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Butler puts work ethic on overtime
by Gery Woelfel / March 1, 2004

It was a trip Caron Butler made countless times and one he figures to make countless more.

Getting in his H2 Hummer on Wednesday morning, Butler made the 15-minute trek from his home to American Airlines Arena in Miami. It is where Butler and his Miami Heat teammates practice and play their NBA home games.

But this trip wasn't another ordinary one. It spoke volumes about Butler's commitment toward his profession and the commitment Heat officials have toward him.

Butler went to his office on this gloriously, sun-splashed day even though he wasn't scheduled to work.

"I actually went there to get some things done and say hi to some people,'' Butler said. "I have a tendency to do that, lounge around there and talk to people.'' One of the people Butler encountered on this occasion was Pat Riley, the Heat's president and Hall of Fame coach. They have been friends since Riley made Butler the 10th overall selection in the 2002 NBA Draft.

Their admiration and respect for each other is keen. At the outset of this season, Riley made it clear about Butler's stead in the organization. Riley said Butler, along with veteran Lamar Odom and rookie Dwyane Wade, were going to be the foundation on which the Heat would be built.

Four months have passed since Riley's declaration. Odom, signed as a free agent, has been as good as advertised, and Wade, the former Marquette University star, has been consistently good and even scintillating at times. Butler, on the other hand, has noticeably struggled while being beset by injuries.

After undergoing knee surgery in the preseason, and then spending months trying to get back on track, Butler recently incurred a back injury. In a game against the Los Angeles Lakers last month, Butler was accidentally undercut by Kareem Rush.

"I went down pretty hard,'' Butler said. "They kept me in the hospital for a couple nights for back spasms.'' Butler is almost fully recovered from that nasty spill, and his knee is no longer an issue. Yet, the combination of those injuries left Butler's stats ailing. Coming off a splendid season, when he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting to Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire and Houston center Yao Ming, Butler's numbers have significantly depreciated this season. A 15.4 points a game scorer last season, Butler is averaging 7.8 points. A 42 percent field-goal shooter last season, Butler is shooting 34 percent.

Such dropoffs would sound off alarms in most NBA front offices but not in Miami. Riley & Co. have steadfastly
stayed behind Butler, realizing the nature and extent of his injuries.

They also realize Butler no longer has to shoulder the offense like he did last season when there was a dearth of talent on the team. With the arrival of Odom and Wade, Butler doesn't have to be the team's offensive focal point.

"Coach Riley told me early in the season, `You, Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom are the core guys. You are the
franchise pieces,'" Butler said. "That meant a lot to me.

"But he told me that again today. He told me to stay focused, to take my time and feel my way back and not rush things. That's why I feel so comfortable about my situation and why I feel everything will work out. I feel like everyone in this organization is in my corner."

They are supportive of Butler not only because he is a member of their basketball family. They are also supportive because they have witnessed how Butler is working overtime, coming to his office on his days off, and making every attempt to regain the form that earned him a spot on the NBA's All-Rookie first team last season.

"Look at him ... he's out there putting up extra shots,'' Heat center Brian Grant said after a recent practice while watching Butler work on his game. "He comes in early, gets treatment. He's doing everything he has to do.

"A lot of guys go through (injuries) and they don't do that. They just sit around feeling sorry for themselves. But not Caron. He's doing everything he can do. Some guys want things to be given to them. He's working at it.'' Butler vows to keep working at it and firmly believes things will turn out well for him and the Heat. They still have 24 regular-season games remaining and, if Butler keeps progressing, could be playing more games than that.

The Heat have a 25-35 record and have a really good shot at playing the Eastern Conference playoffs this season.

"Really, that's what makes me most happy,'' Butler said of Heat's position in the standings. "If we were losing, I'd be very disappointed. But our chances of making the playoffs are really high. The guys are playing well, and I'm coming around. If you get to the playoffs, anything can happen.''

Gery Woelfel covers the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA for The Racine (Wis.) Journal Times

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