The Great Escape

By Michael Lee {vbar}
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

RACINE, Wis. The 17-year-old was home sick from school, napping away the effects of the flu, when he awoke to sirens and the chatter of a crowd gathering at the A&W restaurant across the street. Rolling over in bed, he peered through the blinds to see flashing lights and armed police officers, dressed in black, approaching.

He had served nine months in jail because of a drug and weapons conviction, but that had occurred more than a year before. He had been clean since. What could this be about? Panicked, he did the only thing that came to mind: He pulled the covers over his head and pretended to be asleep.

After the police broke down the front door and found him, they handcuffed him, struggling to get a cuff around the right hand he had broken playing basketball a few weeks earlier. They took him downstairs and planted him on a living room couch. Wearing a tank top, boxer shorts and a perturbed expression, he watched investigator Richard Geller and his officers scour the two-story yellow bungalow. Eventually, Geller found 15 grams of crack cocaine -- worth about $1,500 in Racine in 1998 -- hidden in the garage.

"Bingo!" Geller shouted. "Jackpot! We got it!"

It was at that moment that Caron Butler's life could have careened to a far different place: away from a successful college basketball career at Connecticut; away from the Washington Wizards and the five-year, $50 million contract he signed while crying in 2005; and away from being named to today's NBA All-Star Game for the second consecutive year.

But Butler wasn't sent back to jail on what he called "one of the scariest days of my life." Instead, he was freed to continue his remarkable journey from youth prison in Wisconsin to Verizon Center because a police officer made a decision that changed a life.

"The graveyards and prisons are full of people that wanted a second chance," Butler said. "God put his hands on my life. He said 'I'm going to touch you so that you can touch others.' "

* * *

Trouble From the Start

The rise of Butler, 27, from small-time drug dealer to NBA star began here, in this waterfront city of 80,000 just south of Milwaukee. "A lot of people judge your glory without knowing your story," Butler said one afternoon last fall, as he strolled around the neighborhood that created the man Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan calls "Tuff Juice."

He grew up on Racine's south side, a neighborhood of decaying homes and dilapidated buildings, and played pickup basketball at a nearby community center. Aside from visitors to Wells Brothers pizza, this area doesn't draw many outsiders. It's sprinkled with a few corner convenience stores. Butler's favorite spot, a Mexican dive called La Tapatia, has just one table. A little store is attached, where you can buy a bottle of Pepto-Bismol with your burrito.

Racine is so small that Butler's neighborhood is less than six blocks from million-dollar, waterfront estates on Lake Michigan. But the peaceful waters couldn't match the lure of Hamilton Park, a patch of grass on 18th Street between Howe and Mead with a sparse playground that had little more than a slide, monkey bars and a seesaw. Back then, everyone would gravitate to the park, where Butler would always find large crowds, girls, and plenty of gang and criminal activity. Police eventually shut down the scene by buying one of the houses abutting the park, tearing it down and building a new one filled with surveillance cameras.

When Butler's mother, Mattie Paden, would find him at the park, she would often resort to waving a bat at him to make him go home. But she worked two jobs, sometimes 80 hours a week, to support the single-parent home and was limited to chasing after him in the family's Mercury station wagon when she returned from work. It wasn't enough. Butler and six friends -- Greg West, James Barker Jr., Robert Nellom, Andre King, Andre Love and Antonio Strong -- constantly were in trouble for vandalizing property and fighting. Butler estimates that he was in juvenile court 15 times before age 15.

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