By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
After the Washington Wizards signed him to a five-year, $45 million contract extension in October 2005, Caron Butler could have settled into the comfort zone of simply being a solid NBA player on a good team.
But settling has never been Butler's style. So when the Wizards were knocked out of last season's playoffs in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Butler decided that he wanted to get better, maybe even become an all-star.
To do it, Butler hired Patrick Ewing's former nutritionist, cut back on fast food and soda, dropped 10 pounds and worked harder on his game than he ever had in the past.
The result is that the 26-year-old Butler is in the midst of the best season of his five-year career and he's helped push the Wizards (26-17) to the top of the Eastern Conference going into tonight's game against the Detroit Pistons at Verizon Center.
Butler, who is on pace to post career numbers in several categories, including scoring (20.8 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (3.9 apg) and shooting percentage (47.8), will find out soon whether his big season is enough to earn him his first all-star game appearance. Reserves for both conferences will be announced on Thursday.
"It would mean a lot because I made it my business to get better every summer, but especially this summer," said Butler, who is the only player in the Eastern Conference averaging at least 20 points and eight rebounds. "After the contract, yeah, you're financially stable but it's not only about that. It's about leaving a legacy and being a winner. That's what I want to be remembered as."
Basketball has always been Butler's vehicle for change. He started seriously developing his skills during a 14-month stint at a youth detention center in Wisconsin, where he wound up after being arrested for gun and cocaine possession at age 14.
At that detention center, Ethan Allen School, Butler engaged in rough and tumble games of one-on-one and two-on-two with the winner typically being awarded soda and snacks from a vending machine.
"That's when I first started realizing that basketball could be my way out," said Butler, whose game flourished after he attended Maine Central Institute, a prep school in Pittsfield, Maine, that has produced several NBA players. "That's where that toughness comes from. Now, when I put my mind to doing something, I know I can do it."
With that attitude, Butler strove to become more physically fit this season and become a better all-around player at both ends of the court. In a meeting with Coach Eddie Jordan after last season, after Butler averaged a career-high 17.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, Jordan helped Butler realize that he had a chance to be a part of something special with the Wizards.
"I think getting to the playoffs and us getting a sense of how good we could be put things into focus," Butler said. "That's why no one on this team is thinking about just getting to the playoffs. We want more than that."
After being drafted with the 10th overall pick by the Miami Heat in 2002, Butler led all rookies in scoring, but his career was derailed by a knee injury the following season. In the summer of 2004, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in the deal that brought Shaquille O'Neal to Miami.
Butler averaged 15.5 points per game in one season with the Lakers but wasn't an ideal fit on a team that already had one ballhandling forward in Lamar Odom and a pure scorer who controls the ball in Kobe Bryant.
Butler was given a new chance when Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards president of basketball operations, engineered the trade that brought him to Washington for Kwame Brown.
For the first time in his career, Butler has been able to spend consecutive healthy seasons playing for the same coach with the same core group of players. And his game, which includes an old-school mid-range jump shot, an assortment of jump hooks and other post moves and the ability to finish at the rim on fast breaks, has meshed perfectly with those of Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.
"It has everything to do with comfort level," Jordan said. "He understands what we are doing on the floor. He knows how to play with Gil and Antawn, and he knows now what to expect from me. Maybe the most important thing was he really worked on his game. He has a competitive nature. He wants to be good and be one of the best forwards in the conference."
Butler also has established roots in the Washington area. Only four days after his arrival, Butler and his wife, Andrea, purchased a home in Centreville, and the family splits time between the Washington area and Butler's native Racine, Wis., in the offseason.
The Butlers are active with charity work -- they recently led a coat drive that brought in more than 1,000 jackets -- and the couple's precocious 2-year-old, Mia, can be regularly seen bouncing around the hallways of Verizon Center during and after games.
"I'm truly grateful to be in this situation," Butler said. "For Ernie Grunfeld and [Wizards owner Abe] Pollin and everyone to express that kind of confidence in me, giving me that contract before even before I even really played for this organization, that meant a lot to me and I want to live up to that."