When Racine native Caron Butler was playing in the NBA, he had an epiphany during an off-season trip to China.
Butler was promoting the league and basketball in general with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a retired NBA legend and former Milwaukee Bucks superstar — along with a few other active players.
“I’ll never forget this,” Butler said. “Kareem, arguably the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball, he walked out and a lot of people did not know who he was.”
There was some applause for the man who has scored more points than any player in NBA history.
Butler said when he, Jermaine O’Neal and Jimmy Jackson were announced, the crowd gave them a noticeably bigger ovation because they were the players that the crowd remembered the most.
“That gave me even more motivation to be like ‘We got to make this right,’ ” Butler said, adding that he began to think of ways players such as himself can preserve the history of the game. “I feel like it’s our job to do that.”
Butler plans to do just that in his new role as a member of the Board of Directors for the NBA Retired Players Association.
“That was a big thing for me,” Butler said about being on the board. “I’m trying to bridge that gap between current, former and recently retired (players).”
Butler said he plans to be “the glue” that helps keep players connected to the game even after they’re done playing.
“When you retire, you don’t have a perfect segue going to the next thing,” Butler said. “And people wait, and once you wait for three or four years, the world is still trending because of social media and you’re not a walking billboard anymore.”
In the world where the 24-hour news cycle has turned into the 24-minute news cycle, players who have been out of sight are likely out of the mind of many basketball fans.
“If you disappear for three or four years and all of a sudden you try to reinvent yourself and come back, you know, once you put the ‘ex’ in front of your name it’s tough to get back into that space,” Butler said. “I try to convince people to stay active. Even though you’re financially stable or beyond stable and you’ve done some great things, but after spending a year away or whatever, you’re going to be itching to get back into something.”
Spreading the game internationally
Aside from being on the Board of Directors, Butler also is a “global ambassador” of the NBA and recently was in China earlier this month meeting with fans and local basketball players with Jr. NBA.
“I see it in real time,” Butler said. “And I think the NBA is just about to make a big splash from a global standpoint. I don’t think a lot of people recognize what’s happening right now.”
Butler points to players such as Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece, Dallas Mavericks rookie sensation Luka Doncic from Slovenia, and Philadelphia 76ers stars Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Ben Simmons (Australia) as evidence that the NBA is having an international impact.
As the NBA expands its international reach, Butler said there is a thirst for the NBA around the world.
Butler saw the craze first-hand in London when the New York Knicks played the Washington Wizards in The O2 Arena.
The Knicks, who weren’t too motivated to win games this season in an effort to get a high draft pick, and the Wizards, who were without their star guard John Wall, wouldn’t be too much of a draw in the States.
But overseas it was a different story.
“The game sold out in less than 12 minutes in London,” Butler said. “Selling out 18,000 seats in London and having a popup store where all of your merchandise sells out in less than 90 minutes, that lets you know the craving for basketball from an international standpoint, and that’s in London.”
As the league grows its brand outside of the United States, Butler said the league may be adding another team here in America.
“At some point in the next two years, you’re going to have an expansion team either in Seattle or New Mexico or Las Vegas,” Butler said.
As Butler becomes more of a face for the NBA outside of the country, and as he continues to help players and former players find footing in life off the court, he can’t help but think how far he’s come from being a kid from Racine.
“I want to let the kids know, coming from the inner city of Racine and then being on this platform, the Board of Directors, and holding this seat… It’s truly a blessing and I take pride in it but I want the kids to know that you can accomplish anything,” Butler said. “If this happened for me it could happen for you.”