By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; D01
Maybe it doesn't matter anymore. Maybe because he's leaving town -- headed to Dallas, to a team with genuine title aspirations -- Caron Butler is yesterday's news. Maybe he's just another linchpin of a seven-player NBA deal, freeing up salary-cap space and luxury-tax relief for the woeful Wizards as they begin the demolition of an era.
But before he leaves Washington's tattered pro basketball franchise behind, Butler wants it to be known he believed almost till the end.
He said he used to envision his number hanging in the rafters of Verizon Center. No. 3, he dreamed, would hang next to No. 0 and No. 4. If they won it all, Butler, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison would be right next to the jerseys of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson.
Butler and Jamison would actually have that conversation, often after a heart-to-heart with Abe Pollin, the Wizards' owner, who was very fond of all three players up until he passed away last November.
"We all wanted to go in the rafters together, as crazy as that sounds now," Butler said Sunday night. "Antawn and I would actually talk about it. That was the plan: play hard, compete night in and night out and give us a chance to win a title. For a while that's what it looked like."
Now it's over. Whatever the Wizards' trio of all-stars were -- once a bona fide Eastern Conference playoff team -- that collection of talent didn't end up sticking around for the long haul after all.
The Gil-Caron-and-'Tawn Show probably closed for good the moment Arenas brought guns into the Wizards locker room Dec. 21, an incident that resulted in criminal convictions and the season-long suspensions of Arenas and reserve guard Javaris Crittenton.
But when Ernie Grunfeld moved Butler, DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood on Saturday to the Mavericks for four players, including Josh Howard and Drew Gooden, it was the official end to a plan that ultimately didn't pan out for anyone.
Just like that, the Big Three is now the Sympathetic One.
If Grunfeld cannot move Jamison by Thursday's trade deadline, how can you not feel for him? At 33 years old, he has to come back from the all-star break and look across the locker room and realize he's got so little left to play with.
"I don't think 'Twan is going anywhere," surmised Butler, who hoped things would work out for his former teammate whether he was traded or not.
Butler became the last piece of the puzzle acquired in 2005. He remembered watching Arenas hit the shot against Chicago, thinking: "Man, that team is on the rise. It'd be fun to play there."
That summer, the Lakers traded him for the second time in two years. Butler was actually beside himself.
"You looked at the atmosphere, what was created here, I mean the city was so excited," Butler said. "They hadn't won a playoff series for like 20 years. We had a beautiful thing going.
"I thought we had a real chance to put a seal on the things against Cleveland in 2006. There were a couple travel calls we didn't get [against LeBron James] in Cleveland that year. Then Damon Jones hit that shot in Game 6.
"When I look back, I thought that was our year to do something special, put us on the map. It was a blow."
They never got a significant stop before or after that. Nor were they ever that healthy again. Jamison carried the load himself in 2007, averaging more than 30 points in the Cavaliers' four-game sweep.
"I and many people felt like this season we could win between 45-50 games," Grunfeld said Sunday night. "A lot of things happened that threw us off course. We got stale. We played selfish basketball. When I saw an opportunity to have some flexibility down the road, I took that opportunity. We had to."
Said Butler: "We had a lot of faith coming in this year. A lot of high hopes as well. Everybody was feeling real good. Having a new coach in Flip, a guy that could lead us to the promised land.
"Then right away, injuries. Antawn went out. I was in and out for a stretch. Randy Foye. Mike Miller. The whole incident with Gilbert. We lost him and Javaris. Worst thing imaginable.
"Everyone at that point knew what it was that took its course in D.C. at that point. I'm not blind."
Said Haywood, reached at home in North Carolina: "The only thing I'm disappointed in is we didn't win with the collection of talent we had. I thought it was possible even with the turmoil. It's too bad."
It's over? It's over.
Now there are only regret, recrimination and a real lament shared by everyone in the organization who felt only months ago that the Wizards were on the precipice of a turnabout season.
"They say everything happens for a reason and I believe that," Butler said. "But as years go, all three of us, and anyone involved who knew how good we could be, will sit back at 40, 50, maybe 60 years old and say, 'What if?' That's the part that sticks with you the most: What if?"