MEMPHIS – Back in February, I arranged though the Los Angeles Clippers to interview Caron Butler at the team hotel in New York, the night before a game against the Knicks.
Then it started snowing, and it didn’t stop until three feet had fallen and the travel ban in Connecticut forced me to cancel.
It turned out to be a blessing. After the season, Butler’s remarkable story got even better. He was traded to Milwaukee, his home town team. The timing was better now. The Bucks happened to be in Memphis to play an exhibition game against the Grizzlies on the night before the American Athletic Conference Media Day, and I was finally able to catch up with Caron on Tuesday night.
He sat at his locker, eating some fruit two hours before the game and he pulled up a chair for me and we talked about a half hour. His is one of the most remarkable stories any athlete could ever tell – “the Great American Success Story” – Jim Calhoun calls it. Butler is working on a book, he said, and if it leads to a motion picture, no one should be surprised.
“You couldn’t write this script any better,” Butler said, “coming home at the end of it.”
The basics: Butler grew up amid rough surroundings in Racine, Wis., where he got involved selling drugs at age 11, and was arrested 15 times before turning 15. He found himself in solitary confinement, and he wrote his mother to promise that, if he got out alive, he would never hurt her again. While in the detention center he discovered a love and talent for basketball, and when he got out he played at Racine Park High, then prepped at Maine Central .
One day, Jim Calhoun appeared in a gym in Racine.
“It was funny, he came out to Racine,” Butler said, “he came to visit and he came right in the inner city into one of the basketball gyms and he was talking to me. ‘You can be really special and I want to help you get there,’ and he said, ‘I want to help you become a better person than a basketball player.’
“… That’s the type of guy that you needed, because I was a man that was raised by multiple women, my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, they raised me and I never had a man figure in my life. To have him in my life like that was very special. I still hear from him to t his day. He still calls, the texts. I’m pretty sure he’s voice-texting, I don’t know if he knows how to text. But he calls, sends messages. He has always inspired me to be better.”
“He believed in me when no one else did. That organization, the UConn basketball program and the University, believed in me when no one else did. It gives you a special opportunity to put on a platform and show what I was capable of doing – not only from a basketball standpoint, but show that I could be a great leader. I feel like if you can make it at UConn, you can make it anywhere and I definitely capitalized on that opportunity.”
Was Butler surprised when Calhoun retired? “I thought he’d coach two more years,’ Butler said, “but I am glad he left on his own terms, and I’m glad that one of our brothers, Kevin Ollie, was put in that position.”
Butler, 33, took a business management course at Duke last year, and he spent this past summer in an NBA leadership program, learning the front office side of the game. Let’s put it this way – he worked in Burger King as a teenager, and now he owns six BK franchises.
The Bucks are Butler’s sixth NBA stop since the Heat made him a lottery pick in 2002, and in coming home he has been able to assemble his entire family, five children, including two from a previous relationship, his wife, his mother under one roof.
“It’s like everybody is right there,” he said. “Five kids all getting up and running off to school, and all going to the same school. At 7:45, they wake up Daddy for practice. A lot of entertainment, a lot of energy and noise. It’s joyous noise, we call it. … It’s a great feeling, I prayed on it, I dreamed about it. To have it like this – for now, this business can take many places, I know – but for now, it’s a reward.”
His role in Milwaukee is to share his experiences, voice his opinions, show a team full of young players the way to carry themselves like professionals. During his career, the kid who liked to say at UConn that he “rose from concrete” has hobnobbed with and soaked in all the insight he could from leaders in politics, business, the entertainment industry.
“Generations of prayer, that’s how I would sum it up,” Butler said. “Having a lot of divine intervention. Going through so much and still being able to persevere in the long run. It’s a higher power.”
… Anyway, I don’t want to give it all away just yet. This will be in the Courant soon.