When I was traded to the Lakers in 2004, you were “The Guy,” the best showman in the game. As a young pup coming out to Los Angeles, in just my third year in the NBA, you embraced me with open arms. I wasn’t nervous, but at the same time I didn’t know what to expect.
From the beginning, we just clicked. You said “Man, you’re my guy, I like your story, I like what you stand for. You want it, and I can see it.” And our relationship developed and grew over the years because of that. You embodied everything that a professional athlete’s supposed to embody, and that helped me so much throughout my career.
“Be ready to work,” you told me, and I embraced that. I embraced every opportunity I had with you, every moment to learn and pick your brain, and I still do to this day. I learned from you how to be a professional on and off the court, what it takes to be a really good player, how to develop a skill set, how to embrace the community you’re in, how to be everything I always dreamed I could possibly be.
Forget playing with you; just working out with you was crazy. It tested my will, because you were a creature similar to some of the best players I’ve played with: D-Wade, Gilbert, Dirk, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, guys who worked on their craft relentlessly. I wasn’t going to ever quit on a workout, especially with you, but it just made me think, “This is what it takes. All this stuff didn’t happen by coincidence. That’s why he’s so successful. And if I want to be successful, that’s what I’ve got to do, and that’s the work I’ve got to put in.” That opened my eyes.
I’ve told the story numerous times about when you came to my family’s house in Racine, Wisc., just to spend time there, to have barbecue and ribs. Put this in perspective: you were the face of the NBA, and had been for over a decade at that point, and I asked you out of thin air: “How about you come to Racine?” “Man, of course I’ll come,” you said. This was in the old neighborhood, and they couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe you ate ribs. They couldn’t believe you were just sitting there, laughing and just enjoying everything. They didn’t think you were human, but saw that you are just like everyone else. A real dude.
After the Lakers game in Milwaukee during this farewell tour, you spent time with my son, breaking down the game of basketball to Caron Jr., talking to him and telling him what he has to work on to enhance his craft. In the midst of all the stuff you had going on, I can’t do anything but admire that. Those are priceless moments for me and my family, and I am forever grateful.
Is the game going to miss you? No doubt. Not just Lakers Nation or the Lakers community or in California — everywhere. There’s just going to be a huge void, coming to Staples Center and playing the Lakers and not seeing that No. 8 or No. 24 out there. You’re going to see it immediately. It’s that vibe and that presence. As you got older, you became the godfather, the O.G. of the NBA, the guy that showed the young ballers what to do. For you not to be out there anymore, we’re going to feel it, the fans are going to feel it and basketball is going to feel it.
So I just want to say thank you for 20 years of excellence and unbelievable accomplishments, for raising the bar and being a generational superhero that everyone can look up to, idolize and imitate. You did it so gracefully, and your impact can be seen all over the game of basketball. You’re one of the best to ever do it, and I’m proud to call you my friend.
Caron Butler has played 14 seasons in the NBA, and was Kobe Bryant’s teammate with the Lakers in the 2004-05 season. Bryant wrote the foreword to Butler’s memoir, “Tuff Juice: My Journey From the Streets to the NBA,” calling Butler “one of my favorite teammates” with whom he “bonded on day one, and that bond remains as strong today as it ever was.” This piece was written with The Post’s Dan Steinberg.