About this time of year the interminable NBA season becomes terminable and we start paying a little attention. Thus, we noticed the name Rasual Butler playing for the Indiana Pacers. Now, there can’t be two guys with that name in professional basketball, but it surprised us because we thought his career was over a few years ago. How could the man be playing for a team facing the Miami Heat in the playoffs, with a chance to go all the way?
Turns out, after several minutes of exhaustive research, it is the same guy who made the pages of Gold Coast magazine 11 years ago when he was a rookie playing for Pat Riley’s Heat team. Partly because Butler came from our old school, La Salle, partly because we had followed his development from his high school days in Philadelphia, and partly because the highly successful Riley, after a good start in the mid-1990s, was struggling to repeat his championship achievements in Los Angeles and New York, we decided to follow the Heat. We had done some work with the team years before when theater producer Zev Bufman and former NBA star Billy Cunningham (another Philadelphia connection) first launched the franchise. It seemed like a good time to revisit.
We followed the team from pre-season through early January, by which time its season was effectively over. It would wind up a dismal 25-57. Butler, however, was a different story. Because the team was beset with injuries, the rookie got a lot of playing time. He started 28 games and averaged 21 minutes. Over the next two years he established a reputation as one of the league’s better 3-point shooters, hitting 46 percent in his second year.
The Heat traded him to New Orleans, where for four years he was mostly a bench player before being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. There, he had his best scoring season in 2009-10 with an 11.9 average and 41 percent from beyond the arc. But after that it was downhill. He played for two more NBA teams and then played for the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League. We had lost track of him before that. A player in his 30s knocking around basketball’s minor leagues is usually considered finished. But his performance in Tulsa earned him a shot with the Pacers. He hasn’t played much but he’s been in 50 games, including nine minutes in the win over the Heat Sunday. And, with his 35th birthday this week, his before taxes take this year is $1.4 million, which is better than a lot of us did at his age.
Rasual Butler’s rise from the ashes is rare, but not for a La Salle guy. Tim Legler, who is now an announcer for ESPN, is an even better story. He graduated (Academic All-American) from La Salle in 1988. For the next seven years he had some moments with the Bigs, but was mostly playing in Europe or for minor league teams, notably the Omaha Pacers, where he made $400 a week at one time. Most guys would have hung it up, especially after he earned an MBA from Penn’s Wharton School. But pushing 30, an age when NBA careers are often winding down, he finally made the big time. Really big time. With Washington he led the NBA in 3-point shooting, hitting 52 percent in 1995-96, and stayed in the league another four years. His success, and basic smarts, propelled him into his current broadcasting career.
Churchill, in a more momentous moment, said it best. “Never, never give up.”