- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mitchell Butler played college basketball in the big city, obscured by brighter lights. During his NBA career, which included two terms in Washington, he was called a “journeyman” so often the label became his new first name. In college, he never made all-conference. As a pro, he never remotely brushed against All-Star recognition. He had to hustle, battle and think to keep a job.

These were ideal traits, it turns out, for Butler’s post-playing life. He is one of only a few former professional athletes to become a sports agent. Having gone from fighting for position to swimming with sharks, Butler is back in his hometown of Los Angeles working for Dan Fegan, who represents about 30 NBA players, including the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas.

“I think this is a natural calling for me,” said Butler, a former client of Fegan’s.

Butler worked in the Wizards front office last season and had a chance to pursue a career in management. But after 11 pro basketball years, bouncing around here, there and overseas, he did not want to subject his family to unpredictable decisions that might result in further uprooting.

Whichever path he chose, those who know Butler believed he would succeed.

“He had to make it the hard way,” Fegan said. “He wasn’t a first-round pick. He was always on the bubble. He always had to go that extra mile to extend his career. He was able to play by virtue of his work ethic, his tenacity, his commitment to the game.

“He’d seen just about everything in the NBA — the good, the bad and the ugly. Based on that experience and based on the fact that he didn’t end his career with a silver spoon or have that mega-contract, he always had to work. There’s an ethic and a culture that some players never get. Mitchell’s in a good position to help young players navigate their careers.”

Butler started for four seasons at UCLA from 1989 through 1993. He played with career Pac-10 scoring leader Don MacLean and Tracy Murray, and both had itchy trigger fingers. Butler was a 6-foot-5 scrapper who rebounded, set picks and usually guarded the opposition’s best big man. In other words, he did the dirty work. His value was underscored by the fact he played in 130 games. No one in the hallowed history of UCLA basketball has played in more.

Undrafted, Butler signed a free agent contract with the then-Washington Bullets and played three years before he was dealt to Portland in the infamous and ill-advised trade that sent Rasheed Wallace to the Trail Blazers for Rod Strickland. He spent a year in Portland and two in Cleveland. He played in Europe and the Continental Basketball Association before returning to his old team, now called the Wizards, for the 2003-2004 season.

Butler’s career amounted to 362 games with just 32 starts spread over eight NBA seasons. He averaged nearly 8.0 points during his second year, but he said things fell apart the next season when then-coach Jim Lynam made him the backup point guard.

“It all went downhill from there,” Butler said.

As in college, Butler was a prototypical role player. But he also was a survivor who relied on means other than his modest skills and was able to double the average NBA lifespan.

“I thought my minutes were always productive,” he said.

Said Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who in 2003 signed Butler even though he had played in just 11 NBA games since the 1998-99 season: “Mitchell has always been a very high-character person. He’s a great influence in the locker room; he’s extremely professional in how he handles himself on and off the floor. He was a great team guy. …The year he played for us, he did a very nice job. When he had the opportunity, he played well. He was always prepared.”

As the Wizards continued to rebuild the following year, Butler was left out of the team’s on-court plans. He was hired as director of player development, which meant he worked as a liaison between players and coaches, players and management. He listened to their complaints and dispensed counsel — a Dr. Phil in warmups.

“You’re with the guys on an everyday basis,” he said. “You try to develop their basketball skills as well as work with them away from the game, their social, economic, educational and psychological needs.”

Butler regrets that he could not prevent the fiasco that resulted in Kwame Brown, since dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers, from going AWOL during the playoffs. But he acknowledges he could do only so much. Otherwise, he said, the experience has prepared him for what lies ahead. He is learning the business from the ground up, awaiting word from the NBA Players Association on his certification.

“I think I understand how the game works,” he said. “I’ve got good relationships with general managers, player personnel people. It’s about creating a working relationship that’s conducive to everyone. It doesn’t always work that way, but if you do that 95 percent of the time, that’s great.”

Butler acknowledges that when the word agent is mentioned, “sometimes people cringe.” The profession has been sullied by those who have swindled clients, signed players through unscrupulous means and generally acted in an unseemly fashion.

Only a few ex-players have become agents and one of them, former Maryland star Len Elmore, said he quit nine years ago in part because he did not want to damage his credibility as a person and a lawyer.

“I stopped because I didn’t think I could compete any longer,” said Elmore, a part-time broadcaster for ABC/ESPN and CBS and senior legal counsel with the international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae. “I recognized all the things going on throughout the industry in regard to client acquisition.”

Paraphrasing the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, Elmore said, “I did not want to stoop to conquer.”

Butler, who graduated from UCLA but does not have a law degree, said he will try to change the perception.

“Typically, when people think of agents, they think about contracts or negotiations,” he said. “But, truly, the great agents are the ones who understand about managing careers. To me, that’s the most important thing and, having played the game and knowing what the game demands of you and what you can get from the game, it really makes a lot of sense.

“I want to make sure I can help guys elevate their careers. I want to try to help a player realize his potential, to go out and work hard every night to achieve it.”

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