Whether you’re a Dallas Mavs fan or a sports fan at all–and me, I’m a fair weather fan, who loves him some Mavs as long as they’re winning–Caron Butler’s story is a wonderful human-interest story, sports story or not. Dallas Morning News has this profile of him today:
Dallas Mavericks’ Caron Butler overcomes troubled past
By BRAD TOWNSEND / The Dallas Morning News
(Photo by Lara Solt, Dallas News)
Blinking back tears, Caron Butler peered out the prison van’s back window at the devastation he had caused – the panic-stricken face of his mother, Mattie.
Frantic, but helpless, she followed the van and her shackled 14-year-old son in her blue Mercury station wagon, steam spewing from its radiator.
It’s the most indelible of the graphic mental snapshots Butler has carried through eight NBA seasons and, now, into his first postseason as a Dallas Maverick.
Many NBA fans know that Butler was a teenage drug dealer in his native Racine, Wis. As a wealthy, accomplished 30-year-old, he could classify his sordid past as youthful stupidity and move on.
Yet through four NBA stops, including two All-Star seasons, Butler willingly remains known as the guy who got arrested 15 times by age 15 and was imprisoned for cocaine and firearm possession. The story line practically precedes his name, like “Hall of Famer” or “Nobel Prize winner.”
“I look at what could have been,” Butler says. “It really would have been a waste. Now I look at myself, being in a great situation.
“I get paid millions of dollars doing something that I love. Whenever I get the opportunity to share my story and influence others, be a pillar in the community, I embrace it.”
When the Mavericks acquired Butler from Washington on Feb. 13, some Dallas fans probably recalled seeing him on The Oprah Winfrey Show in September 2005, or in Sports Illustrated in February 2007.
When Butler and fellow trade acquisitions Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson instantly helped spark a 13-game Dallas winning streak, it wasn’t hard to guess why former Washington coach Eddie Jordan nicknamed Butler “Tuff Juice.”
The 6-foot-7, 228-pound swingman impressed new Mavericks teammates and fans with his rim-attacking and defensive ruggedness. But while Butler regards the trade as a career godsend, the timing was difficult personally.
His wife, Andrea, and 6-year-old daughter, Mia, had to remain in Virginia. Andrea is expecting another girl in June and is getting her second degree, in social work, at George Mason University.
As Butler hurriedly packed for Dallas on Feb. 13, he and Andrea realized this would be their first extended time apart since they met 10 years ago as University of Connecticut students.
“Oh my God, that was a depressing weekend,” Andrea Butler says by phone from Virginia. “I think I cried all of Valentine’s Day.”
But when she watches Mavericks games on TV, Andrea is gratified that Butler “looks so happy. I haven’t seen him smile so much in a long time.”
She and Mia came to Dallas for Butler’s birthday, March 13. They returned two weeks later for Mia’s birthday and house hunting for their planned move this summer. After this season, Butler has one year left on his current contract.
For now, he’s renting former Mavericks coach Don Nelson’s apartment at the W Dallas Victory Hotel and Residences, across the street from American Airlines Center.
It’s convenient, sure, but when he was at Washington, Wizards security would escort Mia to him while he stretched on the court during pregame warm-ups.
“I miss my pregame hug and kiss,” Butler says. “I miss that tremendously.”
Now, the Butlers mostly stay in touch by phone, or via Skype video. Sometimes, Andrea places her computer in Mia’s room, so Butler can watch Mia play or sleep.
After attending Dallas’ March 10 home game against New Jersey, Mia tried to wait patiently with Andrea in the Mavericks’ family and friends room, between urgent calls to Butler’s cellphone to ask when he was coming out of the locker room.
Mia was on the phone with Butler’s mother, Mattie Claybrook, when her dad entered the family room. “Bye, Nanna! Got to go!” she hollered, running to her father.
“When he comes around, she blocks quite a few people out,” Andrea laughs. “Including me.”
In Racine, a southeastern Wisconsin city of 80,000 bordering Lake Michigan, Claybrook and her husband, Melvin, help watch over Butler’s two children from previous relationships.
For Caron Jr.’s 10th birthday a week ago, Butler arranged for his son and friends to attend the Bucks-Celtics game in Milwaukee. Through Boston guard Ray Allen, Butler got Caron Jr. into the locker room to meet the Celtics players.
Daughter Camary, at 15 a standout soccer and basketball player, was born less than a month into Butler’s incarceration. When he was released at age 16, one of the first things Butler did was establish a relationship with her.
At the time, it seemed doubtful Butler would finish high school, much less earn a college basketball scholarship and have a lucrative NBA career.
He had no relationship with his biological father, who had left Racine and joined the Marines around the time Caron was born. Mattie, then 15, lived with her mother, Margaret Butler, until Caron was 4.
“The reason I think my relationship with my children is so good is I think about everything I didn’t have with my father,” Butler says. “I imagine being at the park and having my father rebound for me. Or throwing a football to me. Or telling me not to cross the street. And about girls.
“Any manly thing, I had to learn from my mother and grandmother. It’s true that a woman can raise a man.”
Dealing drugs at age 11
But while raising Caron and his younger half-brother, Melvin III, Mattie often had to work two jobs. She says Caron made good grades, raked leaves and shoveled snow without prompting and got a newspaper route at age 11.
That also was the year he made his first drug deal. Butler says two of his uncles were dealers.
“Once my mom went to work or sleep, I would hit the streets and start hustling,” he says. “I was turned on by the material stuff. The gold chains. The fancy cars. Seeing garbage bags of money. It was mesmerizing.”
Jameel Ghuari has been the executive director of Racine’s George Bray Neighborhood Center since 1993. He met Caron after giving a “Say No to Drugs” speech at his junior high.
Ghuari started an inner-city basketball league and formed a youth travel team. He was aware that Butler had talent, but the next thing Ghuari heard, he was in the Racine Correctional Institution.
Butler, then a freshman at Racine Case High, says he gave his locker combination to a friend. That day, police found drugs and an unloaded pistol in the locker.
Butler says that to protect his friend, he told police that the drugs and pistol were his. Butler, who received an 18-month sentence, still won’t divulge the friend’s name.
After two months at the adult correctional facility, Butler was transferred to the Ethan Allen School for Boys, where for more than a year he lived with murderers, burglars and fellow drug dealers.
On the day of his transfer, he watched his mother follow the van until her station wagon overheated. He watched her pull over, lift the hood and gradually shrink to a speck on the horizon.
Each week, she made the hourlong drive to Ethan Allen, her hair thinning and body temperature out of whack from the stress.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world, having your child taken out of your home,” Mattie says. “It’s like my head was spinning every day, until Caron came home.”
The Bray Center’s Ghuari talked Butler into joining his travel team, for which he eventually starred in national tournaments.
“At first, he was still fighting, having a foot in both worlds, associating with some of the people that got him into trouble in the first place,” Ghuari says.
As Butler blossomed into one of the country’s top talents, Ghuari realized the player had to get out of Racine. Ghuari got him into Maine Central Institute, a college preparatory school in Pittsfield, Maine.
‘So much wisdom’
The school gave Butler a partial scholarship. But Butler says that to cover the rest of his tuition, he got nearly $5,000 from a Racine drug dealer. Ghuari says the Bray Center pitched in $2,000. The latter contribution led the NCAA to briefly suspend Butler while he was at the University of Connecticut, but Ghuari says the drug dealer’s portion couldn’t be traced.
Butler met 4-foot-11 Andrea during freshman orientation at Connecticut. Initially, they were just friends; it took him more than a semester to persuade her to date him.
Over pizza at Uno’s in Storrs, Conn., he spilled forth his life story, sparing no details.
“I honestly felt on that day that I’d found my soul mate,” Butler says.
“I always say Caron has an old soul,” Andrea says. “He has so much wisdom in him. I’m still shocked to hear him give speeches. People stereotype athletes. I do it and I’m married to one. But he amazes me.”
Over time, the Mavericks and their fans will get to know Tuff Juice’s non-basketball side, the Butler who has conducted free youth clinics and bicycle, coat and school supply drives in Racine, as well as at each stop of his NBA career.
He cried on Oprah. He wept upon signing a five-year, $50 million contract on Halloween 2005, the anniversary of his drug and weapon sentencing.
He shed more tears during both of his proclaimed “Caron Butler Days” – in Connecticut last July and in Racine in 2007. During a parade that weekend in Racine, someone whispered to Butler that his biological father was there and wanted to speak to him.
“Too late,” Butler says, recalling the moment.
“I think the best for Caron Butler, basketball-wise and as a human being, is yet to come,” Ghuari says. “I’ve watched him come from nothing, a guy with a dope-dealer mentality, to a family man who is conscious of his community – and is still growing spiritually.
“When you’ve got all the money you can imagine, drive a Bentley and live in a mansion, it’s hard to look at the world in a balanced way. But he does.”