By Dan Steinberg
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
LeBron James's elaborately choreographed pregame chalk flinging may land him on the highlight shows, but his is hardly the most noteworthy ritual in this series. No, that honor likely belongs to Washington's Caron Butler.
The all-star forward might not play in this series -- Coach Eddie Jordan all but ruled Butler out yesterday, despite the player's insistence that "I'm hardheaded, I still don't rule anything out." But even if he doesn't play, Butler will continue jamming straws into his mouth and chomping down, a habit that causes his cheek to bulge ever so slightly during nearly every interview. His straw fixation began when he was playing AAU ball in '98 or '99 and his toothpick-chewing was frowned upon.
"I had a good performance and it was something that became a habit, and I started doing it all the time," he explained. "So before every game I stop at the nearest Burger King or McDonald's, grab a handful of straws and come to the game and start chewing them. . . . You know, I've got a handful on me right now."
And out from his breast pocket came a bundle of fresh white plastic, still securely wrapped.
Butler said he goes through about six straws a half, about 12 a game. He only masticates one at a time, spitting out the used-up sucking devices when they "start getting a little stringy." He also chews at home, and his young daughter, Mia, has started imitating him, walking around the house with a straw in her mouth (but never running, thankfully).
His wife, Andrea, admitted that she has become an enabler; she'll stop off at McDonald's and pick up a handful of straws for her husband. Like, 60 straws. Daily. And it turns out that Butler is something of a straw savant. In researching this item, I collected a handful of straws from assorted local eateries and offered them to Butler for sampling purposes. But I had grievously underestimated his palate."I did all these before," he said, clearly bored. "This is a McDonald's straw," he continued, seizing the one McDonald's straw in the collection and pocketing it. There were no markings on the wrapper, no colors, nothing to suggest McDonald's. It was a remarkable achievement.
"I know McDonald's straws," he said. "Trust me, I've been in this game a long time. This is a McDonald's straw and all these -- hold on, don't say anything -- like a 7-Eleven big Slurpee thing or something. I don't do these. I don't do 7-Eleven straws or anything. McDonald's, Burger King, that's it. Not Wendy's. Maybe Subway, because their straw is thick, clear, with a clear wrapping, but that's it."
Teammates are not fazed by Butler's straw-chewing: "If he ain't choked by now, he ain't gonna choke, I guess," Brendan Haywood said. But such assurances haven't completely eased captain Antawn Jamison's concerns.
"Isn't it, like, dangerous?" Jamison wondered. "Just to chew on it, there's chemicals and stuff in that. It's not good for you at all. It's not good for you to chew on straws." [Note: These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA; always check with your doctor before beginning a new habit.] As point of fact, Butler isn't the only Wizard with an unusual chewing habit. Guard DeShawn Stevenson chews dental flossing sticks during shoot-arounds, layup lines and player introductions, munching through an estimated 10 sticks per game. I asked Stevenson whether this wasn't a dangerous habit.
"Nuh-uh," he said. "I'm talented."