Sixteen Years, Nine Teams, One Love

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Caron Butler, Retired / NBA - The Players' Tribune

My mom’s first time flying on an airplane scared her half to death. I think she still might secretly blame Pat Riley.

It was one day after the NBA draft, in 2002, and we were 30,000 feet in the air, somewhere between Wisconsin and Florida. The Heat had just drafted me. Pat Riley had sent the team’s private plane. If I close my eyes I can still picture my mom, Mattie, in her cushy seat, looking at me and looking out the window, back and forth. This combination of immense pride and absolute terror.

“The whole plane is ours?!” she was saying. She couldn’t believe it. It was just our family — me, my mom, my fiancée, my brother — and two representatives from the Heat.

It blew my mind, too, but I was trying to play it cool. Getting into my seat, I tried to remember to breathe out of my nose. The team representative showed me and my brother where Alonzo Mourning and LaPhonso Ellis sat when the team traveled. It didn’t seem real.

“This is not normal,” I said to her.

I kept telling myself, You’ve gotta act like member of the Miami Heat organization now. I probably wasn’t fooling anyone. I mean, I’d flown on airplanes for games when I was at UConn, but never first class or anything. And this plane? This was beyond first class. This was Pat Riley class. In my head I was like, You alright. You doin’ it, Caron. You the man. Act like you been there before.

It’s funny now, when I think about it. I was trying to keep my mom’s expectations in check. But the truth is, I was just as terrified.

It was 16 years ago when I arrived in Miami to start my NBA career. Back then if you’d told me I was gonna play for nine different teams, for more than a decade and a half, I’d have a look on my face as indescribable as my mom’s on the plane that day.

But here I am. It’s been a great ride and truly a blessing. But everything runs its course, even good things. Today, I’m retiring from the NBA.

You know, I thought about writing a letter to my younger self, but then I remembered … Nah, 12-year-old Caron wouldn’t have listened to s— I told him. It wouldn’t have even mattered that I’d traveled from the future just to give him a letter. He’d have thrown it in the trash once he found out there was no cash inside the envelope. Then he’d probably make fun of my shaved head and tell me I’m old.

I want to tell you about some of the people who made my NBA career a dream come true.

It starts with Pat.

I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and it was all I knew for 18 years of my life. I hadn’t ever left the state, really. I mean, I had heard about Chicago. I had seen something once about people flying kites on the beach in Miami. But other than two years in Connecticut, Racine was my only reality. Big cities were in movies and on TV.

Then suddenly I was on the phone with Pat Riley. From the moment I hung up after our first call on draft day, to the moment I stepped inside the Miami Heat facilities, it was like an out-of-body experience. I felt like I had really made it, like I was about to become somebody, you know what I mean? I was just the happiest guy in the world. I wanted to make my family proud, and I wanted to make Racine proud. I was ready to dedicate myself to basketball for as long as my body would let me.

Pat was about to show me that I didn’t know s— yet.


There wasn’t a party waiting for me in Miami when I got to the gym on the first day. It wasn’t clubbin’ on South Beach with cigars and all that.

It was, “Your locker is over there. If you arrive to practice an hour early — you’re late. You should start working out tomorrow morning. And what was your name again?”

That’s what I heard when I got there. That was the Heat vibe. It was a helluva transition — private plane to a limousine, cruising the streets of a brand new city with my family, everyone being proud of me — and then actually starting practice … because that’s where you see the other side of Pat Riley. It’s the s— that got him those championship rings. It’s Pat basically saying to you, Get to work right away or you’re not going to make the team.

“I had heard about Chicago. I had seen something once about people flying kites on the beach in Miami. But other than two years in Connecticut, Racine was my only reality. Big cities were in movies and on TV.”

I was lucky that I’d already been through a lot in my life. Miami’s reputation for nightlife could’ve derailed some young guys, but it never worried me. I’d had my first child at age 14. I was arrested more than a dozen times in my teenage years. At age 16, I was incarcerated after police found drugs and a pistol in my locker at school. I almost lost everything on more than one occasion, and I lost a lot of people close to me at a very young age. So I wasn’t looking for a good time, not by the time I made the NBA. By then, basketball was something I was going to protect at all costs. I’d come too far to let the noise distract me.

But I was still young, man. I had the right mindset, but I didn’t really know how to work.

Those first couple of months were crucial in shaping my career. I can’t say it enough — the Miami Heat organization is the reason I was able to last so long in the NBA. I went in with, I think, a solid mindset to start out — the desire, the willpower, whatever you want to call it. But playing in Miami — playing for Pat Riley and Stan Van Gundy — there was a culture about working hard that blew me away. They taught me the right way to practice. The right way to train. The right way to prepare for games. All the little things mattered. That stuff gets lost when you’re seeing NBA players on TNT every night.

Maybe most fortunately, I figured out really early on that talent isn’t as important in the NBA as you’d think. Talent is crucial, but I started to learn that it if you give your best effort every game — if you enter every game ready to absolutely exhaust yourself on the court — you will always have a chance of winning, even if you’re outmatched in talent. Grinding wins games in basketball. It’s a myth that straight-up grinding isn’t important at the highest level.

Coach Riley taught me things in all sorts of different ways. One thing he did that I’ll never forget it that he would leave notes in my locker. I’d find them before practice some days. Sometimes it was a note about a specific play or drill that I needed to work on, and sometimes it was a motivational phrase. The notes were never more than like a sentence or two, but every time I got one it had such a big effect on me. It was like I had a top-secret communication channel with the godfather of basketball himself — like we had our own language. I felt like every single note made me a better player in some small way.

Years later, in Oklahoma City, I started leaving notes for Kevin Durant. KD’s always been like a little bro to me. I was surprised and grateful when he thanked me in his MVP speech for doing that, but in my mind I was just passing on what I learned from Pat Riley, who pretty much taught me everything I know.

So it definitely hurt when I found out that it was Pat Riley who traded me to L.A. after my second season in Miami. I thought Pat and I just had this special sort of basketball bond.

I mean, damn, I would’ve traded myself for Shaq, too. If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say that you are more valuable to a team than Shaq, then I don’t know what to tell you. That’s an issue with your ego.

So the sting didn’t last very long. It’s just something that comes with growing up in this league. Like I said, I was so used to staying in one place growing up that naturally I expected to be in Miami for my entire career. Those first years playing with D-Wade, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, Alonzo, it was such an incredible learning experience. I’ll always remember how much fun I had playing with those guys.

But that’s life. In a few days’ span, I went from South Beach to Los Angeles. Dwyane Wade to Kobe Bryant. Dwyane Wade is one of my best friends in the world, but it’s hard for anyone to complain about getting to ride shotgun with Kobe. Once I got to L.A., it was maybe like a week later, and I couldn’t even remember why I was upset in the first place.

I was only in L.A. for a season, then I got traded to Washington. And it’s interesting, that second trade didn’t really hurt. I understood at that point that it was just a good basketball decision. The Wizards had a young group of talented players, and I was excited to get an opportunity to play there.

For the next six years I’d be a Wizard, an All-Star and have some of the best years of my life, playing with Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, and this kid named Gilbert Arenas, who was ballin’ all over the place — and he wasn’t even calling himself Hibachi yet. I’ll always remember how much the people in D.C. loved that team — L.A. and Miami were great cities to play in, but Washington was where I spent the majority of my career, and the place I will always consider my second basketball home.

Being traded helped teach me the truth about the business of basketball. Soon, anywhere I went I just tried to be an example in practice, the way I’d learned in Miami — always in the gym, always trying to be better, doing the little things. And every team I played on, I made friends. I mean, when you’re together with a group of guys every day, there are always ways to bond if you look for them and if you’re open.

I can’t say it was as easy for my family. I’ve played for nine different teams over the course of my career. We once moved to Phoenix for 30 days. My wife, Andrea, had to put up with a lot of moving. My children were always the new kids at their school. My mom — actually my mom was just consistently proud of me the entire time. I could score one basket and she’d be upset I wasn’t named player of the game. (Thanks, Mom.)

I mean, damn, I would’ve traded myself for Shaq, too. If you can look at yourself in the mirror and say that you are more valuable to a team than Shaq, then I don’t know what to tell you. That’s an issue with your ego.

But my family sacrificed a lot so that I could have a career. I don’t take that lightly.

But I’m also very lucky and blessed just to be here — just to be alive. That’s nothing short of a miracle. When I say that, I’m really talking about life and death. This past weekend, I was back in Racine to attend a funeral. It was for a 26-year-old  from Racine who had been shot multiple times by police after fleeing his vehicle. I didn’t know him personally, but in a way I did. Me and my friends who came up in Racine, we all feel like, you know, that could’ve been us. I know what it’s like to feel trapped there — because I almost was myself. I was lucky. I know too many people who never made it out — whether they got killed or just got caught up in the wrong lifestyle. I’ve been to a lot of funerals. It doesn’t get easier. And it’s strange, you get to a certain point in your career, like I have, where people tell you that you made it out … and you think, Damn, I actually made it out. It’s true in a way, but it’s not that simple. So I keep going back and I always will.

It’s important to me now that kids from Racine, and places like it, see that I’m exactly like them. I’m from the same place that they are, and I was a kid once, too. I did stupid things. But I learned. It wasn’t easy, learning those lessons, and I’m sure it took longer than my mother would’ve liked, but I did learn eventually. And once I had a goal, I never gave up. I didn’t want to let down the people who believed in me.

And I was lucky to have so many.

So I want to shout out a few people here at the end. This might seem like a long list of names, but you can’t expect a guy to hang around in the league so long and not have a small city of people to thank. I apologize in advance to the many people I’ve undoubtedly missed.

Before I played my first NBA game, my wife said that wherever basketball took me, our whole family would go, too. She was always true to her word, and I am more grateful to have her in my life than anything else. She is and will always be the most amazing thing to ever happen to me.

When I think about the course of my career, I think about BJ Evans, Rob Wilson, Tim Donovan, Andy Elisberg. Jay Sabol, Marjie Kates, Shivani Desai, Tim Grover and the entire Arison family.

I think about the Buss family in Los Angeles. Mitch Kupchak. Magic Johnson. Alison Bogli, Eugenia Chow.

In Washington: Ernie Grunfeld, Milt Newton, Tommy Amaker, Sashia Jones. Candace. Susan O’Malley.

In Dallas: Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle.

My Clippers team: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, CP3 — you guys gave me new life when I came back to Los Angeles after a year of injury.

Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, my idol Grant Hill. I never imagined in a million years I’d ever be able to share the stage with someone like you.

Milwaukee. It was always my dream to be able to play in a Bucks uniform. John Hammond and Senator Kohl made that happen. Honestly, everybody in Milwaukee. There’s nothing like playing in your home state. Thank you all for being a part of that experience.

OKC — Sam Presti. KD and Russell Westbrook.

Detroit — Tom Gores. It was great being able to reunite with Stan Van Gundy, and playing with my brothers Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and KCP.

Vlade Divac — who called me when I was on my couch in 2016, thinking my career was over, and I got to spend a year playing with Rajon and Boogie in Sacramento.

Raymond Brothers, the NBPA and Michelle Roberts, Melvin Claybrook, Jarvis McMillan, Richard Butler, David Stern, Adam Silver, Kate Skidmore, Chrysa Chin, Britney Thompson, Carmen Wilson. The father I never had, UConn coach Jim Calhoun. My prep school coach Max Goode. Steve Springer, Dana Newman, Mark Wahlberg, Rick Martinez, my publicists Kelly Swanson and Lisa Milner….

This guy needs to be on his own line: My brother forever, Rasual Butler, who recently passed. I’ll always remember the two of us coming into this league together. Like me, Rasual played for a handful of teams in his career, and he had all the things I admire in a person, not just in a basketball player — hard work, professionalism, positivity, sportsmanship. He was a teammate’s teammate. The NBA family will miss you, man.

And to the fans — you will never know the joy you brought me. Thank you. I hope that when you think of the name Caron Butler, you remember how much I loved and respected the game. I hope you have an image of a guy who gave it everything he had, physically and mentally. I know it’s a cliché, but this really was more than a game for me — it was what saved me from a very grim future.

I still think back fondly about that first flight to Miami in 2002, with my family on the Heat’s team plane — not because it was expensive or extravagant or because I got to go to the beach for the first time. It’s because it was the first time in my life I ever really felt like I was going somewhere.

Playing in the NBA was a dream — I got to spend 16 years with all of these great teammates and coaches. It was better than I ever could’ve imagined. I may be retiring from the game, but I’ll stay close to it. I’ll be around it in some form or another.

I just want you all to know that I had the time of my life, and that you helped make that possible.

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