ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Sensing a young player was about to hit his boiling point, Caron Butler stepped up and proved he has the back of his Milwaukee Bucks teammates.
A rookie official had just made a questionable call on second-year power forward John Henson with 12.7 seconds left in Milwaukee’s preseason game against Charlotte on Oct. 12., giving the Bobacts two free throws to build on their three-point lead.
The game was ended with the call on the rebound, one Henson felt he had inside position on. Instead of letting his young teammate express his frustrations, Butler took matters in his own hands. Nobody wants to see Butler make a habit out of getting ejected, but his leadership gesture overshadowed the consequences in this situation.
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The Bucks already had a good sense of the kind of leader Butler was before training camp even opened, as the veteran went out of his way to acquire ever player’s phone number and called everyone together for dinner.
“We had dinner and just talked about expectations and where do we see this team going, what direction, and what we are capable of doing with the personnel that we have and the new faces,” Butler said. “We feel real good about what we can get accomplished here in Milwaukee.
“I texted all the guys. I extended myself to coach Drew and he gave me all the guys’ contacts and I reached out to them and they openly came to the meeting and we talked. We had a good energy, good vibe. That’s what you want, to establish a tone before training camp.”
The chemistry issues that contributed to Milwaukee’s demise last season have been well documented but can’t be understated. The Bucks had serious locker room issues last year, causing the front office to weigh the character and leadership of players when deciding on who to bring in for this season.
Issues with chemistry can derail all teams, but certain groups can make up gaps in talent by simply being one and playing together. The Bucks are hoping the team they’ve assembled can thrive when it comes to chemistry and that it will show on the floor. Butler may have been the last piece to the puzzle acquired, but he just might be the most important for the short term.
“Caron is a guy who, when you talk about his leadership, we know what he’s capable of, but as a player I see him as a shot maker,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “Caron is a guy you put on the floor and he’s going to compete at a high level the whole time he is out on the floor. I love what he brings to the locker room.
Traded from the Clippers to the Suns as part of the three-team deal that included the Bucks signing and trading J.J. Redick to Los Angeles, Butler was headed to a Phoenix team in the midst of a full rebuilding project.
The Suns and Butler worked together to come up with a deal to the place he really wanted to be: Milwaukee. With the Bucks lacking depth and a starter at small forward and needing what Butler brings to the locker room, the trade was an easy one to pull off. Butler averaged 10.4 points per game last season — the second-lowest of his career — but should see a jump back up to around his career scoring average of 15.5 as one of Milwaukee’s go-to offensive players.
“After having a conversation with people he has played for, they say the same thing about him as an unbelievable guy in the locker room,” Drew said. “On the floor, he’s a guy we are going to depend on at that three-spot. We’re going to look to get him the ball. I would say in Los Angeles, he was a third or fourth option to what they did. That won’t be the case here in Milwaukee. He’ll be a very big part of what we do.”
Tears filled Butler’s eyes when introduced as a member of the Bucks for the first time. The setting was fitting, as he explained what coming home means to him at Racine Park High School, the place his miraculous turnaround from teenage delinquent to NBA All-Star began.
There was a time when nobody in the Racine, Wis. area would have believed Butler would make it out of the city, let alone become a role model of a player and citizen. But the 33-year-old is entering his 12th season in the NBA and seems to have plenty left in the tank.
“I hang my hat on being a professional on and off the court,” Butler said. “I pride myself on trying to get better, even at this stage of my career. I’m trying to help the younger guys. I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us.”
Butler is truly embracing his role as the veteran leader of the Bucks and wants to make a difference in and around his hometown. His stay could be short with just one year left on his contract, but Butler’s impact on Milwaukee could mean much more than just basketball.
“It means a lot to me because this is my home state,” Butler said. “Seeing people embrace my community like I embrace it means a lot. Seeing these guys in the community and doing little things at the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA or putting on events, it’s good to see that.”
“I think you build the right energy and it starts in the community. I think that we’re going to be good, but we can be a lot better with the energy from the community and showing us support at the games, holding us accountable to perform at a high level night in and night out. I think we’re going to do a good job of doing that.”