He’s been with the team less than a month, but Caron Butler has already spread one of his favorite sayings across the Thunder locker room.
“Just when you think you can’t, UConn,” Reggie Jackson recited with a friendly eyeroll.
An example of Butler’s rare ability to capture the ear of his teammates. But also an ode to the school he once starred and still loves.
Butler is a proud member of the University of Connecticut fraternity. He played there from 2000-02, winning Co-Big East Player of the Year and leading them to the Elite Eight. And he remains among their proudest fans, a vocal supporter of the current Huskies squad, which has made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 as a seven seed.
UConn faces Iowa State on Friday night in New York.
“I’m excited for them,” Butler said. “They continue to shock people and prove people wrong.”
On arrival in Oklahoma City, Butler found some familiar faces, a pack of former Huskies who share an affinity for the program.
Backup center Hasheem Thabeet was a star at UConn from 2006-09, the defensive anchor for a Final Four team his junior year. And he was part of one of the greatest college games in history, compiling 19 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in the six-overtime marathon against Syracuse in the 2009 Big East Tournament.
And right after Thabeet left, Jeremy Lamb arrived. The Thunder’s second-year guard was an immediate contributor for the Huskies, averaging double-digits in both his seasons, which included a national championship in 2011.
“It’s UConn,” Lamb said. “We do what we do.”
Even though the trio never played college basketball together, they still share a unique bond. A UConn brotherhood that stretches beyond eras.
Every summer, a ton of the former players get together for an alumni game in Storrs. They meet the current team, share stories with each other and reminisce about life.
“Reflection, man,” Butler said of those summer get-togethers. “Takes you back to Day 1 and those great situations. Just really honored to be a part of it. You get back and the young guys ask you questions, pick your brain. It’s a special connection.”
And it’s a connection the Thunder couldn’t be happier about housing in OKC. Beyond the current trio, Sam Presti has a history of bringing on former Huskies, including current trainer Joe Sharpe (who held the same position at UConn for nine years) and Kevin Ollie, the current UConn coach who played for the Thunder in 2010.
“Funny how some of those things work, how those guys all happened to have lineage,” Presti said. “We talk a lot about the type of character we look for in players. One thing about the players from UConn, generally they’re pretty tough-minded. They’re physical guys. They’ve played in big games, and they’ve played with other elite players.”
And now that this trio is together in OKC – during college basketball’s showcase event – they are able to follow the current team while razzing their locker room rivals.
The Thunder has a roster full of players from big-time colleges. But after the Baylor loss on Thursday, only Russell Westbrook’s UCLA Bruins and the Huskies are still alive. And you better believe they let people know about it.
“That’s all they talk about, every day,” Perry Jones said. “UConn this, UConn that. Something about Caron being one of the UConn greats.”
“A lot of guys can’t talk about the tournament anymore because they aren’t in it,” Butler joked. “So they have to be quiet and watch UConn.”
For at least one more night.