Caron Butler is getting set for his 13th season in the NBA, this with his eighth team. Wednesday night, when the Pistons take on the Nuggets to open their 2014-15 campaign, Butler will be the oldest player to suit up for Detroit, at 34 years old.
It’s hardly the end of Butler’s career—just last May, the 6-7 forward was a key rotation piece for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Spurs—but CB knows that his veteran presence on the Pistons will be equally as critical in the locker room as it is on the court this season. A two-time All-Star with the Wizards and an NBA Champion with Dallas in 2011, the former Lottery pick and 15 ppg career scorer is ready to help mold a young nucleus in the Motor City with his years of wisdom from around the L, while logging some big-time minutes for new head coach Stan Van Gundy.
Caron’s rise from a drug dealer in the rough streets of Racine, Wisconsin to an NBA success story has been well-chronicled. Now, he’s a family man. During a phone conversation on Monday afternoon, the high-pitched voices of Butler’s children fill his momentary pauses. The man they call “Tuff Juice” has an opinion on all things basketball, and he’s played with everyone from Kobe Bryant to Chris Paul. So before Detroit tips off tonight, check out our chat below, in which Butler discusses the new-look Pistons, his glory days in DC and the best players he’s ever played alongside.
SLAM: What do you see as your role on the Pistons this season?
Caron Butler: Obviously, I’ve got to be a veteran leader in the locker room. But I’m going to be given some quality minutes on the court as well, so I’ve got to be able to perform on the court at a high level and lead out there on the court. I’m excited about the opportunity.
SLAM: What are your expectations for the Pistons for the 2014-15 season?
CB: To come together as much as possible, on and off the court, and create a winning culture, to win games. We’re going to do that. We’re going to play hard and compete, the right way. That’s a point of emphasis, keep the same discipline night in and night out.
SLAM: You’ve been around a lot of great players throughout your career. Is there anyone that you see every day in practice now that we should be expecting a breakout year from?
CB: KCP. He’s going to have a really good year, as well as Andre Drummond—if he continues to listen and buy into the concepts of what Coach is teaching him and explaining to him and what he wants from him, playing the right way, he’s going to have a really good year.
SLAM: What is it about Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s game that makes him a unique player?
CB: He can guard multiple positions, 1 through 3. He’s very explosive, he can handle the ball. He’s a two-way player, and he plays with an edge. He has the type of game that he’s unselfish, and he scores without you having to call a play for him. That’s something that I can appreciate.
SLAM: How does Stan Van Gundy compare to some of the other head coaches you’ve played for in the League?
CB: He’s a realist, a guy that’s going to challenge you night in and night out. Obviously, he’s a [Pat] Riley disciple, so you know what to expect. You expect honesty, you expect excellence, and a winning culture.
SLAM: You’ve played on eight different NBA teams. What’s the hardest part about transitioning to a new team? Or is it pretty easy for you now?
CB: It’s not that tough—the toughest part is your family. I’ve been a guy, whether it’s been a year or two years or half a season, whatever the case, I want my family to be wherever I go. I’m married, I’m a father of five, three in-house, all girls, so I want my babies to be with me. That’s the toughest part of the transition, them going to new schools and stuff like that.
SLAM: And you’ve got to get all your girls new “Butler” jerseys.
CB: [Laughs] Luckily the marketing team usually takes care of that, so I’m good. But yeah, that transition part of finding the good schools…But with social media it works out great, because they love texting and e-mailing and being on Instagram—that helps us stay in touch a lot.
SLAM: You recently #TBT’d a photo of the 2002 SLAM Rookies cover. What do you remember about that photo shoot?
CB: Aw, man. It’s just, time flies. It really does, time flies. I was just looking at like, that was my first real “Welcome to the NBA” photo shoot. To grace the cover of SLAM, that was always a dream. To have the write-ups as a teenager on different websites, being ranked by Nike, and to finally get on the SLAM cover, that was special.
SLAM: Does anything—or anyone—stick out from that photo shoot?
CB: I remember DaJuan Wagner, that was the first time I’d met him. He was cracking jokes and just talking. Drew Gooden, all those guys. Now, I haven’t seen DaJuan in years, and he was one of the most highly-talked about and recruited guys in the country at the time. Now I haven’t seen him in years. Time flies, man.
SLAM: Last year, you finished the season with OKC. Did you feel like that was a team that should have won a title? What do you expect from the Thunder this year?
CB: I thought we were going to win it last year. That was one of the main reasons I selected the Thunder when I was being recruited by San Antonio and Miami and all those teams. I decided it would be a great opportunity. We fell a little short, made it to the Western Conference Finals. Looking forward to this season, if KD comes back and is healthy, which I think that he will, after speaking with him, they’re going to be right there in the thick of things again. It’s all going to come down to him, and playing the right way, and being consistent with the two-headed monster of him and Russ, and incorporating Serge Ibaka well, stretching the floor a little bit, having him healthy for a whole series. But San Antonio is going to be right there in the midst of things as well, they return all their guys. Or will the Clippers make that next jump, that next leap, or has Golden State caught up. There’s a lot of variables in the Western Conference. Plus, you’ve got Portland and other teams.
SLAM: Take me through that decision process, once you were bought out. How did you decide which contender to sign with?
CB: It’s so easy to hop on the coattails of a LeBron James and the Heat wave, or the Heatles or whatever the case may be at the time. I was trying to find a situation in which, I can accept that role that I played on that team. Being a backup to Kevin Durant, a guy whose on the rise of becoming the best player in the League, and having an opportunity to play with that nucleus—and it would be the first time, Oklahoma never having won a Championship, that was in all our heads, that was our mindset. It was just a great opportunity and I was like, Man, I want to be a part of history. KD was having an MVP-caliber season, and I wanted to help out and instill some of the things I’ve learned over all my years into those guys, whether I came back or not. I wanted to join that group of guys, and that’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
SLAM: Which former team of yours will you still feel the most connected to when your career is over? Which team will you root for?
CB: I’m a Wiz Kid at heart, man. I will always represent the Wizards organization even though I’ve been a lot of places. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for all the organizations that have embraced me and let me join their team and play at a high level, but there’s always a special soft spot for the Wizards.
SLAM: What’s your lasting memory from those Wizards teams in the mid-2000s?
CB: I would have to say just, that year we were playing so well, in ’07, when Gilbert was hitting game-winners and walking off the court, and everyone going to the All-Star Game, having that moment, that was extremely special.
SLAM: Why do you think it all fell apart so fast with that team?
CB: We were in transition. Once we lost Coach Eddie Jordan, that was the system that we were running and that we were so successful with for years, once they did away with him, it was just downhill from there. Gilbert had caught the case, Abe Pollin had passed away, there was new ownership and it was time for a new regime and a new time in Washington. It happened within a two-year span, and then you get the No. 1 pick in John Wall and you rebuild around him, and the rest is history. They’re back because the transition happened so quickly and you had great ownership, and a good President and General Manager in Ernie Grunfeld. That’s why it happened so fast like that.
SLAM: Were you surprised at how quickly things unraveled in Washington?
CB: It was surprising. But also not—just talking to my agent and understanding the business, things don’t surprise me in this business. We may act like it surprises us, but in actuality it doesn’t surprise us, because it’s the nature of the beast, and that’s our reality. I knew some things was coming, especially when the Gilbert situation happened in the locker room. We just knew that everything was a memory at that point, once that happened. That’s the nature of the beast.
SLAM: Do you still stay in touch with Gilbert and the guys from that team?
CB: Oh, of course. I follow them guys on Instagram, Gilbert’s always posting crazy stuff, and he’ll DM me from time to time. When I was in Los Angeles, we kicked it and linked up at a couple events and some private parties, and just talked. We talked about the Wizards days—he’s still a Wiz Kid as well.
SLAM: Did he talk about a possible NBA comeback at all?
CB: Nah, he didn’t discuss it, but he’s still going to play the game of basketball. I don’t know how his knee is doing, that’s something that always ailed him while he was trying to make the comeback, but he’s still got the skill set. He’s one of the best talents of our generation, and I think he proved that on a night-to-night basis. It’s just sad that it ended the way it did.
SLAM: That season, with Gilbert hitting all those game-winners, have you ever seen anything like that stretch in your basketball career?
CB: No, I’ve never seen anything like that, besides playing with Kobe Bryant, and that’s why it was so amazing. I’m so grateful, throughout my career—and hopefully it’s years away from being over, but—I’ve played with all of them, and I played with all of them at the height, the prime of their careers, from Gilbert and Antawn to Dirk to Jason Kidd to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Dwyane Wade, Lamar Odom, Kobe, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook. I’ve played with them, I’ve seen them all. It’s just amazing to me, I always sit back and think like, Wow, I’ve had a hell of a run.
SLAM: Of all those names you just mentioned, who was the best player you’ve ever played with?
CB: The best player of our generation would have to be probably Kobe Bryant. Just his body of work, the proof is in the pudding. But I think Kevin Durant has a chance to be the best player to ever play the game. He has a shot. Barring injury and things like that, he has a chance to be the all-time leading scorer. He’s so young, he hasn’t even gotten into the prime of his career yet. He maybe can run off four or five championships. Who knows? His influence on the game of basketball is going to be second to none because of social media and all these things that exist. Like, I think it would have been different for Kobe if all these things were flying when he was at the super-prime of his career. Now, he’s on the back end and he’s still going to perform at a high level but social media helps. It’s going to be very interesting, but between him and LeBron—LeBron’s never had a serious injury, so he’s going to continue to do what he does. But KD’s got a shot, bro.
SLAM: You’ve played on some great teams, too. Which do you think was the best you’ve ever played on?
CB: I’m a Wiz Kid at heart, just because of so much that I accomplished with the Wizards organization. But as far as having Championship pedigree and just having all the pieces and components and good people off the court as well, I would have to say OKC [last season], along with the Dallas team I played with [in 2011], those two are close to identical.
SLAM: Do you still chew straws during games?
CB: Yes I do. I still chew straws. [Laughs] They don’t bother me no more, but yes I still do it. The NBA has adjusted to it. They fined me a few times and I didn’t stop, so they were just like, “Oh, to hell with it.”
SLAM: Do the younger guys ask you about it?
CB: Yeah, they glance and it and they’re like, “Man, what the hell is in your mouth, that’s not gum.” I’m like, “A straw.” They’re like, “Ohh yeah, you do chew straws.” Yeah man, I’ve been doing it all my career.
SLAM: You also used to famously drink 2-liters of Mountain Dew before games, right?
CB: Oh, that’s something that I stopped. That’s stopped. Now it’s energy drinks or water before the games. [Laughs]
SLAM: Who are the three toughest players to guard in the NBA right now?
CB: Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant.
Abe Schwadron is an Assistant Editor at SLAM. He’s on Twitter @abe_squad.