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From Solitary To Stardom On The Court: What It Means To Be 'Tuff'

Detroit Pistons forward Caron Butler shoots a free throw during a game against the New York Knicks in February.
Carlos Osorio
Detroit Pistons forward Caron Butler shoots a free throw during a game against the New York Knicks in February.

Caron Butler has had a stellar career. The two-time NBA All-Star has contributed his talents on the court to the Miami Heat, the LA Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks, where he was part of a championship team in 2011.

But before he got to the NBA, his life was headed in a very different direction. He had a rough upbringing in Racine, Wis., and took an unusual route to get to the pros, which included numerous drug arrests, a stint in prison and a close call that could have changed his entire life — all before he turned 18.

His journey to basketball stardom may have instead been a journey to life behind bars, had it not been for a police detective whose words — "I trust you, and I believe in you" — proved to be a turning point in Butler's life.

Butler, now starting his 14th season in the NBA, shares his story in a new memoir, Tuff Juice: My Journey from the Streets to the NBA. The book is co-written by Steve Springer.

"In order to be strong and tough mentally, I was humble — and I was humble to the point where I couldn't be humble anymore," Butler tells NPR's Michel Martin. "I gained a lot from that. My foundation became much stronger, and I became a better man because of it."

To hear the full interview, listen at the audio link above.

Interview Highlights

On his nickname "Tuff Juice," given to him by his former coach Eddie Jordan

He learned a lot about my history and my character, as a coach and me being a player for four years at the time — playing through injury, playing through whatever adversity that was bothering me. I just played. I just came, I showed up, I played, I laced them up. And he was like, "You're tuff juice." And it just kind of stuck.

On the influence of his family as he was growing up

My mom worked two jobs. I saw hard work, and I just felt like she didn't get results she deserved.

Her two brothers were in the streets, hustling and doing all these things. Those were my uncles, those were father figures that I had, the male role models. I was exposed to that game early — as a 7, 8, 9-year-old — seeing it, seeing the money come, seeing the income, seeing the flashy jewelry and things like that. I was like, "Man, that's the life I want. That's what I want."

What I saw [my mom] go through — I didn't want that. I didn't want that for me in the future. I didn't want that for her now, because I saw how hard she worked.

On his experiences in incarceration

Once I got incarcerated, and I was in solitary confinement — by myself — for 23 hours a day, I got stronger mentally and physically. And I got out of that environment, I was seeing things a little differently. And I think it just hit me all at once.

I was just like, "I don't want to live this life no more. I don't want to do this. I lost friends in this, and I know the outcome: Either I'm going to have to hurt somebody, somebody's going to hurt me or I'm going to spend the rest of my life like this — incarcerated."

On the encounter that led to a turning point in his life, at age 17

I'm at home sick, not feeling well. I leave school at about 8:30 a.m., and I'm at my house. I hear boom, boom, boom. I look out the window and see police, ATF, SWAT team, everything out there.

I hurry up and just, you know, try to protect myself as they come up the stairs. I'm in the middle of a raid. I'm just like, man — my hope is [there's] not anything in this house that can lead me back to going to corrections, because at this time, I'm doing so well in my life. I'm playing basketball, I have a job, everything is together and it's moving forward.

So after they have everything in the house secured, they go to the garage and find a little over an ounce of cocaine.

They say, "Bingo! We got it." And I'm handcuffed, and I'm sitting there, and I'm just like, "Man, that's not my stuff."

Sgt. Geller — I know him as Sgt. Geller now because we're good friends — the sergeant looked at me and said, "Look, we got enough to convict him. Take him." If I was convicted, I was facing 10 to 15 years.

Sgt. Geller said, "Let him go." He showed me tremendous favor, and I'm forever grateful because of that. ...

To this day, I ask him: "Why didn't you charge me that day? I'm still searching for that answer myself — why didn't you pursue that charge?"

And he was just like, "I knew you weren't guilty. The informant had said that there was drugs being sold out of this house, and they described the individual. And you weren't the individual they described. So how can I try you for this?"

On the lessons he drew from the encounter

I had a perception of police officers as a youth coming up. It was like, we don't need them out here, doing what they do to us, jumping out on us all the time, running us out of our neighborhood and doing stuff like that.

But at the same time, you know, there was a reason behind that madness. I was selling poison. I was doing things to create the tension that I was getting. That was self-inflicted.

And Detective Geller — this guy showed me tremendous favor, where he could've just thrown me to the wolves and gave me 10 to 15 and I'm gone. And it's only right that I talk about this relationship, and this favor that this one officer showed me — and that all officers aren't bad people.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.