MIAMI (AP) – The first time Dwyane Wade was supposed to make a public appearance on behalf of the Miami Heat back in 2003, he found himself paralyzed by nervousness.
So Rasual Butler jumped into action, joining his teammate for the event solely to keep him calm.
“That’s who he was,” Wade said. “A great individual that was always there for people when they needed him.”
Tributes like that were offered all over the basketball landscape in honor of Butler, a longtime NBA player who died Wednesday in what police said was a single-vehicle rollover crash in Los Angeles. Police said Butler and his wife, R&B singer and former “American Idol” contestant Leah LaBelle Vladowski, died at the scene and that autopsies were pending.
Butler was 38. The NBA released a statement saying it was “devastated” by Butler’s death.
“A pro’s pro, Rasual enjoyed a long, successful career and was widely respected by his peers and coaches,” the NBA said.
That’s perhaps an understatement.
Butler never played in the NBA Finals. He was never selected for an All-Star Game. More often than not, when he played, he finished the night with fewer than 10 points.
That didn’t matter. Teams often clamored to have him on their roster – a testament to the type of person he was.
“Rasual was the consummate team player and a great role model for our younger players on how a professional should prepare and act, while being a positive influence on everyone who associated with him,” said Kevin Pritchard, Indiana’s president of basketball operations.
Butler was the 53rd player out of 57 taken in the 2002 NBA Draft, getting selected by Miami. He turned out to be a steal; of the 52 people taken ahead of him, only eight appeared in more games. He and Heat forward Udonis Haslem were close, even speaking recently about the possibility of Butler considering getting involved with his former Miami teammate on some business ventures.
“I know I speak for everybody at the Heat,” said an emotional Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, an assistant when Butler was with the club. “He was one of our favorite guys.”
Heat President Pat Riley raved about Butler and his wife Wednesday, and many in the organization still spoke very highly of Butler – even though he last wore a Miami uniform more than a decade ago.
“Rasual was one of the greatest people we have ever had play for us; a great player, teammate and better person,” Riley said. “It’s always hard to cope with losing those you shared your life with, but we feel blessed to have had such a bright light shine in all of our lives.”
Butler played for eight NBA clubs – Miami, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers, Washington, Indiana, San Antonio, Toronto and Chicago. He was also under contract with Minnesota in 2016, but was waived before the start of the regular season.
He averaged 7.5 points, with a career-high of 33 points on two occasions.
Butler was from Philadelphia and played four years of college basketball at La Salle. There were no shortage of kids from Philadelphia who tried to emulate his game – one of them being Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who tried to show off for some friends at a basketball camp they were attending on the night Butler got drafted.
Lowry, then 16, boasted that he knew Butler and gave him a call – hoping the new pro would answer. Butler took the call, and Lowry never forgot that gesture.
“This is truly a sad day for me,” Lowry said.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed.