RACINE — The 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks were bad – really bad – and won only 15 games. It was far from the total of 44 won by the playoff-bound Bucks this season.
Back then, the Bucks had then-rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and then-second year players Khris Middleton and John Henson.
Also on that team was Caron Butler, an 11-year NBA veteran at the time and Racine native, who helped guide the young players early in their careers.
“I always used to tell those guys,” Butler said, “ ‘The roar of the crowd is not for you, it’s for what you can do and when it’s over, they’re going to be cheering for someone else. You have to develop. You have to have fun. Your window in this space is not long.’”
Antetokounmpo flashed potential
Before Antetokounmpo would become a two-time NBA All-Star, Butler saw the potential in the 19-year-old’s game. Butler talked to him about proper preparation and knew he, “had no limitation on his game.”
“Obviously, we’ve grown to see that,” Butler said.
One day after practice, Butler got a glimpse of what the young rookie was capable of accomplishing.
“Giannis was barefoot — you know sometimes after practice, people take their shoes off,” Butler said. “He took off from the foul line and dunked the basketball, with no shoes on. And it was an effortless thing. It wasn’t like ‘Yo, watch me,’ or anything like that. Seeing that I was like ‘He’s going to be special.’ ”
But being the veteran — and with Antetokounmpo being the rookie — Butler had him do some work for him.
“I used to have Giannis run and get me straws and Mountain Dew and I’d give him $400 or $500,” Butler said. “That was my rookie hazing to him, but I also took care of my guys.”
Henson said he is grateful to have Butler around early in his career.
“He was a big help,” Henson said. “I was fortunate to have a lot of good vets when I was younger and he was one of them and taught me the ropes, taught me how to be a professional.”
Henson said he is now passing what he learned from veterans like Butler – “teach as I’ve been taught,” he says – to the younger players on the team.
“It’s helping me out and helped the young guys out,” Henson said.
‘He was hard on me’
Even though Eric Bledsoe wasn’t on the 2013-14 Bucks team, he remembers playing with Butler during his rookie season for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Butler said he bought Bledsoe his first suit when he got into the league.
It’s a shopping experience that brings a laugh and a chuckle to Bledsoe today.
“He just had his own personal tailor guy that he gets his suits from,” Bledsoe said about being fitted with a new suit. “And me, being a younger person on the team, trying to have a great career like him, he always told me that in this business you have to look professional.”
During those Clipper days, Bledsoe said Butler “was hard on me” and remembers one moment during practice in Denver when he and teammate Nick Young were joking around too much.
“We used to always mess with him,” Bledsoe said. “And one day he got fed up and was like ‘We need to focus!’ He got on me bad.”
Nowadays, Bledsoe said Butler would text him encouraging things and that he is, “like a brother to me.”
Former teammates are ‘inspiration’
As Butler continues to grow his platform as a broadcaster for ESPN, his old teammates return the favor he gave to them early in their careers.
“They help me be a better version of myself because these young guys like Giannis and Bledsoe … they continue to support me through my next transition,” Butler said. “Just like I got them through the beginning of their transition (to the NBA), where they were able to be bright stars … they’re getting me through my second half of my career and they’ve been nothing but an inspiration to me as well.”
As the Bucks enter the playoffs, Butler said he’s happy to see how Antetokounmpo, Henson, Middleton and Bledsoe have grown as professionals.
“To see the development of those guys, the way they carry themselves, makes me proud to know that I planted a seed along their road to success,” Butler said. “It means so much for me because I was in the right place at the right time and I really helped some great individuals.”
“To see the development of those guys, the way they carry themselves, makes me proud to know that I planted a seed along their road to success,” — Caron Butler on former Milwaukee Bucks teammates