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The stereotype of the entitled and self-indulgent NBA star does not apply to Butler. From the day he met Good he was trained to believe that every day could be his last on the basketball court, that his criminal record might cost him everything if he committed but one more mistake. His instinct for self-preservation seemed to draw him to disciplined, highly structured coaches like Good; Jim Calhoun at UConn, where Butler played for two years; the Miami Heat's Pat Riley, who took Butler with the No. 10 pick in the 2002 draft; and the Lakers' Phil Jackson, who picked up Butler for the 2004--05 season as part of the Shaquille O'Neal trade. After seven years of taking orders and constraining himself for the sake of his teams, Butler was confounded and overwhelmed when the Wizards acquired him to become a star. They needed someone to fill the slot vacated by Larry Hughes and create a new Big Three alongside All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. It took Butler all of the '05--06 season to come to grips with what they were asking of him.
He entered the off-season with a new sense of purpose. "I didn't want to shortchange myself," he says. "I would see so many of these great things my peers were doing, and I'd say, Why not me? I don't think there's a player in the league who has been through the things I've been through, so I knew I was strong enough to handle any situation. So I said, I've just got to get my body prepared, and that's what I did."
Last summer, training in Washington, D.C., he ran hills in the morning, worked out twice a day and dropped 15 pounds thanks to the healthy meals prepared by his new personal chef. The early returns have emboldened him to be a leader as well as a scorer, per the wishes of Jordan, who has told Butler that he will become a co-captain for the second half of the season. According to teammate Calvin Booth, Butler is the one Wizard who will speak up when Arenas is goofing around before a game.
"I say things like, 'Are we going to work today, or are we going to continue to talk?'" says Butler in his deepest baritone voice. "Because sometimes there's too much lollygagging going on. I'm like, 'Hey, do y'all know we got the Pistons out there? Are we going to work today?' Everybody gets real quiet, like, Oh, here he goes. But I get the respect I deserve."
Butler dreams of extending his influence beyond NBA arenas to the broken neighborhoods of Racine, where he returns each summer to visit his mother, Mattie Paden, and his brother, Melvin Claybrook, a 6'3" senior guard at Park High. His charitable foundation supports an annual coat drive in Racine, and Butler visits local schools and meets with students and friends to try to set an example. "When we go to Racine he always tells me, 'Remember this person's face,'" says his wife, Andrea, who met Caron when they were freshmen at UConn. "A year or two later he'll say, 'Remember that person?' And he'll tell me that he's gone or he's been shot or he's in jail."
"It's never failed," says Butler of his premonitions. Of his six closest childhood friends, four are dead. Last May it was a 25-year-old named Robert Nelom. "I told my wife, 'I just don't think he's going to get off the streets.' And six months later he's dead. He got shot in the head--got shot twice, actually, in a club in the bathroom. I had to go back and bury him."
On Sunday in Las Vegas, Butler missed his first six shots and didn't score until there was 4:07 left in the East's 153--132 loss. "He whispered to me, 'I was a little nervous out there,'" said Jordan, who as the East head coach played Butler for 16 minutes off the bench. "I said, 'Heck, Caron, I was nervous all day and got more nervous as the game time approached.' It's all about the experience. He's going to have a comfort level when we get back, and he's going to be riding the wave."
Indeed, Butler sees Sunday as the first day of his newly elite career. "I want to be a perennial All-Star," he says. "I'm very grateful for this honor, but I think I can get much better. I can take it to another level."
A month earlier, after scoring 23 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out seven assists in the win over the Celtics, Butler came out of the locker room at TD Banknorth Garden to find Good, who left MCI in 2000 and now coaches Division II Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., waiting near the court.
The two exchanged memories for a few minutes before Butler's teammates began to file past. The Wizards' bus was preparing to leave. Good leaned in close and wrapped his arms tightly around his player.