Former NBA player Rasual Butler and his wife, Leah LaBelle, were killed in a single-car crash early Wednesday morning in Studio City, Calif., the LA County Coroner confirmed. The news was first reported by TMZ.
Butler was driving a Range Rover, according to the Los Angeles Times, when it struck a curb, three parking meters and other objects, flipping twice before hitting the wall of a Marshalls department store. An LAPD spokesman told KTLA that the vehicle was being driven “well in excess” of the posted speed limit, which drops from 35 mph to 30 mph in the area because of a sharp but gradual turn on Ventura Boulevard (Butler was driving west, police said).
The spokesman said investigators estimate the car was moving at a speed of 60 mph to 90 mph at the time of the crash.
“A witness observed the vehicle driving at a high rate of speed but told police that no other cars appeared to [be] on the road at the time, according to [LAPD Capt. Andy] Neiman,” KTLA reported. “Based on the witness account, investigators do not believe the SUV was involved in an illegal street race,” the station reported, citing Neiman.
Butler and his wife were pronounced dead at the scene, the Los Angeles Daily News reports.
The Los Angeles Clippers, one of eight franchises for which Butler played, released a statement Wednesday, saying Butler “will long be remembered not only for his accomplishments on the court, but for his vibrant personality, positive outlook and the compassion he had for everyone around him.” The Miami Heat, another of his former teams, issued a statement offering “our sincere condolences, thoughts and prayers” to the couple’s family and friends.
The Washington Wizards, with whom Butler spent a season late in his career, called him “a great teammate, a positive member of the community and a consummate professional” who will be “missed throughout the entire NBA family.”
“He’s a wonderful person,” Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. said Wednesday evening. “Always in a positive mood, giving advice. … True professional on and off the court. I had a chance to spend some time with him off the court … him and his wife. It was a sad, sad day today to hear that news. Prayers and condolences go to his family and her family, too.”
A standout at La Salle, where he averaged 19.3 points per game over his four-year college career, Butler was drafted with the 53rd overall pick by the Miami Heat in 2002. He carved out a solid 13-season NBA career as a reserve spot-up shooter for eight teams, averaging 7.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. Butler’s dedication to his career was perhaps best exemplified in January 2013, when at 33 years old he joined the NBA D-League’s Tulsa 66ers after being cut by the Toronto Raptors, eventually earning that league’s impact player of the year award as its most valuable midseason acquisition.
Butler earned an NBA job the next season and played three more years, one with the Wizards in Washington, before finishing his career with the San Antonio Spurs in 2015-16. He credited his time away from the NBA for his personal growth, telling The Washington Post that he “got in touch with his religion,” worked on his diet and spent hours every day lifting weights and on shooting and ballhandling drills when he was out of the league.
“I was able to learn a lot about myself during that time,” Butler said. “I knew I had something more to give to this game. . . . I kept going to work out, wanting to have another opportunity, but also telling myself that when the opportunity would come, I would be prepared for it.”
By the time he earned a roster spot with the Spurs the following season, Butler was one of the oldest players in the NBA.
“It’s a fire that burns inside of you,” Butler told that team’s website during his final season. “My goal is to be empty when I leave the game. That I’ll have nothing left to give mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, because the game has been good to me.”
LaBelle, 31, appeared on “American Idol” as a teenager in 2004, finishing in 12th place during the show’s third season. In 2011, she signed a production deal with LA Reid, Jermaine Dupri and Pharrell Williams and released a five-song sampler of songs that were intended to appear on her debut album.
An Instagram image posted only hours before Butler’s death turned into something of a memorial to the former player, with mourners leaving their thoughts in the comments.
“Our entire organization is deeply saddened after learning of the death of Rasual Butler and his wife, Leah LaBelle,” Indiana Pacers President Kevin Pritchard said in a statement. “In his one season with us [2013-14], Rasual was the consummate team player and a great role model for our younger players on how a professional should prepare and act, while being a positive influence on everyone who associated with him. We offer our sincerest condolences to he and his wife’s family.”
NBA veterans and reporters who cover the league spent Wednesday posting heartfelt tributes to Butler. Spurs star LaMarcus Aldridge wrote that he was “devastated.” Former teammate Garrett Temple called Butler “one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met” and LaBelle “as authentic as they come.” Longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge called Butler “one of the legit nicest guys I’ve ever dealt with,” Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote that he was “utterly heartbroken,” and veteran guard Jamal Crawford wrote “sounds so cliche, but Rasual was really one of the good ones!”
“I will always remember the time we shared together as teammates,” wrote Wizards point guard John Wall, who called Butler a big brother. “I appreciate the advice you shared, not just about basketball but life.”
Candace Buckner contributed to this report.