- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

Caron Butler’s journey to the NBA began in a cramped prison cell in Wisconsin.

Years before the small forward became a key member of the Washington Wizards, he was in solitary confinement in a juvenile facility after an altercation with a rival gang member. Butler, then 14, spent two weeks isolated in “the hole,” a closet-sized steel room where he could touch all four walls without moving his feet.

By then, the troubled teen had a rap sheet longer than his current 6-foot-7 frame. He was a bitter young man, arrested 15 times before the age of 15; seemingly destined to spend much of his life in prison — if he survived.

That all changed in solitary confinement, where suicide attempts are more common than revelations. Butler described it as his “darkest moment” as well as his most life-changing.

“I stopped blaming other people for my mistakes,” said Butler, who was arrested at his high school with a gun, cocaine and $20,000 in his possession. “When you mess it up so bad that they have to put you in a little room like that and confine you from the general population, you really have to evaluate what you are doing. I had to decide whether to shape up or continue to act crazy.”

It was the beginning of an amazing turnaround.

Butler stayed out of trouble after that and even worked in the prison’s kitchen for 27 cents an hour while serving the final eight months of his 14-month sentence. He has had no legal problems since.

Despite initially not being allowed back into high school in Racine, Wis., Butler found a way to circumvent the system. He eventually got back into school and became an all-state basketball player. However, it wasn’t until he went to prep school at Maine Central Institute that he was truly able to get away from the lures that landed him in prison.

“He knew somebody threw him a life raft,” said Max Good, who coached Butler at MCI. “And he took full advantage of it.”

Butler went on to be an All-American at Connecticut and the 10th overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. After stopovers with Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers, he has become a critical part of the Wizards’ success. A steady scorer (17.6 points a game), excellent rebounder (6.2 rebounds) and strong defender (1.69 steals), Butler also brings previously-lacking toughness to the team and is quick to stand up for teammates.

Earlier this week, he confronted Cleveland’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas after the 7-foot-3 center slammed guard Gilbert Arenas to the floor. Butler also has put superstars such as Kevin Garnett on alert that unnecessary physical play will not be tolerated.

“He doesn’t have much street left in him; he is one of the nicest and most appreciative people,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “About the only place he has some of that street and swagger is in his game. And that is a good thing. He doesn’t get rattled and relishes every challenge.”

It is no coincidence the Wizards lost five straight as Butler was sidelined with a sprained thumb, watching their playoff chances waiver without their menacing penetrator.

But since his return, the Wizards, like Butler, are smiling.

The team has won three straight heading into its playoff series with Cleveland tomorrow. On Wednesday, Butler scored 33 points and grabbed 12 rebounds — both team highs — to lead the Wizards past Detroit in the regular season finale.

“He always plays with a confidence and swagger,” Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said. “And that rubs off on the other guys.”

Butler, who signed a five-year $45 million extension before this season, now uses his celebrity and money to help struggling families back in Wisconsin. He feeds about 100 families at Thanksgiving and does something similar at Christmas. He gives away hundreds of bikes and sponsors four basketball teams from his hometown.

“I try to do a lot of things so the kids can see the world; get on travel teams so they can see the world is bigger than just Racine,” Butler said. “Sometimes that’s all [they] see and think, ‘I am limited to this. I can only work in a factory.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but they need to see more.”

Going straight

Butler vowed he would never return to prison after getting released some 60 days late as a penalty for the altercation that landed him in solitary confinement. His mother Mattie — a single mom who often worked two jobs to support the family — moved to a different section of Racine, which Butler describes as more like the suburbs, to put some distance between her oldest son and the dangerous elements.

Mattie hoped to re-enroll her son in high school, but the school board denied her request. When she realized the proper channels were not going to work, she found a way around them. The mother enrolled him at a technical school under the name James Butler to avoid any suspicion.

“She used my government name,” said Caron, who worked at Burger King for spending money. “I got four B’s. We went back to the school system and I showed them that. They were amazed.”

Butler was allowed back into the system and went to a new school, Park High School, starting on Jan. 23, 1998. But administrators kept close watch on him.

“My parole officer used to search me in halls of class,” Butler said. “It was embarrassing. I didn’t care. I knew they were doing the right thing. I just wanted the opportunity.”

Butler came out for the basketball team shortly before the end of the season and immediately impressed his coach.

“He said I looked like a pro and that I was the best player he has seen in this city in the last 30 years,” Butler said. “They won four games before I got there and we won the last two. The next season we went 19-4.”

Butler began to realize he was a special basketball player in prison, when he used to win canteen money — used for sodas, chips and other conveniences — from fellow inmates. He rarely lost and credits those physical games for making him a tough player.

However, it wasn’t as if there weren’t temptations after his release to return to his old life of crime.

“There were times I basically had to pull him off the street,” said James Ghuari, who runs the George Bray Neighborhood Center in Racine and works with inner-city children. “He was different when he came out of prison, but there were still attractions to the lifestyle. There was still peer pressure. He was used to having a little money. Now he didn’t have any. So he was still on the borderline.”

Butler played basketball at the Bray center and had known Ghuari since he was about 10. Ghuari, a one-time high school basketball star, started a travel basketball team and urged Butler to join.

“He found me and said, ‘You need to be on this team,’” said Butler, who had not played organized sports before going to prison. “He smashed me up and took me under his wing.”

Butler had the talent and instincts to take over games, but could also be petulant. Ghuari remembers a tournament in New York when Butler would showboat at halfcourt, standing with the ball rather than passing or dribbling.

“He wanted to do what he wanted to do,” Ghuari said. “When I confronted him, he waved me off. We went through what I call the big pimp syndrome. I said, ‘I’m the pimp. If you’re going to do this, you’re going home.’

“Caron looks for strong males as a coach. If you’re not he is going to run over you. That is what his instincts tell him.”

Butler got the message and soon began getting noticed when Ghuari took the team to a tournament at Purdue. The squad won the tournament and Butler got MVP honors over prep All-Americans and soon-to-be NBA players DerMarr Johnson and Quentin Richardson.

Nonetheless, Butler was not a college prospect. He did not have the grades and he was denied his senior season because he was out of eligibility after spending the time in prison. Ghuari recommended prep school and called Maine Central.

Good, the coach, agreed to accept him. But money was still an issue. He got a partial scholarship and the Bray center raised some funds, but he was still some $5,800 short of tuition. Butler was so desperate to move forward he had to make one final visit to his unsavory past.

“I went to a street hustler and asked him for a favor,” Butler said. “I was like ‘I am hoping to go to school. I don’t need to be out here. I have a plane ticket. All I need is tuition.’ As strange as this sounds, he was like ‘Man, don’t come back’ and gave me the money.”

Butler still keeps in contact with the street hustler, who is serving a 10-year term for selling drugs, and plans to make it up to him.

Butler experienced a rocky beginning at Maine Central, an extremely remote school in Pittsfield, Maine. Good made sure to make his life difficult because some people “mistake kindness for a weakness.” Good ran a military-like program, and new kids had to earn their respect.

On Butler’s first day, he got into a huffing match with Johnson.

“I said, ‘Look [expletive], if you are going to fight anybody, it is going to be me,’” Good said.

It didn’t take long before Butler got the message and came to appreciate the method.

“Within a week, he bought into everything and was a model student and basketball player,” said Good, who had Butler for two years. “When he came to MCI, he had been through all that turmoil and that background. He is one of the greatest people I have been around.”

Recruiters began making the trip to rural Maine. Some backed off because of his history, but Connecticut loved what it saw in the talented scorer and all-around player who used his physical frame and street-tough mentality.

“I described him as having a penitentiary game,” Good said. “He is so tough. And I mean that in the most complimentary way. He remembers where he came from.”

Getting his chance

Butler was taunted as a “jailbird” at opposing arenas during his first season at Connecticut. But he used that as motivation. He followed Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton in the line of great Huskies swingmen.

The game many will remember is one he lost. Butler, the co-Big East player of the year as a sophomore, nearly single-handedly took away Maryland’s eventual national championship. The Huskies and Terrapins met in the East Region final. Butler scored 26 points in the second half and 32 overall with his unstoppable penetrating to the basket.

However, he simply didn’t get enough support. It proved his final game at UConn. The 22-year-old sophomore and then-father of two jumped to the NBA and became a lottery pick by Miami.

Things came full circle when Butler returned to Racine shortly after his selection.

“There was a parade,” Butler said. “There was something in the paper that Caron was going to be at the Bray center. I wasn’t expecting the turnout, but my mom knew. She sent my uncle to pick me up. When we turned the corner, there was a block full of lines of people to congratulate me. It was unbelievable. I signed autographs for like three hours. It was beautiful.”

Butler bided his time in Miami, but suffered some injuries and played behind Dwyane Wade. He was shipped to Los Angeles in trade for Shaquille O’Neal, and was somewhat lost behind Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom. He was acquired by Washington this past offseason for Kwame Brown, essentially to fill the void of Larry Hughes, who left for Cleveland as free agent.

And although he began this season on the bench, he replaced the injured Jarvis Hayes in the starting lineup and immediately made an impact. The Wizards (42-40) are 12 games above .500 with him starting.

“We’re tougher and more physical this season,” Grunfeld said. “Caron has a lot to do with that. The thing I always loved about him is his competitiveness and he is very tough. That’s just who he is.”

Teammate Antonio Daniels was surprised to hear the extent of Butler’s background.

“I grew up with a lot of guys who went down that road and were never heard from again,” Daniels said. “It’s good to see Caron has turned his life around and be the man he is now.”

Butler now speaks out to anyone who will listen, trying to help them avoid his mistakes. He is a father of three by three women. His 11-year daughter Camry, who was born while he was in prison, lives with Butler’s mother in a home he purchased outside Racine. Caron Jr., 7, lives with his biological mother in Racine. Butler and wife Andrea also have a 2-year-old daughter, Mia.

“They are going to hear all the stories,” Butler said, referring to his children. “I want my kids to have everything in life I didn’t have. I didn’t have a father. I didn’t have a good environment to be raised in. I didn’t have great Christmases, holidays or anything. We made do. We had our family. I want them to value and appreciate what they have.”

It is something Butler certainly does.

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