Remembering Golden Bears basketball great and Hall of Famer Rodney Butler, Class of 1971

"Rodney and I would get together and talk about a lot things. He took the time to educate a lot of young people at the junior college level. He was always trying to help them prepare for their futures, not as an athlete, but as a person." --- Bobby Hunter, former member of the Harlem Globetrotters

17404SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - Rodney Butler was born to shoot a basketball.

As a young kid growing up in Harlem, he quickly made a name for himself at both the Morningside Park and famed Rucker Park courts with his almost unstoppable jump shot.

Butler brought his basketball skills to Western New England University where he quickly developed into one of the top small college players in the nation.

A true gentleman and one of greatest student-athletes ever to wear a Golden Bears uniform, Butler passed away on January 10, 2015 in Leesburg, FL. He was 68.

"We're deeply saddened by the loss of such an integral part of our Athletics Family," said Western New England athletics director and men's basketball coach Mike Theulen. "Rodney's deeds while here and the way he lived his life are great examples for our current student-athletes. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Carolyn and all their family members."

A remarkable life story

Rodney Butler attended George Washington High in Manhattan where he became an All-City First Team selection.

He competed against many top names, including Connie Hawkins (who later starred in the NBA), Skip Hayes (who played at Providence College), and Bobby Hunter (who enjoyed a successful career with the famous Harlem Globetrotters), among others. Los Angeles Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor when he played at Power Memorial) was a good friend.

"Rodney was a stronger and more consistent player, and he scored points at a steady pace," recalled Hunter about their playing days on the NYC courts. "He had great balance, especially down low. Rodney played a comfortable game and everyone expected him to score to 40, 50 points a game."

Butler didn't go to college right away, instead, taking a job as a teller at a local bank.

Meanwhile, Western New England College (the school didn't become a University until 2011) was organizing an athletics program and men's basketball was among the five original sports entering the 1966-67 school year.

The athletics director was Eric Geldart who also served as the school's basketball coach. A native of Port Chester, NY, he recruited several players from the New York City area.

The then-known Bruins struggled through a losing campaign in their inaugural season, but things turned around in a hurry when Butler arrived at Western New England in 1967.

In his freshman year, Butler teamed with the high scoring George Jerman to lead the then-known Bruins to a 21-2 record that stood as the program's highest win total for 32 years. Western New England led the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) in scoring average with a 104.4 average.

A left-handed shooter, Butler led the squad in scoring (31.3 avg.), rebounding (22.7), and field-goal percentage (67.8). He netted a still school record 53 points against National Hawthorne College (NH), tallied 40 or more points five times, and 30 plus points in seven contests.

Butler earned numerous accolades, including Little All-American and NAIA All-American Honorable Mention recognition.

The following season the newly nicknamed Golden Bears went 15-8 as Butler again led the team with a 27.0 scoring average despite missing three games with a fractured kneecap.

Western New England opened the 1969-70 campaign with a 112-111 victory over Norfolk State (VA), won all three exhibition games on a trip to Puerto Rico, and later captured the NAIA District 32 Regional title with wins over Husson, ME (89-76) and Rhode Island College (122-110) to advance to its first national tournament. The season ended with 99-76 loss against Morris Harvey (WV) in the opening round of the NAIA Tournament at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, MO.

Playing with a gimpy knee, Butler again led the team with a 25.9 scoring total as the Golden Bears finished with a 12-6 ledger.

Butler scored 1,725 points in his three seasons, which now ranks third on the school's all-time list. He is the career leader with 1,039 rebounds and still holds school records for scoring average (28.3), rebounding (17.0), and field-goal percentage (59.9).

Butler was inducted into the second class of the Western New England Downes Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.

Not bad for a 6-foot, 2-inch forward who was affectionally known as "Cannonball."

"Rodney was deceivingly quick on offense and could get a shot off almost anytime he wanted to," said Bill Downes who served as an assistant coach when Butler played here. "He was a wide-bodied player who also was one of our greatest rebounders. He always got strong position on the court and had a good nose for the ball.

"At times when I ran practice I would separate Rodney and George Jerman, and we would have some of the most unimaginable scrimmages in the world. Coach Geldart would get mad at me because they would play so hard he was afraid they would get hurt."

Jerman, a native of White Plains, NY and the school's career leader with 2,059 points, enjoyed his time on the court with Butler.

"Rodney wasn't that tall, but he was an unbelievable player," said Jerman from his home in Texas. "He got the most out of his ability when it came to scoring and rebounding. It was terrific being on the same team as him."

Butler was declared ineligible for his senior year after he and three of his teammates played in a summer league in nearby Enfield, CT.  

Although sidelined, he made perhaps the best move of his career by staying in school and earning his bachelor's degree in Business Administration in 1971.

Butler never forgot the encouragement and support he received from his friends, especially Andy Mulcahy who was the Dean of Students at Western New England at the time. Mulcahy presented Butler for his induction into the Downes Hall of Fame.

Butler's daughter Dawn Butler noted that attending Western New England was an important turning point in her father's life. "I was blessed to be able to experience a bit of that time when we returned in 2000 for his induction into the Hall of Fame.  He was honored, touched and humbled by that experience," she said.

A valued mentor and coach

After his graduation, Butler worked in the business sector for two years before embarking on a long, exciting, and successful career as an administrator, coach, educator, and mentor in Connecticut. He earned his Master's degree in Counseling at the University of Bridgeport in 1979.

Butler spent 35 years in the Connecticut Community College system working in such diverse areas as Student Affairs, Financial Aid, Counseling, and Drug & Alcohol Abuse Awareness.

Butler also coached men's basketball at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, CT, Waterbury State Technical College, South Central Community College in New Haven, and Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. He compiled a combined 305-112 record (73.1%) and was the Region XXI Coach of the Year once and top Conference coach four times.

Several of his players earned conference, regional, and All-American accolades.

Butler retired from Naugatuck Valley where he served as the Director of Financial Aid and Veterans Affairs and moved to Florida where he spent the last nine years of his life.

Another big moment in his life occurred in 1993 when he reconnected with Carolyn Wallace at her 20th Class Reunion. Carolyn had dated Butler briefly while the two were in college and heard he was playing in the alumni basketball game. The couple started dating after the reunion and got married three years later.

Never forgotten

Four decades later, people still remember the excellence, grace, and passion that Butler displayed on the court and in life.

One of his fondest moments came last year when he attended the inaugural Real Harlem Basketball Players Reunion.

"Rodney was a 'simple man' to quote him," said Carolyn. "He was very surprised and humbled upon hearing the accolades he received from his friends at the Harlem Reunion. One man on the podium referred to him as the Unsung Hero. I'm so grateful to have shared a very full and loving 21 years with him."

Another close friend was Tom Wiggerton, a fellow New Yorker and 1974 Western New England grad.

"Our trip to Harlem was Butler's last," Wiggerton wrote in an email to Carolyn. "Rodney saw many of his childhood friends and his eyes glowed from excitement. They talked about different games they played against one another. Butler was away from New York City for more than 40 years, but for those who knew him, it was like yesterday. He was loved by all the old timers who knew him and the kids who were told stories about him."

Hunter, who helped mentor Butler when he was a youth, was impressed with Butler's dedication to helping others.
"Rodney and I would get together and talk about a lot of things. He took the time to educate a lot of young people at the junior college level. He was always trying to help them prepare for their futures, not as an athlete, but as a person," Hunter commented.

In addition to his wife Carolyn, Butler is survived by two daughters, Keisha and Dawn; three sons, Rodney, Kareem, and Shawn; five sisters, Gladys, Gloria, Melba, Nora, and Tracey, and one brother, Mohammed. Butler is also survived by eight grandchildren, Deyonte, Dontavias, Tyson, Mikayla, Octavia, Eunique, Jesiah, and X'avius, and two brothers-in-law, Greg Guy and Robert S. Wallace.

To honor Rodney's memory, contributions may be made to the American Diabetes Association, 2080 Silas Deane Highway, Rocky Hill, CT 06067 or to the American Heart Association, 5 Brookside Drive, Wallingford, CT 06492.