By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3
It's not that Paden is difficult to buy for -- she's not. Her son simply wants to give her the world on Mother's Day and the remaining 364 days in the year.
"I don't know yet. Whatever's nice I see out there at the time, or whatever her want or need is at the time, I'm going to grab for her," said Butler, who already bought his mother a house. "I'll do anything for my mother. Whatever she wants or needs, I'm going to get it, definitely."
Butler's devotion is understandable, particularly because his mother's devotion to him never wavered, even through some tough times during his formative years. Before Butler was an NBA player rolling with the Benjamins to burn, he was a troubled teen growing up in Racine, Wis.
While Paden, a single mother, worked two jobs in local factories to provide for her two sons, Butler became a statistic. By age 14, he was selling drugs and carrying a gun that he purchased from "some brother off the street."
It might seem improbable that a teen growing up in America's heartland would engage in this sort of illegal activity, but don't be fooled. As Butler says, "There's a hood everywhere."
After a series of arrests and appearances in juvenile court, Butler was arrested at his high school for carrying a gun and a small packet of cocaine. The troubled teen found himself facing jail. He was sentenced and served three months in county lockdown and an additional 15 months at a maximum-security juvenile facility in Wales, Wis.
"Those guys were hardcore up there," Butler said during an interview at the Lakers' El Segundo practice facility last month. "You always had to watch your back. It was all the things you see in those prison movies -- the sex, people getting cut up and trying to bust out. It was wild. You name it, they were doing it."
It certainly was not the ideal environment for a kid barely old enough to shave, but something good did come out of the experience: Butler got scared straight.
"Yeah, I knew I never, ever wanted to be in that situation again," he said.
But what bothered Butler most was how he was hurting his mother, a woman who described her son as "smart and outgoing," never stupid or shady."I saw it eating her up," Butler said. "Her hair fell out a little bit. She had a couple of gray strands coming in. I was just stressing her out. My family was telling me that she just wasn't herself until I got released and she saw me doing well again."
Paden, however, never even considered giving up on her oldest son.
"That was the worst thing that had ever happened to me," Paden said wistfully during a telephone interview from her home in Racine. "From being a single parent and telling him over and over what to do and what not to do, I just thought that I was his mom and I had to help him try and make things right again, and he did. I prayed a lot and went to the altar a lot."
The day Butler was "sprung" was a glorious day for Paden, but her son's troubles were far from over. Because of his record, his old school district refused to admit him. So, street-savvy Butler resorted to a little trickery and enrolled under his real name, James Caron Butler. By the end of the semester, he was a solid "B" student and successfully petitioned his way back to Park High School. He had turned a corner.
"The thing that was unique about this whole situation was when I was released out of jail, my mother had already moved out of the neighborhood I was in," Butler said. "So, when I was released, I came into a whole new environment. It was on a different side of town, different street gangs and all that. So, I had to just adjust, anyway. I think that was even [a] better [situation] for me because if I had been released back to where I came from, it would have been worse for me. But due to her moving and me going to a different school and everything -- it was just that much better for me."
Old school, new attitude
Butler's athleticism, combined with his GPA, earned him a scholarship to Maine Central Institute, the college-preparatory hoops factory in Pittsfield that produced NBA players such as Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobley and Brad Miller. Butler's success at Maine earned him a commitment from coach Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, where he spent the next two years.Butler left UConn after a sophomore season in which he led the Huskies to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and was named co-Big East player of the year. In the 2002 NBA draft, he was selected by the Miami Heat as the No. 10 pick overall.
After making Miami his home for two years, Butler was part of last season's trade that sent Brian Grant and Lamar Odom to Los Angeles for Shaquille O'Neal.
That move worried his mother.
"I didn't know a lot about the contracts, and I just thought he was going to stay [in Miami] forever," Paden said. "He had to call and tell me that it was all right, and that these things happen. After he explained it to me, I understood, but I was still kind of sad because he really loved Miami and he loved the coach there."
But after everything Butler has been through in his life, moving from sunny South Beach to a dysfunctional team with a dark cloud hanging over it in Los Angeles was a breezy transition.
"It was hard at first, but I've been through rougher times, so I knew I was coming out here with Brian and Lamar, guys I had played with before so I knew it was going to be all right," Butler said.
And despite the Lakers' missing out on postseason play for the first time in this millennium, it has been. Butler finished the season as the Lakers' No. 2 scorer (behind Kobe Bryant) with 15.5 points per game and led the team in steals with 110. His play earned him instant props from his teammates and head coach Frank Hamblen.
"He's going to be a great player," Bryant said. "He is a great player."
Added Hamblen: "He's really come on since he's been here. He used to be known just as a slasher, but he's been really aggressive defensively and on the weak side he anticipates very well."
Odom appreciates both the player and the man.
"Of course, we all know what Caron's been through. I think that's what makes him a player that we all respect," the Lakers forward said. "We all, kind of, have the same story, with only a mother in the house and having a hard time coming up with no male father figure in the house. We had to learn on our own, and because of that, we made mistakes. Some [mistakes], you can go back and correct, and some, you can't. He was man enough to fix his situation."
The gift that keeps giving
It'd probably be unfair to Butler's younger brother to say Caron is mom's favorite, but because of all they've been through together, theirs is a bond that's tighter than superglue. If not for Paden and her faith, Butler might have become another talented, minimum-wage-earning playground legend.
Instead, he has grown into a man who would make any mother proud. Butler is good at his job, and he uses the riches he earns not only to spoil his mom but also to help those in need. Butler sponsors charity games, scholarships and free basketball clinics for the kids in his old 'hood, programs where the emphasis is on X's and O's for life.
"Caron's my everything," Paden said. "He's my first born. I'm so proud of him. He's doing a great job, and I couldn't ask for more. I want him to go back and finish that degree and go to law school. He said he would."
And he will ... someday. This summer, however, he's going to be plenty busy. In addition to his charitable functions, the father of three plans to marry his fiancée, Andrea Pink, sometime in the next three months.
He is also working on his autobiography, as his story piqued the interest of Hollywood agents during a January appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." In case you missed the moving interview, Butler tearfully recalled his past and paid tribute to his mother, who was in the audience.
"She was always crazy about me," Butler said recently. "She's always been my biggest fan. Now, for me to be in this situation, it just makes her that much more happier. Now I can take care of her and now she can just reap the fruits of our labor -- [after] all the stuff that we've been through.
"I'm going to make sure that all of her Mother's Days are very happy -- all of her days, every day."
Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in L.A. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.