Butler a star on the rise

From the Associated Press

Some things about Caron Butler are straightforward.

His end-to-end hustle, say. His in-your-face defense. And his statistics this season, which are, of course, easiest of all to render in black and white.

Sheets of paper titled "Caron Butler -- All-Star Credentials" are distributed by the Washington Wizards' PR staff to media members before games, noting that the forward is averaging career highs in points (21.2 entering Friday), rebounds (8.1), assists (3.9) and steals (1.9), among other categories.

There are other tidbits too. One example: Two NBA players are putting up at least 21.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists, game in and game out: Minnesota's Kevin Garnett -- no surprise there -- and Butler.

"He's a big part of our success, at both ends of the floor," Coach Eddie Jordan says. "Most of all, what he brings is an attitude. It's a toughness. It's an aggressive nature. It's a confidence factor. It's a swagger -- they call it 'swag' -- that says: 'It's my time in my career to show that I am special.' "

Butler is blossoming in his fifth pro season, helping Washington recover from a slow start with a 14-4 run to near the top of the up-for-grabs Eastern Conference.

"When you're watching the game, you really don't think he's doing a whole lot," Bulls center Ben Wallace says. "After the game, when you look at the tape, or look at the stat sheet, you realize where he's hurting you. I definitely think he's playing at the All-Star level."

Why now?

"The players, the coaching staff and the organization believe in me, and give me confidence. Confidence is everything in this league," Butler says, leaning back in a stuffed chair in a lounge at the Wizards' arena after a practice last week. "All you need is an opportunity, and I have that here."

Straightforward enough.

Then again, when he's playing, Butler doesn't come across as someone who possibly could lack for confidence. But some things about him aren't necessarily what they seem.

He came into the league as a lottery pick, yet bounced around to three teams in his first four seasons. That took its toll.

"Coming here, getting out in transition, in our up-tempo, equal-opportunity offense, using my versatility, everything seemed to click," Butler says. "And I'm playing alongside two unselfish superstars: Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas."

As much as Butler insists he's OK with taking a back seat, one could forgive him for getting annoyed at questions about what it's like to play with Arenas or what it's like to surrender the spotlight to Arenas. When Butler made his first nine shots en route to 29 points and a career-high nine assists against Milwaukee this month, he wound up a mere footnote, because Arenas made a game-winning three-pointer.

"I just try to be the glue," Butler says. "The guy that keeps everything together."

Besides, who could possibly compete with Arenas' attention-grabbing eccentricities? Here's as unusual as Butler gets: When he leaves the court for a breather, he'll sit down and reach back to grab a straw that he chews on, like gum.

On the court, Butler grinds, grimaces and generally attacks the game of basketball in the physical manner of someone playing football. When outside shots aren't falling, he picks up points on putbacks. The dirty work, not the glamorous stuff taken care of by Arenas, the league's No. 2 scorer and one of Butler's biggest fans.

"As an opponent, you look at him like, 'Man, if he gets mad, he's going to torch me at one end and he's going to hurt me at the other end.' That's the kind of respect he has right now," Arenas says.

That's how Butler picked up the nickname "Tough Juice" last season. As Jordan recounts, Butler used that phrase for some good-natured ribbing of teammates, as in: "Some of our guys need to drink some tough juice."

The moniker stuck.

Spend some time around the Wizards, though, and that veneer fades. Butler is soft-spoken, sometimes tough to hear above the general din of a postgame locker room.

"There are two different people," Arenas says. "If you're an assassin, if you're 'Tough Juice' on the floor, you might have that nice-guy image off it. He's a nice, cool guy. But when he gets on the court, you're like, 'Oh, man, this guy wants to tear down everything.' That's what you need on any team."

Butler freely admits he's different out of uniform, comparing himself to an entertainer whose persona changes when the stage lights dim.

This fierce guy calls mom in Racine, Wis., twice daily. He calls his 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son in Wisconsin as often as possible too, having teachers pull them out of class to chat.

He's among the most active Wizards when it comes to charity work, doing plenty around Racine. At a home game this week, Caron's Coats for Kids Drive brought in more than 1,000 jackets.

"We always used to talk about that: 'What if somebody made it and came back and did this and did that?' Now, I'm that guy," Butler says.

He wasn't always Mr. Good Deeds: Butler spent a chunk of his formative years doing the wrong thing. He was arrested more than a dozen times before he turned 15, eventually earning a 14-month sentence when he was caught at school with a gun and drugs.

Some might try to hide such travails. Not Butler.

"I want people to see my story. I can be a poster child for that: If I made it, you can make it," he says. "That's why I'm always open to share. I'm hoping I'll get another person a chance if they mess up."

He was 16 when he got out, but Butler's life really began right then. He learned a lot while "incarcerated," a word he pronounces with purpose.

"Never giving up. Having determination. Through all the adversity you go through in life, just continue to believe in the right things," he says. "On the court, I leave it all out there, night in and night out, because I know I'm privileged to be in this situation."

Here's something else Butler learned during those dark days: how to hoop.

He took to football as a kid. But in prison, he realized he played well enough to win bets for a case of Mountain Dew or packs of Twinkies.

"That became a way I ate," Butler says.

Nowadays he denies himself certain foods, using part of his $45-million contract extension to hire Patrick Ewing's former chef.

In the off-season, the 26-year-old Butler cut back on soda and sweets and dropped more than 10 pounds off his 6-foot-7 frame. He added fish to his diet and cut out McDonald's (OK, so Butler cops to the occasional fast-food run -- but now it's once or twice a week instead of twice a day). He spent so much time at a gym in Wisconsin, he got keys to the place.

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