'He Was an Underdog:' the Inspiring Life and Puzzling Death of Rasual Butler

Beloved as a teammate, father and son, the former longtime NBA veteran died almost two years ago in a car crash that still has those who loved him trying to understand how it happened.
photo of Justin RobertsonJustin Robertson@@justinjournoContributor IDecember 10, 2019

Rasual Butler grabbed the keys to his black Range Rover and got in the car with his partner, Leah LaBelle. It was a Tuesday night, Jan. 30, 2018. The former NBA player and the contemporary R&B singer headed to Pinz, a bowling alley in Los Angeles' Studio City. It sits just north of the fervor of West Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley. Pinz had become a regular hangout for Butler, LaBelle and Butler's daughter, Raven. It was close to home. On this night, Raven decided not to go.

Butler was coming off a fun season with the Ball Hogs and Power in Ice Cube's BIG3 league, where he ranked 14th in the league in scoring (11.8 points per game). It had been almost two years since he played his final NBA game with the San Antonio Spurs. As much as he enjoyed life after the NBA, he still yearned to play on the game's biggest stage. Friends say he was planning to make an NBA comeback. His body was in good shape. He felt he still had more to give.

After leaving Pinz, Butler and LaBelle went to another regular haunt called The Good Nite, a karaoke bar about five miles northeast of the bowling alley. Shortly after 2 a.m., they left the bar and drove west on Ventura Boulevard. Just a few minutes from where the Hollywood Freeway veers off to the north, Butler's Range Rover lost control around a dogleg curve in the road and hit three parking meters, a concrete wall and a light post before flipping over and landing inside an empty Marshall's parking lot. The vehicle faced the opposite direction to which it was traveling. The impact was loud enough that it was picked up on CCTV cameras a block and a half away from the crash site. It sounded like an explosion.

Butler, 38, and the 31-year old LaBelle died in that horrific car crash in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 2018. Police said speed was a factor in the crash and that Butler was clocking somewhere between 60 and 90 miles per hour along a retail hub where the speed limit is 30 mph. At the scene, the vehicle was unrecognizable; both Butler and LaBelle had to be cut out of it. The Los Angeles County coroner's report showed Butler had a heart blood alcohol level (BAC) of .118, above the legal limit of .08 percent, and traces of marijuana, methamphetamine and oxycodone in his body. LaBelle, a former American Idol contestant, had a BAC of .144.

The autopsy left Butler's family, friends, neighbors, coaches and former teammates at a loss as to why drugs were in his body and why he made a decision to drive home after hitting up bars that night.

Those who didn't know him probably wondered if this was just another professional athlete who fell down the slippery slope of substance misuse. Those who knew him say that's not who he was, yet his sudden death left everyone sorting through a lot more questions than answers.

Being a middle-aged role player looking for an NBA job isn't an ideal situation. But that's where Butler found himself when the Toronto Raptors waived him in March 2012. He had spent almost half a season with the Raptors, but with the team headed into the draft lottery, there wasn't much reason to keep someone who likely wouldn't be around when things got better.

Butler was 32 at the time and there weren't any immediate offers coming his way when he was let go. So he did what he did best and went to work on his game. He was ruthless and unflinching. He spent the next 18 months with longtime friend and renowned NBA trainer Joe Abunassar, hitting the gym six days a week, four hours a day in Las Vegas, all to get back into the NBA.

"We had many conversations about his career, on the phone, texting, post-workouts," Abunassar says. "There were times where even his agent doubted him.

"He wasn't a wild guy. He was a guy that created order on teams. He was there for young guys to talk to. That really was a huge value later in his career. He had tremendous confidence and believed he should be in the NBA and was going to get back. That was it."

After an impressive season playing in the BIG3, Rasual Butler had aims of trying to catch back on in the NBA before his death last year.
After an impressive season playing in the BIG3, Rasual Butler had aims of trying to catch back on in the NBA before his death last year.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After being selected by the Miami Heat with the 53rd overall pick in 2002, Butler played for eight NBA clubs over a 13-year career. Though he started out as a rare high school scoring talent, he evolved into a tall wing who could shoot threes and shut down offensive weapons—the classic three-and-D player. Former coaches and trainers claim that if there was an NBA Hall of Fame for work ethic, Butler would be in it.

He wasn't an All-Star, but he made people around him better, and his influence on the teams he played for left lasting impressions.

With the Hornets, he was part of the team that played in Oklahoma City for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina forced it to relocate from New Orleans. "[Butler] will always be remembered in Oklahoma as one of the players who introduced us to the highest level of basketball," wrote the Oklahoman's Berry Tramel. When he was with the Clippers in 2009-10, Butler notched career highs in minutes per game, scoring and three-pointers; his 145 threes set a team record. And when he was picked up by the Tulsa 66ers, Oklahoma's D-League affiliate, he averaged 17.8 points per game and was named the D-League Impact Player of the Year.

When Abunassar and Butler first started working together in 2007, the 6'7", 215-pound forward wasn't much of a weightlifter or an adherent to optimal nutrition. But he wanted to go from a young, talented guy to a true professional through rehab, recovery, food, weights—the lot. To Abunassar, who's been training NBA players for 25 years, Butler's focus was unbreakable.

Eventually, his work with Abunassar after the Toronto release landed him his next NBA job with the Indiana Pacers in 2013. He impressed head coach Frank Vogel with a high-production stint in the NBA Summer League and by outplaying a lot of the core starters in training camp.

"He loved the game too much," says Vogel, now the Lakers head coach. "He wasn't going to relent that easily. We just admired he didn't quit. We felt he still had something to give to a team.

"He shot the ball well from the three-point line. He was always a sneaky good athlete. He showed me that he had a lot of gas in the tank."

More than a reliable wing and defensive role player, Butler became a locker room leader for a team that won 56 games. At one point during the season, Butler approached Vogel and said they should watch the film Lone Survivor as a team as a way to bring the group together. So Vogel canceled practice and followed his advice.

"It's not easy to be a leader when you're a role player on a team," Vogel says. "But he really was. He was the guy people gravitated to and felt comfortable around and enjoyed being around, and they respected him."

Butler was a man of many layers. He could talk music, fashion or politics in the same conversation. He was also a goofball, sometimes putting lotion inside his teammates' shoes before they got back to the locker room. Still, he maintained a respect for the game and his teammates.

Patty Mills was drawn into Butler's orbit in 2015 when Rasual joined the Spurs. Butler peppered his new teammate with questions about the franchise's ways and development program. The two formed a close bond and generated a good amount of banter. (Mills used to call Butler's three-point shot "the big windup" because he took so long to shoot the ball.) Though Butler was a newcomer in San Antonio, it didn't feel that way to Mills.

Over the course of his 13-year NBA career, Butler won over coaches with his work ethic and teammates with his easygoing nature.
Over the course of his 13-year NBA career, Butler won over coaches with his work ethic and teammates with his easygoing nature.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"For him to be able to have such a big impact in such a short time, being in San Antonio, it's unusual," Mills says. "It takes a long time on NBA teams to earn trust when people are hopping all over the place."

The pair spent time together on and off the court, where Mills learned Butler was more than just a basketball player.

In December 2015, the two wore Santa suits while volunteering for a San Antonio nonprofit that gives presents to underprivileged youth around the holidays.

"The way he presented himself and carried himself, it was coming from a very genuine place," Mills says. "Seeing the impact he was having on these familiesI'll never forget that moment."

Around 10:30 p.m. on the night of Butler's crash, he accidentally pocket-dialed his daughter, Raven Butler, on FaceTime. The pair chatted for a few minutes. Rasual cracked a few jokes, smiled and told her: "I love you. Miss you. I'll see you soon."

That was the last time she spoke to him.

A California Public Records Act request revealed three 911 calls were made reporting the accident between 2:28 a.m. and 2:32 a.m. One person said they heard a loud traffic collision. Another claimed it was a multiple vehicle collision. The third caller gave details of the black Range Rover striking a wall and that the two people in the car appeared unconscious. Police arrived shortly after and pronounced Butler and LaBelle deceased.

At 8 a.m., Raven woke to a knock at the door. Usually, Rasual would answer the door, so she went back to sleep. There was another knock. This time Raven got up and checked her dad's room, and he wasn't there. She went to the door. Standing there were two police officers. One had a nondescript brown bag in his hand. "Do you know Rasual Butler?" one officer asked. "Yes, that's my dad," Raven said. They delivered the gut-wrenching news that he died eight minutes away and gave her the brown bag that confirmed his identity: his watch and wallet. Raven went into shock.

"I sat there and cried and then thought about what would he do in this situation?" the 21-year-old says. "I don't remember too much after that. I sat on the couch and felt numb."

Sitting with Raven at a West Hollywood coffee shop just beyond the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, there are some striking resemblances to Rasual: the infectious smile; the lanky, athletic build.

Raven says watching her dad play in the NBA inspired her to play basketball in middle school and high school, but she didn't take it as seriously as he did. She says Rasual never forced her to play basketball and encouraged her to follow her passion for music. Raven now interns at a music studio in L.A. and DJs at small parties.

Rasual and Raven at a school graduation.
Rasual and Raven at a school graduation.Photo via Raven Butler's Twitter account

"I remember when he was a rookie at Miami, and there was a game against Philly," Raven recalls. "I was sitting with my uncle, and Dad came and grabbed me to stand with him during the national anthem. After that, I watched every game. I became obsessed with it. We bonded over it."

Raven and Rasual also shared a love of tattoos. They each got the letters "RR"Raven and Rasual—printed on their hands so each time they shook hands, they felt more connected. Rasual also had a half-man, half-bird tattoo across the middle of his chest and rib cage with the words, "Two hearts beat as one." The bird represented Raven—the man, Rasual.

Rasual was never one to overstay his welcome. When things didn't go his way, he got up, moved on and got on with it. Raven is trying to do the same, but it's not easy.

After Rasual's funeral Feb. 11, 2018, at Tom Gola Arena on the campus of La Salle University, where he played for four years, Raven took his ashes. She keeps them with her at all times in a small white box and has plans to get a marble urn with Rasual's photo on it. When she looks at the ashes, she thinks of conversations they used to have. She thinks of his smile and the big hugs he used to give her.

"I wanted braids as a kid because he had braids," she says. "We were very close. He protected me."

Life was wearing for Rasual's mother, Cheryl Taylor. She was just out of high school when she had Rasual. Her partner, Felix Cheeseborough, was a handyman who worked long days. The family lived in a brick house along South Philadelphia's Point Breeze Avenue a few doors down from the police division and her parents' grocery store.

"It was pretty interesting times. My parents had the store. So my mother was there to babysit," she says. "We made it work for us."

Within a year of meeting Felix, Cheryl became pregnant, and Felix Rasual Cheeseborough was born May 23, 1979, at eight pounds and three-quarters of an ounce. After looking through a book of baby names, his parents decided Rasual would be the middle name: Arabic for "messenger of God," or prophet. (Cheryl later re-christened her son Rasual Butler in honor of her great-grandmother's last name.)

One evening in 1987, Rasual's father left his sister's house when someone approached him from behind and stabbed him in the chest, Cheryl says. He died that night, a murder that is still unsolved.

"That was a trying time," she says. "How do you explain to your son, who's like six years old, that his father's gone? It was difficult. I had to stand tall and be strong. I knew I had to take care of myself by any means. And, don't give up."

In the weeks and months following his dad's death, Rasual became rebellious. So Cheryl and her family decided he should live with his grandparents, whom he respected, and surrounded him with male family members who could protect him. He lived with them until he went to college.

His grandfather Bob Toomer Sr. did all the things a loving father would do: He watched all of Rasual's basketball games from high school to college to the NBA. He became a sounding board for his on- and off-court struggles. He played the role Felix wasn't there to play.

When Rasual was old enough, Bob put him to work at the family's neighborhood store. When groceries came in, Rasual would stock the shelves. Before school, he'd have breakfast there and then help move the bread into the store. After school, he'd help pack groceries for the customers. Every day, Rasual would watch his grandparents rise at 4:30 a.m. to run the grocery and, in so doing, become foundations of the community. It was a template Rasual would carry into his basketball career.

When Rasual was 12, he got an invitation to attend a basketball camp at Drexel University. Already, he had fallen in love with sports. His grandfather had encouraged him to play when he was younger. So he tried boxing and baseball, where he excelled at third base, and he watched his uncle play college football and basketball. But the camp at Drexel challenged him in ways other sports had not. It grabbed him. And when he got home, he turned his focus exclusively to hoops.

It wasn't until when Rasual attended Roman Catholic High School, though, that his wiry frame and shot started to show promise. His development was gradual but determined, according to coach Dennis Seddon.

"The thing I always remember is his spirit and enthusiasm for the game," Seddon says. "And what it meant to go out and play hard. I attribute that to where he grew up in South Philly, having to be a hard-nosed kid to survive. There was no such thing as fooling around at practice or in a game. He was intense on the court, and there was no letting up."

In 1998, his senior year, Butler exploded, averaging 26.7 points per game while making the All-Catholic team and the All-City team. He also received the Markward Award, given to the best player in the Philadelphia area.

"He was a little bit ahead of his time," Seddon says. "At his height, to be able to shoot the ball the way he did, you didn't see that kind of thing all that much.

"He loved what he was doing. He always talked about his individual game. If he could become the best player he could, we could become the best team we could. He got that."

In time, he was recognized by some of the biggest college hoops programs in the country and started receiving a flood of recruiting offers from the likes of Kentucky, Syracuse, Connecticut and Providence.

But Butler was a local kid at heart. He chose to play at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Donnie Carr met Rasual Butler two blocks from Butler's house on Manton Street. It was at an outdoor basketball court at the neighborhood's Chew Playground. The two were in grade school at the time, and Butler had challenged Carr to a game of one-on-one. Carr, who was two years older and considered one of the best young talents in Pennsylvania, schooled Butler, who responded by telling him, "Yo, play me again." Butler proceeded to lose 10 straight games before Carr said he couldn't play him anymore. "If it was up to Rasual, we'd still be playing today," says Carr, now an assistant coach at La Salle.

South Philadelphia's Chew Playground courts are where Butler and Donnie Carr met as rivals and eventually became life-long friends.
South Philadelphia's Chew Playground courts are where Butler and Donnie Carr met as rivals and eventually became life-long friends.Photo courtesy of Donnie Carr.

The two became inseparable after that. They spent their summers pushing each other on the court, looking for pickup games in other neighborhoods and working on their shots (Butler's favorite was the corner three). They both attended Roman Catholic High School and were standout players before becoming storied players at La Salle University.

Nowadays, on the wall above his office cubicle, Carr has two framed jerseys, both with the No. 45 that Butler wore during his years with the Miami Heat and at La Salle. Butler's statistics from his final year with the Explorers are pinned next to Carr's computer as a reminder of his accomplishments.

"He was an underdog," Carr says. "You can find guys that were more talented than Rasual, but in terms of work ethic, heart, dedication, he had the elite work ethic of a Kobe or LeBron. Nobody thought he was going to be that good of a basketball player. That was his motivation to become the best."

Today, the neighborhood where both grew up is gentrifying. It's home to sardine bars, outdoor jazz and dive bars. When Butler and Carr were kids, it was a minefield of gang turf wars, armed robberies and the beginnings of a crack epidemic. Some of Butler's friends either went to jail or died from gang violence.

"When you walk out of your house … you never know what's around the corner when you were in the ghetto like Point Breeze was back then," Carr says. "People would say, 'You're right in the heart of the belly of the beast.' That was always our motivation to do better and be better."

Carr remembers speaking to Butler on the phone one week before his shocking death. It's something they did regularly. Carr was in Massachusetts for a basketball game; Butler was in Point Breeze for his grandma's birthday.

Donnie Carr's cubicle at La Salle also doubles as a makeshift shrine to his friend and former teammate.
Donnie Carr's cubicle at La Salle also doubles as a makeshift shrine to his friend and former teammate.Photo courtesy of Donnie Carr

They talked about the state of basketball at La Salle, potential business ideas helping at-risk youth in Philly and how Butler was thinking about giving the NBA another run. Butler told Carr he felt like he was just starting to scratch the surface of who he was. The conversation lasted two hours to the point where they both had to recharge their phones. They both signed off, "I love you, bro. Talk soon."

On the morning of Jan. 30, Cheryl Taylor was on a work break at Publix. She was living in Florida and excited to be back at a job after looking after her ill father for nine years. She called Rasual, and they chitchatted about family and how she had the next three days off. Rasual said he'd call back by the end of the week.

The next morning, at around 9:30 a.m., Cheryl had just woken up. She was cleaning the house, and there was a knock at the door. Her close friends came in, looked at her and sat her down. They told her Rasual and Leah were gone. At first, it didn't sink in. Cheryl thought they meant Rasual was moving. Then it hit her.

"I was lost," Taylor says. "Numb. Confused. I was turning around in circles. I was still looking for my son. When I looked at my phone, I had so many missed calls, so many text messages, I just looked at the phone. I didn't know what to do. I cried."

She's not the only one still grappling with Rasual's death.

Vogel saw a breaking news alert on his phone about the fatal car crash and says it is still difficult to talk about it and to digest what happened.

"It was a devastating type of thing to hear about one of your players, particularly someone as revered as Rasual," Vogel says. "You ask yourself a lot of questions about why. You really just go through that natural grieving process."

Patty Mills found out just like everybody else, through breaking news alerts on social media.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks, to be honest. It was pretty heavy," Mills says. "The outpouring of support on social media, you really get a sense of how well respected he was around the NBA of all ages. It wasn't just the veterans. It goes to show the impact that he had on everyone."

Joe Abunassar remembers getting a text from an NBA player the morning after Butler's crash with a blurb of the news story. He said it was one of those "Huh?" moments. It didn't make any sense to read that Rasual was involved in a car crash with drugs in his body and a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.

"There's corporate executives smoking pens at their desks right now. This is California. It just really wasn't who he was at all," said Abunassar. "Anybody who has made it as long as he has—that's just not his lifestyle."

Indeed, people close to Butler say that while he liked to have fun and throw parties for his friends, he also was an advocate for designated driving when he was in Miami, where nightclub life at South Beach was a constant lure.

Almost two years after her son's crash, Cheryl Taylor is still struggling to understand Rasual's death.
Almost two years after her son's crash, Cheryl Taylor is still struggling to understand Rasual's death.Photo courtesy of Cheryl Taylor

Rasual's uncle Robert Toomer Jr., Bob Toomer Sr.'s son, was at work when he read a TMZ report that Butler had died. He said it felt like a bad dream. He called his wife to tell her to come home and to not read the news. He left work and walked in a daze to his mother's house. He cried all the way there.

"From the drugs they say was in his system, did someone put something in his drink? These are just some things we don't know," Toomer Jr. says. "But that wasn't the Rasual that I helped raise to be the man that he was."

Taylor says this is the first time she's talked openly about Rasual, what happened that fatal night and the unimaginable grief that followed. Part of her still believes this is not real, but then she remembers speaking with investigators in L.A., and the pain comes roaring back to her in waves. She has his photo as her iPhone wallpaper and wears his jeans and shirts. She lights a candle and says a prayer for him every night. January 2020 will mark two years since Rasual's death, and still she can't process how he's gone.

"I miss my son. I love my son. He was my life, my joy," she says. "I'm still trying to understand. In my heart, I can't answer that right now. But I know one day, I will be able to understand."


Justin Robertson is an Australian journalist living in Toronto. He has written for Vice, Sportsnet, the Guardian and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @justinjourno