolis. For the rest of the season, Weiler got to sit courtside next to Butler’s radio broadcast team during home games. He got to attend two Butler practices during the Bulldogs’ historic run to the Final Four in March 2010.
And when Stevens gave Weiler a piece of the net from Butler’s victory over Kansas State in the Elite Eight, Weiler put it in his wallet, where it remains to this day. He did the same with the piece of netting Stevens gave him after Butler defeated Florida in the Elite Eight last season.
“This year over summer I decided that I wanted to try to meet a coach from every [Bowl Championship Series] conference so I could learn more about college basketball,” Weiler said.
So he e-mailed Jordan Sucher, the executive assistant to Rick Pitino.
An instant connection
Weiler said he chose to pursue a relationship with Pitino for two reasons. One, Louisville is roughly a three-hour drive from his home town of Claremont, Ill. As such, he was familiar with Pitino and the Cardinals because he’d often listened to the radio broadcasts of their games.
And that leads to reason No. 2: Louisville’s radio play-by-plan man, Paul Rogers, does a great job of, as Weiler said, “commentating for someone who can’t see the plays happening on the court.” So Weiler could learn more about the game as he listened to Pitino’s boys play.
Sucher arranged for Pitino to call Weiler at 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 25. And to Weiler’s surprise, his phone rang at 8:30 a.m. that day.
“He was exactly punctual,” Weiler said. “He was prompt. He wasn’t early. He wasn’t late.”
And Pitino also was descriptive, which Weiler loved. Pitino told Weiler about Louisville’s home court, the KFC Yum! Center, how it was separated into two levels and seated roughly 22,000 people.
“He said that it was a very large, expansive building and that whenever the Cardinals were coming back from being down in a game, it would get quite loud,” Weiler said. “He was very correct about that.”