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Catch Them on the Rebound : After Starting Slowly, MacLean, Wilson, Butler Show NBA They Can Play

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The topic for the day was rebounding and 61 youngsters sitting on the gymnasium floor were listening intently to the guest speakers from the NBA at Don MacLean’s basketball camp.

Trevor Wilson of the Sacramento Kings stressed the importance of boxing out the opponent, while Mitchell Butler of the Washington Bullets emphasized the use of both hands when reaching for a rebound.

But it is the desire to rebound, they said, that is essential. And they should know--they speak from experience.

Who better to help former Simi Valley High star MacLean discuss the art of rebounding at his youth camp at Royal High than Wilson, who played for Cleveland High, and Butler, who starred at Oakwood High in North Hollywood?

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MacLean, Wilson and Butler share more than their playing days at UCLA. Work-out partners since before they were teen-agers, they met in a youth basketball league more than a decade ago and the Westwood-area neighbors continue to work on their games together in the off-season. MacLean and Wilson are business partners. MacLean and Butler are teammates with the Bullets.

Each enjoyed highly successful high school careers, only to suffer--and overcome--a career-threatening lull in the college or pro ranks.

MacLean, UCLA’s most prolific scorer, was a forgotten rookie on the Washington bench two seasons ago. He was the NBA’s most improved player last season.

Wilson didn’t even last his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks. Having fallen the bitter victim of no playing time, Wilson bolted for the Italian League halfway through the 1991 season only to return two years later and sign a one-year contract with the Lakers. Although he was cut after only five starts, Sacramento snatched him and he is now negotiating a second contract with the team.

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And Mitchell? He wasn’t even drafted out of UCLA. Scouts doubted his ability, but scouts make mistakes. Mitchell went from not wanted to a four-year deal with Washington in one season.

Rebounding? Yeah, these guys know something about the subject.

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MacLean, who led Simi Valley to a Southern Section championship as a senior in 1988, left UCLA as the leading scorer in Bruin and Pacific 10 Conference history with 2,608 points, sank a conference-record 711 free throws and had more 20-point games (68) than any other Bruin--three more than a 7-2 center once named Lew Alcindor.

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Despite being the 19th overall pick in the 1992 draft by Detroit, MacLean was traded twice (by the Pistons and Clippers) before he was ever given an NBA uniform. And when he landed with the Bullets, MacLean had his work cut out for him.

With Harvey Grant, Pervis Ellison and Tom Gugliotta already in Washington, MacLean was forced to the bench. He started just four of the 62 games in which he appeared.

“It was (tough) because it was the first time it had ever happened to me, basically,” MacLean said. “But I got a lot of good work in. I paid attention and made sure that I was improving even though I wasn’t playing. I was listening, I was watching people play out on the floor, so that when I did get an opportunity, it wasn’t like a wasted year.”

MacLean averaged 6.6 points and two rebounds in just under 11 minutes a game. Not exactly rookie-of-the-year numbers. But he was determined to improve and his quest began in the weight room. He added 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-10 frame and improved his quickness.

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MacLean’s second year bore no resemblance to his first. He started 69 games and shared the team’s scoring lead with Rex Chapman at 18.2 points a game.

“I knew I could play in the league,” MacLean said. “My confidence was never shattered. It was more like I was (angry) that I wasn’t playing.”

Wilson, two years MacLean’s senior, would like to take a little of the credit for his friend’s newfound motivation.

“When (MacLean) was in high school and I was in college, I used to beat him up a lot, kind of rough him up, and I think that motivated him a lot because he’s really hit the weights hard and now he’s the one banging with the tenacious attitude,” Wilson said.

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Wilson’s first season in the NBA was similar to MacLean’s--only worse. A second-round pick by Atlanta in the 1991 draft, Wilson averaged only 2.2 points and 4.0 minutes in 25 games before a back problem put him on the injured reserve list.

Rather than working for more playing time--as MacLean did with the Bullets--Wilson bolted for Italy. He was playing in the Italian League before the NBA season was over.

“It was frustrating,” he said of his rookie season. “It’s one thing if you are given the opportunity and you fail, then you can accept it, but I haven’t failed because I was never given the opportunity.”

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Wilson’s impulsiveness came as no surprise. While at UCLA, Wilson built his reputation on temper and instinct. These were qualities teammates admired and later emulated.

“He was so aggressive, so tenacious,” MacLean said. "(He had) an attitude, but I’ll tell you what, those two qualities made him a great player. Those are two things I learned from him in college . . . not to take anything from anybody and to just go out and be aggressive and have a killer instinct.”

A three-time All-City Section player at Cleveland and a three-year starter at UCLA, Wilson is the fourth-leading scorer (1,798 points) and rebounder (1,001) in Bruin history.

Wilson wasted little time getting recognized in Italy. He averaged 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds for Oar Ferrol in his first season, and 21.1 points and 7.5 rebounds for Pescanova in his second.

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Italy helped Wilson further his career, if only in his attitude.

“I don’t think I’m getting any faster or jumping any higher, but I think I’m understanding the game more,” Wilson said.

After two seasons abroad, Wilson returned to Los Angeles for a second chance at the NBA.

He landed a starting position with the Lakers to begin the 1993-94 season. It lasted only five games before he was cut.

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But this time, however, Wilson felt vindicated. He was given the opportunity and made the most of it. He averaged 10.2 points in five starts.

“It was a money thing,” he said. “What happened with the Lakers, I felt very comfortable with because I got the minutes, I produced and I got cut. So, I knew it wasn’t because of my playing ability. I played well.”

Sacramento concurred. The Kings came calling when the Lakers released Wilson, and Wilson responded. He started nine of the 52 games he played and averaged 8.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in about 21 minutes. He played well enough that the Kings are negotiating a new contract with him.

“I’ll most likely be back in Sacramento,” Wilson said. “I’m comfortable with the style of play there.”

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Butler’s struggle started shortly after high school. He was of one the country’s top recruits after finishing at Oakwood in 1989 as the fourth-leading scorer in state history. Once at UCLA, however, 50-point games were long gone. Fact is, he never scored more than 19 in a college game.

Butler’s role seemed undefined and he was mostly overshadowed at UCLA. In his freshman season, Wilson and MacLean grabbed the spotlight. Then it was MacLean and Tracy Murray, and later Shon Tarver, Tyus Edney and Ed O’Bannon.

“I think I had a very defined role that myself and Coach (Jim) Harrick understood clearly,” he said. “And I don’t think very many other people ever understood it. Most people--even basketball minds--would say I got lost in the shuffle.”

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Butler saw things differently.

“I think being as athletic as I was, I was asked to do the things that a lot of other players couldn’t do and most of the time that was setting screens, rebounding, playing good, hard, solid defense, making passes other guys couldn’t (make),” said Butler, who could play all five positions--and did.

While Butler graciously assumed the role-player position, NBA scouts were turning away from the 6-4 senior, who never complained.

“I understood that,” Butler said. “After my senior season, after I averaged 9 1/2 (points a game), I pretty much realized that it was slim-and-none that I would get drafted.”

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Instead of sulking about his misfortune, Butler went back to the gym to improve his game and prove that he belonged in the NBA.

“I got back that competitive edge, that desire to just go out and cremate guys. I think I lost that at UCLA,” he said.

Butler is a model of perseverance. He latched on to the Bullets as a free agent and in six months went from a rookie with a one-year contract to a player who has finessed his way into the Bullets’ long-range plans.

Butler had 19 starts in 75 appearances and averaged 12.6 points. He got stronger as the season progressed, averaging 21.0 points in his last three starts.

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His reward? Butler signed a four-year, $2.2 million deal.

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More than a decade has passed since the three players first met. Their careers have changed, but their friendships remain strong.

All three live near UCLA in the off-season and can be found working out at UCLA or the Mid-Valley Athletic Club in Reseda, or perhaps grabbing a bite to eat at the Sand Bags sandwich shop in Westwood--which Wilson and MacLean bought three months ago.

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The bond established in area youth leagues is one of the reasons MacLean and Butler followed Wilson to UCLA. It also accounted for the presence of Wilson and Butler at MacLean’s basketball camp last week. They are planning another camp together later this month.

“I think we push each other and I think we’re better because of that,” Wilson said.

While each of the former Bruins focused on a different rebounding technique at MacLean’s camp, all three punctuated their speech with a familiar axiom:

Never give up. Never.

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