Caron Butler is on his second career in basketball, following up a 14-year playing career in the NBA with a foray into coaching as an assistant with the Miami Heat.
Along the way, Butler has also looked to use his platform to impact the community, highlighting his journey from the streets of Racine, Wisconsin where he was arrested for drug and gun possession as a minor to the NBA, and fighting for criminal justice reform throughout his career. Most recently, Butler published the first book in a new series aimed at middle grade kids titled Shot Clock, which tells the story of a kid who loses his best friend to police violence and looks to carry on his legacy through basketball.
It’s a story close to Butler’s heart, as the star lost a number of friends growing up in Racine and sought refuge on the basketball court, while also seeing the impact sports figures can have in impacting change in the community. Recently, Butler spoke with Dime over Zoom about the inspirations for the book, the importance of showing real, tangible stories of success, and what he’s learned in his young coaching career and why he’s encouraged seeing more opportunities open up on benches for former players outside of just player development roles.
Why was important to you to try to tell this story and bring something like Shot Clock to kids?
I think that I was going through the process of when I had this AAU traveling team and I was thinking about all the adversity that these kids was going through in real time. And I was thinking about people putting limitations on them, the subtraction of lives and their reality, and what was happening with people dying that was close to them — young people — and then they were still having to put their best foot forward and try to go out and play on this traveling basketball team at a high level.
And then also thought about them going to school, them being in a community and what that looked like. I saw them become the now, the new ancestors. I saw them leading in an amazing way. I saw them speaking out. I saw them also leaving the county, leaving their respective city and seeing different things and start believing that they can be anything, where limitations was placed on them for quite some time because they just felt like it was a cap on their potential. They couldn’t be anything outside of what was happening in that community. And then I wanted to just shine light on it. I wanted to tell these stories. I wanted to give some type of hope, give some type of relief, and also just give like a lot of solutions to some of the problems that I witnessed in real time.
I’ve seen your story told in a number of places and something you mentioned is being able to see that there’s other stuff and other opportunities out there. How important is that when you when you talk to, especially young guys as they come into the NBA? How much do you talk to them about why it’s important to be in the community and show that to kids, and show the different paths that you can take, and that there is something outside of maybe just that local environment that they only see?
Well, I think seeing something as real can have a real impact on you, as opposed to someone telling you. And I’ll give you an example from me and my professional career, what I’ve seen is that when I was a rookie and I came to Miami and I was getting told like all the pros and cons of the NBA and how you need hard work, you got to have this type of disposition, and if you stay dedicated, determined, and disciplined, this will happen for you, success will follow. And by year two, I was traded and I didn’t know what to think of that. And then all of a sudden I go to the Lakers and I’m with Kobe Bryant and I see all these things happen in real time. All the things that I was being taught in Miami, I saw it happen real time with a person that … it was tangible. Like, I can see him, I can see the success and I can see the rewards, the fruits of his labor, everything.
Fast forward to community stuff and stuff that happens in real life. I wanted to show people that if you work hard these things can happen. If you have dreams, follow through and you can obtain anything. But you know some of the realities that we live in is very real, like people will get subtracted out of our lives. And there’s solutions to that, too, it’s a way to deal with it. It’s people you can talk to, it’s a platform that you have that you can voice your opinion. I want kids to know that it’s real people out here that’s been through these paths and walks of life and solutions to all those problems.
And specifically with what we’ve seen in the last few years, I think it really reached a fevered pitch with the George Floyd protests and everything that happened then around police reform and criminal justice reform. How do we continue to make sure that that doesn’t get pushed to the periphery as we deal with other problems and things, because there was such a big fervor in that moment, how do we make sure it’s not just a moment and that there’s continued progress and these continued conversations throughout communities, trying to make substantial changes?
Just like anything else, you keep it at the forefront of discussion and conversations, new content that’s created on television. You keep it at the forefront, you keep it visible so people can see it, they can talk about it constantly, because it is a norm. And that’s another reason why I chose to do this book is because when I think about 2020, and I think about the different generations of people that was on the front line, it was a lot of young people out there. I mean, I think about most viral videos that I’ve seen, it was young people speaking truth to power. It was people just speaking from the heart and knew exactly what the hell they was talking about.
And I was like, you know what, it’s important for stories like this to be told, like Shot Clock. And also, just to pivot real quick, I was thinking about the core curriculum that was available for us when I was growing up. And you know, books like Great Gatsby, Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With The Wind, amazing stories, but I couldn’t relate to a lot of the things that was in those books. And I wanted to create something that people from all walks of life can dive into and relate to.
Right. I think we’ve seen it, especially with young guys as they come into the league now, there seems to be, from a younger age — and I think it comes from social media and the recognition of the platform earlier on — guys seem to be more cognizant of their ability to speak out and their understanding of the platform they have. What have you seen in the league and how guys take these more forward roles in the community, in big conversations like this from when you started in your NBA career to now?
Well, before, I think that it was just business, business, and then business. Now I think it’s business and then it’s, “Holy shit, we have to have empathy and then we have to speak truth,” because predominantly a large percentage of our league is Black and brown. And people care about things, you have access to social media, Twitter, like, once you draw a line in the sand and say anything about anything out there, they’re like, “Well, why are you not speaking on that?” And I think everyone understands this from this perspective.
I’ve been heavily active, and an active participant in this space, for over 20 years of my life, but I think that once that the NBA and all these major entities drew a line in the sand when you saw us in the Bubble, when you saw social equity and all these different things on the back of jerseys. We stood on the right side of justice, but therefore, you have to educate and inform each other constantly because this is the position that you took. So going forward, it has to remain that way, you know what I mean? You can’t pivot and say, “All right, it was just cool, then I don’t want to talk about it.” Like, no, no, no, this is what it is going forward, and so forth.
And kind of going back to what we talked about with, you know, if you actually see it in action, you can believe it in a different way. We’re seeing now half the league now has Black head coaches, and we’re seeing more Black GMs and executives in front offices. What have you seen in what that opens up to former players like yourself, and just seeing more opportunities like that to go from being a player to staying in basketball and having opportunities like that? And how important is that to continue to growing the league and giving opportunities to guys?
Well, I think it’s unlimited possibilities. Now, all those positions come with a lot of hard work to get even an opportunity to get those positions, not just because you Black or brown, but it’s because you’re more than qualified, probably overqualified. But I think that it opens up … you’re dreams of really anything is possible. Like, I see it, I’ve seen like the transformation in real time where it was probably two coaches that looked like me on the sideline and everyone else was player development. And then now you see it, and it’s like, oh man, I was just playing with that guy, and he got hired on. You see a diverse group of front office people and you can see folks from all walks of life and it’s like a melting pot.
So it’s like, I’ve witnessed this transition and growth in this particular area, just imagine what it’s going to look like going forward. And also I think that our Association is so transparent, and I think we have the best commissioner in all of sports where he listens. He listens to the voices of everyone and it kind of organically happens from him just having empathy and just listening. I think that’s extremely important.
For you personally, you’ve been on the on the Heat staff for a bit and you obviously get to work with somebody who has won championships and has done it from a young age to now where he where he’s a grizzled vet as a coach in Erik Spoelstra. What have you been able to personally learn from him about — you mentioned Kobe with the grind and I know Spo is a grinder as a head coach — about what it takes to be successful in this role now?
Yeah, just checks and balances, from the top to the bottom. Spo has been nothing but a great mentor to me. He lets me spread my wings. He lets all of us under him spread their wings, but also, he gives us proper guidance, and he puts us in a position to just be extremely successful. He gives us room to learn. But he also pours into us and educates us in the process. He’s just one of the best basketball minds I’ve ever been around, hands down. And from a leadership standpoint, he knows when to move the needle. He knows when to poke, he knows when to do all those things, and I just love soaking in that that knowledge and learning from him over the years.