Miami Heat assistant coach Caron Butler had the chance to get to know Kobe Bryant over the course of both their playing careers. For the two men, the game has been more than just a game. It was a way of expressing their talents. It was a world of competition and an army of players who were students of the science.
In 2004 he was traded from Miami along with Lamar Odom and Brian Grant to the L.A. Lakers for Shaquille O’Neal, placing them on the same team for a season, allowing them to foster a friendship. He says both on and off court, who Kobe was continued to shine through. As a family man and later as a businessman. A filmmaker. A friend.
In addition to his coaching duties Butler serves on the board of directors of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, a group that brings together some of the legends of the game. Looking back on his relationship with Kobe, he regards him as one of those legends…for how he played and who he was after his playing days were over.
When I first heard about Kobe, I think a lot of people didn’t think that it was possible that a high school phenom would make such a huge impact just because of the comparisons and who he was being compared to immediately. Usually when people come out of high school or have the opportunity to come out of high school, you know, it has gotta be cut from a special cloth.
Immediately heard some of the rumors that he had so many similarities to a young Michael Jordan and he was going to be that someday. As a player, I was just like, wow, that’s crazy high expectations for any player. Watching him in his first years in the NBA, trying to figure it out, uh, the tough start, Utah, the playoffs, it was just like, can he live up to those expectations? But he really shattered all those expectations and superseded all of them.
The first time I saw him on an NBA court, I was like, wow, this brother is talented. He’s special. I first saw him as a fan. My observation from afar watching him on television, seeing a young kid that just had it, Now being a coach in this league, you know, when someone has it and he had it, man. He just had a certain presence about himself. Like even in a dunk contest, living in the moment physically and mentally. That’s what I always saw in Kobe. He was always prepared. He was always physically, mentally in the moment.
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I didn’t get a chance to personally know him before we were teammates, but I had a chance to personally observe him, watching his workouts and things like that. But it wasn’t until I was traded to Los Angeles for Shaq, and the press conference where Kobe signed that huge deal, he looked over at me and said “yo, you ready to black out?”
I said what the hell is that? But he meant working around the clock, being the best version of yourself. That’s what he gave me. And I just locked in and I was his shadow for that season.
We were connected for life from that point on. Some of the tangibles that he had taught me on how to be a professional, on the court and off the court. There were things I learned in Miami from the godfather of the game, Pat Riley and Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra, who’s the present coach, but I saw it in real time with Kobe. He ushered me down that pathway. That’s the reason I had so much success afterward, because of what he poured into me.
Living the Laker Life with the Mamba
It was always a spectacular moment to just be on the road or be in the city of Los Angeles and just be the biggest show in the world. Now, granted, you know, we didn’t have the best record (the season ended 34-48), but we still had the best player on the planet in Kobe Bryant.
I think that the Lakers legacy and what it stands for warned a certain presence everywhere we went. So we felt like rock stars, you know, being next to the biggest star of them all in Kobe. We’d go on the road fans pile up waiting to see him, to get a glimpse of him, get an autograph. I saw that and I saw his connection with the fans and I also saw his work ethic. I saw Kobe landing in cities, whether it was two, three in the morning, renting gyms in respective cities, uh, getting shots up, taking me with. His preparation, his meal prep, he was different.
When we were around basketball, when we were in the thick of the season, that’s what we talked about. But most of the time we just talked about life. We talked about our second acts. We’d talk about what we’re going to do after this thing has passed. We talked about our children. We shared something in common that we both had children similar ages. We always connected with with the love of our children, of our families. I think that was the most important thing. He challenged everyone to be the best in our second act. If you’re gonna do something, be fully committed to do it with everything that you have, maximizing your resources. it was things like that we talked about all the time.
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After Hanging Up His Basketball Shoes
I just saw Kobe as a husband and as a father and as a teacher of the game of basketball. Taking time, carving time out of his schedule to make time for the young and upcoming. Players that wanted to get better, that wanted to be consistent in their craft and in their space. I saw his creativity from a storytelling standpoint, blossom. I saw him as a businessman, the venture capital firm (Bryant Stibel) and things that he was doing with Body Armor (sports drink). He won an Oscar for “Dear Basketball,” I thought that was amazing as well. We talked about those things because I myself had self-published a book and I was talking to Kobe about doing more children’s books and getting more things off the ground.
I finally got the deal off the ground with Harper Collins and it was all just him: don’t settle for just doing something one time, don’t get comfortable, stay pushing and raising the bar. He was just the measuring stick for so many of us. When you talk about guys making the seamless transition from the game of basketball and all the sweat equity that he put into it and to be a loving husband and loving father and pour into his family that spoke volumes.
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Jan. 26, 2020
I was in Atlanta. I was calling the game for the Wizards and the Hawks. I started getting phone calls and text messages. I got a call from his assistant Rita and something told me just get the damned phone. When I answered she said he’s gone, he’s no longer here with us, and Gigi was on the helicopter. I remember I just started crying and I don’t even know what happened from that moment. All of a sudden I was on the phone with my wife and worrying about (his wife) Vanessa and I was worring about his mom. I was worrying about his father. I was worrying about his kids. I wasn’t thinking about myself in that moment. I was thinking about them,
That void will never be filled. The legacy and what he embodied as a competitor from a mentality standpoint. At the end of the day Kobe was the measuring stick for everyone. When you talk about championship pedigree, when you talk about his body of work and you talk about excellence, he was the global impact and influence. That’s how I always remember him as that loving confidant and friend.
People saw his impact when this tragedy happened. They saw how available he was even though he was one of the most recognizable sports figures in history. People started to recognize his work and how he influenced so many, even those who didn’t want to give him his flowers while he was here. But you also saw it in people’s behaviors, where there being a little more conscious of their time in the moment and making sure they always capitalize on it. Though some people take it for granted, seeing that tragedy, you never take anything for granted again like that.
Learning From Kobe
As busy as Kobe was, he always took a step back and did exactly what he wanted to do. He didn’t waste moments, he didn’t waste time. I’m a strong believer that being absent from the body is being present with God. And I know that him and Gigi are in a better place. But I think they influenced a lot of people to just be better and live in the moment.
He would always tell me we don’t get these moments and these opportunities back. That’s something he’d always share with me and that I always had to wrap my mind around. And that’s what I always try to do.
— As told to Madison J. Gray
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images