There's a brace on his surgically repaired leg and a spring in his step. There are scars on his knee and a smile on his face. Da'Sean Butler cannot elevate quite like he used to in those electrifying, buzzer-beating days at West Virginia. But his spirits are soaring and his game has lift.
Twenty six games into a comeback that includes two knee surgeries and almost two years of rehab, Butler is showing something Austin Toros coach Brad Jones never expected. A jump shot.
"The knee is fine," Jone says. "What I'm most excited about is how well he can shoot. He shoots better than I thought he could."
Butler shot well from the perimeter in college. He once hit all seven, three-point attempts against St. John's. But no one knew what he might have left after April 3, 2010. Late in an NCAA Final Four game against Duke, Butler drove hard to the basket and hop-stepped. He landed in a fit of screaming spasms, the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee torn, his NBA prospects unraveling like so many loose tendons.
"I'd never felt pain like that before," says Butler, a 6-foot-7 forward.
His recovery began, oddly enough, with an apology in the locker room. "I'm sorry," Butler told his father.
"There's no need to apologize," Ira Puryear said.
Until then, Butler says, his only real injury had been an ankle sprain. The worried look on his father's face made Butler feel like he'd disappointed him. Puryear gave his son a basketball in third grade. Put him in AAU ball in fifth grade. Made him read one book a week the summer before seventh grade and required him to write papers about them. The father also taught his son moves the world would applaud years later.
After Butler sliced through the paint, maneuvered between two Georgetown players and dropped in the winning shot to clinch the Big East Championship, a New York writer solicited reaction from Puryear. Dad said his son had been practicing that move since sixth grade.
So the son couldn't help but apologize to the father who had shaped his life and game. "He's coached me since I was six or seven years old," Butler says.
The knee injury turned Butler from a first-round prospect into a second round pick. The Miami Heat drafted Butler 42nd in 2010 and waived him four months later. The Spurs signed him in March 2011 and placed him on the inactive list so he could continue rehab. Butler attended training camp, did not play, was waived at the end of camp, then signed with the Toros.
In Austin, Butler is finding his way back. He's averaging 10.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 29 minutes a game. He's also playing tough defense and making good decisions on the court. "He's still making progress," Jones says. "But I'd give him an A-minus to an A."
In the heart of West Virginia, Butler grades higher than that. Lightly recruited out of Bloomfield Tech High School in New Jersey, he lifted the Mountaineers to their first Big East championship and first Final Four appearance since 1959 with a series of improbable, game-winners.
There was the three-pointer with 1.8 seconds that beat Marquette; the layup with 1.2 seconds that beat Cleveland State; the runner with 5.8 seconds that beat Villanova; the banked-in three ball that beat Cincinnati at the buzzer; the off-balance, between-two-defenders shot that beat Georgetown -- all in his final season.
Sports writers ran out of ways to describe his heroic finishes. So the College Hoops Journal offered a tongue-twister: "He's the most clutch, clutchiest clutchster that ever clutched."
Butler returned to Morgantown recently for a ballgame. The public address identified him in the crowd, and to Butler's surprise, Mountaineer fans gave him a standing ovation. "It was cool," he says. "When I'm in town, people come up to me and talk to me, take pictures and want autographs. It kind of feels like home."
He treats fans in Austin as if he were in Morgantown. Butler not only signs autographs, he attends basketball clinics and connects with kids -- even after finishing long Toros practices.
"It's my way of giving back my time," he says, "and time is important."
After tearing his ACL, time slowed. Three months after the injury, doctors operated a second time to make additional repairs on the knee, and lengthened Butler's recovery.
His spirits sank. His spirits rose. He fought through conflicting emotions and completed months of grueling rehabilitation. After receiving medical clearance, Butler decided to test the knee in Europe. He spent one week with the Latvian squad VEF Riga, then the NBA lockout ended. Back to the U.S. he came after one game in which he played "five minutes, maybe."
He laughs about his first outing with the Toros. A jumble of nerves, Butler played on pure adrenalin, rushing shots, making mistakes. "I was just so happy to be playing," he says, "I gave it a little too much."
His improvement from late December to early March is impressive. Jones sees a player who can defend, rebound, play tough inside and shoot. If Butler continues his current ascent, Jones says, he's not going to stop until he reaches an NBA rim.