Hoop Journey -Fall 2014

Next stop, Spain!

by: John Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

The moment Josh Butler thought to himself that there might actually be a basketball life after college came in a small gym in Philadelphia.

This was in the late spring. His college career had just ended. A teammate had told him about a basketball showcase, a place to show off your skills to the guys on the sidelines watching, guys whose job description requires them to evaluate a great deal of hoops talent.

The 6’4” 22-year-old had never played guard before. At Nantucket High School a kid that tall is immediately told to play under the hoop, in the paint. The same goes for NCAA Div. 3 college basketball. Butler always wanted the ball out by the three-point line. He wanted to shoot and slash to the hoop.

Outside the gym in Philly, a coach with a clipboard asked him what position he played, and Butler told him he was a guard. It was a good decision. He scored 32 points, going five of eight from behind the three-point line.

“I was playing with guys who had played Div. 1 college ball or had pro tryouts,” he said. “After the game everyone was asking me where I had played and I told them I played D-3 ball at the University of New England, and they all said ‘Where the heck is that?’ ”

Soon after that game, some agents from European basketball contacted him. Initially, Butler was not quite sure what to make of it.

“I was uncertain about it at first,” he said. “I talked to my mom about it. I felt like someone might be messing with me. When it began looking like it was real, I just woke up one day and said I’m just going to work for it.”

In July he played in another showcase tournament, this time in Las Vegas. Then he signed a contract with a basketball agency called BeoBasket. The agency’s website says it is “a full service agency specializing in representation of basketball players and coaches around the world,” and that it has negotiated contracts in more than 30 different countries.

This fall he will play professional basketball in Spain.

“It’s a little surreal, just because I played at such a low-level school in college,” said Butler, a former Nantucket Whaler on the verge of something he could never imagine. “I was just somebody looking to graduate and get a job.”

The map of Butler’s basketball journey is not filled with what anybody would call top-level hoops destinations. He is an island kid. His parents are Zona and Elvis Butler. Zona worked at Nantucket Bank, where she just retired as president. Elvis is a mason, who played football for Mississippi State, and had a brief shot at the NFL before getting derailed by injuries.

Zona and Elvis Butler’s son grew up playing basketball at the Boys & Girls Club, then for the Nantucket Whalers. He was a good forward, but not the best one on the team. His junior year the Whalers notched the best basketball record in school history. He made the league All-Star team twice. But the Lighthouse League – now the Cape & Islands League – in the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association's Div. 4, is a long way from the state’s perennial hoops powerhouses.

Butler was always around the gym, always working on his game. If you asked him, he would say he was going to play college ball at the University of Connecticut. At the time UConn had just won the first of four NCAA titles. People shook their heads. He kept playing.

He smiles at that memory now.

“That was a dream, man, that was a huge dream,” he said. “I don’t know, back when I was a kid, before high-school games, me and Delroy (Lawrence, another forward and probably the best player on those Whaler teams) would be at the gym in the morning, shooting around, and my mom would bring us pizza around 11 and the game would be at 1. We just pushed. Basketball’s always been there. No matter what, we would always find a way to get out on the court and play and work.”

Basketball might have been his first love, but his college career began on the football team at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass. After the season he transferred to Eastern Nazarene College, a small school in Quincy, south of Boston. He played a season of basketball there. Then he left. He found an apartment in Dorchester and a job at Payless Shoes. He began playing pickup games at the UMass-Boston gym.

Butler’s game grew at every small hoops stop. He picked up fundamental skills from coaches. He learned the attitude of urban pickup games. Former Whalers often stop by practice while they are visiting their parents during Christmas vacations. Sometimes they ask to run a few drills with the team. Often you can chart how fast they are getting out of shape during these drills. That never happened to Butler. He never fell out of shape, he was always training, and all of a sudden had the kind of ups that allow you to take the ball to the rim and dunk easily.

“At Eastern Nazarene the coach was a great individual-skills instructor and he worked with me,” Butler said. “I began to get my handle (ball-handling skills) there. He always said that with my speed I was more suited for playing outside, to be a tall guard, but that I needed to work on my ball-handling skills. There were a lot of city kids on that team, really good street players from Boston and Hyde Park and Roxbury.”

“Then there were the pickup games out on Columbia Point, at the UMass-Boston gym, and there were some great players there. I like to look at other players and see what I can pick up from their games. Eventually things just began to click. I began to see how I could go past guys.”

He headed back to Nantucket to stay with his family for the summer. One day he ran into a former Whaler teammate. Jordan Ferreira captained those Whaler teams Butler played on, and broke the 1,000-point career scoring mark. Ferreira was playing at the University of New England. His father, Tom, a former Whaler basketball coach, had just taken an assistant-coaching job there, and had been one of Butler’s coaches.

The University of New England is in Biddeford, Maine. Like Eastern Nazarene it plays basketball at the NCAA Div. 3 level. Butler headed up to Maine.

“UNE was a scattered mix of styles, but I was learning how to adapt,” he said.

After the showcase game in Philly, and another in Vermont where he scored 40 points, came the eyeopening experience in a very high-level tournament in Las Vegas.

This one was more of a pro-am program, with NBA players – among them Patrick Ewing Jr., who had played in the NBA for Sacramento, Houston and New York, before playing in the NBA’s D-League – and European players warming up before the start of their summer league. It was sponsored by a sports-management company called Scorers First.

“Vegas was the toughest competition I ever faced, physically, everything,” Butler said. “I played on a team with guys from Northeastern University, Cal Tech, Florida. It was kind of mind-blowing. In the first game I got a chance to start as a tall guard, but didn’t do too well.

“I had four points, three turnovers, no assists, eight rebounds. But they said the thing they liked about me was I didn’t show emotion. The second game I just ran the floor. I didn’t look to score, but had 15 points just off running the floor. I walked in to that gym with a totally different mind-set than I left with. I realized the more you just run the floor and do what you have to do, the more it will come to you. My new game is hustling and pushing the ball up the floor, and not trying to score every basket.”

Butler signed his contract after that second game. He says he is now dedicated to raising his game to the level of European basketball. He spent the summer working at the Nantucket Golf Club and training, running eight miles in the morning and again in the evening, doing ball-handling drills with tennis balls and golf balls, instead of basketballs, to make it more difficult.

“The work’s just begun,” he said. “I haven’t laid a mark down or done anything there yet. It’s all just talk right now. It’s totally different over there. You gotta grind hard to make your check.”

Spanish professional basketball is divided into both league divisions and levels of play. Teams climb up or are sent down between those levels. The top tier consists of 18 teams. According to some sportswriters, the top league, Liga ACB, is widely considered the best in Europe.

Spanish-born players who began their career in the Spanish League and moved to the NBA include Rudy Fernandez, Portland Trailblazers; Jose Calderon, New York Knicks; and Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves.

Malik Moore knows about European basketball. After playing his college ball at Temple University and American International College, he worked out with several pro teams before playing in Germany. His European career included stops in Finland, China, Denmark and the Dominican Republic. Butler said he turns to Moore with questions about what to expect and what will be required to succeed.

“Each team in Spain can have two American players and they usually look for guys who just missed getting picked up by an NBA team,” Moore said about the level of play. “But it’s basketball, man, that’s how I see it. If you’re amazed to be there, you won’t be able to play.”

“I think it’s a good situation for him. Even if he ends up on a lower level and has to work his way up, he could be OK. He can go out there and get a feel for how they play. They want you to rebound and run the floor and play defense. They love guys like that overseas. He asked me about getting ready. I told him it’s just basketball, so go out and play.”

Not so long ago, Butler figured he had played his last serious basketball game. There would be pick-up games in random gyms, sure, and maybe a local men’s league wherever he found himself living. But that would be for fun. He had his college degree and some ideas about becoming a sports agent, or maybe even law school. Life goes on. Now he has found another stop on his hoops road.

“My whole thing is no matter how long it lasts or how long I play, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me,” he said. “I never thought it would happen. But when it began to happen I began to work really hard for it and now I think I deserve it. But I still have to earn what I deserve,” he said.

The English poet Robert Browning once wrote these lines: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”

That was a long time ago, in the dark days before the invention of basketball. And yet here is Josh Butler finding out once again how far his basketball reach extends, heading off to Spain to see if he can take his game to yet another level, this time as a professional. ///

John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He coached basketball for 25 years on Nantucket at the Boys & Girls Club, junior high, junior varsity and varsity level.

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