By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Rasual Butler spent 11 months in a Los Angeles gym, waiting for a call that never came.
He was waived by the Toronto Raptors in March of 2012, the Raptors dropping a 10-year veteran to pick up a D-League player. Friends and coaches told Butler to finish his career in Europe. They said that there are no second acts in NBA lives. Butler didn’t listen, waiting for the call while working out at Impact Basketball with trainer Joe Abunassar.
Spring turned to summer and summer to fall at the gym. When basketball season came around again, every other player at the gym went to an NBA camp or overseas. Butler was the only one left.
“We joked that it was the Rasual Butler Academy for a while,” Abunassar said. “He was at a crossroads where a lot of guys give up. Rasual didn’t.”
Butler refers to that stretch of unemployment as “March to February.” He spent four hours a day – two on court, two off court – six days a week in grueling workouts to stay in game shape. That was the easy part. The painful part was at night, when he’d watch NBA games and stare at his phone.
No missed calls.
“You start to wonder, how much longer is he going last?” Abunassar said. “We’d go to the gym every morning and wonder if that was the morning Rasual stopped coming. But he’d be there waiting for us.”
It has been three seasons since “March to February.” Instead of waiting for the NBA to call, Butler took his own path. He went through the NBA D-League, where teammates called him “Grandpop.” Then it was Summer League, where he was a decade older than every other player. Last September, after playing with Indiana and Washington, Butler was once again a man without a team. But this time, it was by choice.
He showed up at the Spurs’ practice facility for open gym. With no contract, with nothing guaranteed, Butler went to the gym hoping to earn a roster spot. After 13 seasons of proving he belongs in the NBA, Butler chose to do it all over again.
“It’s a fire that burns inside of you,” Butler said. “My goal is to be empty when I leave the game. That I’ll have nothing left to give mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, because the game has been good to me.”
Butler is 36, making him the 14th oldest active player in the NBA. Of the 4,050 players who have reached the NBA, only 375 have played in more games than Butler’s 793 appearances.
As he runs through shooting drills with Jonathon Simmons, Butler realizes they weren’t so different in training camp. Two players of similar stature, both thrilled by the chance to make the team. Except Butler had logged 17,000 minutes in NBA games at that point, and Simmons had none.
Basketball has taken Butler to eight NBA teams in seven states, one province and one district. For a kid from South Philadelphia, basketball has always been the thing that keeps him going.
"My goal is to be empty when I leave the game. That I’ll have nothing left to give mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, because the game has been good to me."
“I’m here because of my love affair with the game,” Butler said. “Basketball is the reason I’ve been able to experience higher education. It has supported my family and myself. And the game has always been a refuge and a safe haven for me.”
Bob’s Grocery at 1204 Point Breeze Avenue was in the center of its South Philadelphia neighborhood, at a five-point intersection across from the police station and fire station.
Bob’s grocery was where people went if they needed some eggs or bread in a pinch. The owner, Bobby Toomer, knew many of his customers were struggling financially, so if they couldn’t afford groceries, he would “put it in the book” and they could pay him later.
In 1987, Butler’s father, Felix Cheeseborough, was stabbed to death in street fight.
Butler’s grandfather, Bobby Toomer, offered to have the 8-year-old live with him.
“My father’s murder is still an unsolved case,” Butler said. “I was starting to act out at the time, because I didn’t necessarily understand at that age how to deal with the anger or being upset about my father. I wanted to be with my mom, but looking back, it made sense. My grandfather stepped up. ”
Point Breeze was one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods, where gangs and drugs were prevalent as Philadelphia was in the middle of a crack epidemic in 1987. Carpenter Street, just six blocks away from Bob’s Grocery, is where Felix Cheeseborough was killed.
“Point Breeze was no place for the weak-hearted or the weak-minded,” Tariq Trotter said. It’s the kind of place that can break you if it smells fear. It was uncommon to see any man who made it to 30.”
Trotter is better known as Black Thought, a founding member of The Roots, the Grammy-winning group that serves as the house band for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Both of Trotter’s parents were murdered as well – his father died when he was 2 and his mother died when he was 17. Trotter, six years older than Butler, also grew up in Point Breeze, not even a bus stop away from Butler. Trotter reeled off the list of gangs that had their homes in South Philadelphia at the time, with names such as U-Mob and Ozone.
Trotter and Butler both say they’re fortunate to have made it out of South Philadelphia. The tattoo on Butler’s left shoulder reads “Against All Odds,” circling around the letters SP.
“You become so numb to the violence,” Trotter said. “You know you’re going to be at a party until someone starts shooting, or you’re going to stay at the basketball game until you hear gunfire. That’s a sad reality, but that was our reality.”
Bob’s grocery stood in the middle of that chaos.
Toomer was a deacon at St. Paul Chapel Baptist Church around the corner, and if he ever saw kids acting out or being steered toward gangs, he’d call them over to the store and offer them a job. He donated food and drinks to the fire and police stations across the street and always had hugs for most of his customers. Bob’s Grocery was most famous for having Breyers hand-dipped ice cream, with Bobby knowing every customer’s favorite flavor.
“Point Breeze was no place for the weak-hearted or the weak-minded, It’s the kind of place that can break you if it smells fear." - Tariq Trotter, The Roots’ Black Thought.
He’d dole out massive scoops of massive scoops of butter almond, rocky road and cookies and cream for $1.50 each.
“My grandfather taught me respect, love, loyalty and hard work,” Butler said. “I watched him get up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to get the store ready to serve the neighborhood. If that doesn’t breed hard work into you, I don’t know what will.”
It wasn’t long after Rasual moved in with his grandfather that Toomer put him to work. Rasual was paid in ice cream for sweeping the steps, washing the pavement or minding the store’s counters. If Rasual was lazy, Toomer, who grew up in North Carolina with corporal punishment, wouldn’t mind giving out tough love.
“He’d be looking for a switch,” Rasual said. “Luckily for me, there weren’t any trees in Philly.”
Because Bob’s Grocery had Ms. Pac-Man and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out arcade games, teenagers always hung out at the store. One of them, Donnie Carr, was considered the best youth basketball player in the area. He was two years older than Butler and much bigger, but Butler decided he was up for the challenge.
One morning at Chew Playground, a couple of blocks from Bob’s Grocery, Butler asked Carr to play one-on-one. Carr said he won the first game 32-4.
“I thought that game would be the end, but Rasual’s reaction was to go again,” said Carr, who is currently the Coordinator of Men's Basketball Player Development at the University of Hartford. “So I beat him something like 32-6 the next time and he says ‘again.’ After about five games, I knew Rasual wasn’t going anywhere.”
Butler was the smallest, skinniest kid at Chew Playground, described by his future high school coach as “all arms and legs.” The runt often went unpicked in pickup games, so Butler had to figure out a way to make himself useful on the court.
He decided to master one skill that would give him value and picked the corner jumpshot. If the game was going on at one end of the court, Butler would be on the other end, taking corner shots and fuming that he wasn’t picked. When it snowed, Butler brought his shovel to the court, digging a path to the rim down the baseline so he could practice from the corner.
For many years of his NBA career, Butler would return to Chew Playground to sponsor a charity basketball game.
“We laughed about it back then, almost 25 years ago,” Carr said. “It was annoying for us in a playground game to have this kid always shooting from the corner. Now, that corner shot is still useful for Rasual.”
Butler played youth league basketball for Claude Gross, who has coached in South Philadelphia since 1964. Gross said he was always impressed by Butler’s work ethic, but the thing that stood out the most about Butler was that his grandfather was always close.
“Rasual’s grandfather was one of the most dynamic men I’ve ever met,” Gross said. “He stayed with Rasual all the time, and it got you to think that if he cared that much about Rasual, then I’m going to pitch in, too.”
Butler grew to be 6-foot-7 and played high school basketball at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School. Butler averaged 26.7 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocks as a high school senior, and was Philadelphia’s high school player of the year and a Parade All-American.
He had scholarship offers from Connecticut, Kentucky and Massachusetts, but chose to stay in Philadelphia and attended LaSalle University.
One main reason he wanted to stay close to home was for Bobby Toomer to see him play. Toomer went to every one of Butler’s high school games, wearing his purple and gold Roman Catholic Cahillites shirt. Butler made sure they had a brief pregame conversation, and then Toomer would take his grandson home after the game.
Toomer was Butler’s calming influence and his sounding board. He was the one who gave Rasual tips on how to compete with the older kids on the playground. He was the one who sat with Rasual in silence after his last high school game.
Everything Will Be All Right
Toomer and Butler’s pre-game ritual continued after high school. If LaSalle was on the road, Butler made sure to call his grandfather before every game.
Their conversations weren’t about much most of the time. The weather in whatever city Rasual was in. Whether or not Rasual was rested. But those calls served as a reminder to Butler. It was time to focus. He was playing for family.
Butler said he could feel his grandfather’s pride and support through the phone.
He starred at LaSalle for four seasons, finishing his career as the school’s fourth all-time leading scorer.
Butler was drafted by Miami in the second round of the 2002 NBA Draft at No. 53 overall.
He was disappointed to drop out of the first round, but his grandfather didn’t mind when Miami called Butler’s name. Toomer retired, closing down the store and moving to Florida.
Butler found a place in the NBA as a strong outside shooter and useful all-around player, but his career arc seemed to be a series of near-misses. He spent three seasons in Miami, and the season after he was traded, the Heat won the NBA Championship. His next stop was with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, playing alongside Chris Paul and David West. The Hornets had their best season in franchise history in 2007-08, going 56-26 before losing to the Spurs in the second round, but Butler spent the last month of the season and the playoffs on the inactive list.
Butler rebounded in 2008-09 and emerged as a starter for the Hornets, averaging 11.2 points per game. He was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers the following season, where he averaged a career-high 11.9 points in 2009-10. The Clippers waived Butler in 2010-11, acquired Chris Paul the following season, and became perennial contenders. Stints in Chicago and Toronto were next, and in March 2012, the Raptors waived Butler.
“Everything will be all right,” Bobby Toomer reassured Rasual.
Butler wasn’t so sure. He took the blame as his numbers in Chicago and Toronto had fallen to personal lows.
“It was humbling being waived,” he said. “I remember how disappointed I felt in myself. I let (Toronto) Coach Dwayne Casey and the organization down. I wondered if I was finished. Most guys don’t get 10 years in the NBA.”
After all those near-misses though, after being one step or one season away from playoff success, Butler didn’t feel like he was finished at all.
Starting From The Bottom
When he was waived near the end of the 2011-12 season, Butler expected a team to take a flyer on him for the 2012-13 training camp. Nobody did, as player after player shipped out of Impact Basketball’s Los Angeles gym for the NBA or overseas. Butler turned down offers to play in Europe, knowing that if he took a flight across the Atlantic, it would likely be the end of his NBA career. Butler was a cast away without a glimpse of anything on the horizon. For 11 months, he waded in limbo at Rasual Butler Academy.
“I’ve kept a chip on my shoulder since I felt I should have been a first-round pick in the draft,” Butler said. “Being out of the league and having to fight my way back in, well, that just made the chip more of a boulder.”
The team that finally reached out to Butler was not one he hoped. It wasn’t even a team he’d seen before. The Tulsa 66ers of the NBA D-League offered him a contract and a chance to prove himself all over again. Butler had been in the NBA since 2002, three seasons before Tulsa played its first game as a franchise in 2005. Butler would have to swallow his pride to take the offer, but then again, 11 months in a gym training only with a guy named Joe can alter perspectives on pride.
“I’ve trained 100 NBA players, and Rasual had a laser sharp focus that I’ve rarely seen,” Butler’s trainer Joe Abunassar said. “There was plenty of precedent that said ‘once you’re out of the NBA, you’re out.’ Rasual proved that’s not true.”
Butler accepted Tulsa’s offer, and would make less than one percent of his NBA salary in 2009-10. After 10 NBA seasons of charter flights and catered meals, he traded it in for bus rides and rest stops.
“It was humbling being waived. I remember how disappointed I felt in myself.”
He flourished in Tulsa, leading the 66ers to the D-League playoffs. Butler was named the D-League Impact Player of the Year for his efforts. But the only calls for Butler when he was in Tulsa were coming from his grandfather on game days. The 2012-13 NBA season ended without Butler playing a game. At that point, Butler joked that he and his grandfather might have been the only ones who still believed he’d be back in the NBA.
Butler felt he had done enough to earn a look in Tulsa, but entered the summer back in limbo. Butler’s next move might have been even more surprising than playing in the D-League. He signed to play with Indiana’s summer league team, playing against rookies, draft picks and free agents who were up to 15 years younger. It was a dangerous move for Butler. If he played well in Summer League, there would be an argument that he should play well given his veteran experience against a bunch of kids. If he played poorly, it could have been the end of his career. It was a high-risk, one-reward scenario.
“I learned a lot about myself,” Butler said. “There were so many days when I was frustrated and asking, ‘What are you doing this for?’ And saying the phone might not ring. But you immediately snap out of that and say that you need to be prepared.”
Butler played well enough in the 2013 Summer League to earn a non-guaranteed contract with the Pacers. It was a training camp invite, and from there, Butler earned his way back into the NBA. Butler’s 3-point percentage for the 2013-14 season of .419 (26 of 62) was his best since his second season, 10 years before in 2003-04.
He wasn’t satisfied. The next season, Butler did it all over again, accepting a non-guaranteed contract offer from the Wizards to earn a roster spot in training camp. He wound up playing in 75 games for the Wizards in 2014-15, averaging 7.7 points. It was his highest scoring average since the 2009-10 season.
“He came in and worked hard every day, before practice and after practice and always focused on doing the little things,” Wizards guard John Wall said. “Rasual’s always had the work ethic, and that’s a guy everybody appreciates having as a teammate. You always want to see him do well.”
Butler pulled off an exceedingly rare feat twice, battling for a roster spot and winning. If anything, it gave him the confidence to try it again for a third time.
He always talked to his grandfather about how he hoped to play for the Spurs. Butler said he thought of the Spurs as the “gold standard” in the NBA, and he could add to the team chemistry. The Summer of 2015 would likely be his last chance.
“Not everyone can be a Spur and everyone knows that… I always wanted to be part of a team where the name on the back of the jersey didn’t matter."
Becoming a Spur
Butler arrived in San Antonio twice for open gym sessions in September, and was asked to stick around for another workout. On the third day, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was there.
If not for the trials in Butler’s career, the times he was cast aside by teams, the “March to February” alone in a gym, the D-League, the Summer League and the long, gritty climb back to the NBA, Butler said he wouldn’t have felt as comfortable playing for a roster spot.
The Spurs invited him to training camp with a non-guaranteed contract. Butler, as he did the year before and the year before that, made the team.
One of the first people he called when he became a Spur was Bobby Toomer.
“You could feel his emotion through the phone,” Butler said. “He’s always been proud of me, and that was the proudest he’d been of me in a long time.”
In 30 games this season, Butler’s averaging 2.8 points and 1.2 rebounds. The stats don’t matter much to a player who has proven himself time and time again. Butler said he knows he made the right choice when he practices with Jonathon Simmons and gets a chance to mentor his new teammates.
“I loved signing Rasual Butler this year,” Popovich said. “He’s helped us win some games. He can teach people like Simmons some things and Kyle Anderson some things. So there’s always ways he can help.”
Butler called the words from Pop, “one of the ultimate compliments.”
“Not everyone can be a Spur and everyone knows that,” Butler said. “You have to do the right things, work hard, play smart basketball and be unselfish. I always wanted to be part of a team where the name on the back of the jersey didn’t matter. It takes a certain type of person to want to do everything for the good of the team. I’ve always felt like I could thrive in a situation like that.”
One of Butler’s favorite aspects of becoming a Spur has been the focus on being well-rounded off the court. He loves Popovich’s current events quizzes and noted a team trip the Spurs took to see “Hamilton” on Broadway before a game against Brooklyn.
A San Antonian going on four months, Butler has focused time on making an impact in the community, including a team visit with soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center. In December, Butler and Patty Mills dressed as Santa Claus to pass out gifts as part of the Elf Louise Christmas Project. The apartment complex had a basketball court, so yes, Santa dunked.
Butler also spent time with Spurs Youth Basketball League campers, and before the Spurs hosted Dallas earlier this month, Butler spent 20 minutes with students from Sam Houston High School as part of the NBA’s Mentoring Month and Spurs Sports & Entertainment’s InspireU program. Butler was candid, telling the students about his father’s murder, and the help he needed from mentors such as Toomer and Gross to go from South Philadelphia to the NBA.
Hopefully, for a man who once sat from March to February waiting for a chance, Butler could have an opportunity for basketball in May and June. Butler has played in 43 NBA playoff games since his rookie season in 2002-03. Kawhi Leonard has started 65 playoff games in the past four seasons.
“This is a very fickle game. You can make shots one day and miss shots the next,” he said. “But one cool thing about being here is that we don’t talk about that. We talk about the things we can control, like effort, like competing defensively, like playing together. You want to be there for family, and this is family.”
A Mountain Of Love
At 5:30 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, Rasual Butler’s phone rang. It was the call he’d been dreading for months.
Bobby Toomer passed away at the age of 80.
Toomer had been ill for a few months. When Butler called his grandfather to tell him he was a Spur, Toomer was in the hospital. Toomer had been hanging on for a while, and he made it to his grandson’s 13th NBA season.
Up until Toomer’s death, he was still able to chat with his grandson for a minute before every game. At the end of every call, Toomer made sure to mention how proud he was of Rasual.
“He lived a long, impactful life,” Butler said. “He fought a long fight, and fought really hard. I am here because of him.”
Game days have been the toughest for Butler in the two months since Toomer’s death. The pre-game talks were his one constant, whether that game was in high school or the NBA, the D-League or Summer League.
Butler missed two games for Robert Lee Toomer’s homegoing service. The service was held at St. Paul Chapel Baptist Church, where Toomer was a church deacon, and around the corner from where Bob’s Grocery used to be. One speaker at the service called Bob’s Grocery “a mountain of love,” because when the tsunami hits and the waves are crashing, a mountain can break up that force and keep everybody safe at the top.
After the funeral, Butler’s first game back happened to be a Spurs road game at the Philadelphia 76ers.
Against All Odds in South Philadelphia, Rasual Butler was in a Spurs jersey.