Lance Thomas was there when Da'Sean Butler's career came to a jarring halt. And he's here, again, for its rebirth.
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When it happened, Lance Thomas couldn’t watch.
Thomas had played ball with Da’Sean Butler since they were kids in Jersey. They’d played against each other in middle school. Then high school. And when they picked colleges, Thomas went to Duke and Butler went to West Virginia and they met again, at last, in the 2010 Final Four.
So when Butler tore apart his right knee, 31 minutes into their game on college basketball’s highest altar, Thomas had to look away.
“It was just hard to see him in that much pain,” he said. “It was hard to swallow that. We both wanted to win that game, and it was hard to see somebody I’ve competed against my whole life get hurt, in that exact moment – in the Final Four where you dream of playing in.”
Now, they’re back together. Both members of the NBA Development League’s Austin Toros and both great examples of the many roads players take to the NBA D-League. For Thomas, who played a role as a well-functioning (but central) cog on that national champion Duke team, the challenge has been to prove that his skill set is good enough for the NBA - a challenge to get better. For Butler, who was West Virginia basketball and likely would have gone in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft if not for the injury, it’s been a challenge just to get back.
But they’re both close. Very close.
Thomas signed with the New Orleans Hornets out of training camp, and although he was cut 10 days later, he looks like a good bet to be one of the next NBA D-Leaguers called up to an NBA squad. He needs some polish on his mid-range jumper, but once that’s taken care of, he should have a spot.
And after an offseason that saw him leap from a solid NBA D-League player to a flat-out star on the league’s best team, he’s ready.
“I’m just very hungry right now,” he said after the Toros’ win on Tuesday, in which he scored 12 points with seven assists. “I want that experience back.”
For Butler, the story’s a little longer.
Then, hours after he earned the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award – which goes out to the senior student-athlete that best exemplifies quality on the court, in the classroom and in the community – he went hard to the rim, fell and destroyed most everything that held his knee together. His ACL went, along with his MCL, and he even bruised two bones for good measure.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins ran to the floor to console a writhing, sobbing Butler.
“It was just excruciating pain,” Butler said. “It just hurt so bad, I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like everybody else knew what it was, they just didn’t tell me. But as soon as I got back to the bench, they told me. I was like, ‘My knee’s hurting – can we get this fixed so I can get back out there?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, you’re not going back out there.”
What the world saw was West Virginia coach Bob Huggins run out to the floor to console Butler. What they didn’t see was everything that happened after.
Da'Sean Butler, seen here during his rookie photo shoot after going to the Heat in the 2010 NBA Draft.
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The injury drove him from a certain first round pick in the NBA Draft to the middle of the second round. He’d spend a year trying to regain a step, and in the midst doing so, get cut by the Heat – the team that drafted him – out of training camp.
“I’d never had an injury in my life,” Butler said. “Not to say I was spoiled, but in my mentality, I could say I was. Nothing like that had ever hit me before, and for that to happen at that stage, it kind of depressed me a little bit.”
But he kept on working. “Day and night,” he said. And by March, when the San Antonio Spurs signed him to a contract and placed him immediately on the inactive list – essentially storing him until they had to make a move on him – he’d regained much of what he lost.
By mid-March, almost a full year after he’d first injured the knee, he was fully cleared to play again. He didn’t see any game action with the Spurs in 2010-11, but he kept working.
In late November, he signed a trial contract with Latvian club VEF Latvia. But when the lockout lifted and the Spurs invited him to training camp, he came back to the States. Then, when the Spurs waived him on Dec. 14, he kept grinding.
“Things happen for whatever reason,” Butler said. “Obviously it’s made me a stronger individual than I was before. … It actually prepared me for this right now.”
“For anyone to completely blow out your knee out like that, and to go through all he’s been through and go through all the hours of rehab he had to go through – I couldn’t imagine all the rehab he had to go through to get back – and to keep his weight down, and for him to be ready to play, I don’t think a lot of people appreciate what he’s done to get back to what he’s doing,” Thomas said.
And when Butler joined Thomas on the court on Tuesday, his sixth game with Austin this year, he moved well. He was wearing a brace – which he’s gotten so used to that he refers to it as his knee, as in, “I left my knee in the locker room,” he said – but other than that, played like the guy that helped return West Virginia basketball to glory.
He finished with 12 points and three rebounds and not a single turnover, and took another big step toward the goal that he and Thomas have had forever. And this time, like old times, they’re doing it together.
“He’s really working hard right now,” Thomas said. “He’s gonna continue to get better. I’m gonna make sure of it.”