The block was buzzing. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the visitor coming to town.
Cars were screeching up and down the street outside the Douglas Community Center, the rundown neighborhood gym in my Wisconsin hometown.
El Dorados, Regals, Monte Carlos. Chrome rims, black rims, gold rims.
A crowd was starting to develop. Kids, teachers, hustlers, dealers, moms, dads, policemen — everyone. Our local newspaper, the Racine Journal Times, sent a reporter and photographer. It was crazy. It was like the whole town of Racine was high-fiving.
Jim Calhoun was coming to our neighborhood.
Not only that, but he was coming to Racine, Wisconsin, an inner-city town north of Chicago that never made headlines. At least not the right kind of headlines, that’s for sure. Not for basketball recruiting. In Racine, the news was normally about adversity: poverty, drugs, shootings, failing schools.
Coach Calhoun wasn’t just coming to our neighborhood. He was coming to visit me.
Wait, really? Seventeen-year-old Caron Butler? Even then, standing in the gym waiting for him to arrive, I still didn’t believe it. Me? The kid with the attitude? The hothead? The kid that “had potential”? The kid with the “checkered past,” as school administrators and cops liked to say?
Maybe people were right when they said I was a “bad kid.”
But that’s exactly why Coach’s recruiting visit was such a phenomenon, not only for me but for my whole town. Outside that gym, gathering on the sidewalk and riding in cars up and down the street — those were “bad kids” too.
People in the crowd were saying things like, “Damn, you really might make it. You really ‘bout to go to a heavy college. You might really pursue your dreams.”
The dreams of all of us in the neighborhood — me and all of the other “bad kids.”
I kept thinking, Man, this never happens here. This is special.
Coach Calhoun rolled into the gym in a UConn golf shirt and some type of Jim Harbaugh khakis. And from the first moment we interacted, he was just … real with me. The bad press he’d read about me? He didn’t care. The crime-ridden neighborhood? The trip across the country? He just wanted to meet me for himself.
We hung out for the day, and on his way back home, this is what I remember him saying to me:
“I’m not going to make you the best Caron Butler, the ball player, you can be. I’m going to make you the best Caron Butler you can be. Period.”
I respected him a ton for coming, to the depths of my community, to see where I was from. I had a lot of interest from other good colleges, but none of the big-time coaches had made the journey to Racine to see me. Nothing like that had ever happened in my hometown, as far as anyone could remember.
He was recruiting me to his school to play ball. But the truth is, I would end up needing him more than he needed me.
Maybe two weeks into my freshman year. Coach Calhoun called me over at the end of practice.
He was looking me up and down. Come to think of it, he was almost mad-dogging me.
“You’d better slim down.”
“Huh?” I pretended I didn’t hear him. But I heard him. You know when something’s true, and you know it’s true, so your first instinct is denial?
I was 6’7” and damn near 270 pounds. But I was 18 years old. I didn’t want to hear it.
I’ll tell you one thing that UConn players know: You don’t want Coach Calhoun mad-dogging you.
As my freshman year went on, Coach was on me about every little thing. He was always watching me. Never letting me coast on skill or talent. It always seemed like he had to make me the example. For a while, I thought maybe he didn’t like me. Later I started to learn: That was just Coach being Coach.
You’d better slim down.
I think he was talking about more than weight.
When I got to UConn, I was a confident freshman … Hold up. I’ll rephrase that. I was a cocky freshman.
Not talk-trash-and-throw-cheap-elbows cocky, but I-want-the-ball-every-play-because-I-believe-I-can-score-every-time cocky. Today you’d call it swag, but back then we just called it attitude. Whatever you called it, though, I played with a lot of … emotion.
One game early in my freshman year, Coach pulled me out in the middle of the first half. I had forced a couple drives in a row and then picked up two quick fouls on the other end. I’m looking over at him like, I’m good. I can play with two fouls. He called me over the bench and said, “No. You’re coming out.” You don’t suggest things to Coach.
Back on the bench, I was fuming. Coach came down to talk to me.
“You want to be a leader of the team?” He said. I’m looking down but nodding softly. “Then you have to do a lot of things that you’re not doing. You have to humble yourself. You have to be willing to understand that as you grow, we grow.”
At halftime, once we went into the locker room, he chewed me out the whole time. Like I said, he could be tough on me.
But I needed it. No one had ever checked me like that before.
It was a big lesson for me as a player and as a young man. I didn’t know it yet, but I was going to be forced to mature. These were the growing pains.
I was still coming to grips with not being the best player on the court. There’s something you have to understand about the shift from high school to college basketball. In college basketball, especially at a big-time program like UConn, you’ve got a group of guys — a bunch of teenagers, don’t forget — where each one was the man on their high school squad. Each of those guys was a 20-points-a-night guy. Big man on campus guy. Prom king guy. County or state player of the year guy.
Then all those guys go to college and they think they can be the man again. They think they should get the ball every possession. That the offense should go through them. But it’s not that way anymore. Suddenly you’ve got at least five guys who could lead the team in scoring if they wanted to.
Every now and then, when I tried to force a few bad shots in a row or picked up dumb fouls, Coach Calhoun would bench me.
“Let it come,” he’d tell me. “The energy of the game will find you.”
I’d nod, but I didn’t really know what he meant. It took time to shed some habits of my old basketball self.
At the end of my freshman year, I ended up leading team with 15 points and 7 boards a game. I was vocal with my teammates, trying to be a leader. I felt like I had come a long way. As the NBA draft approached, people were talking about me. I went to Coach’s office to seek his advice.
“Coach, I’m a pro. I’m thinking about the draft.”
“Look, trust me. It’s not time. You’re not ready yet.”
That was it. That was our dialogue together.
But I took his advice and returned to UConn for my sophomore year.
My first class at UConn — a summer program before the fall semester — I met a girl. Her name was Andrea. I liked her immediately, but she thought I was a show-off. I asked her out, but she said it wasn’t the right time. When I went back for my sophomore year, I tried to ask her out again. Finally, she said if I brought her on a real date, she’d go.
I had to scramble to think of a “real date” idea. How do you go on a real date in college? I wasn’t about to take her to Husky Blues and dance to Camron and Ja Rule (but later that would be our go-to spot).
I didn’t even have that much spending money. I picked out Love and Basketball from the rental store. On VHS. Dead serious. That’s the movie we watched on her VCR. And of course, it was a hit — Andrea loved it. It’s a classic.
Thank God for Blockbuster. It may not exist anymore, but it saved me on that date.
I had a big sophomore year, averaging 20 and winning Big East Player of the Year honors. As the spring approached, I went back to Coach’s office to ask him about the NBA Draft.
He surprised me.
“It would be really hard to lose you. But if I was you, I’d go,” Coach told me.
“I’m giving you my blessing to move forward.”
I thought back to the day Coach took the recruiting trip to visit me in Racine. He told me that when I looked back on coming to the University of Connecticut, five, ten years from now, it’s going to be the best decision that I ever made.
He told me I might not like him at times — he was definitely right on that — but also that he was definitely going to push me. That’s exactly what he did.
That June, I was picked by Miami in the first round of the NBA draft. At the podium, tears came to my eyes. Of course I was happy to get drafted, but I was truly sad to know I had to leave the University of Connecticut.
At the podium, I remembered something Coach had said before I left school.
“You’re going to be part of a family for life.”
He was right.
Thank you, Huskies. On Saturday, it’ll be a special moment when I attend the Huskies of Honor ceremony. This is a tremendous honor. And what’s crazy is, if Coach Calhoun hadn’t convinced me to stay after my first year, I might never have had my breakout sophomore season. I might never have met Andrea, who became my girlfriend that year. We’re still together today, married for 12 great years and counting, and we have five kids.
I became a man at UConn. I met the love of my life here. And I’ll never stop coming back here.
“Bad kid” or not.