Sam Donnellon: Rasual Butler: Philly fighter, Philly guard

Posted: November 11, 2010

OAKLAND, Calif. - The term once was worth a thousand words.

"Philly fighter" evoked a knowing nod and smile from even the most casual of sports fans, and the meaning - while based on a hardscrabble reality - grew to extend beyond any geographical base.

Philly still means "tough and smart," said Dean Demopolous, the former Temple assistant now serving the same role for the Los Angeles Clippers. It's no secret that boxing in Philadelphia and elsewhere doesn't exist as it once did. But if you know Rasual Butler even a little bit, it's not surprising that he was at one time, as a youngster at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philly, a boxer and a ballplayer.

"I had to make a decision," Butler, a shooting guard, was saying at his locker before a recent game against Golden State. "I chose basketball."

Nice choice. After outstanding careers at Roman Catholic and La Salle, Butler's niche as an NBA role player has made him a millionaire, coveted enough to be re-signed by the Clippers to a 1-year, $2.4 million contract over the summer.

While that's down from the $3.9 million he earned last season, it still underlines that, 8 years after the Miami Heat took him with the 53rd of 58 total picks of the 2002 NBA draft, Butler has carved himself a niche in a league known for turning college stars into missing persons with the punch of a plane ticket.

Wanna know who was taken just before Butler that year? Michigan State's Marcus Taylor, last known to be playing in Germany. Guy before him? Federico Kammerichs, still in Argentina. Darius Songaila is now a 76er, but Peter Fehse and Chris Owens have long ago made Europe their playground.

"They always talk about Philly guards," said Demopolous, a former John Chaney assistant. "Well, there's a reason.

"There are characteristics. Philadelphia players normally know how to win. They've been taught at an early age a balanced approach to basketball. They understand the importance of possession. They understand the importance of defense, of spacing. Normally they see the game out of the coach's eyes."

Butler, now 31, averages just under 24 minutes and just over eight points for the eternally rebuilding Clippers, who have won just once in nine games under new coach Vinny Del Negro, the former Bulls coach.

Butler came to the Clippers from New Orleans in a salary-dump trade last season, and some were surprised when Butler was re-signed over the summer.

"He's a good teammate, he works hard in practice," Del Negro said. "And he can make shots in bunches."

There's another reason, tracing back to the grandfather, Bob Toomer, who raised him.

"He's a deacon," Butler was saying in front of his locker. "He was always just preaching to me, not necessarily the religious life, but how to live life the right way. I had another grandfather, a Muslim. He thinks the same way. Better yourself every day you're on this earth."

Back to Dennis Seddon at Roman and Speedy Morris and Billy Hahn at La Salle.

"They try to teach you how to play the right way," he said. "What's the right shot to take? What's the right pass to make? And they make you students of the game. At this level it helps a lot when you understand the game defensively and offensively. Positioning is everything. And just how to be part of a team."

Back to Joe Bryant and Lionel Simmons and Doug Overton.

"Guys who were constantly on me to be a better man," Butler said. "To make the right decisions.

"I wouldn't change where I've come from because that's the core of me. It taught me the toughness. You open your eyes to see the environment you lived in, that you could live in. Fear definitely plays a part in it. I'm thankful for who I am. I'm thankful I still have my same friends and my same family who understand me. There's a lot of pressures that come along with being in this position and making money. I'm learning on the move as well. Learning every day, whether it's the game of basketball or the game of life."

Ah, yes, the game of life. Three Junes ago Butler was arrested on a weapons charge outside a Miami nightclub in the early hours of the morning. There was a gun in his car for which he was not carrying a license, and he allegedly had pointed it at a patron with whom he had been arguing.

The charge resulted in Butler doing community service, some of it addressing teens about the choices you make, and the consequences.

"Bottom line is that it was a mistake that I made," he said. "I just put it behind me and used it as a teaching point for younger kids not to make the same mistake. Hey, I'm a human being, too.

"Me and coach Dean talk about this all the time. You're put on this earth to learn. And to evolve each and every day."

Said Del Negro, "It's a nice benefit to have a player like that. We have so many young guys coming into the league now. And it's a different environment and it's a different situation. Sometimes it takes the younger guys a little longer just because they need some time to mature just from an age standpoint."

Some never do.

"Exactly," said Del Negro.

So Butler's job is really twofold. Cook up some offense when he hits the floor, yes. But teach by example young players like rookies Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, players who are already eroding his minutes.

Butler was asked what kind of advice he would give to the young guys if asked. "I would tell them to work as hard as they could, and when they felt as if they were working as hard as they could, to find another level inside of themselves and go above and beyond what they thought hard work was," he said.

"Because that's what it takes. It takes commitment. It takes patience. When I first came into the league, I wasn't playing that much. And you can get discouraged. You just have to pay attention to your situation and what's going on. Think about how you can get better every day."

It's the mantra of the Philly fighter, really. Stay humble. Learn from your losses. Never quit, keep pushing forward, regardless of the odds.

"You can't take any days off," Butler said. "No matter how upset you might be on the inside, you've got to smile every day and know that you're going through certain situations so you can be better in the future."

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