TACTICAL BASE LIGHTNING, Afghanistan -- This was after he had gripped both vertical handles on the machine gun inside the Black Hawk helicopter, looked into the cockpit of the F-16 fighter jet close enough to touch the single seat and then strapped his upper body into the chopper for the first of three rides above the country in the same day. But it was before the briefing from soldiers on the semi-automatic .50-caliber sniper rifle -- all 57 inches from barrel to buttstock, 30.9 pounds unloaded, 2,000 yards of range for maximum efficiency and a few hundred buckets of testosterone dripping off.
Caron Butler was contemplating what might have been. He played 14 NBA seasons with nine teams, played well enough to average at least 15 points in eight seasons, and might play again if a good team is looking for late help heading into the postseason. There was something appealing about this setting, though.
Sitting in the dining hall of a U.S. military instillation 7,800 feet above sea level in the Gardez District of eastern Afghanistan, eating lunch among the troops, Butler knew he could have been there as a service member instead of as his role today: NBA ambassador on a USO tour of three bases in the region. Maybe not specifically Lightning in February, but some branch somewhere at some time.
“I think about it,” Butler said. “Absolutely. I could have easily been here or elsewhere. Who knows. You think about it and you look around at the living situation. You don’t take where you are for granted in your life and you appreciate the service of all these troops and what they sacrifice.”
He was often in trouble with the law as a kid, reportedly dealing drugs at age 11 and getting arrested 15 times before his 15th birthday. He has talked about time amid rapes and murders in a detention center as a teenager. Like many heading in a bad direction as their late-teens approached, Butler saw enlisting as a possible path toward a life in desperate need of direction and structure, or a life, period.
Going from home in Racine, Wis., to enroll at Maine Central Institute, a prep school about as far northeast as anyone can go in the United States, may have been his last-second half-court shot at the civilian world. Had it gone bad like so many of the other times, Butler says looking back he would have seriously considered the armed forces. When it went very, very good, he got a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, the Miami Heat picked him 10th in the 2002 Draft, and 14 seasons followed.
But then Sam Perkins, NBA Vice President of Referee Operations Bob Delaney, Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta and Butler were at Bagram Airfield, the first stop and home base for the USO visit timed to coincide with NBA All-Star 2017 in New Orleans. The visit to the base hospital put him in an especially reflective mood, hearing stories of wounded soldiers who had passed under the American flag attached horizontally to the ceiling of the ambulance bay. And when the four VIPs later went to the Pat Tillman Memorial USO, named in honor of the defensive back who quit the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, Butler couldn’t help but make the connection of sports turning into the real world.
The group rode a pair of Vertol-107s, smaller versions of the more-familiar Chinook helicopter with its tandem rotors, strapped shoulder to waist in their seats, from Bagram to Lightning, and Butler contemplated again. He ducked into a small room, joined the others in separating himself from the 35-pound protective vest and helmet worn in flight, walked the smaller base, ascended stairs near one of the walls to a lookout platform and gazed into the dangers of the distance.
"I don’t just think about me and what I was thinking. I think about what the soldiers are sacrificing. It would have been an honor to do that for my country, for my loved ones."
Then Butler, Delaney, Latta and Perkins choppered to Tactical Base Gamberi and more What Could Have Been. Some soldiers around him were in combat gear that included their blood type as part of an ID patch on the vest and was also stitched on a helmet strap. Just in case. They saw massive weaponry, the power and reach of the M107-LRSR sniper rifle plus others, on display.
Everything came back to him. The appeal of enlisting once upon a time, Butler said, was about “Getting out of where I was. The whole fact of serving your country and doing something with your life. I already had a child at the time. Just doing something for her and leaving the right legacy.” Now here he was, seeing the life up close.
“It’s a reality check,” Butler said in the dining hall, among the troops and the road not taken. “It really hits home. I don’t just think about me and what I was thinking. I think about what the soldiers are sacrificing. It would have been an honor to do that for my country, for my loved ones. It’s good just to reflect and be in that moment.”
It wasn’t just Butler and his search for a new direction in a troubled time. Perkins came close to joining the Army, too. The path he was on was just fine, as it eventually lead to the University of North Carolina, two Final Fours, a national title in 1982. Then came Olympic gold in 1984, a 17-year NBA run and NBA Finals appearances with the Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle SuperSonics and Indiana Pacers.
Yet there he was, a high school student literally steps away from the door that led into the recruiting center and who knows where else. His best friend was going in and wanted Perkins to come along. Perkins was 6-foot-9 at the time, a potential problem for some military jobs, and knew his dad would have tried to take a blow torch to the paperwork upon finding out, but peer pressure can be tough. Sam didn’t need to squint hard to see himself in boot camp.
“You’ve got to understand,” Perkins said. “When you’re in New York you walk places as young people. You’ve got no money for the bus. He was talking about it for the whole week and finally we got to the center. He went in and did it. I couldn’t believe it. I waited for him. He said, ‘You should have done it.’ I said, ‘Naw. I don’t think so.’ I waited outside. I didn’t want to go in because if I went in I would have been, I don’t know. Not forced. Pressured. I didn’t know what it was going to be like on the other side, but he went in and did it. He came out unscathed.
“Something told me not to. He went into the service and stayed for like 12 years. For some reason, I didn’t do that. I don’t know why I said no. I thought maybe I was going to get in trouble with my parents. This was right after high school.”
That made Bagram, Lightning and Gamberi were especially interesting glimpses for Perkins who, just like Butler, had unique views through the prism of what could have been.
Perkins’ best friend ended up marrying his sister, becoming Perkins’ brother-in-law and settling into civilian life in Atlanta. Perkins became rich and famous as a power forward-center. He connected with the military after all, but out of uniform, in travels to Kosovo, Kuwait and Afghanistan on a pair of USO tours in retirement from the NBA.
His time on military bases has been very short under any circumstances, but especially compared to if it had become a career. The same with Butler. They visited and saw parts of the life they did not choose, while contemplating what may have been.
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