A 15-year NBA veteran and world champion, Caron Butler’s personal journey is a remarkable one of regeneration and hope in the unseen that needs to be shared. It’s a journey bigger than just basketball. It’s an inspiring tale of a boy who began facilitating drug deals at the age of 11. He estimates that he’d been arrested and appeared in juvenile court on a multitude of charges on 15 separate occasions by the time he was 15 years old.
Butler came of age in a wicked environment where his role models were older uncles who were steeped in the culture of the narcotics business. He saw the wads of money and fancy cars, hypnotized by the lifestyle and what he viewed as success at the time.
“I’d always seen, from the second that I was a youngster, garbage bags filled with money, handguns, people doing drugs in front of me,” Butler said. “I was exposed to that type of lifestyle and that type of environment. I used to get the crumbs and the shake off the table. When they used to bag up kilos of cocaine, I would get the extras.”
He grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, a waterfront city of about 80,000 people situated south of Milwaukee.
A mere six blocks from the beautiful multi-million dollar waterfront estates alongside Lake Michigan was Hamilton Park, on Racine’s south side, which was the epicenter of a young Caron Butler’s limited world. The park, with its perpetual buzzing of drug and gang activity, was surrounded by decaying buildings and dilapidated homes.
With his single mother working two full-time jobs and upwards of 80 hours a week to keep the household afloat, she wasn’t able to keep her young son away from the lure of the fast life. But she tried as best she could. Sometimes, Butler would be chilling at the park, up to no good when his mom would mysteriously appear wielding a baseball bat in attempts to steer him away from what was sure to be a dead end life if he continued on his path.
But for all of his inherent intellect and street smarts, he was driven by a rebellious streak that overpowered his mother’s efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow. Butler was a businessman long before puberty, and used his side hustle of working a paper route to mask how those fat wads of bills made their way into his pocket.
In the wee hours of the morning, after his newspapers had been delivered, he’d set up his own shop on the street corner to deal cocaine before the sun made its lazy daily rise.
When his mother was at home, resting in between her two daily factory shifts, Butler would sneak out of the house.
“I was getting on the block,” said Butler. “When she heard that I was on the block, she’d swing through the park, jump out, she’d chase me off the street. She did everything possible to shape me to be the right person and the right man that she knew I was. You know, I was rebelling against her wishes. And unfortunately, it led to me being incarcerated.”
Despite his mother’s warnings, Butler was doing the mathematical computations in his head. Spending the day in school yielded no immediate reward. But posting up on the block with his own package for four hours brought a daily yield of around $1,500, give or take.
His was arrested during his freshman year at Racine Case High School after police, acting on a tip, found a .32-caliber pistol and a stash of drugs in his locker. When he was arrested, they also found $1,200 in his pockets.
He spent the first few months of his 18-month sentence at the Racine Correctional Institution, an adult facility. Butler was later transferred to the Ethan Allen School for Boys, a maximum security youth prison that housed teenagers who’d been convicted of murder and violent crimes, among other violations.
Being incarcerated is what opened his eyes, and it was there where basketball became a refuge and the source of an improbable dream. His journey from prison to prep school in Maine, to becoming a decorated All-American at UConn prior to being drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft is chronicled in his remarkable autobiography, Tuff Juice, My Journey From the Streets to the NBA.
With steady playoff commentating gigs with NBA TV and ESPN, as well as numerous property investments in his hometown of Racine and his new home of Los Angeles, it’s evident that basketball will not continue to define him moving forward.
He recently purchased the youth center in Racine where he learned to play ball and has turned it into a first-of-its-kind YMCA, which is a great story unto itself. Additionally, he’s working alongside Mark Wahlberg on the movie version of his autobiography. He also hosts his own TuneIn Radio show weekly.
That same work ethic that he began harnessing as an 11-year-old street corner pharmaceutical entrepreneur is still in full effect off the court with the restaurants that he owns and operates in Los Angeles, along with his varied and growing business portfolio.
But his greatest passion that fuels the next chapter in his journey revolves around community development and youth mentoring, while utilizing his life lessons and resources to elevate others who are sorely in need of a motivational impetus.
Butler realizes how lucky he is, how remarkable his tale is, and how he can harness all that he’s been given to offer hope to kids who are no different than he once was. It’s no wonder he received the Catholic Youth Organization’s Terrence Cardinal Cooke Humanitarian Award a few weeks ago.
“I came from a community that lacked so many resources,” he said. “We always talk about what you would do if you had certain things. Once I was blessed with this opportunity and this platform to be on, I wanted to give back as much as possible. I wanted to plant seeds. I want to provide resources. I’m extremely blessed, and I want to bless others.”
“I always want to be the best Caron Butler that I can possibly be. And I always want to make my mother proud. I wanted to set the stage right for those after me. I didn’t want it to be a situation which, when you talk about me, you say, ‘Well, he went to the NBA.'”