RACINE, Wis. – When Caron Butler would be late coming home, when that tiny red flag meant that he likely was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, Mattie Claybrook sometimes would hop in the car and take matters into her own hands.
“I had a leaded bat,” Claybrook, mother of the 11-year NBA veteran, said Thursday. “I took it a few times, just to scare the kids. I used to go where I thought he would be with the other boys. They would say, ‘Your momma’s comin’, your momma’s comin’. So he would hide or duck, but I would find him. I’d make him come back home and run the other boys away from wherever they might be. I was trying to keep him straight and narrow.”
That big stick would rank Claybrook somewhere between Isiah Thomas‘ mother greeting gang recruiters at her front door with a shotgun and Derrick Rose‘s three older brothers shooing away bad guys as young “Pooh” ran between their home, their grandmother’s and the Murray Park playground.
But those are Chicago tales – Thomas’ on the city’s West Side, Rose’s to the south in the tough Englewood neighborhood. Butler’s street challenges played out 70 miles to the north, a city of about 79,000 people along Lake Michigan, about 20 miles south of Milwaukee.
Trouble doesn’t sweat demographics, though, and it found Butler at Hamilton Park, a gathering site of idle time and ill intentions where Butler claims to have made his first drug sale at age 11. His newspaper route, getting him up and out long before he was supposed to be in school, provided perfect cover for the bad path onto which Butler had strayed. Back in 2008, during the third and most successful of Butler’s six NBA stops so far, Michael Lee of the Washington Post wrote about that path:
Butler received newspapers at 3:30 each morning, delivered them and then hit the corner of 18th and Howe to sell crack before the sun rose.
“You can take a kid to school all day; he’s in school for eight hours, he [doesn’t] see the immediate impact,” Butler said. “You can stay out [on the corner] for four, five hours and make $1,500.”
By his estimation, Butler appeared in juvenile court 15 times by age 15. He served stints at two correctional institutions and had friends who were gunned down in the street. He narrowly avoided doing serious time himself when police found crack cocaine in the garage of the house where he and his family were living.
But basketball was speaking to Butler too, at the Bray and Bryant community centers in Racine, at Washington Park High and eventually at the Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Maine. He had been steered there by Jameel Ghuari of the Bray Center, Butler’s AAU coach and, over time, his mentor. That’s where Butler finished school and attracted the attention of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.
The rest, as they say, is history. Butler starred for two seasons with the Huskies and was picked 10th in the 2002 Draft by Miami, his first NBA stop. He spent a year with the Lakers after being dealt in the Heat’s trade for Shaquille O’Neal, made the East All-Star team twice in four-plus seasons with the Wizards, then joined Dallas in February 2010.
He was part of the Mavericks squad that beat Miami for the 2011 NBA title but he was a spectator, too, after rupturing his right patellar tendon in January of that season. The Clippers signed Butler out of rehab to a three-year, $24 million free-agent contract, and he averaged 11.1 points in 26.6 minutes the past two seasons.
And now, he’s home, acquired by Milwaukee last week for guard Ish Smith and center Viacheslav Kravtsov from Butler’s temporary stop in Phoenix (he was part of the Eric Bledsoe-Jared Dudley-J.J. Redick transaction in July). On Thursday, that meant a combination news conference-welcome event-pep rally for Butler in the fieldhouse at Park High. Students filled the bleachers at one end of the big gym, while family and extended family beamed from seats on the floor.
It wasn’t just safe for Butler to be back in Racine Thursday. It was proper.
“I’m not going to let you guys down,” Butler, 33, told them all. The event barely had begun and already his voice was growing thick, his eyes turning red. He ticked off thanks to a long list of folks and called the Bucks “a contending team.”
“I’m a little emotional,” Butler said. “I always am – y’all see me crying at press conferences all the time. But this is a different emotion now because this is a dream come true. This is something … I never thought it would happen.”
Two years ago, Milwaukee and Chicago both were possible destinations for Butler until the Clippers’ fat offer settled that. This time, a call from Butler to his mother brought it home.
“I started screaming and shouting and jumping all around the house like a little kid,” Claybrook said. “I said, ‘Thank you, God, in the name of Jesus’ about 20 times. I was so overwhelmed, so blessed.”
For the Bucks, adding Butler was the latest and nearly final move in a summer full of them. Fourteen of the 18 players who suited up for them in 2012-13 are gone. The roster has 11 new faces, including Butler, O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia and others, to be knitted into a team by a new head coach, Larry Drew.
For all the turnover, there still was a hole at small forward, which meant either overloading Delfino’s minutes or playing someone from the big-heavy front line out of position. Now Butler might start, with general manager John Hammond persuaded that the veteran’s recent spate of injuries (the knee in 2011, a broken hand in 2012, back and elbow issues last season) won’t scuttle that plan.
“I don’t think he’s made many concessions [to age or injury],” Hammond said. “I think he wants to do more – we don’t have Chris Paul or Blake Griffin like the Clippers do. … I talked to [Dallas coach] Rick Carlisle about Caron and he said, ‘I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as Caron did to come back from that [knee] injury.’ “
Hammond did those sort of background checks years ago on Butler, too, prior to the 2002 draft when the word “criminal” still was floating around. After 11 NBA seasons, that has been replaced entirely by praise for Butler’s character, personality and charity in the cities where he has played and, of course, in Racine.
“I always wanted to prove people wrong,” Butler said. “Everybody put this stigma on you like ‘You’re not going to make it’ or ‘You can’t do it because…’ “
“Always,” in his case, being from about age 16, anyway.
“I just always wanted to prove doubters wrong. and be a good example for the kids that watch me. My children, children in my family,” the father of four said. “Because the examples that I had, the role models, were different people, people who were running the streets doing different things.
“It’s real rewarding to see people say, ‘I look up to you. Because you did that, I feel I can do this.’ That’s special to me and means a lot.”
There was a fieldhouse full of people telling Butler that Thursday. He had joked that the Bucks, the high school and the neighbors couldn’t hold the news conference “at 18th and Mead,” on the corner of Hamilton Park. But in a way, they did.