“That put a lot of stuff in perspective,” Butler said. “She’s doing just fine — and she’s rooting for the Mavs.”
Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks’ president of basketball operations, said that it is “near impossible” that Butler can come back and assist the Mavericks in their pursuit of a championship, and the likelihood becomes more remote with each passing day. But that hasn’t stopped Butler from showing up for practice, working up a sweat during postgame shootouts with teammates, or being the first player to hit the court for pregame workouts in this series.
The routine could all be an empty exercise with the season ending on Tuesday, should this series — which is tied at two games apiece entering Thursday’s Game 5 in Dallas — go the full seven games. Butler has had a front row, or at least second row, seat for every one of the Mavericks’ unbelievable comebacks this season, including the rally from a 15-point deficit to stun the Miami Heat in Game 2, and the dramatic, fever-ridden-Dirk-Nowitzki-fueled fourth-quarter rally in Game 4, but he remains hopeful that there is at least one more on the way — his own.
“I believe in miracles,” Butler said. “It’s still a chance.”
Butler targeted a comeback the moment he was told that the recovery time for his frightening knee injury — which resulted in his kneecap sliding about three inches up his thigh because of the torn tendon — would last four to six months. After his surgery, the 6-foot-7 forward asked his teammates to keep winning, and get to the NBA Finals, so that he could play again this season.
“I told him, ‘We’re going to do our part, you just make sure you’re ready,’ ” Mavericks guard Jason Terry said. “When you realize what he’s sacrificed, the commitment that he’s put in, that he’s made this season, prior to his injury, you realize his ultimate goal was to win a championship. And then for him to go down, but still be around and involved and positive every day, that was like a breath of fresh air.”
Terry and Jason Kidd have both said that the Mavericks are trying to win a championship for Butler. “It’s the ultimate tribute for your teammates to come out and say, ‘We’re going to win this thing for you.’ But at the end of the day, you still want to be out there,” Butler said. “You know, I ain’t dead. That’s when you get your tributes. I want to play.”
The experience has been more difficult because the Mavericks are playing against his first team. Butler spent two seasons in Miami, playing one year with Dwyane Wade before Butler was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Shaquille O’Neal deal. He still maintains close relationships with several members of the Heat staff, and owner Micky Arison stops to greet him whenever they cross paths.
When Butler’s daughter Ava was born last June, he and his wife, Andrea, asked Wade to be the godfather. “That’s somebody that will be a friend long after basketball,” Butler said of Wade, who sent him a few text messages before the series began but never asked about whether he was coming back because “he knew to leave that alone.”
Wade has acknowledged Butler before each game, tapping his chest with his fist. “I would love to see him out there competing, in this Finals, against us, because I know what it means to him,” Wade said. “That’s my brother, beyond basketball. I wish he was out there. He would make our jobs a lot harder, no question, but at the same time, I just want him to be healthy.”
Butler wants his good friend Wade to play well, his own team to eventually win the series, but he mostly wants to contribute in ways that go beyond cheering on the sideline or offering inspirational words during huddles.
Butler finds himself in a similar position as he was four years ago, when he was a member of the Washington Wizards and broke his hand — also in Milwaukee, about a 30-minute drive from his home town of Racine, Wis. — with two weeks left in the regular season. He had to watch helplessly as LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers swept his team out of the first round. “It’s tough over there sitting. I’m still in the prime of my career,” said Butler, 31, who will be a free agent this summer.
“I think every series I could’ve been pretty effective. This one in particular. I mean, it’s the Finals, you want to play. You want to be out there. You want to be healthy. That’s the biggest key. You want to be out there and saving the team in any way . . . but I don’t want to go out there and be a shell of myself.”
The Mavericks haven’t completely ruled out Butler’s return, mostly out of respect for the hard work that he has put in. But while he hasn’t had any setbacks with his rehabilitation, Butler has yet to be medically cleared and remains limited to just one-on-one controlled games. Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said before the series began, “I wouldn’t bet against that guy.”
But with the team advancing this far without him, his return could potentially disrupt chemistry. Nelson said that it would almost seem unfair to put Butler on the floor with two difficult perimeter matchups in James and Wade. “Yes, it’s a long shot. You never want to say never in life, period.”
“It’s all about the moment, you just want to be in the moment,” Butler said. “I just want to win a title. That’s the thing that’s really missing in my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish a lot in this league. I’ve been an all-star. I’ve seen a lot of great things, played with a lot of great players, to get his opportunity would be special.”
But time is running out. “I’m not ever going to say I can’t,” Butler said. “I’m not going to sit here and ever say I can’t do something.”