DALLAS (AP) – A few dribbles from the NBA finals logo, Caron Butler turns and shoots. The ball swishes through the net and his Dallas Mavericks teammates smile.
Alas, this is only a practice. Once the Mavericks play the Miami Heat for real, Butler will be in a suit at the end of the bench, watching, waiting and wondering whether he’ll be able to join the fun.
Butler ruptured a tendon in his right knee on New Year’s Day and has been rehabilitating ever since. The Mavs honored his tireless work by dedicating their postseason to him. In April, Jason Terry said, “We’re doing this for you, big boy,” and vowed to keep winning series in hopes of stretching their season long enough to reach his return date.
Time is running out. Game 3 of the finals was Sunday night and Butler has yet to be cleared by doctors.
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” Butler said following a workout Saturday. “I’m always hoping. The last thing you’ll ever hear from me is that I can’t.”
Team officials won’t say it either, apparently out of respect for how hard he’s trying. The facts are hard to ignore: Saturday was the five-month mark since a surgery that requires six months of recovery time.
While sports are filled with stories of players defying medical timetables, especially with a championship on the line, this was a gruesome injury. He snapped the tendon that connects the kneecap and shin bone. The kneecap jerked several inches up toward his thigh.
Because this happened on a night when his wife, mother and grandmother were in the stands, Butler was stoic. He shoved the kneecap back in place and walked off the court by himself. But there won’t be any sneaking his way back onto the court. He has to prove to team doctors that the patched leg is nearly as strong as the healthy leg, and he has to show he’s in game shape. After all, he would be stepping right into the NBA finals, not a game against Minnesota in December.
“He’s a guy you never want to bet against,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s just one of those special guys. He’s a month and a half, two months ahead of the rehab schedule for a normal human being. That shows the work he’s put into it, the single-minded compulsiveness of his approach, how diligent he’s been. It’s been an inspiration to have him around.”
He was pretty inspirational when healthy, too.
The game before he was hurt, Butler scored 30 points, his most in the regular season since joining Dallas about 11 months earlier. He was averaging 15 points per game, second only to Dirk Nowitzki, and was among the team’s top defenders against small forwards and shooting guards.
The big thing is the Mavs were 24-8. They were at their best against the top teams in both conferences, raising hopes that this year’s team could be special.
Without Butler, that seemed impossible — except to Butler.
Minutes before his operation, he thumbed this tweet: “Championship! Remember that fans that’s what its about and we have what it take in that locker room to get it done, ill be 100 percent in no time, and I will be the biggest supporter on the sideline until healthy thanks for the support again I’m going in….”
The day after surgery, the guy known as “Tuff Juice” showed up at team headquarters ready to start his recovery.
He usually has two rehab sessions every day. If there’s ever a lull, he’ll find a trainer or doctor and ask, “What can I do next?”
He’s used a hyperbaric chamber and underwater workouts to strengthen the leg. Since being allowed to use a treadmill, he’s put in countless hours, walking then running.
Not wanting to lose his shooting touch, he put up shots from a chair. Then he moved to a stool. He eventually graduated to shooting drills with coaches, then games of 1-on-1 and 2-on-2.
Around the trade deadline, the Mavericks could’ve dangled Butler and his expiring contract as trade bait. They might’ve even fetched a quality player to help replace him in the rotation.
But team owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson decided the club was better off with Butler and the low odds of him returning this season. They also didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of re-signing him and they liked the tone he set with his tireless workouts.
“It’s a pleasure to still be here,” Butler said. “There’s been positive energy and good karma all the way around.”
Carlisle tinkered with all sorts of ways to replace Butler, eventually settling on starting Shawn Marion. Dallas added Peja Stojakovic for scoring off the bench and Corey Brewer to have another defender.
That’s right, it took three guys to patch the hole Butler left.
Since he’s been healthy enough to sit on the bench, Butler has hardly missed a game. He gets as involved as if he was still playing. He shouts defensive coverages to Jason Kidd and grabs guys during timeouts to offer advice or encouragement, “whatever needs to be said.”
It’s not easy, though. During Games 1 and 2 in Miami, Butler said, “My heart rate went up, heart rate went down.”
“I had to turn my head a couple of times,” he said. “It’s just competitive nature. You want to be out there.”
This is Butler’s ninth year in the NBA, and never before has his team made the finals. He hadn’t even made it out of the first round since 2004.
Back then, he was playing for his original franchise: Miami. His sidekick: Dwyane Wade.
Butler and Wade have been buddies since playing on traveling AAU teams together as teenagers. Although Butler was traded to the Lakers in ’05 — in a deal for Shaquille O’Neal — he considers Wade “my little brother.” Wade also is the godfather to Butler’s youngest daughter, who was born last summer.
“I wish him the best, but not this time,” Butler said. “I hope we win the finals.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)