By Ryan Hayes
This weekend, N.Ireland’s basketball fans would do well to cast their eyes towards another of Europe’s smaller nations – Luxembourg.
On Sunday 15th April AB Contern travel to Grengewald in the men’s National II league. If AB wins, their fans in the small town of Contern, in the south-east of the country, will begin a series of celebrations that look likely to resume for a second time next week.
A victory for Contern against Grengewald would secure promotion back to Luxembourg’s top basketball table after just one season away.
Contern, four times ‘Champion de Luxembourg’, have been top of the second division since week one, having lost just two games all season, and are now 5-0 in the playoff sub-division. Their outstanding record means that they could not only secure promotion with a win this weekend, but can clinch the National II league title at home against Racing next Sunday.
|Nat II – Men Playoff||GP||Off||Def||Pts||Streak|
|1.||AB Contern||5||409||356||27||W 5|
|2.||Black Star||5||399||346||24.5||L 1|
|5.||BC Mess||5||374||386||21.5||L 3|
What is most exciting for N.I. basketball is that an integral factor in the success of AB Contern this season has been our own Chris Butler. The 6’8” forward/centre is a 2006 graduate of the St Thomas Aquinas NCAA Division II college programme in the U.S. and joined Contern at the start of this season, the sixth of his professional career so far.
The foundations for Butler’s basketball career were laid both in Ballymena, under the tutelage of All-Star coach Paul McKee, then later at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, where he was named to the 2002 Toledo City All-Stars.
Since graduating with a degree in Criminology from STAC, Butler has travelled widely and has forged out a successful professional career in Europe. Between brief stints with UCC Demons and Belfast Star, he enjoyed a fruitful season at Puertollano in Spain, the highlight coming when he was voted the 2008 EBA League MVP.
Naturally Butler is delighted with his current club’s success but acknowledges that he and the rest of the team should not see promotion as the end of their journey. “This season has been very successful for AB. Promotion was obviously the major goal, but so is the development of our younger players so they will be ready for the first league next season” he insists.
Indeed, Contern have perhaps the youngest team in the league this season and Butler, 28, sees his already considerable professional experience as a huge asset. He told TCC that “being the oldest player on the team, I have provided leadership and strength inside for the team; maybe a bit of the fight and grit that they didn’t have in the past,” saying that his formative years in N.Ireland were crucial: “I have Team Grouse [now Blackstone] to thank for that.”
Butler is keen, however, to share the praise with the rest of his AB teammates and the coaching staff. He feels that they have shown exactly the kind of strength of character it takes to win in professional basketball. “The toughest point of the season was our first loss of the season against Black Star,” he reflects (on a game AB lost by a massive 26 points) but confirms that “the team had to show character to bounce back from then and we have.”
For Butler, the reason behind this immediate rebound is simple: hard work and preparation. “We all came in a month early [at the start of the season] and have been going hard in practice … that type of intense practise has not stopped,” enthused the big forward.
Since the John Wooden era, it’s been something of a basketball mantra that confidence comes from being prepared and Butler feels that AB Head Coach Mark Reed has been “fantastic all season long” at instilling confidence in his team, before adding: “that has been something that I think has been most important.”
Butler’s own contribution is not to be diminished by the teamwork that has typified Contern’s game this year. The Ballymena man is currently ranked 17th overall amongst all of Luxembourg’s professional players and has, this season, contributed an average of 18 pts, 8 rebs and 3 assists.
When asked to sum up the season he has had personally, Butler put the team’s success above his own – a lesson for any young player who aspires to reach the top. He muses, somewhat philosophically, that “this has been one of my best seasons because I have been playing well and my team is winning; it’s easy to put up numbers on a bad team but to put up numbers on a team that’s winning is even better.”
I put it to Butler that, on paper, his career looks like one of a ‘journeyman pro’ given that he has already played for 5 teams in 6 years. “It’s difficult,” he says, “I’ve had opportunities to return to every club I played for, and did play two seasons in France with the same team, but sometimes you just want a change.
It is clear that at 28, with his first child on the way and a wedding date set for this summer, Butler is a more mature and settled player than the one who first returned to Europe to embark on a pro career. The most important thing, he says, is “to be close to family,” which I can sense is a sincere and heartfelt consideration that his future wife and child need to be close to family too.
Does that mean a change in the way he approaches the game, or spell an end to his love affair with basketball? Not on your life! “I don’t see why having a family should change my game, and I’m still as ambitious as ever. It’s just a matter of finding the right situation for me and my family.”
To these ends, Butler has already been in contract negotiations with AB about another season in Luxembourg. “They want to keep me on the roster, it’s just a matter of ironing out the details,” he explains.
Given that the majority of professional contracts in European basketball are on a year-by-year basis, he is realistic that “you have to be ready to move on, no matter what the situation.” It seems that international travel, despite being one of the perks of professional sports, can also prove to be one of its trials.
In addition, Butler points out the inherent pressures of professional sports (particularly if things are not going your way) counselling budding pros to remember that “this is your job and you have to take it seriously. People expect results.”
Results seem to be something that Butler is becoming consistently very good at delivering on a personal level over the last few years. In Spain he averaged 25 pts and 10 rebs per game while during his two years in France his numbers were equally impressive, putting up 22 and 12.
What is most noteworthy about the two years Butler spent with Escaudain in the French Pre Nationale was the accuracy of his shooting; 56% FG and 44% 3pt shooting is remarkable at any level of the game.
“I’ve never put up a lot of shots per game but still put up [good] numbers,” he reveals. “I know my spots on the court and I’m not going to do something I don’t think will help my team by forcing up shots from places I’m not comfortable in.”
As for rebounding, “it’s the same as defence – just hard work and fighting for that loose ball; boxing out and doing the fundamentals right.”
Chris Butler may have risen to the ranks of the professional game, but he clearly still has time and advice to offer the young players of Northern Ireland who wish to follow in his footsteps.
Excited by the recent upsurge of NI youngsters such as Keelan Cairns, Paul Dick and Marty McDonald going to play in the U.S., Butler lends his wholehearted encouragement: “I think every serious young player in NI should see America as a place where they can develop their game, and those of us who have done it before will be there to help the younger generation in any way possible.”
He insists that going on to professional basketball is “rewarding in many ways,” but that “it takes a lot of sacrifice.” He cites the opportunity to travel, learn languages and experience other cultures as the main joys of the job, while being away from home is far from easy.
Not to deter anyone from pursuing the same path however, he claims “there is no reason why the pros is not the next step. It’s just like every other job; you have to build your resume.”
No doubt all those serious young players in Northern Ireland who hope to make it as professionals one day will look to Chris Butler as an example of how to achieve their dreams and, just like TCC, will be eager to see Contern secure promotion this weekend.
And Butler? He will be watching us right back. “I think everyone at TCC is doing a great job! It’s fantastic to see and just keeps us [foreign based players] informed of what’s going on.”