LOS ANGELES — Caron Butler feels their pain.
Golden State Warriors All-Star forward David Lee became the latest out-for-the-season casualty with a complete tear of his right hip flexor in Saturday’s Game 1 loss to the Denver Nuggets. He reluctantly joins the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (Achilles) and Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari (knee), two players sidelined by devastating injuries just before the start of the playoffs.
That leaves three Western Conference playoff teams down a star player.
“I think about it all the time,” Butler said of that dreadful day, Jan. 1, 2011, when his right patellar tendon ruptured during a game in Milwaukee, making him a bystander and cheerleader for the rest of the season as the Dallas Mavericks went on to win the championship.
“Every time I lace up and step on the court I think about it because that could have easily been my last time playing the game of basketball as a professional. It’s one of those things that I don’t take for granted. I was truly humbled by that experience and I learned a lot from it.”
Butler is now in his second season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ starting small forward. He had an excellent Game 1 with 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting and seven rebounds in just 24 minutes as the Clippers beat the Memphis Grizzlies 112-91. Game 2 is tonight (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT) at Staples Center.
“We’ve got a number of guys that have had injuries and come back from them,” Chris Paul said. “But Caron especially, when you’re injured and trying to work through an injury you feel like you’ll never be back to who you were. To see Caron playing the way he is, it’s exciting and great to see.”
Yes, Butler is finally healthy. He began to think he was snakebit when he broke his left hand in last year’s playoff opener and was feared lost for an extended period. He somehow played through it, determined not to miss more precious postseason time.
“I was not going to miss it,” Butler said.
“It’s frustrating, extremely frustrating,” Butler continued. “Being part of a team and building up to the ultimate goal to compete for a title and not being able to compete on the court is always frustrating. And then you just have to think team first and add all the little intangibles you bring to the table besides being on the floor — being vocal in the locker room, the experience in the locker room, staying in guys’ ears.”
To this day, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle talks of the gruesome nature of Butler’s injury, how his knee cap became completely dislodged and how Butler walked off the court under his own power, not wanting to scare friends and family who came to watch him in Milwaukee, near his hometown of Racine, Wisc.
And Carlisle relays the heroic nature in which Butler attacked rehab for months, desperately attempting to make it back for even one game of the playoff run only to fall short.
“It was so painful just not to be able to show your gift like what you’re capable of doing on the biggest stage in the sport,” Butler said.
Now 33 and in his 11th season — and sixth postseason in which he’s actually able to play — Butler said the 2011 season has come to define his approach to the rest of his career.
“It’s made me a much more motivated, a much more focused player, a much more mature player,” Butler said. “And that’s why I’m always — I’m much older now — but I’m always wanting to be out there on the court. I just want that opportunity to be out there all the time and to have my impact and influence on the court felt, not just in the locker room.
“It’s something I really look forward to, these opportunities to go into a postseason relatively healthy and being able to perform at a high level.”
He suspects the same will be true next season for Kobe, Gallinari and Lee.
Because Butler feels their pain.