Game Change Nation

From Jail to NBA Star, Transformation of Caron Butler


Photo by John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Caron Butler was just 12 years old when he began selling drugs on the street. By the time he was 15 years old, he had already been arrested fifteen times, but If anyone can be held up as an example that change is possible it is Butler. He was able to transition from the cold reality of selling drugs and prison to a lucrative 14 year career in the NBA, where he made the All-Rookie team and twice appeared in the All-Star game.

In his autobiographical book Tuff Juice, Butler chronicled his life growing up in a rough neighborhood in Racine, Wisconsin where the temptation to make easy money selling drugs was more than he could avoid. He joined a gang and started selling drugs in a park that was near his house. Butler soon took possession of a handgun to protect himself against rival gangs and he was in several shootouts during his middle school years.

An exceptional basketball player, Butler would divide his time between selling drugs, playing hoops, and going to school. However, that all changed when his last arrest resulted in Butler being sentenced to two years in prison. At the age of 15, when most kids were just getting acclimated to life in high school, Butler would be spending his time in a cell at the Ethan Allan School, a correctional facility for boys.

The path that Butler chose necessitated change. The outcome for young people who join a gang, sell drugs, and carry a gun is inevitably prison or death. Even with those two extremely negative options staring them in the face, many people don’t make the changes necessary to save their life because they don’t think change is possible. They can’t imagine it.

In Tuff Juice, Butler acknowledged that even going to prison didn’t alter his course. When he first arrived at the juvenile jail his mindset was the same as most of the other prisoners – become a smarter criminal who would not get caught the next time he broke the law.

While at the correctional facility, Butler got into a fight with another prisoner, which landed him in solitary confinement – a place they called “The Hole.” Being sent to prison didn’t snap Butler out of his criminal mindset, but The Hole was such a terrible experience that he finally vowed to change.

After Butler was released, and back home in Racine, his resolve was challenged when his peers would mock him for his minimum wage job at Burger King while they rolled in the big bucks peddling drugs. Although he didn’t have an easy path to a better life, Butler’s decision to change was unwavering.  He made the decision to change and that change took him from the lowest of the lows of prison to the highest of the highs playing basketball in the NBA.

Unfortunately, for many people, the decision to change only comes after they hit rock bottom. For Butler, rock bottom was spending two weeks of solitary confinement in prison. For others it might be a health scare, like a heart attack, a bankruptcy, the threat of divorce from their spouse, or a death in the family.

The flipside for many people is that they never really hit rock bottom, but just walk through life in a trance, a never-ending rut that they can’t seem to get out of. They are stuck for so long that change seems impossible and the desire for wanting more from life has long been gone. They work at a job they hate, selling products they don’t believe in, for a boss they don’t like. But they never leave.

They never leave, unless they wake up, because the fear of the unknown is immensely more powerful than the malaise and unhappiness resulting from living an unfulfilled life. So, even though their life sucks, at least they know what to expect. If they change, their life could be worse.

 We get one life and we owe ourselves so much more than living it like a zombie where a six-pack and a ball game on TV serve as the antidote for a life not lived. You can wait for a terrible rock bottom moment to snap you out of your trance or you can avoid the pain of that crisis by simply deciding that the time has arrived to climb out of the rut.

Change is possible. If a 15 year old kid can decide to humble himself in front of his peers by taking a low level job at Burger King as a simple first step to getting his life on track — then you can do the necessary things to get yours going too.

Caron Butler switched from a path that included gangs and prison to one that led to a stellar NBA career. You might not have the goals or the ability to achieve the status of a professional athlete, but that does not mean you cannot live a life of joy that is equal to or even greater than the players you watch on TV.

Caron Butler’s book “Tuff Juice” is available on Amazon.



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