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How a police officer’s snap judgment saved NBA player Caron Butler

To see Caron Butler on the basketball court today, you'd have little sense of how far this NBA player has come. As a young boy, he had the dream and the skills, but nearly threw it away for a life of violence, drug dealing and prison. William Brangham talks with Butler and retired Sgt. Rick Geller -- the police officer who helped turn him around -- about Caron’s book, "Tuff Juice."

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    A lot of boys dream of growing up, and girls too, playing for the NBA.

    Caron Butler was one of the lucky ones. He had the dream and the skills to get him there. But he nearly threw it all away, turning to a life of violence, drug dealing and eventually prison.

    William Brangham has our latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf, Butler's "Tuff Juice: My Journey from the Streets to the NBA."

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    To see him now on the court, you would have little sense of how far Caron Butler has come. This 14-year veteran of the NBA has played with and for some of basketball's greats. But this career almost never happened.

    Growing up in a poor part of Racine, Wisconsin, Butler starting dealing cocaine at age 11, bought a gun at 12, and soon was posing for pictures with stacks of his drug money. In prison at 15, Butler vowed that, when he got out, he would change. He got a job at Burger King, and rededicated himself to basketball.

    But 17 years ago, those plans nearly fell apart. If it wasn't for the snap judgment of this man, Detective Rick Geller, Caron Butler might have gone right back to prison and his career would have never happened.

    I talked with them both recently in our studio.

    Rick Geller, Caron Butler, thanks for being here.

    CARON BUTLER, Author, "Tuff Juice ": Thanks for having us.

    SGT. RICK GELLER (RET.), Racine, Wisconsin, Police Department: Thanks for having us.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Take me back 17 years ago to the day you guys first met. Tell me that story.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    I had drafted a search warrant for the Bluff Avenue House that Caron was living at, at that time. Caron had a criminal history, a very lengthy criminal history.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, you thought you were going to break into this House, and you're going to bust a drug dealer?

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    That's exactly what I thought.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And what did you find?

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    We ended up finding 15.3 grams of crack cocaine in the garage area. There was a lot of incidentals that just didn't make sense to me. Like, for instance, I had a chance to talk to him inside the house. He had burns on his hands.

    And I asked him, "Where did you get burns on your hands?"

    "From working at Burger King."

    We pat him down and he's got $11 in his pocket. Not consistent with what a dope dealer normally would be carrying. It just didn't match up, I guess. I felt like he was one of those people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, on this day that you make a decision that he is, in fact, innocent and that the drugs you found in the house were not his, that's a pretty monumental decision, right?

  • CARON BUTLER:

    Definitely.

    I mean, it changed my life. It changed everything. It was a decision that really altered my whole life.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Because let's say it had gone the other way. Let's say he said: I'm going to book you. I don't believe you when you say that that's not your — those are not your drugs in the garage.

    What would have happened to you?

  • CARON BUTLER:

    Because of my past already, and my lengthy record, I could have been facing 10 to 15 years. I would be 26, 25 years old getting out.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Career is over.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    You know, all those dreams of playing basketball or doing all these things would be gone.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Let's go back a little bit in time. Obviously, as you mentioned, you did have a very lengthy record. You had spent a good deal of time in the drug trade. I'm curious, what is it that drew you to that trade?

  • CARON BUTLER:

    I would have to say, you know, from a youngster, the second I jumped off the porch, you know, and that is the second that I started experiencing things in the neighborhood, I was exposed to materialistic things.

    I saw guys riding around in the nice cars with gold rims on it, the Cadillacs, the 98s and the Buicks and the gold chains and the jewelry, and had the money and the flash. You know, it was just something that I was intrigued by as a youngster.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And those were guys who were not working at the manufacturing plant.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    No, they wasn't working a 9:00 to 5:00. They was working around the clock.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, by the time you two have this meeting 17 years ago, you had spent some time in prison. You had decided to turn your life around. What was it that changed your mind?

  • CARON BUTLER:

    It was a combination of things, one, some of my closest friends that I lost to the streets. And, two, I felt like a huge disappointment to my mother, who worked two jobs and did everything that she possibly can do.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    That, to me, I think, was the biggest factor, because his mom really was, for one, working two or three jobs, plus trying to keep a handle on him.

    And, I mean, she would go out to the park that we were talking about, the 18th Street Mall, or…

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    This is where all the drug trade was going on.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    Yes, where all the drug trafficking — she would get out of her car and chase him down.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    Chase me off the street.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    But she just couldn't do it all the time.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    Yes.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    And he got better and better and better. And I think when he finally got sent to Ethan Allen, and his mom…

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    This is the correctional facility.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    Correct.

    When he finally was sent there, and his mom was trailing behind, hoping and praying that the car that she has will continue to work, the tears are rolling down her face, I mean, I think that was it for him. I really do. I think that was a — the shining moment.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    I really did feel like a huge disappointment, just because I knew what she invested in me.

    And for me to, you know, throw that all away and be in corrections, and her having to live with that void of me not being there, that was frustrating. So it was just — it was all those things, and my mom moving out my old neighborhood, so when I got out, I was in a new environment. So I didn't feel like I had to live up to that — the norm or the expectations of my former self.

    I felt like I had a fresh start. And people started showing me a lot of favor, putting me in some situations to be successful. And I took full advantage of it.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    In Caron's case, too, there wasn't a real father figure.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    No.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    There was a great mother figure, but not really a father figure. So I think it finally came — he came to the conclusion, either I keep hurting my mom, or I end up dead, or I end up in prison for a long, long time. And I think he just decided it wasn't worth it.

    And I'm so glad he did. And I will tell you something. As far as that father figure, he has, without hesitation, become the father that he always hoped for with his kids. So, I think that is…

  • CARON BUTLER:

    Appreciate that.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    You bet.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The book is "Tuff Juice: My Journey from the Streets to the NBA."

    Caron Butler, Rick Geller, thank you both very much for being here.

  • CARON BUTLER:

    Thanks for having us.

  • SGT. RICK GELLER:

    Thank you.

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