The mural at Smith Playground, 24th and Snyder, shows football players and hoops players and baseball players and a track runner and a gymnast all in action. There are words spread around the mural. Practice. Soar. Help others. Be Strong. Fly.
The words apply to anybody’s life, but they should add a specific portrait to the mural. They need to add Rasual Butler.
The news came out Wednesday that one of Philadelphia’s great basketball players had died in a car crash with his wife early in the morning in Los Angeles. Butler was 38.
There was nobody playing ball at Smith on a sub-freezing afternoon but this court was where Butler used to show up before school to work out, long before he knew what the future held, before he starred at Roman Catholic High and scored 2,125 points at La Salle and played 13 seasons in the NBA, scoring 6,092 more points.
“He gave me my mindset,’’ Butler told me last summer when I called him about an early great mentor, Charles “Shoob” Monroe.
I wrote the story and sent Butler the link and he texted me back. The text was almost as long as the story, 390 words long, remembering how when Butler was 13 years old he had to walk past empty playgrounds and rec centers to get to the court where Monroe would have him work out at 6 a.m., before school, at Smith Playground. Walking past those other courts was a test. How much did he want it?
Then he’d go to school, Butler texted, and play ball all day after school.
“Not knowing the meaning of tired lol,’’ he texted, adding, “believing you should be the best on the floor every time you play.”
Butler told more, remembering some eighth-grade ranking, “finishing dead last,’’ and how upset he was — “I cried.”
How his best friend Donnie Carr and Monroe both told him he’d be one of the best soon enough, and how Butler listened because that’s what Carr was at the time, a star at Roman.
The lessons, Butler made clear in that text, went beyond basketball, about “being a good kid first, listen to your elders, go to school, take it seriously, be respectful to everyone.”
“If you do these things first while working as hard as you can on your game and on your education you can make it as far as you like in LIFE,’’ Butler said in the text, citing lessons from Monroe.
Maybe that also helps explain a little about those 13 seasons in the NBA. Sure, Butler had a jump shot that was so hard to defend, given that he was 6-foot-7. But when you’re the 53rd man taken in the NBA draft, as Butler was in 2002, there are no guarantees. The words explain why nine different teams picked Butler up during his career, how at age 36 Gregg Popovich saw the value in bringing Rasual Butler off the San Antonio Spurs bench for 46 games, how Butler scored more points at age 35 for the Washington Wizards than he had in his first three NBA seasons, how he played 809 games, starting 266.
It’s a cliché to say somebody never forgot his roots. Butler just remembered every step he took.
One other thing Butler mentioned over the phone last summer — he was hoping to make a comeback. He hadn’t quite gotten the game out of his system, Butler made clear. He was ready to get back in the gym and work. There were no more NBA games, it turned out, but the vision Rasual Butler picked up at 24th and Snyder lasted a lifetime.
Practice. Soar. Help others. Be Strong. Fly.