In talking to a veteran high school basketball coach the other day, I mentioned that Larry Butler, the longtime head coach of the Illinois Warriors' AAU basketball program, no longer was employed by Nike. Depending on your source, he was either fired or resigned. Now Mac Irvin of the Chicago Fire and Tai Streets of MeanStreets are Nike's representatives in Chicago.
"You made my day," the coach said.
Butler was employed by Nike for 13 years. He built one of the strongest AAU programs in the country. He helped to produce 19 NBA players, two Olympians and 11 assistant college coaches. The list includes Andre Iguodala, Jon Scheyer and Jerrance Howard.
He claimed his decision to leave was based on the fact that he no longer was on the same page with Nike's new management. When Nike asked him to co-exist with his rival AAU coaches, Irvin and Streets, he said he couldn't and wouldn't. So Nike severed their longtime relationship.
There is no in-between with Butler. You either love him or hate him. Some players credit him for their success in college or the NBA. Others claim he manipulated them. Some parents claim Butler is the reason their sons received a college education. Others claim their sons were the victims of broken promises. Some high school coaches say he has helped to develop their players. Others say he couldn't teach them how to boil water. Some college coaches insist he has been a boon to youth basketball. Others argue he only uses his kids to put money in his pocket.
"Butler was a snake," said Streets, the former NFL player who has sponsored the MeanStreets program in Harvey for the last eight years.
There is no doubt that Butler works the room as well as any used car salesman. There was a time when Illinois coach Lon Kruger allowed him to sit in his reserved seats at the state tournament in Peoria. Then Butler had a cozy relationship with Marquette. Lately, he has been more than friendly with Kansas.
Former Westinghouse and Homewood-Flossmoor coach Roy Condotti has nothing good to say about how he perceived Butler's relationship with former H-F star Julian Wright, who went on to Kansas and the NBA.
Streets, by all accounts, does things the right way. His program is what the AAU is supposed to be all about. Its mission is to help kids from seventh to eleventh grade, especially those in the inner city and south suburbs where opportunities are fewer, to get to college, to become better citizens and to learn the game of basketball.
"I'm not trying to make a dollar off a kid," said Streets, who graduated from Thornton after transferring from Rich South. "Ninety-five percent of our kids, about 60 each year, go to college. You have to be able to perform in the classroom in order to play on my team.
"Sure, you want to attract the top players. But it's more important to turn the kids into better persons, to help them learn discipline, to get them to college and to help them to be successful after college, after basketball is over. You shouldn't have to offer a pair of basketball shoes to get a kid to play in your program."
Where did the AAU go wrong? Is it all about the shoe companies? Ego-driven players? Greedy coaches? Overzealous parents? All of the above, Streets said.
"People got into the AAU program for the wrong reasons," he said. "Coaches are trying to make money off the kids. They aren't teaching them. That's why the European players are doing better than us. In a majority of AAU programs, no instruction is being done. They just let them run up and down the floor and book trips to tournaments in Las Vegas or Orlando or Atlanta or Myrtle Beach.
"It is frustrating to coach in the AAU today. Parents are unrealistic. Kids leave my squad because I'm too hard on them. Parents only want you to praise their kids. You tell them that 99 percent of all kids will never play in the NBA and they don't believe you. The AAU needs standup people in the program to do things the way they should be done."
Streets said Butler simply thought he was bigger than Nike. He said he never had a relationship with Butler, that he can work with Irvin and Mike Mullins of the Wolves and other AAU programs in the Chicago area, even if they are sponsored by Adidas or Reebok.
"I heard a lot of horror stories about Butler," he said. "He would steal kids from other programs, promise kids anything to get them into his program and send kids to various colleges. If you're doing things the right way, you won't abuse kids. There is plenty for all."