April 01, 2013

CAN’T MISS PROSPECT by George Pennimann

He's not quick, he's not tall, he's not in very good shape, and he is, relative to the rest of the NBA, well past his prime at 36 years old.  But there is something he has done in the last three months, or rather he has not done, that sets him apart from every other player in the NBA, and with the playoffs fast approaching Finn Butler could be the biggest, most impactful mid season free agent signing the league has ever seen.

 

To refer to Butler’s basketball career as uneventful would be an overstatement of epic proportions. To call it non-existent would still be pretty generous. The previous highlights included riding the bench from 5th through 8th grade, getting cut from the JV team, and playing a little less than ten minutes worth of garbage time over the entire season for his High School’s freshman team. His career line as best as anyone can remember is 7 points, 4 rebounds, a steal and 4 assists over about 6 years of official games; or as he calls it, “his career quadruple-single.” He has played at gyms, on playgrounds, and with friends sparingly for the last 21 years. Until about three months ago he lived a normal, uneventful, and very non-athletic life in Virginia.

 

The Atlanta Hawks President of Basketball Operations Danny Ferry first heard about Butler from an old college buddy of his that now works selling cars in Baltimore. The buddy heard about Butler from a customer who bought a used Ford Festiva from him. The customer heard about Butler from his brother in law. And the brother in law learned about him from seeing Butler do what he does (or does not do) live, at a local Y near Falls Church, Virginia. Ferry was skeptical of the story and did not really give it more than a moment’s consideration. He probably would never have given any additional moments thought to Butler either, except for the fact that Butler’s renown continued to grow and one of Ferry’s daughter happened to see, and then send to her father, a youtube link of Butler in action; which it should be noted, has since been taken down by Butler at the request of the Atlanta Hawks.

 

The video, which cannot, in good conscience, be called a highlight reel, because there is nothing in it that remotely looks like a highlight, can induce boredom quickly. It would be easy to watch the entire thing, all 38 minutes of it, and not notice the most, nay only, extraordinary part of it. What you see is an old, out of shape, balding white man who is probably not even 5 foot 10 shooting baskets from all over the court. His stroke is not pretty, or even consistent. He hurls up desperate heaves from three point land, ugly midrange floaters, and awkward layups. For the first 10 minutes or so it is just him. In the middle section a defender joins him. The defender may be more athletic, quicker, and in better shape but he is still a fairly pathetic specimen. Butler continues to throw up gangly looking shot after gangly looking shot. In the last third or so of the reel another more legitimate defender joins the action on the court. This defender is an actual athlete. He is quick, agile, tall, and looks like he has some degree of skill and talent for the sport. In other words, he is nothing like Finn Butler.

 

It was at about this point in the video that I became aware of something odd. I paid closer attention to determine if what I had noticed was just a momentary aberration. I clicked back to a few different parts of the video and I suddenly knew why the Atlanta Hawks had taken it down, why Danny Ferry had continued to have thoughts about this apparent nobody, and why I had been dragged in to report on this unknown, seemingly talentless suburbanite.

 

It was New Year’s Day. Finn Butler had woken up slightly hung over from the New Year’s party he and his wife had attended down the block at their neighbor’s house. As he indulged in college football while his 3 year old daughter screamed and yelled and ran around the house, he felt older and lazier than he had in years. He vowed to get to the gym that week but was unsure of what he would do there. Between games he saw a preview for an upcoming college basketball contest between his alma mater Maryland and top ranked North Carolina.

 

He reminisced later, “I just remember how awesome that time of year was, spring with everything getting warm, March Madness, we’d watch the games and drink all night, and then sweat off our hangovers playing hoops at the athletic center the next morning. I decided I’d hit the court when I went back to the gym that week.” He had no idea how hard he would hit it, or what would happen as a result.

 

It took him a few days longer than planned, but he finally made it to the gym the following Monday. He found his buddy Darren Alridge in a full court pickup game and waited on the sidelines to switch in with somebody.  The game was hotly contested though and nobody would step out. Butler found another basket, dribbled, and shot around for a while. Eventually a spot came open and Alrdige called him over. As he headed to the court to join the game, Butler turned and buried one last, little 10-footer.

 

The game was a bit rough and tumble with elbows flying loosely, tired bodies tumbling around recklessly, and a pinch of aggression spilling out once or twice. At one point, as Butler drove towards the basket, the big man defending Alridge across the paint dropped down to close off the lane a little too wildly, and slammed into Butler as he went up for the shot, laying him out. Butler’s head took a pretty nice crack against the hardwood floor but he got up quickly. Everyone stopped to make sure he was ok. A few moments after shaking out the cobwebs he swished his “and one” free throw and the game continued. It went fast and Butler hit three more buckets in a losing effort for the team. “Other than that Sasquatch dude laying me out and probably getting a concussion”, he explained, “it was a solid afternoon. I got a good workout, which was all I was looking for.”

 

Over the next few days Butler went back to the gym twice. On Tuesday he shot around for a bit with his buddy, and they paid more attention to catching up on each others' lives than their shooting, before playing a short game where he never got a shot off and barely touched the ball. On Thursday he was back again and it was then that he noticed something strange. He did his normal shoot-around with Alridge, talking and joking the same way he had the other day, but he was not paying as close attention to his friend, distracted by something else. During the game he was aggressive, asking for the ball, bringing it up court himself, and shooting more than usual. They lost again but he noticed he had a pretty good game, very good in fact. In the showers later he began to think back on the past few days of basketball. His shoot-around before he got into the first game, the hard foul, his two free throws and three buckets in the game, and the shoot arounds with Alridge the other two days. He tried to remember them clearly but he was certain that something was missing from his memory. Back home he enjoyed dinner with his family and put his daughter to bed. After finishing the dishes he stepped outside to the hoop in his driveway. After about 10 minutes and 58 shots Butler stopped suddenly. He laughed at himself and went to bed.

 

He did not touch a basketball again for a week and a half. Alridge called him and asked him if he was going to play again. Finn was not sure until his buddy told him one of the teammates, Clay Greene wanted Finn back. “We need our shooter”, was the reason the Greene gave.  That evening Butler went out to his driveway again to shoot around a little. This time he was there for a little over 20 minutes. He took 120 shots. He ended abruptly once his 120th drained through the net and he went inside to sleep.

 

He was at the gym with his buddy the next day right after work. It was here where he finally realized that there was something unbelievable happening. The details of Butler's story from New Year's Day until this point are merely his own testimony, subject to potential exaggeration or outright fabrication. We can never know for sure if his claims are legitimate. But ever since the fourth time at the gym there is evidence. There are witnesses, there are numerous friends, acquaintances, and strangers that can corroborate the story, and there is of course the no longer accessible youtube video.

 

If you have not guessed by now, what Butler has not done for three months is miss a single shot. At latest count approximately 15,000 consecutive shots. This is merely an estimate. He figures about 1,200 per week for three months. It could be more, it could be less, but whatever the number, he has not missed a shot since the first day he hit the gym in 2013.

 

On the fourth day at the gym, he commented to his buddy on not being able to remember missing a shot in the past few days. He figured the crack on his head must be the reason for his forgetfulness. Alridge however did not remember him missing one either. They saw Clay Greene again and asked him about it. He was certain that Butler had made all of his shots in the first game and he knew Butler tore it up in the third game. They all assumed there must have been a miss in there somewhere though, despite the fact that none of them could recall one for certain. Wracking their brains to remember a miss, Greene finally just asked Butler to shoot some now, and see how long it took to miss.

 

Two hours later they were still waiting. A crowd had gathered around the basket in the furthest corner or the gym. Butler was tired, sweating, but still tossing up sloppy looking shot after sloppy looking shot. The crowd oohed and ahhed at each attempt, and each attempt found the bottom of the cylinder. Nobody can say for sure if he had missed in the first three days at the gym, but over 25 people could testify that he made every shot he took on the fourth day.

 

It was at this point that Butler's story began to spread. The next day he had another shoot around with about 40 people watching as he made every shot he took. He continued his flawless performance in a pick-up game, going 7 for 7 from the field including 3 for 3 from three-point land plus 4 for 4 from the line. The next day was more of the same and within two more days Danny Ferry was hearing about Butler through the grapevine.

 

It took a few more days until Ferry saw the youtube video and asked for some further research by his staff. They compiled many more stories and quickly decided they needed to send a scout out to check the situation. Trey Harris was soon on his way to Virginia to find out the facts. His first day at the Y Butler did not show up. He tracked him down however and Butler agreed to meet them during his lunch break the next afternoon. Like every day at the gym for the past couple weeks Butler drained his shots from all over the floor. Without a defender however, Harris was still skeptical so he asked someone to man up on him for a while. The shots came a bit more difficultly for Butler but they kept falling. Soon they took a break and Harris called his boss.

When he came back out he found a small crowd cheering as Butler launched a half court jumper that banked off the window and in. He did not see the previous six that Butler had just hit while Harris was on the phone but ten bystanders claimed they did.

 

Trey Harris was not known for much when he played his college ball at DePaul but he had tons of hustle, was a scrapper, and played great defense, good enough that he found his way to the end of the bench for a few teams in the NBA over the course of four years. Wanting to put this thing to bed, Harris decided to suit up himself and get this guy to finally just miss. Starting with some very light pressure, Harris had Butler shoot for a while as he played some D. Butler continued to not miss for a while and then Harris got more aggressive. The shots were more difficult to come by, Harris had a lot of steals and a couple of big blocks that he swatted back in Butler’s face, but when Butler was able to get a shot off, from no matter what uncomfortable angle, from any distance, and in any number of awkward bodily contortions, if it got past Harris’ outstretched hands, it went through the hoop. After a little while Butler gave up. He was simply too tired, and he had to get back to work. Harris let him rest. But after a moment Harris changed his mind. He demanded Butler to take ten quick shots, as fast as possible. Despite his dead legs, drooping shoulders, and lack of breath, Butler quickly dropped ten straight buckets just like that. Harris did not know what to make of it. Butler headed back to work and Harris called his bosses back and booked his hotel for another few days.

 

In reality Harris had been sent to Virginia as due diligence to simply check on the story, see that there was nothing out of the ordinary and get back to his real job of seeking out legitimate prospects for the team’s consideration. In fact the Sacramento Kings had heard about Butler too and were also planning on sending someone to check him out and see if there was anything to the rumors, just as the Hawks had. But with everything going on with the possible sale to Seattle the scout’s plans got put on hold and then cancelled. Harris was ready to go home, just waiting for Butler to miss a shot or two but it simply did not happen. He had to stay until he did.

 

Two days later the minds of the Atlanta Hawks gathered for a conference call which they allowed me to join in on. This guy seemed to be for real. His shot was definitely real. But there were a lot of questions. The most obvious question was, when would he miss? The follow up to that was, when he missed, would it all be over or would he continue making shots at a high rate? But the biggest question of course was could he do this for real. Could he do this on an NBA court with the best basketball players in the world, each of whom were at least 6 to 12 inches taller than him or more, trying to stop him? Then there were the most basic things. Could he even dribble, or pass, or catch a pass? Could he run up and down the court more than a handful of times before completely running out of energy? Could he get in shape? Would getting him in shape ruin the shot? Defense did not even get brought up, as everyone was convinced he could not play a lick. When someone mentioned rebounding, there was laughter.

 

The more they spoke and the more questions came up the more everyone was ready to dismiss this ridiculous story as a farfetched fantasy. Of course this would never work. But then Harris had to pipe up. What if he does not miss? Danny Ferry did not think a short, out of shape, talentless player was worth trying to figure out all of these issues about. But Harris repeated the truth as he had seen it, “This dude has not missed a shot, a single shot, in all the time I have been with him. Three days. Hundreds of shots.”  Harris insisted there were dozens of other people who claimed the same thing. Nobody knew how, nobody knew why, but if he got a shot up it went in. Harris’ final question was simple... “Can we find a way to get him a chance to shoot in real competition against real players? Just to see if he can keep it up.”

 

The answer was obvious and various executives began discussing it after a few moments. “D-League.”, offered Director of Player Personnel David Pendergraft, “Why don’t we just send him there, see what happens, and figure out how we can use him.” Everyone was quickly in agreement but Ferry was still hesitant.

 

Kenny Atkinson, a first year assistant coach, was on the line listening in for the coaching staff. He had heard all the stories about the guy that did not miss. He had seen the video before it was removed. He had wondered just how you would use someone who provided absolutely nothing but this one minor but ultimately extremely meaningful advantage. He butted in to the conversation, “There are ways to use him... We just need a solid game-plan. But if we are going to use him we cannot send him to D-League.”

 

Now Ferry was intrigued, “sounds like you might have some sort of game-plan already.” Atkinson admitted he had been formulating something. He went on, “If he goes to D-League he becomes a known quantity. He gets scouted. Teams will have film on him. We can’t reveal anything about him. We need to just spring him on everyone from out of nowhere. Throw him in a game, let him fire away and pull him before anyone knows what happened.” Atkinson paused, waiting for someone to dismiss his idea. When he realized everyone was still listening he continued. “If we try it a few times and he misses over and over then we have our answer. If he doesn’t miss but we pull him after only a few baskets then probably nobody notices right away. The new guy came off the bench and got hot. It happens all the time. If he really doesn’t miss we keep doing it. Eventually other teams and the press will realize that he hasn’t missed a shot ever and the element of surprise will be gone and everyone will recognize they need to try to stop him. Until that point we get as much offense out of him as possible and work on the game-plan we will need for him once teams decide they have to defend him.”

 

The call sat in silence again. Some of the participants began to mumble their disagreements. D-League seemed the safe choice. Ferry though was hooked. He began thinking out loud. “So we throw him in a game for 3 minutes a few times, what’s the worst that can happen?” One of the executives piped up, “He is so worthless that we are basically playing 4 on 5 for those three minutes.”

 

Ferry agreed. “True... But couldn’t we find three minutes in a few games that we can afford to play 4 on 5.” The executives mumbled and Ferry quickly ended the call. “Atkinson, call me directly in 5 minutes. David and Carole, let’s speak in my office.” And like that the call was over... and before I knew it, so was the entire assignment.

 

One hour later Danny Ferry called me directly. He wanted the story killed. He did not want any news or information about this situation getting out. He said he would deny anything I wrote and the Hawks would sue the magazine. He called my editors with the same news to achieve the same ends. The obvious solution was to simply embargo the story until a later date and then release it once the news was about to get out. The magazine didn’t like it because they feared getting scooped. But they went along knowing they had most of the information already and could put out the report the moment they got the OK from the team. As for me, well, my journalistic righteousness was offended and I said some regretful things to Mr. Ferry. I was not in the mood to back down.

 

Convinced I would finish the story some way or the other I made my way back /to Virginia. I would follow Butler as his own personal press pool until I got enough information to go to print. Unfortunately by the time I had arrived he was nowhere to be found. Back at the gym I spoke to Butler’s teammates and acquaintances and gathered a lot of information about him and his now legendary shooting but without Butler or the Hawks input it was all just rumors and hearsay. I tried his neighbors and friends but they too were unsure of his whereabouts. The most plausible story was that he was already in Atlanta, practicing with the team as they tried to determine if he could compete against real NBA players. One version had him living with his family in Ferry’s house. There was no Finn Butler registered at any hotel within 50 miles of downtown Atlanta so maybe that was the case. The trail had gone cold.

 

The big question on everyone’s mind that had not been broached was how and why Butler was unable to miss. One thought was that when he took the big hit and landed on his head in the first game after New Years that knocked him into this state. But a few people were sure he had been making all of his shots for the day or so before that moment. Some gym acquaintances thought he may have indulged in some sort of PEDs but if he did they had not affected his size, stamina, strength, or speed. A visit to his doctor revealed nothing although a source in his dentist’s office who asked to remain anonymous told me that Butler recently had a root canal that had complications. Another neighbor mentioned that the family recently vacationed in New Orleans and suggested it could be some sort of black magic.

 

Atlanta had been talking about administering a battery of tests to see if that gave them any insight into his newfound talent. They surely would have begun those tests by now but there is no way to know what they are, or confirm any results as long as the Hawks refuse to comment on the situation. Obviously there remains little evidence as to where Butler’s newfound talent has come from or if it will last.

 

With the playoffs approaching, the rumors have made their way around the league and coaches, players, and executives are trying to gather whatever tidbits of information they can about this mysterious, new, potential weapon that the Hawks possess. There have been no signs of Butler heading to the D-League which suggests the Hawks are going to try Kenny Atkinson’s approach. If so they probably need to bust out the surprise soon before the entire league is ready for him. Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins has heard the stories and has already prepared his defense for any quirks in their two upcoming games against the Hawks next week. Said Collins, “you gotta be prepared for anything and with our two games coming up, I have to assume if they’re going to use him they’ll use him against us now”.

 

The questions remain thoroughly unanswered. Nobody knows if he will be able to step on the floor against real NBA players. Nobody knows if he’ll be able to pass, dribble, run the floor, or get a shot off. Only the Atlanta Hawks even know if he has yet missed a shot since they went radio silent on his development. The facts are simple though, Finn Butler made at least 15,000 consecutive shots from all over the basketball court over the course of more than three months. Many were without a defender or against similarly overweight and out of shape buddies from the gym. Even when he started going against real athletes who played real defense however, he still nailed every shot that he was able to get off.

 

It is also a fact that the Atlanta Hawks met Butler, saw what he could do, and then removed him, and any evidence of his skills that they could, from the public eye. The same Atlanta Hawks are in hot pursuit of a middle seed in the NBA playoffs. Any team that has a player who does not miss any shots has a weapon that would be very useful in an NBA game. One last fact; Finn Butler and his family have still not returned to their home in Virginia from wherever he has been since the beginning of March. The neighbors get the mail, the lights go on and off on a timer every night, and his boss, or possibly former boss, who has not had Butler’s services for the last few weeks is, as he puts it, “sort of irritated at the son of a bitch for not giving him a concrete timetable for his return, but kinda jazzed to think he might be raining threes on Lebron in just a couple weeks.” I am fairly certain that NBA fans, teams, and press feel the same way about the Atlanta Hawks. Irritated that they won’t tell us anything more about Finn Butler and jazzed that this unlikely NBA prospect could be making waves on the same floor as the NBA’s greatest before we know what hits us.

 

 

 

 

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