Turnaround Wizard

Arrested 15 times by age 15, All-Star forward Caron Butler straightened out his life with the help of a tough-love coach and his burning desire to redeem himself
February 26, 2007

I picked him upat the airport in Bangor, Maine, and I asked him, 'How many bags have you got?'He said he had four. I said, 'Good. That will take you only two trips to get itin the van.' And I walked off and left him. Let him make two trips carrying thebags by himself." ¶ The narrator was Max Good, the former coach of MaineCentral Institute, a prep school in the middle of who knows where. He and hiswife, Phyllis, were sitting in end zone seats 16 rows from the court on whichthe Washington Wizards were playing the Celtics on a recent night in Boston. Hewas explaining how Wizards forward Caron Butler had begun his transformationfrom an adolescent criminal into an NBA All-Star.

"He'd flownin from Racine [Wis.] to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, Boston to Bangor, so Iknew he was hungry," Good was saying. "After I picked him up at theairport I drove to a McDonald's, and I had an Airedale terrier that I tookeverywhere with me. We went to the McDonald's and I fed my dog, and I gotsomething, and I didn't even feed Caron. My dog was eating and he wasn't, and Iknew he was thinking, Damn."

As Good spoke,Butler was playing a typically sensational game. He was routinely slashing tothe basket or shouldering off Celtics defenders to clear space for his smoothjumper, and when he went up for rebounds, he would snatch the ball above thecrowd, his upper body jerking and thrashing like a swordfish against afisherman's line. With an explosive first step and the attitude of a runningback who seeks contact, he was, at 6'7" and 228 pounds, the mostintimidating player on the floor. "Caron, Carmelo Anthony, PaulPierce--they all have great direct lines to the basket," says San AntonioSpurs small forward Bruce Bowen, who regularly defends the best wing players inthe NBA. "Caron doesn't pump-fake and dribble around the contact. Hepump-fakes and goes straight to the basket."

Yet in betweenplays on that night in Boston, the All-Star would look up into the crowd at hisold coach. Rather than being distracted by his tortured past, Butler wasdrawing strength from it.

"And so we'redriving down the highway, and it's about 35 minutes from the airport, it's alight night and you can see the silhouette of the trees because it's nothingbut pine trees between Bangor and Pittsfield [where MCI is located]," Goodwas saying. "And Caron said, 'Coach, it doesn't seem like there's much todo here.' So I jerked the van over, and I said--you've got to excuse mylanguage here--I said, 'Hey, [expletive], do you want to go back to Racine,where you had so much to do and got absolutely nothing done?' And he said, 'No,no, no, no, Coach, I'm not saying that.' I said, 'Will you learn from me andlearn to shut the [expletive] up and start listening instead of talking?' Andhe didn't say another word."

Memories of thoseteen years have helped propel Butler to his finest season. Career-best averagesof 20.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.12 steals earned him a berth inhis first All-Star Game, in Las Vegas on Sunday, and a place among the bestplayers in the world, but his larger mission to maintain his drive andself-discipline prevents him from feeling too comfortable in the company ofstars. He holds himself erect and proud, like a military officer who never canloosen up at the neighborhood cocktail party.

Butler hasemerged as the most reliable player on the East's most surprising team--theWizards had the best record in the conference before a recent skid dropped themto 29--21--and at 26 he has been guaranteed enough money to secure himself andhis extended family for life. But he is always bracing for the possibility thathis success could be taken from him at any moment. "So many people aresaying, 'He proved himself, he's doing great,'" Butler says. "But Istill think, in the back of my mind, I still think that I'm...." If hecould bear to finish the sentence, it would go something like this: He stillsees himself as the uncertain and famished young man he was on that 35-minuteride from Bangor to Pittsfield.

Which is why heremains so surprised and grateful by the reception that greeted his arrival inWashington two summers ago, after the Wizards acquired him from the Los AngelesLakers in a deal for former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown. Before Butlerplayed a game for his new team, Washington offered him a five-year, $50 millionextension. He signed the contract on Oct. 31, 2005--the 10th anniversary of hissentencing for bringing a gun and a small packet of cocaine to Park High inRacine as a 14-year-old freshman. "I used to think about that every timeHalloween came up," says Butler, who served three months in county lockdownand another 11 months in a maximum-security juvenile facility. "Now onHalloween, I think, This is the day I got $50 million. It's amazing how thingscan change."

Wizards generalmanager Ernie Grunfeld had begun to follow Butler's career in 1999, whenGrunfeld became G.M. of the Milwaukee Bucks. It is a renowned cautionary talethroughout the NBA that Butler was arrested 15 times by the time he was 15years old, for offenses ranging from weapons to drug possession, but what wasless understood--and more intriguing to Grunfeld--was the disciplined path hehad followed since he started over at Maine Central. Not even Grunfeld foresawthe exponential growth that has made Butler an early favorite for the NBA'sMost Improved Player award this season. "I'm not going to sit here and saythat we saw it coming, because we didn't," says Wizards coach Eddie Jordanof Butler, who had career averages of 14.6 points and 5.5 rebounds enteringthis season. "You would have thought maybe he would be a little bit betterthan average, but the drive he has is something you don't [usually] see inpeople."

Max Good did seeit all coming. "I didn't want the NBA in his mind," says Good, "butit was in mine." He refers to Butler as one of the finest people he hasever coached, a "no-maintenance" player who averaged 26.2 points and13.3 rebounds in his second year at MCI and was the top prep school player inthe country. But Good didn't dare share his feelings with Butler, because hisgoal was to drive him as far as he could go after his escape from the violentworld he knew in Racine. Butler would become one of nine NBA players to passthrough Good's gym during his 10 years in Pittsfield. "I used to hold up myfist and tell them, 'Guys, you know what this is?'" Good says. "I'dsay, 'This is your testicles; I got your testicles right in my hand. And I canend it for you if you decide not to do what's exactly right, because I controlyour whole destiny.'"

The stereotype ofthe entitled and self-indulgent NBA star does not apply to Butler. From the dayhe met Good he was trained to believe that every day could be his last on thebasketball court, that his criminal record might cost him everything if hecommitted but one more mistake. His instinct for self-preservation seemed todraw him to disciplined, highly structured coaches like Good; Jim Calhoun atUConn, where Butler played for two years; the Miami Heat's Pat Riley, who tookButler with the No. 10 pick in the 2002 draft; and the Lakers' Phil Jackson,who picked up Butler for the 2004--05 season as part of the Shaquille O'Nealtrade. After seven years of taking orders and constraining himself for the sakeof his teams, Butler was confounded and overwhelmed when the Wizards acquiredhim to become a star. They needed someone to fill the slot vacated by LarryHughes and create a new Big Three alongside All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and AntawnJamison. It took Butler all of the '05--06 season to come to grips with whatthey were asking of him.

He entered theoff-season with a new sense of purpose. "I didn't want to shortchangemyself," he says. "I would see so many of these great things my peerswere doing, and I'd say, Why not me? I don't think there's a player in theleague who has been through the things I've been through, so I knew I wasstrong enough to handle any situation. So I said, I've just got to get my bodyprepared, and that's what I did."

Last summer,training in Washington, D.C., he ran hills in the morning, worked out twice aday and dropped 15 pounds thanks to the healthy meals prepared by his newpersonal chef. The early returns have emboldened him to be a leader as well asa scorer, per the wishes of Jordan, who has told Butler that he will become aco-captain for the second half of the season. According to teammate CalvinBooth, Butler is the one Wizard who will speak up when Arenas is goofing aroundbefore a game.

"I say thingslike, 'Are we going to work today, or are we going to continue to talk?'"says Butler in his deepest baritone voice. "Because sometimes there's toomuch lollygagging going on. I'm like, 'Hey, do y'all know we got the Pistonsout there? Are we going to work today?' Everybody gets real quiet, like, Oh,here he goes. But I get the respect I deserve."

Butler dreams ofextending his influence beyond NBA arenas to the broken neighborhoods ofRacine, where he returns each summer to visit his mother, Mattie Paden, and hisbrother, Melvin Claybrook, a 6'3" senior guard at Park High. His charitablefoundation supports an annual coat drive in Racine, and Butler visits localschools and meets with students and friends to try to set an example. "Whenwe go to Racine he always tells me, 'Remember this person's face,'" sayshis wife, Andrea, who met Caron when they were freshmen at UConn. "A yearor two later he'll say, 'Remember that person?' And he'll tell me that he'sgone or he's been shot or he's in jail."

"It's neverfailed," says Butler of his premonitions. Of his six closest childhoodfriends, four are dead. Last May it was a 25-year-old named Robert Nelom."I told my wife, 'I just don't think he's going to get off the streets.'And six months later he's dead. He got shot in the head--got shot twice,actually, in a club in the bathroom. I had to go back and bury him."

On Sunday in LasVegas, Butler missed his first six shots and didn't score until there was 4:07left in the East's 153--132 loss. "He whispered to me, 'I was a littlenervous out there,'" said Jordan, who as the East head coach played Butlerfor 16 minutes off the bench. "I said, 'Heck, Caron, I was nervous all dayand got more nervous as the game time approached.' It's all about theexperience. He's going to have a comfort level when we get back, and he's goingto be riding the wave."

Indeed, Butlersees Sunday as the first day of his newly elite career. "I want to be aperennial All-Star," he says. "I'm very grateful for this honor, but Ithink I can get much better. I can take it to another level."

A month earlier,after scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out seven assists inthe win over the Celtics, Butler came out of the locker room at TD BanknorthGarden to find Good, who left MCI in 2000 and now coaches Division II BryantUniversity in Smithfield, R.I., waiting near the court.

The two exchangedmemories for a few minutes before Butler's teammates began to file past. TheWizards' bus was preparing to leave. Good leaned in close and wrapped his armstightly around his player.

"I loveyou," he told Butler, and slapped him on the back. "You are anAll-Star, I'll say that."

But that was notthe kind of thing Butler wanted to hear. He gently pushed the old coach toarm's length, held him by both shoulders and looked him in the eyes."Hey," he said softly, "be sure to call me sometime and cuss me outagain."

EXTRA

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"We didn't see [Butler's success] coming,"says Jordan. "THE DRIVE HE HAS is something you don't usually see inpeople."

PHOTOSimon BrutyPERFORMANCE ANXIETY Butler, who is having a career season, struggled on Sunday in his first All-Star Game, scoring two points. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOICON SMICOURT COVERAGE The hustling Butler is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERNash and the Suns will run by the Heat.

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