People know Ricky Butler not so much because of who he is, but because of who he was going to be, and what has happened along the way.
“People still say, ‘You went to Ocean View, you’re the guy . . . " Butler said. “I say, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ ”
There was a time when you could imagine Butler standing at the free-throw line in the NCAA tournament with two shots coming and a trip to the Final Four in the balance.
Butler imagined it, or at least imagined his college team winning the NCAA title. And if you’ll remember, he had a knack for picking: Kansas, the school he signed with his senior year at Ocean View High School did win the NCAA championship the next year, but Butler was not there.
What you could not imagine when Butler was in high school was that one day he would stand on the line at UC Santa Barbara with two shots coming to him and the end of a 15-game UC Irvine losing streak in the balance.
That was never what he, nor anyone else, had in mind.
Neither was losing to Cal State Fullerton by 27 points, Nevada Las Vegas by 36, Cal State Long Beach by 39.
And never, ever, the thought of a 5-23 season.
Those things happened last season, and Butler, an Irvine senior now, accepted his share of the blame--for playing overweight, for not working hard enough in the off-season, for never becoming the player everyone thought he would.
“It was the weight,” said Butler, a former high school All-American who has yet to make the all-Big West Conference team. “I was trying to deny it, but it was obvious.
“I wouldn’t admit it then. Now I can say it.”
He can say it because the weight is gone, 25 pounds of it shed in an effort to put last season behind him. He is down to between 240 and 245 pounds, less than he has weighed since high school, and he is ready for the season you always expected.
“I’m ready to show everyone the high school All-American,” Butler said.
Last Sunday, in the third game of the season, he gave an example of the sort of game he expects to play this winter by scoring a career-high 30 points in a loss to Siena in the Great Alaska Shootout.
“This is going to be my year,” he said. “This is the way I’m going to be.”
It is not only his basketball game that has been revitalized, Butler said.
“It’s changed me completely,” he said. “I mean, I feel confident about everything I do. I don’t feel shy and scared to walk in places where people will say, ‘Oh, look at that fat dude. There’s fat Ricky Butler.’ I feel confident. I feel good. I’m not ashamed to take off my shirt and play pickup games.”
Butler was a famous teen-ager--famous because he was almost 6 feet 6 by the age of 14, and famous because he had a touch and an athleticism that seemed to promise basketball greatness. But he was famous most because he and Desi Hazely left their families in Lynwood at age 14 to move to Orange County and play basketball at Ocean View, living with a series of guardians and stirring a controversy that lasted most of their high school careers. Ocean View was forced in 1985 to forfeit all its victories and the Southern Section Division 5-A runner-up trophy because it was ruled that “undue influence” was exerted in their transfers.
It is not something that is behind Butler. He remains close to Jim Harris, the Ocean View coach whose family Butler and Hazely lived with for a year, as well as with Hazely, who has a job and a family and is living in Huntington Beach.
“I think about it all the time,” Butler said. “I think I made the right decision. I think I’m a better person for moving down here. I thank Mr. (Laurant) Brown for bringing me down here, and Mr. Harris for keeping me, and helping me stay.”
Butler and Hazely became the focus of a controversy that reached the courts. They were two high school students, but their presence on Ocean View’s team stirred resentments tinged with racial issues, and they faced taunts wherever they played.
“Ocean View Wants You: Call Your Local Recruiter,” a banner read. Once, a fan called out to them, “I hope the game is on satellite so your parents can watch!”
Harris says he is still bitter about the animosity and punishment surrounding the transfers.
“It affected us all greatly,” Harris said. “It made us a lot closer. It hurt him (Butler) badly. He felt like he had done great harm to myself and my family. He and the other boy both felt that way. There was a lot of bigotry involved, to put it bluntly.”
Butler remembers his own naivete.
“I just thought, hey, I’m going to go down to Orange County and play some basketball,” he said. “Everything was so different from what I was used to. I was surprised. It was kind of scary for me. I’m an inner-city guy, and all of a sudden everybody wanted to talk to me, be my friend, and was talking about me.”
It was a hard time for Butler, and for his family in Lynwood, his mother remembers.
“I used to tell him, ‘Ricky, come home and go to school at home,’ and he said, ‘No, Mom, I want to stay,’ ” Doris Butler said. “He called every day, sometimes twice a day. It was hard, he was only 14, but it was a decision he made. I look back on it, and I think he made the best decision, even though I didn’t want him to go.”
Butler says the transfer changed his life by giving him a better high school education, and by making college an option.
“I wasn’t even thinking about college before I came down here,” Butler said.
He certainly was not thinking about Irvine.
Butler signed with Kansas during the fall of his senior year, and Harris says he told the school then that Butler probably would not score high enough on the Scholastic Aptitude Test to be eligible to play as a freshman. But when that happened, Kansas made it clear that he was no longer welcome.
Butler was devastated.
“When they dealt that blow . . . he’s a very sensitive kid,” Harris said. “The only place he could see himself going was some place where he felt comfortable.”
Mike Labatt, a former Ocean View player, was at Irvine, and Butler chose to join him.
But Butler had to sit out his freshman year under Proposition 48, and was not allowed to practice. That was when the extra pounds first started to find their way onto his 6-7 frame.
“I didn’t eat a lot, I just ate all the time,” Butler said.
Before he reported for his first practice, he had tipped the scales near 300 pounds.
“I probably came in at about 290,” he said. “After I hit 290, I got scared.”
One of the most painful times had come that spring, when Kansas, led by Danny Manning, won the NCAA title. Butler watched on television, knowing that he might have been there, but that Kansas had changed its mind about him.
Bitter at not being part of it, Butler pulled for Oklahoma in the championship game.
“I was hoping Kansas would lose,” he said. “I sat at home hoping they’d lose. I did.”
Between not being at Kansas, and not even being able to practice at Irvine, Butler was adrift.
“The year he had to sit out, that was hard on him,” Butler’s mother said. Harris saw the same thing.
“Without basketball, I think he was pretty lost,” Harris said. “Physically, he just ballooned. He was very down and wasn’t happy. It was a very, very long year.”
It was a year that had a lasting effect.
“Add those things up, it was a brutal year for him,” Harris said. “I think it’s taken him almost two years to recover.”
Last season was the next, painful chapter.
“After the losing season, he matured,” Harris said.
Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan says he has seen the phenomenon before in players such as Butler and Wayne Engelstad. With the end of their careers in sight, the players rededicate themselves to the game so they can have a chance to play professionally.
Butler said that is the idea.
“I wanted to lose the weight,” he said. “I knew it would be important for this season.”
He also knew it was important for life after basketball.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be fat again because I don’t want to be fat,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”
In his uniform, Butler still looks overweight on the court. It is baggy, and he occasionally runs as if the load is heavy. But when he is in street clothes, you can tell the weight is gone. And if you watch him play for awhile, it is clear.
He is able to use his quickness to drive now, and less likely to get stuck in traffic because of his bulk.
In practice, he can run conditioning drills with the rest of the team instead of finishing late, if at all.
And the dunks that have been so rare since high school are part of his game again, to Butler’s joy.
The bulk of the season lies ahead, and it will tell if he has become the player he thought he could--or as far as college basketball is concerned, if he ever will.
“I think if he had gone to Kansas, or been somewhere in a high Division I, high-profile school with a lot of players of his caliber, the story would have emerged the way he had hoped it to,” Harris said. “It still might, and if it doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.”