It’s been a long and successful career for Milwaukee Bucks forward Caron Butler. Born in Racine, Wis. he has moved on from his trials and tribulations. The 12-year NBA veteran has now come full circle playing for his home state Bucks. He's an NBA champion and after all his accomplishments on the court, Butler will eventually delve into ownership and management in basketball in his post-playing career.
We caught up with Butler to talk about his early life growing up in Racine, his NBA career, and his future goals after the NBA.
Written by Rafael Canton (@RafelitoC7)
How did basketball serve as an escape for you from some of your negative experiences growing up?
Basketball was the outlet for me. I had played other sports. I didn’t really have a passion or love for anything besides being out in the streets and being amongst my friends and running with the crowds at the wrong time. Back then, basketball was something that served as a magnet that took me away from that environment.
You said you never wanted to hurt your mother and the people who were in your corner ever again after being arrested.
When I went through all that adversity and everything. The people that invest the most in you whether it’s your mother, your grandmother—I was raised by women. Never knew who my father was, never had that male figure in my life that was positive so they raised me. For them to see me at my worst, and to see me thinking of myself as a complete failure which I was, it was tough. I always vowed to myself to never let them see me like that again.
What was the process you experienced when going back to high school after being incarcerated?
The main thing about my high school situation was when I got incarcerated, I wasn’t allowed back in to Racine school district. So I had to go and use my other name. Everyone knows me as Caron Butler, but I had to go and use my official government name which is James Butler and that’s how I went to Gateway Technical College. I enrolled in class and had to go through a bunch of deans to get back into Unified. I showed them documents that I was already attending community college and that I could be in that environment. I was pulled out of class a lot and was searched randomly. I was under a magnifying glass once I got back into Unified and that was a hard process.
Only after playing a year of high school ball at Park high school, I had to go to prep school for two years. That took a lot to move from Racine, Wisconsin to Maine Central.
I didn’t really have a passion or love for anything besides being out in the streets and being amongst my friends and running with the crowds at the wrong time. Back then, basketball was something that served as a magnet that took me away from that environment.
What was the college recruiting process like?
It was amazing because I wasn’t really getting recruited because of my record and what I been through. I was the number one prep basketball player in the country and UConn and Jim Calhoun was one of the major universities that took a chance on me. He came out to Racine, Wisconsin and came to the gym that I was working out at. He saw me and he said
“I really want you. I want you to come to Connecticut, we’re a family oriented University. We’ll take care of you there. We care about our team and we’re a family.” That was something that I really wanted to be a part of.
How do you look back on your experience at UConn?
Not only having a family oriented university like the university of Connecticut, but having good people around me as well. To have big brothers like a Donyell Marshall, Kevin Ollie, Ray Allen, and Khalid El-Amin. Guys that came back and were serious about developing guys and giving us information that we couldn’t get unless we experienced it. They gave us priceless information and put us under their wing and showed us the ropes. Ray Allen did a great job for me and coach Calhoun was always in my ear. He was that male figure in my life and guide me through. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
Your rookie year in Miami was tough with the team losing 57 games. What did you learn from that experience?
It was tough. They gave me an opportunity to come into my own so to speak and Pat Riley and Stan Van Gundy really believing in me pushing me to be the best that I possibly can. I had a great time doing it. I learned a lot about professionalism on and off the court. How to conduct myself, how to work on my consistency, and I learned a lot of great quotes. I learned a lot of things about the game of basketball under Pat Riley’s wing and that determination and will that I learned are the reason why I’ve been successful at that level.
The next season, the team took major steps adding Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom. What was that year like?
I felt really great about that team. I thought we were young in all the right areas. I thought we had a chemistry that was second to none. I’ve been on a lot of great teams since then, but it was something extremely special about that team that we had.
How did it feel getting traded to the Lakers in that big deal involving Shaquille O'Neal:
It was a huge shock getting traded for the first time in my career and then what was so great about the situation was getting traded to a city like Los Angeles where the tradition is so rich with the Lakers. Playing alongside a guy like Kobe Bryant and learning so much from him. I learned a lot on the fly and I knew that I was going to be an asset and have a great career after playing along with Kobe and having the success that I had playing with him.
I was looking forward to having my next moment of playing at a high level on my own team and that’s what happened in Washington.
It must've been such a unique experience playing with such a unique cast of characters in Washington.
My thing was that I always tried to practice good habits and stay consistent with the stuff that I learned along the way from other great and good players. I took a little bit from everyone that I ever played with. I just tried to put it all together and let it come out the way that I wanted it to come out.
I think that JaVale McGee, Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, they just accepted that and they understood what type of person I was. I had the serious approach, Antawn Jamison had the serious approach. Gilbert Arenas was the joker and everybody loved Gilbert because he had something funny to do. We kept a balance of the personalities in the locker room and that’s what was so good about the team.
Your first All-Star appearance was pretty special. It was a Wizards affair with Arenas starting and Eddie Jordan coaching the team.
It was special because that was the biggest stage ever to be on. No one ever thought a kid from Racine, Wisconsin would ever be on that platform and playing in the NBA and actually making it to that level. Once you get a taste of that, you feel like you can do anything because you’re with the elite of the elite, the best of the best. That’s the challenge, always to perform at the highest level and get back to that point or at least always competing at that level. That was a great feeling and one of the top moments of my life as a basketball player.
The franchise unraveled a bit after the Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton incident. Was there a lot of frustration?
There was a lot of frustration because I know the realness of the situation and I know Gilbert was a really good person. A guy that joked around a lot. [Gilbert] was still my brother and I hated the fact that he was portrayed in a crazy light. Like he was a thug or that he doesn’t care about anything because he’s a very insightful person. There’s a method to all of the stuff that he does and he was my brother. I hated how that whole situation happened the way that it did.
And then a lot of people got caught in the whirlwind of that because he was our franchise guy and a guy that Mr. Pollin and the Pollin family chose to build around for many years to come. And once we lost him to the situation, everyone else was expendable. That’s when the trades started happening.
You were traded to Dallas. That must've been a different transition.
It was fun. I thought the transition was great. Mr. Cuban did everything that an owner/philanthropist would do to make the transition very comfortable. He put us all in situations to be very successful. Our first year here, we lost in the first round to a very experienced San Antonio team. And then to come back and be a part of the team that went all the way to win a championship, that was extremely special. I’m just grateful to Mr. Cuban for trading for me and putting me in that situation and being on a contender like that and having a chance to win the whole thing.
What was that championship experience like despite being injured for most of the season?
It was really hard because when I went down, we had one of the best records in the league. We were playing great basketball and I was playing at a high level. I was the second-leading scorer on the team at the time and I went down.
Mr. Cuban came to me and told me “don’t worry about nothing. Everything is going to be fine. You’re a Maverick and hang in there. We’ll be good.” My teammates motivated me because right after the game because they said they were going to do this for me. I stayed positive. I always said good things. I found positive things to say in the locker room all the time. Helping guys on the road traveling, I did everything I could to carry my weight, just to show that I was all in for us to win a championship. And it ended up coming to light and it really came and it happened. It was one of the best feelings in the world. And to be a part of that journey and be a part of everything.
It was very special and that kept me going throughout the summer to continue to rehab and get stronger and stronger with Tim Grover down in Chicago. Coming back and eventually signing with the Clippers and getting a significant deal of three years, and $24 million and still playing at a high level. It was still a special feeling.
What were your thoughts on the Clippers organization? The team had such a unique mix of veteran leadership and young athleticism.
It was special. You had a group of guys that could put on an aerial assault like no other with Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre [Jordan]. And then you had pound for pound the best point guard in the game and one of the best to ever play the game in Chris Paul. Then you had a future Hall of Famer in Chauncey Billups and a whole bunch of quality pieces like Mo Williams, Randy Foye, myself. Guys who had experience and knew what it takes to get over the hump.
We went to the second round and lost to a very very good San Antonio Spurs team. We had a lot of success and changed the culture around there from top to bottom. You can see the benefit of that to this day. It was a great run there and I had a great time there.
Now you're back in your home state of Wisconsin. It's almost like things have come full circle.
It’s been extremely special just being back here. We have an AAU program at my home Butler Elite Basketball. To have those kids experience coming to basketball games. Seeing me a lot more and seeing my family a lot more. My whole entire family is here. Aunts uncles, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, everything. Just to see everybody in the crowd. To see my teachers, different people, different walks of life, people that I’m very familiar with on a regular basis is just a great feeling.
[Gilbert] was still my brother and I hated the fact that he was portrayed in a crazy light. Like he was a thug or that he doesn’t care about anything because he’s a very insightful person.
What do you think about the young players on the Bucks?
Just keep competing with them and keeping them competitive and teaching them the little things about basketball. I think in due time they’re going to be extremely special players. Giannis (Antetokounmpo), Larry Sanders, and John Henson, and those guys they’re going to be fun to watch for years and years to come. I’m just happy that I can be in the locker room with those guys and have some insight and be a part of their process.
You're known for giving back to your hometown. What inspires you to want to give back?
It’s a need. It’s not something that I just wanted to do. It’s a need. I ride around and I see a need of things. I just try to do my part. I’ve been extremely blessed from a physical standpoint to live my dream. Financial achievement and win in a lot of areas and I feel like to be a pillar in the community and to come back and shed some light on the situation and just encourage youngsters to continue to strive for some more and be better.
To show them that I came from this and this is what I am, this is what I created out of my life, this is what I have, and you can do it too. If it’s not through basketball, it could be through being a lawyer, a doctor, whatever the case may be, you’re obligated to come back and inspire somebody as well.
You've said that you want to own an NBA team in the future. How do you plan on achieving that goal?
After I’m done with basketball which is years away, I would love to get involved with ownership and management of a professional basketball team. And just obviously continue to learn more and more about it in the summers during my off time. I’m playing the next couple of years, but that’s something that is very intriguing to me and something that I definitely probably want to do.
You've even taken business classes at Duke.
With the NBA, you never have a lack of knowledge. It’s just the programs are there. It’s whether you want to go receive and retrieve the information. For the last probably six or seven years, I’ve been taking advantage of all of the programs. Whether it’s the coaching program I’m going to attend this year in Virginia, or it’s the leadership program in Las Vegas where they do the scouting and learning the management side of the game.
All of the things, you have to take full advantage of these programs to learn the ins and outs of the game so you know what career path you want to choose because the extent of your career is rather short. I’m a dinosaur in this game playing 12, 13, 14 years. That’s unlikely for a lot of guys. You have to prepare yourself for the life after basketball early because you never know because when it’s over, it’s over.
You've been able to play various roles for teams from star to veteran leade. How have you been able to be successful at playing different roles on a team?
Its been fun. I learned so many different qualities from veteran guys that I played with. I played with Alonzo Mourning, Kobe Bryant, Vlade Divac, Brian Grant, Bimbo Coles, all those names stick out. They were guys who found the positive in every situation and they really helped me out. I took that from them and just tried to apply that to this situation.
When you’re not playing too well, you gotta take the positives out of the game and continue to move forward.
What was it like drawing so much ire from the NBA for chewing straws?
It was funny that I got the league’s attention with just chewing straws. It was a fetish I had pretty much my whole life that I did for my nerves. Some people smoke, some people do different things. I chew straws. It was good for my nerves and getting through situations and I played basketball at a high level, so that’s something I did for my whole life and career.
What are you most excited for post-career?
New challenges. There’s always something out there that challenges you and I’m definitely up there. I accept it with open arms and that’s a new chapter in your life. You gotta prepare yourself for that because any time or moment, anything can happen. Just be prepared mentally and physically for it and embrace it.