I didn’t want to like Caron Butler. When the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal — my favorite player as a kid — to the Miami Heat for Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and some draft picks, I didn’t want to like any of these new guys. 13-year-old me just wanted Shaq back.
My reason for disliking Butler initially may have been a bit childish, but I can imagine I’m not the only one who wished he was Shaq. Still, while Butler would never live up to those heights, he would turn around the opinions of the skeptics and — despite the Lakers’ Shaq trade looking increasingly lopsided over the course of that year — improbably become a fan-favorite in just one season with the team.
Part of that was that Butler was just a really solid secondary scorer for the Lakers to have with Kobe Bryant. He averaged 15.2 points per game that year in just his third season in the league, and was at times an infectiously fun fast-break weapon for the young team.
As much as he looked like a possible young core piece for the future, though, Butler didn’t ultimately blossom and realize his full potential in Los Angeles. Just a little over a year after he was acquired, he was traded to the Wizards — along with Chucky Atkins — for Kwame Brown and Laron Profit.
Butler later made two All-Star games with the Wizards, but his impact on the Lakers can still be traced for years after his short stint with the team. Had he not looked like a promising prospect, the Lakers may not have been able to make that trade for Brown, and while Brown never lived up to the potential that L.A. likely was hoping for when they acquired him, they were able to make use of his gigantic expiring contract to facilitate their deal for Pau Gasol.
Obviously Butler didn’t deliberately help with that, but the results worked out as such that his one season can be appreciated a bit more in retrospect for making what was to come later possible. Such are the wide-ranging ripple effects of NBA transactions.
Butler also helped humanize Kobe Bryant as a friend and teammate. Bryant famously didn’t bond tightly with many in the locker room, he’d say as much himself. But Butler was one of four players he admitted he did get particularly close to — along with Derek Fisher, Ronny Turiaf and Gasol — leading him to write the foreword to Butler’s book, “Tuff Juice: My Journey From The Streets To The NBA.”
“It’s very rare for me to open up to somebody like that, but I just had a connection with him. He’s one of my favorite teammates,” Bryant wrote in that passage. “When that happens, it makes the season better. It doesn’t always happen. It’s not something that I need to happen, but there are certain players that I just automatically get along with. You gravitate to each other because you eye to eye on things and you get along extremely well. And Caron was one of those players.”
Butler and Bryant remained close long after Butler was traded, with Bryant saying Butler was “like my little brother.” For his part, Butler tried to dissuade the idea that Bryant was some impossible teammate.
“People always said he was not easy to be around,” Butler said in 2016. “That was totally wrong.”
Butler had dealt with much tougher things in life. As the title suggests, his book touches on his difficult journey to the NBA, a path that saw him start using guns at age 9, dealing drugs at age 11 and looking up to drug dealers, not basketball players. He nearly ended up in jail before turning things around and making it to the NBA.
Forget ending up a Laker, or becoming an NBA All-Star. Butler even being alive today, given the circumstances he came from, is worth celebrating.
As a petulant kid mad that my favorite player got traded, I may not have wanted to like Butler, but knowing what I know now, it’s impossible not to call him one of my favorite human beings to filter through this organization, or to respect the hard work and dedication it took for him to overcome his environment and get to where he is today. Butler may not have written his name all over the Lakers’ record books, but for all of that and more, he will always be a Laker worth appreciating.