Rasual Butler Was a Hall of Fame Friend

Vincent GoodwillFeatured Columnist IFebruary 9, 2018

FILE - In this June 26, 2017, file photo, former NBA basketball player Rasual Butler and his wife Leah LaBelle, whose given name is Leah LaBelle Vladowski, arrive at the NBA Awards at Basketball City at Pier 36 in New York. Authorities say the couple died in a single-vehicle rollover traffic accident in the Studio City area of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley early Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. Coroner's Assistant Chief Ed Winter says both died at the scene. Autopsies are pending. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Evan Agostini/Associated Press

Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy plopped down on a basket stanchion. Assistant coach Malik Allen went into his office and cried, only to be joined by Van Gundy minutes later. Caron Butler had his trip to the airport interrupted by the crushing text message. 

All had just received the unexpected news: Rasual Butler and his wife, singer Leah LaBelle, had been killed in a car accident in Studio City, California.

"I'm not gonna lie; it was tough. It was a punch," Caron Butler, now an analyst for Turner Sports and who was not related to Rasual, said of the fatal accident on January 31. "I cried all the way to the airport."

It had been a few days since Rasual Butler's death, but Van Gundy, Allen and Caron Butler were all visibly shaken when speaking of him, a journeyman NBA player who was a Hall of Fame friend during his 13-year career.

The tributes came in as word of his passing spread through the NBA, with social media captions telling the story of a selfless teammate who managed to leave an indelible mark.

"With Rasual, he played with so many teams. So he played with so many guys and for so many guys," Van Gundy told B/R. "[He made you] feel good every time you come into the gym. I mean, he was about all the right things."

Van Gundy was Butler's coach in Miami when he took over for Pat Riley in 2003. Van Gundy said Butler didn't allow the inconsistency in his playing time or any other factor to change his approach—a rarity considering how tough the NBA can be for players on the fringe.

Van Gundy called Butler's personality "infectious" and "magnetic."

In his second season as Heat coach, Van Gundy said Butler wasn't in an everyday role, but he was always ready. "It never affected his spirit or the way he was around his teammates.''

When Butler was around other teams, Van Gundy said, "He was a guy who was always good to see and say hello and catch up.''


Malik Allen
Malik AllenCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

Malik Allen had just completed his rookie season with the Heat in 2002 when Butler, a second-round pick, became his teammate.

Both played college basketball in Philadelphia—Butler at La Salle and Allen at Villanova—and knew each other. But it was only when Butler joined the Heat that their friendship blossomed.

"It just clicked," Allen said. At summer league, they hung out together every night. "He stayed with me a little while before he got his place. We sat around, watched movies. Just talked about trying to make it."

Those late-night talks continued when the two were members of the Heat. They developed a bond similar to the one Rasual shared with Caron Butler, Miami's first-round pick the same year Rasual was drafted.

"We came in together, competed against each other, made each other better," Caron said. "We were young kids with big dreams of how we were gonna conquer the NBA together. Just open-minded and willing to work. We came from similar backgrounds."

Caron wanted to have a lasting impact as an example to those in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. Rasual's goal was the same for those back in Philadelphia.

In Rasual and Caron's second season with the Heat, they were part of a team that started out 0-7 but rebounded to finish 42-40 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, led by a rookie named Dwyane Wade.

"A great individual that was always there for people when they needed him," read Wade's Instagram caption under a picture of him and Rasual.

"He was the realest. He didn't let the occupation define him," Caron said. "He welcomed people from all walks of life. He was super engaging. It wasn't no fakeness or anything like that. In a world with so much of that, you appreciate real contact with real people."

In a league where players are competing over minutes, money and status, Rasual Butler was the exception. That sort of competition didn't seem to matter to him—not at the expense of his authenticity and the connection he craved to have with his teammates.

"He went through ebbs and flows through his career, as every pro does," Allen said.

Butler's best years were in New Orleans from 2005-09 when Chris Paul was his point guard. In his final season in New Orleans, Butler started a career-high 74 games. He followed that by scoring a career-high 11.9 points with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009-10. His first eight years in the NBA, Butler shot 36.3 percent from three-point range.


Rasual Butler as a Washington Wizard in 2015
Rasual Butler as a Washington Wizard in 2015Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Butler made five more stops in his last five NBA seasons—but you never heard him voice any frustration, hence the respect he gained from his teammates.

It was in San Antonio during the 2015-16 season where Allen and Butler had the last chance to connect. Allen had been retired for several years, but Butler, then 36, was still grinding on the floor.

"We had dinner and talked for six, seven, eight hours," Allen said. "Just about life. At the time, it was the happiest I've seen him sound and look. Even though he was trying to make it, but he was just in a great place. It's much different than when you're playing well. Just in life, in a good place."

Caron Butler said he got the same vibe from Rasual, as the two had dinner a few days before Rasual's accident. It made the news harder to accept.

"We talked about connecting and how important it is for relationships to continue through basketball and how important it was for us to be connected," Caron said.

Caron has been a big brother to several younger players during his career. He's often been the one to find the silver lining in most situations. On this one, though, he admits he's still searching.

"We're not supposed to question God, but I looked up a few times and I don't know," he said before his voice trailed off. "You hear that a lot about people who passed on, [that] you have to find something good about someone. But that wasn't the case with Rasual. It was real facts."

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