July 1, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- After taking an early morning flight out of Washington, D.C., Sam Dekker may have been running on empty, if not adrenaline alone, upon arriving for his scheduled early afternoon appearance at the Legends of Wisconsin Golf Classic Monday at University Ridge.
But who needs sleep when you're living the dream?
Dekker, the UW junior out of Sheboygan, spent last weekend at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in D.C., where a select gathering of 28 college basketball players, namely wings took part in drills and 5-on-5 games. Durant not only supervised and instructed but he competed with the campers.
After getting an up close dose of Durant, the 25-year-old superstar of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the MVP of the NBA, Dekker noted, "It was great just to see his work ethic; how he's in the gym every day - all day - playing with us and not looking like he was tired. That was pretty cool.''
Dekker was surprised by the selflessness of Durant who went to Texas for his freshman year before turning pro. "It's staggering just how normal of a guy he really is,'' Dekker said. " He's walking around and he's talking to people and shaking their hands. There's no ego to him at all.''
Dekker was also impressed with Durant's commitment to the campers, which featured 31 high school players, among the most highly-recruited in the nation. "He played a couple of hours every day, not including his own workouts,'' Dekker said. "He's always finding time for basketball.''
There were times when Dekker found himself matched against Durant on the floor. "I guarded him a little bit - he made some tough shots - he's pretty good,'' he said with a grin punctuating the understatement of the summer. "He's so long and he's stronger than he looks.''
The Big Ten was represented at the camp by Dekker, Iowa's Aaron White, Nebraska's Terran Petteway and Penn State's DJ Newbill, who was Dekker's roommate. "You normally don't get a chance to see how they are as people outside of basketball,'' he said. "But they were all really good guys.''
The Badgers outlasted Arizona to get to the Final Four and Dekker had bragging rights with another camper, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-7 sophomore for the Wildcats. "But it was nice to get away from that and talk about other things other than basketball,'' Dekker said. "We got kind of close.''
Observers singled out Dekker, Hollis-Jefferson and Arizona's incoming freshman Stanley Johnson for their overall play in the camp. "It was a great experience,'' Dekker said. "I got to play against a lot of good competition and one of the best players in the world (Durant). It was cool to learn under his wing.''
Few can match Durant's wingspan or influence. "He told us, `Play your game, play hard and play smart and good things will happen,''' Dekker said. "Whenever you play against the best, you're going to get better. I was happy with the way I played and I learned a lot.''
Dekker performed at a high enough level to be invited to the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas (July 9-12). Only 30 players make the cut and are selected from each of the three Nike camps for wings, point guards and big men. How about this for Dekker's transition game - from KD to the King.
"There are a lot of good things to take away from it (last weekend) and it was a good experience overall,'' Dekker said of his takeaway from the Durant camp. "There's always room for improvement, there's always someone out there that's better than you.
"Being around a guy (Durant) like that makes you realize that you have to keep working and keep getting better. If all things work out the way they should, there's a chance I could be playing against him some other time. I just have to keep working hard and keep getting better for our team."
|"Being around a guy (Durant) like that makes you realize that you have to keep working and keep getting better," Dekker said. "If all things work out the way they should, there's a chance I could be playing against him some other time."
• • • •
As Dekker crossed the parking lot on his way to the University Ridge clubhouse, he waved to one of the legends, Brian Butch, a former UW basketball player who came back Monday for the annual golf event. "I try to get back (to Madison) once a year, but it's never enough,'' said Butch with a sigh.
While Dekker was waiting for his flight to takeoff from Washington, D.C., he watched the video of the UW-Kentucky matchup in the NCAA semifinals. Butch saw the game from afar - about as a far away from Dallas as you can get. He watched the Badgers and Wildcats from 8,316 miles away.
Butch was in Manila, Philippines where he was playing for the Meralco Bolts of the Philippine Basketball Association. He wasn't there for long - just long enough to score 40 points and grab 31 rebounds in his team's 109-88 come-from-behind victory over Air21 in the PBA Commissioner's Cup.
"I did something with a 40-30 game that had never been done there in 60-some years of the PBA,'' said Butch, who scored 21 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter to help rally Meralco from a 20-point deficit. In the end, it wasn't enough. "I still lost my job,'' he said with another big sigh.
Butch played in six games and averaged 27 points, 21 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks.
"The fans loved me,'' he said, "and my teammates loved me.''
One of his Meralco teammates, Jared Dillinger, referred to Butch's "infectious attitude'' as far as the general way he carried himself in the company of others, especially on the floor. Dillinger went on to say, "He's a winner, he's a good locker room guy. He talks to everyone and he wants to win.''
But it still wasn't enough to save him. Meralco cut Butch to add another import, Darnell Jackson, who had 138 games of experience in the NBA as a backup. His most recent stint was in 2010-11 with the Sacramento Kings. Jackson appeared in 59 games and averaged 3.2 points and 1.6 rebounds.
"They just wanted someone different,'' said Butch, shrugging. So he packed his bags and moved on. "It was tough because I was playing well,'' he added, confiding that getting the news that he was being released and the team was moving in another direction "are the tough things that I go through.''
How many times has he heard the same things before? "Too many times,'' said Butch who has played for the Jiangsu Dragons in China, the Giants Nordlingen in Germany, Illisiakos in Greece, Athleticos de San German in Puerto Rico and now the Meralco Bolts in the Phillipines.
As an undrafted free agent, he has signed contracts with the Denver Nuggets, the New Orleans Hornets and the Utah Jazz. But his success has been limited to the D-League. In 137 career games, mostly with Bakersfield, he has averaged 14 points. He was All-D-League first team last year.
More recently, Butch asked to be traded from Bakersfield ("It was time to get to a new spot'') and he got his wish in February when he was sent to Fort Wayne. He was there for less than a month when he got the contract offer from the Philippines. That didn't end well, so what's next?
"I'll probably go overseas,'' he said. "I will see if there's any NBA interest, but I'm not going to turn down a good contract anymore. The NBA stuff is starting to become - I don't want to say work - but you go through cycles with it. If there's a good contract overseas, that's not a horrible thing.''
Has the 29-year-old Butch stopped chasing the NBA dream? "I'm not done with it,'' he insisted. "That's why I stuck in the D-League for as long as I did, so that it was on my terms. I've done everything I can. I've put myself in every position I could to put myself up there (the NBA), to get the call-up.''
But the knee injuries have been out of Butch's control. "Teams get scared,'' he said. "They know what I am, and I'm not a development player anymore. I'm a big that can stretch the floor and rebound. But the `awe' factor is not there. All of a sudden that phone doesn't ring as much.''
Yet he keeps grinding.
"I could be mad about it or I could be what everybody knows me for - I just keep plugging away,'' said Butch, who admitted that his wife Megan would like a little more stability. "She's a saint,'' he stressed. "That's kind of what we're trying to look for now - to be someplace for two or three years.''
While conceding that his basketball journey has been "frustrating'' he also emphasized, "I'm just so lucky to be able to play the game that I love. The older I get, the more thankful I become because you realize you're getting to do something you love to do and you get to be a part of the game.''
Upon further review, he said, "Let's just be honest, I've not had good luck, even at Wisconsin. We were the No. 1 team in the country my junior year and I dislocated my elbow. I watched this year's team do it (get to a Final Four) and I was thinking, 'That could have been us if I had stayed healthy.'''
Butch was obviously thrilled for the Badgers and Bo Ryan and the run that they made this season. "It's just sad that it took this for some people to realize how good of a coach he is,'' he said. "But I'm glad that this group was able to come together and get there for him. It was fantastic.''
Asked specifically about senior Frank Kaminsky, a 7-footer whose skill set and game is not unlike his own, the 6-foot-11 Butch said, "Frank has done a good job of continuing to develop and get better. Now comes the tough part when you've got that pressure (to produce).''
Butch, an Appleton native, is certainly no stranger to expectations, reasonable or not.
"I had that pressure all five years that I was here,'' he said. "I was the McDonald's All-American and I had that pressure on me all the time. It took me a couple of years to understand what that was and how to take that pressure and use it for the good versus letting that pressure sit on my shoulders.''
Considering all of his experiences, good and bad, what advice would Butch pass along to Kaminsky and Dekker? Especially today since the Badgers are getting so much national attention and their NBA-readiness has already come under discussion and scrutiny in so many circles.
"Just enjoy this season,'' Butch offered. "It's somewhat of a business in college. But here at Wisconsin they do such a great job of not making it a business. When you're out in the professional world, it's a nasty business, especially when you get hurt. So just enjoy the moment.''