Real Friends

Caron Butler’s career is winding down but he’s still making an impact.

by Wes Goldberg

When Caron Butler signed with the Sacramento Kings this summer, he probably didn’t expect the internal drama that has clouded the team’s season. He expected to play more and for a team that was moving in a positive direction with a slew of new, talented, free agent signings. Team progress hasn’t been there, and minutes have been hard to come by. The Kings reportedly promised to trade him at mid-season somewhere where he could have a larger role. The Kings didn’t trade him, and Butler remains in Sacramento.

“Obviously it’s been a challenge, obviously you want to play more and you always feel in your heart and in your DNA that you can do more,” Butler said after a recent loss to the Miami Heat. “But at the same time you just try to be an asset to your organization and to your teammates as much as you possibly can.”

For Butler this season isn’t a road block. It’s not even a speed bump. Butler’s career is winding down. All that matters now is making sure that whatever stops remain are meaningful and of lasting impact.

Butler’s has had a rough past, involving adventures in drug dealing and crime — enough to fill the pages of his auto-biography “Tuff Juice.”

Playing. Not playing. It matters less when you consider the bigger picture and how far he’s already come.

“It has been challenging at times but, at the same time, I’m a resilient individual and I understand we have a job to do and it’s nothing that’s life threatening,” Butler said. “We get paid an unbelievable amount of money to do something that we all have a passion and drive to do, so it puts everything in perspective.”

It’s that ability to turn down the static that sets Butler apart and makes him one of the NBA’s best teammates. Kobe Bryant is close with Butler, despite playing just one season with him (Bryant wrote the foreword to his book). Sacramento is his ninth stop in 13 seasons, but everywhere he goes — no matter for how long — he leaves his footprint.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Butler started his career with the Miami Heat, drafted 10th overall out of the University of Connecticut. He averaged 15.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists and was named to the All-Rookie first team. The Heat drafted Dwyane Wade the next year to complete Miami’s promising wing tandem of the future.

Then Shaquille O’Neal became available, and Pat Riley traded Butler, Lamar Odom and others to the Lakers in a franchise-altering deal. It wasn’t easy to move on for Butler, but his former teammates haven’t moved on from the bond they formed.

Wade and Butler remain close and see each other during summers. Butler named Wade a godfather to his daughter Ava.

After the Heat defeated the Kings, Wade and Udonis Haslem — who was a rookie with Wade in Butler’s final year with the Heat — together walked over to the Kings locker room to find their old friend.

“I came in as a rookie, and it was only his second year in the league, but just the experience he had, his words of wisdom was like someone who’d been playing 15 years in the NBA,” Haslem said. “He was able to bring me under his wing and just kind of bring me along.”

Butler, who turned 36 in March, is the oldest player on the Kings by nearly six years (only Marco Belinelli and Rajon Rondo are at least 30). That experience comes into play, but this isn’t just another story of the old vet taking on a mentoring role in the twilight of his career. In other words, he’s not just getting them checks.

The Kings lost to the Heat at home but, despite dealing with a 20-plus point deficit for much of the game, rallied in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Whether the Kings were down by 20 or by two, Butler was on the bench gesturing to teammates, talking to them when they were on his end of the court, taking teammates aside during breaks and always remaining engaged.

It’s no secret that the George Karl experience hasn’t been a smooth one, but having someone like Butler on the bench helps to motivate one of the youngest teams in the league. The Kings have won 30 games for the first time in nearly a decade.

Again, Butler turns down the static — the negativity that hangs over Sacramento — and puts things into perspective.

“You have good basketball people in those positions. You have Vlade Divac, who was a teammate of mine, Peja Stojakovic, who was a teammate as well. You got basketball minds in great positions to make the future of the organization prosper,” Butler said. “Then you have your franchise guy [DeMarcus Cousins] who is young–not even in his prime–and he’s the best big man in the game. You got a guy like Rondo who is playing at an extremely high level and you got a group that’s just about getting it built and getting that continuity and moving it forward. It’s a process.”

“We have a possibility of winning 30-plus games and that’s a positive. It’s something to build on.”

Butler signed a two-year deal that has an opt-out clause after this season. He could decide to sign elsewhere in search of more playing time, and no one would blame him, but he hasn’t come to that fork in the road just yet. He remains engaged and focused on being a “big brother” to his teammates.

It’s that selflessness, that drive to make a difference in others’ lives that makes Butler one of the league’s premier teammates.

“He’s the kind of guy that,” Haslem explains. “If you play with him for one year or two years, the impact that he has on you and the friendship that you build will last forever.”

Wes Goldberg is a contributor to The Step Back and the host of the daily Miami Heat podcast Locked On Heat.