DAVIDSON, N.C. — Summoning more courage than I can imagine, Donnie Carr was on the La Salle bench for the Explorers' game against Davidson on Wednesday night.
His strength, not merely showing up but actually doing his job as an assistant coach at his alma mater, was amazing. Earlier in the day, Carr heard devastating news: Rasual Butler, his lifelong best friend, had died in a car wreck in California, as had Butler's wife, Leah LaBelle.
Carr was a few years older than Butler, but the two played basketball growing up as youngsters at Chew Playground in South Philadelphia. They played basketball together at Roman Catholic High. They played basketball together at La Salle, where both were stars. They stayed as close as brothers while Butler embarked on a long, successful NBA career and Carr pursued his coaching dream after injuries ended his playing days.
And suddenly, Butler was gone, just like that, at 38. I asked Carr about sitting on the bench at Davidson — there was a moment of silence for Butler before the game — the same day he heard the news.
"It was the toughest …," Carr said, then paused for a moment to collect himself. "I coached this game because I knew he would have wanted me to coach this game, you know?"
With the pain evident in his eyes, Carr graciously talked with Sporting News about his friend after the game ended Wednesday. That's the thing about Rasual Butler: He was the type of person you want to talk about, because talking about the life and the influence of Rasual Butler makes you feel better, even in this awful circumstance.
We spoke for almost 10 minutes. I asked only four questions. The rest of the time, Carr opened up about his friend, offered a glimpse of his pain, showed the joy of life with a friend like Butler and tried to work through a reality he was still hoping somehow wasn't true.
Instead of slicing up Carr's words and trying to weave different snippets and quotes into some narrative column, I'm giving you his answers verbatim, with a few notes interjected between Carr's thoughts. Let's start with this: I asked Carr if there was a memory or memories of their lives as friends that kept coming into his mind throughout the day.
Carr: "That's like a whirlwind. You've got to understand, we've been together for over 30 years. And honestly, if I wasn't coaching right now, I probably would have been in the car with him. We were like Starsky and Hutch. We were like Frick and Frack. We just did everything together. Again, not being able to call him, not being able to hear his voice, it's just something I could have never imagined. I thought that I would be the best man in his wedding, and he would be the best man in my wedding.
"I thought that we would grow old and watch our kids grow old, and talk about stories and tell all those experiences one day, 30, 40 years from now when we're 70 years old, around our grandkids, just sharing stories and trying to help them, trying to help our community, just trying to give back everything that was given to us. It's just one of the things that, I was just numb. I don't even know how to respond. I don't know what to say. Reflecting on our lives? I would have to go back to when we were 6 years old, all the way until now. I'm 40, he was 38, going on 39. That's a lifetime. So the stories, the memories, I mean … what do you say?"
Donnie Carr, in his playing days at La Salle. (Getty Images)
Carr and Butler didn't just play bit roles at La Salle. They were legit scoring stars. Carr averaged 23.9 points his freshman season (1996-97) and was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. The Philly native was named first-team All-Big 5 all four of his seasons at La Salle and finished his career with a scoring average of 19.7 points per game.
Butler joined his friend for the 1998-99 season and made an immediate impact. He averaged 19.3 points in his four-year career at La Salle and was first-team All-Atlantic 10 in his junior and senior seasons. He was a second-round pick by the Miami Heat in the 2002 NBA Draft, which launched an NBA career that didn't end until 2016.
Carr: "It all started off as two South Philly kids who lived a half-a-block away from each other, and it was all a dream. Like the late, great Biggie Smalls said, 'It was all a dream.' Running around, just making sure we pushed each other, just knowing him as a childhood friend, as a brother, all we did was chase our dream. Again, just pushed each other. Rasual took it to measures you could only imagine. His ultimate dream was to make it to the NBA, and he did that. He was blessed to play 15 years, but he was far more than just a basketball player. He was a Philadelphia icon, a guy that just wanted to do so much more, just all for the community, all for the people behind him.
"He was a guy who was a sponge. Rasual, he had a special quality. He just would learn from anybody he was around. He would always look and see how he could be better, at everything he did, and it didn't matter if it was an infant, it didn't matter if it was a homeless person, it didn't matter if it was the President of the United States. He was a guy who always listened, who always wanted to be better and do better. He learned from everybody around him. He was a sponge. And he always took it and tried to implement it in his life somewhere if it could help him in any way. And he was always trying to give that back. That's one of the things … I just feel bad for the community, us as a family. He had so much to give, so many stories to tell, so much knowledge, so much influence, so much everything. He was everything to our community. It's so sad he's no longer with us. I feel bad for not just him, but his (wife) and her family. It's a huge tragedy."
I will always remember the time we shared together as teammates, you were the big brother. I appreciate the advice you shared, not just about basketball but life. Sending my deepest condolences to the families of Rasual and Leah. May you both rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/O4RgQ47PwA
— John Wall (@JohnWall) January 31, 2018
The outpouring of emotion from NBA players has been incredible to watch. Everyone has a Rasual Butler story, because Rasual Butler was a you-first person. For example,
Dwyane Wade posted this story on Instagram, along with a picture: "This was my first public appearance and i was nervous to go along—So Sual joined to make it easier on me. That’s who he was—A great individual that was always there for people when they needed him."
That basic story line has repeated itself over and over. Butler played for eight difference franchises during his career, which means his sphere of NBA influence was immense, and the positive impact he provided was part of the reason NBA teams kept giving him precious roster spots even into his mid-30s. Carr knew Butler as well as anyone. I asked him what it was about his friend that prompted that type of response.
Carr: "Rasual just had that infectious type of personality, a guy that, again, that you would just love to be around, to have as a friend, to have as a teammate, to have as a brother. Really selfless person, always trying to see how he can help another person, how he can change a life, how he can impact a life. Just a guy, you know, that is going to be sorely missed, man. Again, it just hurts on so many levels. So many levels. Me, just trying to stay occupied and stay busy, it's just hard to imagine that he's not here anymore. He was an unbelievable person."
Butler shot 82.9 percent from the free throw line in his La Salle career. (Photo courtesy of La Salle athletics)
Watching the game without knowing what had happened, you wouldn't have known Carr was dealing with the loss of his friend. He looked sharp, in his black suit, white shirt and dark blue tie, in his spot a couple seats down from La Salle's head coach, John Giannini.
This is where Carr wants to be, on La Salle's bench. He's a Philly guy. He spent most of his playing career in Philly, save for the years he played professionally in Turkey and France. After his playing days, he's remained active in the Philadelphia basketball scene, because he knows the importance of giving back. When the opportunity opened up to join the La Salle coaching staff, he quickly accepted Giannini's offer.
La Salle is home. Philly hoops, that's home. Butler will always, always be home for Carr. I asked him how he heard the news.
Carr: "Rasual, my friend Greg Robinson and I all were best of friends. (Greg) called me and he asked me, 'Are you by yourself?' And immediately I knew something was wrong. He just told me, 'Our brother is no longer here.' You know what? I still can't believe it. I'm in disbelief. He said, 'I'm just telling you because TMZ has all these reporters outside the house, and I'm just telling you because it's about to get crazy. It's about to be everywhere.' I just broke down. It's one of those things where you think that you're sleeping, that it's just a bad dream that seems real. And I just told him to stop playing, hoping he was playing some type of practical joke. Then my phone started ringing nonstop, nonstop, nonstop. I knew it was the reality. It's something you can't really describe. Rasual is more than just a friend. He's a brother. It just hurts on so many levels. I think, not just for me, but for everyone who was close to him. His daughter, his mother, his sisters, his grandmom, the whole Philadelphia community, just not being able to call him and say, 'What's up, bro? How you doing?'
"Again, to say I'm in disbelief and to say this has been the hardest day of my life in a long time, the hardest game I've coached in a long time is just an understatement. What do you say? I just know that his legacy is just beginning. It's our job as a community, as a family, as a program, to keep his legacy alive. I tell people all the time about Rasual, you probably can meet more talented people, but I've never, ever, ever, ever met a person that was more dedicated, more self-motivated and goal-driven. That speaks volumes. That's the reason why he played 14-plus years in the NBA, the reason why he's done a few things, like even getting back in the NBA after being cut. That almost never happens. Rasual the person, he was a community guy. He was a family man. He was a guy who would give the shirt off his back just to make somebody else's day. He was … it just hurts on so many different levels."