The moment belonged to someone other than Gilbert Arenas for a change. It belonged to Caron Butler, who seized it by the lapels, both on and off the court.
Resplendent in a tailored dark suit, pink sweater and stocking cap, the Wizards forward known as "Tough Juice" basked in the attention Wednesday night. He stood in the locker room at Verizon Center facing a bank of TV cameras and microphones, flashing a smile that sparkled like the marble-sized blue diamond in his left earlobe.
The 6-foot-7 Butler, who is forever champing plastic straws wadded up like gum, had just chewed up the New York Knicks. He played all 48 minutes for the first time ever. He scored 27 points, dished a career-high 10 assists and made the winning shot -- a dunk off a pass from DeShawn Stevenson with 2.2 seconds left.
After blowing a 14-point third quarter lead, the Wizards pulled out a 99-98 victory to avoid an aggravating home loss to an inferior opponent.
Dramatic finishes and big games this year have been the near-exclusive domain of Arenas, the Wizards' All-Star guard and league MVP candidate. But with the Knicks throwing double-teams at Arenas all night, others had to step up. Others did, but none more than Butler, whose all-around game and intensity have generated his own All-Star buzz while posting career year in his second season in Washington and fifth in the league.
The Wizards are modestly promoting a campaign to send Butler to Las Vegas, the site of the game.
Although he doesn't rank among the fans' top choices for forward on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, it seems likely that coaches will vote Butler in as a reserve whether or not the Wizards' Eddie Jordan gets to coach the team.
"He's playing at an All-Star level," Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said of Butler after the game. "I'll be very surprised if he doesn't make the All-Star team. He definitely deserves it."
In one of the many astute moves of his tenure, Grunfeld traded Kwame Brown -- the disappointing former No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft -- to the Los Angeles Lakers for Butler and Chucky Atkins before the start of last season. Butler responded with career bests in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage.
He proved a competent replacement for guard Larry Hughes, who signed with Cleveland, as the third member of the team's so-called "Big Three" along with Arenas and forward Antawn Jamison.
This season, Butler is even better. He is the only Eastern Conference player averaging at least 20 points and eight rebounds a game, and is the only Wizards player to score in double figures in every game.
"He gets overshadowed because of what I'm doing this year," Arenas said. "He's been a solid player the whole, whole year. He's playing like an All-Star. You can't deny what he's been doing. He's been showing it every night."
Butler's trade to the Wizards was his second in a little more than a year. He was the 10th overall pick by the Miami Heat in 2002 and went to the Lakers after two seasons. But it wasn't for "$10 and a draft pick," he said. He was a big part of the trade that sent Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat. The trade to the Wizards gave Butler the distinction of twice being involved in deals for the overall No. 1 pick.
After Butler started as a rookie in Miami, the Heat drafted Dwyane Wade and his offense declined. It was even more challenging in L.A., where Kobe Bryant had the team to himself after O'Neal departed and was bent on repairing his damaged image after rape charges against him were dropped. And, Lamar Odom, who also came to the Lakers in the Shaq trade, was going to be the second guy, Butler said.
"I was kind of like in the shuffle a little," he said. "Of course they wanted me, but I wasn't the focus."
But here, even with Arenas dominating the conversation and the action, Butler is a significant part of what he and others call the Wizards' "equal opportunity offense." That certainly was the case against New York.
With the Knicks focused on stopping Arenas, Butler worked his way free under the basket for the game-winner. Arenas, Jamison and Butler make up the highest-scoring threesome in the league.
"Coach Jordan has given me a lot of freedom out there," Butler said. "A lot of freedom. Gilbert's been great for me, playing alongside me. After playing with Kobe, Dwyane and now Gilbert, I know how to play with superstars."
Grunfeld, meanwhile, not only worked the trade, he followed that up with another shrewd move. He gave Butler a five-year, $45 million contract extension that served two purposes. It locked him up for the near future, and produced a healthy dose of gratitude reflected in his performance. He believes he has found a home.
"I feel great here," he said. "The community has accepted me. I mean, I got a long-term extension without even playing a game, so there's nothing I won't do for this organization. Showing a commitment to me like that, financially, the least I can do is go out there and perform at a high level every day."
Grunfeld said he was not aware that Butler was showing added appreciation. He said he is simply playing how he knew he could.
"I followed his career for a long time," Grunfeld said. "He's a real competitive guy. Tough, hard-nosed. I love that. ... We traded for him and we wanted to make sure he felt like he was going to be part of our organization for a long time."
As he has showed all season, and against the Knicks, Butler has a variety of offensive skills. He can fill the lane, hit a jumper, spin to the basket or fall away. He likes to play defense and mix it up on the boards.
"He's very, very coachable," Jordan said. "He can take constructive criticism and utilize it to benefit his teammates."
But Butler's spirited court presence and attitude -- his swagger, or "swag," as Jordan calls it -- seem to be the defining characteristic.
"He's got a lot of ornery to him," Jordan said.
Said Jamison: "You see his passion for the game. You see his toughness."
The "Tough Juice" thing was a collaborative effort. The way Jordan tells it, he was explaining to his team during practice how they needed to be able to take some physical contact and not react to all the calls. Then Butler responded: "Yeah, some of us need to drink some tough juice."
"OK, Tough Juice, that's what we have to do," Jordan said he recalled saying.
A nickname, and a marketing campaign, were born. Butler said Nike's "doing some things" with it, and "Tough Juice" will be the name of his basketball camp.
"It's a nice name," he said. "I mean, it fits me. I'm a tough guy. I go out there and play tough on both ends of the court. I think I'm tough in life. I won't accept 'no,' and I won't accept failure. I'm gonna continue to chip away at it. That's me."
Butler is more than shaped by his past. He is totally defined by it. His life as a troubled teenager growing up in Racine, Wis., pockmarked by gang involvement and crime, has been well-chronicled. The turning point came when he was convicted at the age of 14 of gun and drug possession charges that resulted in 14 months in a juvenile facility, including two weeks in solitary confinement.
Butler also fathered a child at 15, a girl who lives in Racine with her mother. He also has a 7-year-old son from another mother, who also lives in Racine. Butler, who along his wife, Andrea, has a 2-year-old, stays in touch with both of his children in Racine.
After getting out of jail he somehow managed to clean up his act, go back to school and commit himself not only to staying straight, but helping others do that, too. He willingly shares his story with everyone, especially at-risk kids, and appeared on "Oprah" on a show called "How My Worst Moment Made Me a Star" to talk about what he calls his "incarceration" (which is also mentioned in the team media guide) and what he since has learned. Wizards officials say his cooperation with community work, like Caron's Coats for Kids Drive, and making appearances is exceptional.
"After going through what I went through, things became more clear to me," he said. "Being alone, being how I was made stronger and mentally. A lot of people can learn from what I've been through, from my story. There are hundreds of thousands of kids, millions of kids, going through the same thing I went through.
"Whether you're a street hustler or a pimp or whatever, something negative in your community, you think it's right. Because seeing is believing. But you see somebody on TV that made it from your circumstances, you believe it. You see it because the picture is clear to you. That's why I like sharing my story. I feel like I'm a poster child for that."
By Elaine Donnelly
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