No better source of inspiration for Huskies than Caron Butler
STORRS – Caron Butler’s performance in his final game in a Connecticut uniform may not be remembered amongst the likes of Richard Hamilton’s 1999 championship game against Duke, Donyell Marshall’s 42 points versus St. John’s in the 1994 Big East Tournament, or the seemingly countless classics from Kemba Walker in 2011.
His 32-point (26 in the second half), seven-rebound effort in a loss to Maryland in the 2002 Elite Eight should be, though. It was inspirational, tough, and entertaining. Every time it seemed like Maryland would pull away, Butler, an All-American that season, refused to let the Huskies budge, either bullying his way to the basket or using a soft touch from the perimeter. The Terrapins eventually escaped, however, winning 90-82 en route to the national championship. UConn may have lost, but Butler was a big winner on that day.
Three months later, he was selected by the Miami Heat in the NBA Draft Lottery. Fourteen years later, Butler, still in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, was inducted into the UConn Huskies of Honor at Gampel Pavilion during UConn’s 75-73 win over Tulsa on Saturday.
The Racine, Wisconsin native’s life path has been well chronicled, from jail time as a kid to a great run at UConn to a very successful NBA career, highlighted by two All-Star berths while a member of the Washington Wizards.
Other Huskies on the wall of honor at Gampel have had more glorious careers at the school, such as Chris Smith (the all-time leading scorer), Marshall, Ray Allen, Hamilton, Emeka Okafor (national player of the year and champion), Walker, and Shabazz Napier (two-time champion).
Looking at the big picture of life, you can argue Butler’s had the most important career. He’s the epitome of a kid who overcame problems to become a success. Sure, he didn’t get a ring. But isn’t there more to basketball, and life, than that?
With the spotlight, literally, shining on him Saturday night at midcourt, Butler, with tears in his eyes, looked back at his journey. He thanked his family, numerous UConn players, and the fans for helping him.
“That was extremely emotional,” said Butler, who scored 1,136 points in two seasons at UConn. “Time goes by so fast, you just reflect on all the special moments. All of the moments are real vivid in my mind.”
Joining him on the floor was his coach, and former UConn coach, Jim Calhoun, who Butler credits for his success.
“I was a kid with a checkered past and checkered background,” Butler said. “I wanted to prove that my character was worthy of a prestigious university like Connecticut. He flew out to Racine, Wisconsin and took a chance on me.
“He told me that once you’re a part of this, you’re family for life and that I believe in you.”
If Butler had to choose his greatest moment at UConn, it was the 2002 Big East Tournament title game, a 74-65 double overtime win over Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. The time before the game was just as memorable as the contest itself for Butler and his teammates.
“The night before, we couldn’t sleep, it was crazy,” he said. “No one could sleep that night - we stayed up until four or five in the morning. We knew it was a great opportunity. We gathered together, kept talking, ordered movies, and talked about what we would do with the trophy.
“Then it actually happened. Everything we talked about that night happened to a T. It was special.”
Butler is one of countless ex-Huskies the program prides itself on. When one of them walks in the door, the current group makes sure to listen.
“It definitely makes you see what you’re here for,” said senior Omar Calhoun, who tied for team-high honors with 14 points on Saturday. “You’re not just playing for yourself, and when you see guys like Caron coming back, a lot of guys understand what it means to put on a UConn jersey.”
Kevin Ollie, who played four years at the school, and has won a national championship as a head coach, says the appreciation goes both ways.
“It means the world to him, but it means the world to us,” Ollie said. “He is part of our family. He is just what a UConn player is supposed to be.”
This current group of Huskies (18-7, 8-4 AAC), despite another shaky second half on Saturday, has put themselves in a good position to make the NCAA Tournament.
While they look forward, this was a night to look back. If they are able to embody Butler’s toughness and resiliency while he was at UConn, good days lie ahead.
It’s hard to find a better inspiration than Butler’s story.