Some players wait until they reach the NBA — until they make millions, travel in private planes, stay in five-star hotels, employ publicists and photographers — to attempt to gain street credibility.
Some NBA players are tough guys on the court. Others give the impression they’re tough off the court. And then there’s Caron Butler, who lived the life of a teenage drug dealer and hustler, was a father at age 14, and would have been incarcerated at age 17 if not for the graciousness of a local police officer in Racine, Wis.
Most professional athletes wait until their careers are over to spin autobiographies and describe journeys, but Butler didn’t wait. His book, “Tuff Juice: My Journey from the Streets to the NBA”, details a crime-filled childhood, the career-saving gesture from a law enforcement official who raided his home, and numerous stories from his 13 years in the NBA.
Butler now plays for the Sacramento Kings and serves as a voice of experience for a talented but potentially implosive team. His focus, however, is equally as much on reaching kids by talking about his past, hoping to affect the lives of youngsters who may feel that street crime is the lone option for survival.
“The things I’ve been through and talked about, the book is about overcoming adversity,” said Butler, who has played with nine NBA teams. “And some of the adversity that I went through with different organizations and more importantly in life, it’s about planting the right seed for kids as much as possible. It’s not about guys and relationships and the NBA or nothing like that, it’s about inspiring kids. That’s what the message is.”
Butler was arrested 13 times in his youth for various drug offenses and spent a year in a detention center before embracing basketball. Butler said he would hustle in the Racine schoolyards, engage in a pickup game or two, using basketball as merely a hobby between drug deals.
“My first love was the hustle, to be out there in the streets,” he said. “The hustle brought me nothing but sadness and hardship. The game of basketball is what I fell in love with after that. When you are faithful to that game, it brings so many things and so many opportunities, and I tried to exhaust those to the best of my abilities.”
The time in lockup was eye-opening for Butler, and so were the casualties of street life. After he was released from a correctional facility, Butler reunited with a friend who visited his home. The friend left. Butler went out for a haircut. The friend was murdered 30 minutes later.
“Seeing my closest friends being murdered, seeing myself going to corrections, knowing that the outcome of the game — either knowing you’re going to have to kill somebody or somebody is going to have to kill you, or go to jail for the rest of the your life . . . ” he said. “There were no positives from that life. But then you have a situation in which you have a window of opportunity to play something, you found your niche, you love the game of basketball, you can see the world, you can go places. I was inspired and exposed to that and knew good things would happen because of that.
“If being real is going to jail or shooting at somebody or getting your life taken, I don’t want to be real. I don’t want that.”
Butler’s daughter, Camary, was born when he was just 14 years old, during his time in lockup. He knew then that hustling would not enhance his relationship with his child.
“I’d never seen good fathers besides on TV,” he recalled. “I want to work. I want to have a good job. I want my kids to be proud of me. I want to have a wife one day. I want to have a family. How do I escape all of this? Change the perception of what we have always been. I felt like a failure for what I put my family through.”
Butler transferred from Racine Park High School to Maine Central Institute for his senior year. From there he attended the University of Connecticut, and played two years for the Huskies before the Heat selected him in the first round of the draft in 2002. He was a two-time All-Star with the Wizards and a member of the 2010-11 Mavericks championship team.
“Man, I’d be a damn liar if I said I thought all of these things were going to happen to me,” Butler said. “They were so farfetched, I didn’t see it happening, and still can’t believe it happened. I’m so humbled but it can happen to you, too.”
Lately, Butler has been talking at high schools and also exchanged ideas with the Sacramento Police Department. Also, he spoke at the White House with Lieutenant Rick Geller of the Racine Police Department, who was part of the force that raided Butler’s home in January 1998.
Butler, who was asleep at the time, had not participated in drug dealing for years, but police found drugs in his garage. Butler denied any wrongdoing, and Geller decided not to bring him in despite having enough evidence for an arrest.
The focus of the book is more about his childhood and turning his life around, but Butler does describe his version of the infamous gun incident between Wizards teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton.
In December 2009 following a practice, Butler says a dispute over money in a card game that had taken place on a team flight led to Arenas placing four guns on a chair in the locker room at Verizon Center and asking Crittenton to “pick one.” Crittenton apparently pulled out his own gun before matters were settled by teammates, including Butler.
The league suspended Arenas and Crittenton for the remainder of the 2009-10 season. Crittenton never played another NBA game and pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case of an Atlanta mother of four who was killed during a 2011 shooting. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Butler was traded to the Clippers weeks after the Arenas-Crittenton confrontation as the Wizards began a housecleaning. Arenas returned to Washington the following season and lasted 21 games there before he was traded to Orlando.
“The thing I didn’t want to talk about was that gun incident,” Butler said. “We all went to a grand jury and statements were taken so it was something that was already documented. When you’re writing a book, you know that the process is a long interview.
“I don’t have any malice in my heart and believe it or not, I love Gilbert. I [loved] Javaris. Those are dudes I went to war with. I would never share information in the locker room or anything that would hurt anyone. But because it was documented, the story was brought up. I gave my take.”
The Washington gun incident was an example of professional athletes trying to gain their version of respect by threatening violence. Butler has lived that life, and it’s nothing to boast about.
“The first thing I would have to say is don’t wait until you get to the NBA — we live an unbelievable life and we’re paid millions of dollars — to all of sudden be in search of your street credibility,” he said. “We’ve been extremely blessed all this time. It’s important that we have fun and just enjoy life. Embrace the personalities in your locker room. Don’t ever let [the Wizards’] situation happen again. These are unbelievable talents. Two men that life was forever altered.
“Man, don’t let this happen again. Don’t let it come to this.”
A TRIP WORTH TAKING
Turner humbled by visit to Africa
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I had an unbelievable time today in the Team world vs Team Africa game and an even more memorable experience on my trip here in Africa. It's crazy to think I was once playing the game I loved back home in Chicago and now I participated in the first ever sanctioned NBA game in the Mother land!!! Truly blessed #basketballwithoutborders #TeamWorld #Johannesburg #BuckeyeNation #GoCeltics
When the NBA sought players to travel to Johannesburg for the league’s first exhibition game on the African continent, Evan Turner jumped at the opportunity. The game in August was a rousing success, and the reappearance of retired legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo was not the primary reason.
The experience of traveling to Africa for the first time moved Turner. The NBA ensured its players were given the opportunity to tour South Africa. It was a satisfying experience for the 26-year-old Turner.
“It was cool to be able to go to Johannesburg, the coolest part was interacting with the people,” he said. “I was able to go to the children’s village and that was a life-changing experience. You know how grateful those young kids were, not growing up with much. The smile, the passion, everything they had was unreal.”
The players were able to tour the city and digest the rather painful history of South Africa.
“Being able to see the Apartheid Museum and the struggles of Nelson Mandela and his people was [moving],” Turner said. “I think the biggest thing was [Sudanese] Luol Deng — he spoke on bringing the game to Africa and seeing how emotional he got about it. Little things like this are bigger than life. To hear where he came from, to know, and for those people to see where he came from. It’s all about knowing how lucky you are, and I’m really blessed. I was really humbled by that experience.”
WNBA’s future solid, says Richie
The WNBA is finishing its 19th season. The question is whether it will have the longevity to survive another 19 or whether the NBA will decide to finally divest funds from the league. While the game is entertaining, the fact that smaller-market Indiana and Minnesota are in the WNBA Finals may hurt overall ratings, especially when the championship series is clashing with the NFL, college football, and the baseball playoffs.
League president Laurel Richie remains optimistic about the health of the WNBA, despite a tumultuous season involving off-court issues and the absence of former MVP Diana Taurasi and promising star Skylar Diggins.
“I think part of the culture of the larger NBA enterprise is always wanting more and always wanting to do better,” Richie said last week. “We at the WNBA take that approach, as well. We are always looking at what can we do to strengthen and grow our fan base, to extend into new partnerships.
“One of the things this year that I’m really proud of is at the end of this season, 10 out of our 12 teams have marquee [sponsorship] partners, and that is a real game-changer in terms of their business model. I am really impressed — and I know I keep saying it — but I’m really impressed with the depth of talent in our league. I look, and it spans multiple generations. You’ve got [36-year-old] Tamika Catchings to [22-year-old] Kiah Stokes and everybody in between bringing it. So I think, first and foremost, we’re a sports and entertainment vehicle, and when the talent is good, good things happen.”
The NBA would prefer its WNBA brethren survive without as much financial backing. Perhaps Tulsa’s move to Dallas-Fort Worth will foster that process. The WNBA has 12 teams and has been hesitant to expand after going through a series of team relocations and contraction during its first decade.
There has been increasing stability in the league. The Tulsa franchise, which moved from Detroit in 2010, is the lone club to relocate in the past seven years.
“We’re still getting all the final year-end numbers in, particularly the teams that have been in the postseason. I believe we’re going to be somewhere in the range of four to five of our teams being profitable this year,” Richie said. “But that’s a steady process, and we keep moving forward with that.
“Things like a move and a relocation from a city and announcing that midseason can have an impact. Moving into a different arena can have an impact. But I think we feel great momentum behind our business model because we spent a lot of time thinking about it. I think when you look at measures like 10 out of our 12 teams having marquee partners, that speaks to that path to profitability that our teams are on.”
The league could help itself greatly by moving some of its teams into smaller arenas that would create more intimate settings and better atmospheres. How much do the Sparks pay to be playing at 18,118-seat Staples Center or the Liberty at Madison Square Garden? And the league has to make playing more attractive so its marquee stars such as Taurasi don’t consider sitting out seasons to remain fresh for their teams overseas. That’s embarrassing for the league.
Sam Mitchell has wanted another head coaching opportunity since being fired by the Toronto Raptors during the 2008-09 season. Now that he has taken over the Timberwolves’ coaching duties in place of the ailing Flip Saunders, he is going to stick with the recent philosophy by going young. Zach LaVine, 20, will be Minnesota’s starting shooting guard over injury-prone veteran Kevin Martin. The Wolves already have released former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and are banking on LaVine, reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, and No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns as their foundation. An established scorer, Martin has a trade-friendly contract that pays him $7 million this season and $7.3 million next season. The Timberwolves signed Martin a few years ago when they were trying to compete for a playoff spot under previous general manager David Kahn . . . While local eyes were on the Celtics’ thrashing of Olimpia Milano in their preseason opener, the league’s eyes were on Milano swingman Alessandro Gentile, who is property of the Rockets but is signed with the Italian club until 2018. He scored 19 points on 9-for-20 shooting against the Celtics and has a buyout in his contract that would bring him to Houston next season. Gentile, 22, was named the MVP of the Serie A (Italian League) finals in 2014 . . . The AmeriLeague, a potential competitor for the NBA Developmental League, has named former Hawks center and longtime assistant coach Tree Rollins as a coach of one of its six franchises. The league also has added former NBA players Terrence Williams, Antoine Wright, and David Harrison to its rosters. The league will begin play on Nov. 9 at the Cashman Center in Las Vegas . . . Recent Hall of Fame inductee Dikembe Mutombo will receive a Caring Award from the Caring Institute for his community service, especially in his native Congo, where he has contributed to the construction of a hospital. Mutombo, 49, has been an NBA ambassador to Africa since his playing days and has long been recognized for his community efforts . . . Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will be honored along with former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour and Red Sox great Roger Clemens at The Tradition on Dec. 2 at TD Garden. The Tradition, in it 14th year, is a fund-raiser that honors local athletes and community contributors.
Nothing establishes a new player like a big scoring performance. Here’s the list of each franchise’s highest scoring game by a rookie, in case the 2015 class wants to take a crack at it.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.