Part of knowing everybody in Chicago basketball, as Larry Butler does, is knowing people who have been killed — and people who may have done the killing.
So it was last month that Butler stood watch over a funeral repast held at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Corps Community Center on 119th Street, for Tyrone Lawson, the 17-year-old who was gunned down earlier this year outside a high school basketball game. It turned out that Butler knew one of the two men charged with Lawson’s murder, Michael McNabb, who briefly played for Butler’s club team, the Illinois Warriors. In July, McNabb had even paid Butler a visit at the Kroc Center, at which time Butler said he asked McNabb to pass a message along to his crew: “We aren’t going to have problems in this building.”
It’s funny, Butler will tell you, that he finds himself back working in this part of town, where the memories are both sweet and bitter. But then, that duality seems to define the full collection of Butler’s memories from the last two decades on.
A few blocks away from the Kroc Center sits the childhood home of NBA free agent Quentin Richardson, who Butler discovered as a seventh grader. In 2005, Richardson’s brother was murdered outside the house in an armed robbery attempt. One of the three men charged with the killing, Gino Wilson, also had a stint playing for the Warriors in his youth.
Richardson was among a handful of talented young players from the South Side that Butler brought into his fold; there was a time, when he was starting out as a coach, that Butler would drive a van between 111th and 115th, picking up young hoopsters and taking them to games and practices.
“I have come full circle,” he told me recently. “Again…Again.”
From the early 1990s through the aughts, Butler served as the comptroller of youth basketball talent in the city of Chicago, a controversial and often caricaturized figure who was alternately feared, loved and hated. His supporters saw him as a community custodian who helped numerous athletes convert their talent to college opportunities and professional money. His detractors, which included some coaches and media members, portrayed him as a grifter and puppet-master who was driven by self-interest.
To be fair, Butler at times seemed like a scapegoat for the prigs who ignored the more fundamental problems with elite amateur athletics. But he did little to help his reputation when, a little less than five years ago, Butler abruptly departed the scene in a stormy tantrum.
Now at 53, he has found a soft landing as the recreation director at the Kroc Center, a $116 million effort at urban renewal that opened last June. Most of the center’s funding came from the estate of the McDonald founder Ray Kroc’s wife, who entrusted over a billion dollars to the Salvation Army to build athletic and community centers in the blighted corners of America.
“I felt that heat wherever I went around the city,” Butler said, sounding mollified and content with his new, less competitive lifestyle. “There were guys that hated me. But when I got out of it, they love me, because I’m not a threat anymore. You know what? I like it now, because I have done a lot of things in our basketball world, I have helped kids, I have saved families money — I don’t regret anything because I think I did it a right way.”
But Butler does have regrets. And, as it turns out, he’s not resigned to the sidelines. Over the course of a recent two-hour interview, he told me he’s been mulling the prospects of returning to the scene.
The Warriors, his juggernaut program that produced 19 NBA players, 14 McDonald’s All Americans, and nine current college basketball coaches, hasn’t completely vanished. If he is to revive it to its former status, he says, the time to begin is now.
After school special
Butler grew up on the South Side and attended Calumet High School, where he was, by his own description, an unspectacular ballplayer more interested in becoming a sports reporter or scout than a professional athlete.
After graduating from Southern Illinois University in the late 1980s, he returned to Chicago and started working as a youth counselor at Firman Community Services, an agency that served the Robert Taylor Homes population. Specifically, he ran an afterschool program for third-degree offenders, and on Fridays would take the kids to a nearby park to play basketball. Oftentimes, they would match up against another group of kids coached by Calvin Davis, then a gym teacher at Beethoven Elementary School, who went on to serve as the sports administration director for Chicago Public Schools. After a few too many beatings at the hands of the Davis bunch, Butler went on a talent search around the city.
The ball kept bouncing: Butler soon organized a travelling team, which he named the Firman Falcons. He befriended some of the staff at Marquette University, namely Bo Ellis, the Chicago high school star of the early 1970s who was then serving as a Marquette assistant coach. Ellis invited him to bring the Falcons up to Milwaukee for the MU summer camp. In time, the connection would pay off even better for the university, as a string of Butler’s players, from Dwyane Wade to Todd Townsend, would head up north from Chicago.
Butler left Firman in the early 1990s for another agency, Centers for New Horizons, eight blocks north on State; he brought his team along with him, renaming them the Horizon Warriors, in honor of Marquette, which carried the name at the time.
Several prominent high school coaches, including Simeon’s Bob Hambric and Brother Rice’s Pat Richardson, expressed concern after Butler players started transferring midway through high school; they questioned his involvement in their decisions.
But where he was a perceived threat to some, he represented a potential asset to Mac Irvin, the club coach in town who held the Adidas contract. By 1992, Irvin, operating as a kind of youth basketball viceroy in Chicago, became Butler’s benefactor, paying for his Illinois Warriors teams to travel and supplying them with shoes and gear. The two immediately recognized the value of the other in this arrangement: Butler had the players and Irvin had the imprimatur. As a true merging of assets, Irvin’s son Nick joined the Warriors travel team.
This period of time, from the mid- to late-nineties, marked the rise of the club basketball scene in the United States, as shoe companies, ravenously trying to find the next Michael Jordan, focused their attention on younger and younger players. And club coaches, who often hailed from the inner-city neighborhoods and had access to the players in their youth, started to cultivate their influence. Butler, in addition to coaching, had other interests as well, including a recruiting scouting service he sold to college coaches, which also engendered scrutiny.
After a falling out with Mac Irvin, ostensibly over Nick’s playing time on the Warriors, Butler recognized his best move would be to lock down his own shoe deal. When Adidas didn’t go for it, he found a willing partner in Nike, which would eventually put him on a $70,000-a-year contract.
“When we were first putting together program, he was an integral part of it,” said George Raveling, who served as the Nike’s grassroots director, and now runs its international basketball division. Raveling became one of Butler’s mentors and chief advocates: “He ran a very solid program, his teams were very successful in their ability to compete against any other in the country, be it in New York, Chicago or L.A.”
Butler’s split with Irvin led to a brief strain between the two, but after the murder of former Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong in the summer of 1999, both coaches found reason to move past their grievances.
The missed opportunity
The natural ascension for club coaches has been to land gigs as college basketball recruiters, but Butler was never interested in this route. Instead, his dream was always to become an NBA scout. He said this is what all his skeptics had completely wrong about him: he never wanted to be an agent.
A few years ago, Butler pushed his NBA contacts hard for a job, but there was none to be gotten. He believes he missed his window several years before then. From the mid- to late-2000s, Butler spent a lot of time out West, particularly in Arizona. A number of his club players were balling in the Pac-10 Conference at the time – Andrew Iguodala at Arizona, Matt Lottich at Stanford, Dennis Gates at Cal, and Justin Dentmon at Washington. Butler had become friendly with the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers, where four of his players had played. He would sometimes travel teams or do freelance scouting assignments. But he said he never effectively pushed for a full-time NBA job at the time, something he regrets now.
“I was so entrenched with my club team,” he said, “because I always had this guy coming next, whether it was Eddy Curry or Darius Miles, or Andre Iguodala, or Shannon Brown. It was always [thinking about] the year after — Julian Wright, or Jon Scheyer — I was so focused on, building the next team, and I wasn’t thinking about that. And then it got to the point, in 2005 or 2006, where I was thinking, ‘Those freaking prima donna NBA guys, I couldn’t handle coaching them.’ But I didn’t want to coach, I wanted to be a scout, a personnel director, because I could build teams. So that was my deal. That is my only regret.”
But it’s not.
A regrettable end
After recognizing the missed NBA opportunity too late, Butler started to fatigue of the club scene. He was discovering it to be a dead-end job, and didn’t like the dynamic shift that had occurred, where more power was going to star high school athletes in place of the teams and coaches. He made some effort to stem this tide on the Warriors: when Nike would send him 10 pairs of shoes earmarked for a particular kid, and he would instead parcel them out one pair at a time. “I’m not going by his house with ten boxes of shoes,” he said.
Butler’s relationship with Nike also began to deteriorate. He did not like the company’s new grassroots liaisons, and made his feelings well known. Word got back to the Nike reps, but Butler says that since he was still winning and raking in players, he stayed in good graces. Or so he thought, until a meeting in late 2008 at the James Hotel in downtown Chicago. Expecting to discuss the renewal of his soon-to-be-expired contract, the Nike reps wanted to talk only about other programs that they could sponsor in Chicago.
Frustrated and perhaps sensing that the shoe company was going in a different direction, Butler decided to end things with the nuclear option – a public upbraiding of Nike and its employees he deemed unfit for their jobs.
Just a few weeks before, Butler’s détente with Mac Irvin had also came to a heated end, also at his accord. He said he had heard through back channels that Irvin was casting aspersions at his program while trying to purloin certain of his players. After a Labor Day tournament game, in which the Warriors handily defeated the Mac Irvin Fire, Butler had an outburst that rivaled his blow-up with Nike.
“I’m still the king of this fucking town,” Butler said he shouted at Irvin, as he walked off the court. It was the last time the two would be on good terms. Butler said he tried to reach out to Irvin a few years ago, when he learned that his benefactor-turned-nemesis was in poor health, but he received no response. Irvin died in December 2011 at the age of 74. Nick Irvin, who coaches at Morgan Park High School, did not respond to email and text messages seeking comment.
“The thing that bothers me more than anything is that Mac left here really pissed off with me,” said Butler. “And he did help me get things going with my grassroots career. But I look at it in another way too: Chicago is a very competitive town. It’s crazy.”
Looking back, Butler thinks impatience got the better of him in the Nike deal as well. Raveling sees it the same way.
“I think at the end, Larry probably made some poor judgments in some of the people and things he spoke out against,” he said.
Donnie Kirksey, the assistant basketball coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who served as a Nike grassroots field representative in the ‘90s, said the company always preached protocol.
“I think that making that one mistake cost him,” Kirksey told me. “Because he was a marquee guy in the picture with Nike. He was very well known throughout the country.”
The return of the king
The Illinois Warriors are now just a team, not a program. Butler’s 16-year-old son Bryson, a junior at Lincoln Park High School, is among its current players. In November, Larry Butler moved the family to Lincoln Park; all the killings have him worried about his son’s safety.
He would like to coach Bryson during for his final summer league, but Larry Butler has a conflict of interest that would first need to be resolved. He continues to run his college scouting service, from which he makes a good deal of money, and the NCAA bars colleges from paying club coaches for extracurricular services.
But Butler might find it worthwhile to make this concession. Having parted ways with both Nike and Adidas, he said he has had conversations with the Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, which signed Wade to an endorsement deal last year.
Butler thinks he sees some talent coming down the pike — a group of fifth- and sixth-graders who play often at the Kroc Center.
And with the Kroc Center, he has the perfect facility for a relaunch.
“I could get some of my young guys here now, get them ready to coach,” Butler said. “I got coaches here, who coach grade school and high school. So I could get those guys ready. But I would want my own imprint early on with these guys, with building what we are trying to do. I want to coach, I want to make sure I set up everything and they can build off of that.”
“I’ll tell you what, with some of these players I see – our state is not very good right now in terms of coaches. We are not developing players like we once were, because we don’t have the coaches. But this 2014 class, this current junior class is loaded. And that gives me the excitement to want to come back.”