In those few seconds between the time when he jumped and when trainers slid his knee cap temporarily back into position, Brian Butch looked in considerable shock at his dreams coming apart.
“I knew something was wrong because my kneecap was in the middle of my thigh,” Butch said.
It was 15 months ago when Butch, then with the Denver Nuggets, ruptured his patella tendon in a Summer League game against the Lakers. After two years spent ricocheting between Europe and the NBA Development League, where he won All-Star MVP honors in 2010, the former University of Wisconsin big man had finally secured a roster spot in the NBA.
He’d gotten called up to the Nuggets that spring, though he hadn’t seen any game time. But in July, he had a full-season contract with Denver, slotted as their backup center. And all he had to do was keep running, keep working-keep working-keep working and doing the same things that’d gotten him this far. Then he felt the pop. And looked down.
“You can’t put in words how frustrating it was,” Butch said.
On Thursday, Butch took the biggest step he’d taken since that afternoon in Vegas. As one of 12 selections for the USA Basketball team competing in the 2011 Pan-American Games, he and 11 other D-League stars will be headed to Guadalajara, Mexico from Oct. 26-30.
“It’s huge,” Butch said. “As a kid, you watch the Olympics, and you see everything – there’s nothing better than finding a way to represent your country, and there are really two options – through war and through sports – to represent our great country.”
As the once-dominant U.S. looks to break a 28-year gold medal drought in the Pan-Am Games, the Americans will do it with a lineup composed entirely of D-League players for the first time ever. So when coach Nate Tibbetts – also the head coach of the Tulsa 66ers – leads his team down to Mexico, he’ll be overseeing 12 men battling the best competition west of the Atlantic not just for their country, but their livelihoods.
“It’s the break that some guys like me are looking for,” said Erie BayHawks guard and Pan-Am finalist Blake Ahearn, who’s had two separate stints in the NBA. “Hopefully you can catch one of those good breaks and stick.”
“The D-League, it’s been great to me and great to a lot of players – I’m a big proponent of it,” Ahearn said. “But at the same time that’s not where you want to be, so you try to use the USA involvement to enhance your career. … In every situation you’re trying to improve your stock and prove that you belong, and playing for USA is a great way to show it, especially against international guys.”
For Butch, these Pan-American Games represent a chance at redemption, after he missed the final cut for the team in 2007.
“That was really disappointing,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons I’m here right now. I never get satisfied saying that I’m not good enough for something.”
But, to be fair to Butch – who was in his senior year at the University of Wisconsin the last time he tried out – he’s a different player now. One that’s gotten close enough to his dreams to feel the brush of his warm-up shirt on his shoulders but never the way it feels to rip it off. One that’s traded bruises in practice but not a single one during an NBA game.
And one that spent the past year clinging, daily, to the memory of whatever it was that got him there – and trying to get a withered leg to remember, too.
“I had to have my leg straight for six to eight weeks,” he said. “Then once I could bend it, it wasn’t a long period, but there was enough of a period to have it really suck. I was at my dream, I was at my goal. And it was very short-lived because of this.”
So he did what he had to do, building up lost reserves of muscle and burst and touch, and hacking through layers of scar tissue as he watched other big men – ones he’d beaten up on just months before – get the call up to the NBA.
“That’s mental, it’s all mental,” he said. “You get to a point where you’re doing the same thing over and over. You don’t see big gains.”
“Rehabbing is one of the toughest things to go through, because you’re by yourself the whole time,” Ahearn said. “He’s worked hard. He looks good. He’s playing the ball well and shooting the ball well.”
Over time, he got his body back to the point where he said that his knee’s “not even in the back of my head.” And if there’s any higher gear than the one he had before the injury, Butch said, he’s found it.
“I feel like the intensity, every time I’m on the floor, has picked up more because you know how quickly it can be taken away from you,” he said.
And it’s shown.
“I think Brian’s given himself a great opportunity to come here and make the team,” Tibbetts said. “He’s coming back from an injury where he’s been out a while, and I don’t think he’s having any issues in getting used to playing every day.”
Very soon, he’ll be playing five games in five days – Oct. 26 through 30, specifically – and getting the chance to see his first official games action since the injury – all the while against the best players from all across the Americas. He’ll be getting a chance to feel – and prove, once again – that he belongs on the game’s highest stage.
“It’s made me a stronger person knowing that nothing can stop you if you have a dream,” Butch said. “When you have a goal, you just keep pushing through, no matter what happens.”