Was it worth it?

I was recently asked to submit an article for the Alumni newsletter by the UBC Men’s Basketball coach Kevin Hanson. I thought I’d share it here with you as well.

Hi. My name is Eric Butler. My time playing for the T-Birds (1992-1997) was an incredibly formative period of my life and I appreciate Kevin reaching out and giving me the chance to share my story and reconnect with the UBC community in this way.

I “walked on” to the T-Birds in 1992 as an 18 year old kid lacking the strength, skill and experience to play at the post-secondary level…although apparently with a high enough level of compete for UBC coach Bruce Enns to roll the dice with me.

I was lucky to walk into a competitive and supportive team culture led by veterans Derek Christiansen, Brian Tait and David Williscroft, which pushed me every day but never made me feel separate or “less than”.

Becoming a real basketball player was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Sometimes the hardest things are also the best things, and that was certainly the case for me during my years at UBC.

Through this struggle, I found my path in life.
I learned the meaning of hard work, dedication, persistence, focus. I learned to deal with pain. I learned to deal with losing. Eventually I learned how to win…as did our team.

My first couple of years were a rebuilding for the T-Birds after the departure of JD Jackson, Mike Clarke, and Jason Leslie in 1992. By the fall of 1994, I had become a starter and our team had found our identity. We would out-run, out-work and on most nights, out-score everybody in a very competitive Canada West league.

Although we were ranked as the top team in Canada for much of my final couple of seasons, we never won the big one. Too many heartbreakingly close calls to relive them all, but 1996 stings the most to this day.

After the University of Alberta knocked us out of Canada West finals and went on to win the National Championships in 1994 and 1995, we finally had their number in 1995/96. We went a perfect 6-0 against them, including a sweep in the Canada West finals. We were finally off to Nationals in Halifax after being snubbed for Wild Card berths the 2 previous seasons!

However, as we came down from the high of knocking off Alberta and started to prepare for Nationals, the throbbing in my foot, which had been irritating me for several months, became more of an incessant scream. Hearing the news that I had a fractured navicular and couldn’t weight bear for 3 months led to a few real screams…and a couple of tears as well.

As luck would have it, we met Alberta in the national semi-finals and just didn’t have enough to beat them a 7th time that year. We had such a close group of guys who played unselfishly, who could all score and who played full out on D to make up for our lack of size. Ken Morris was our All-Canadian who scored 20 a game, and John Dumont, Gerald Cole, Mark Tinholt, Brady Ibbetson and I all averaged double-digit scoring in a very modern spacing offensive system that saw us average close to 100 points a game.

In 1997, we were once again eliminated by a Canada West team that won the National Championship, but this time it was a UVIC team featuring Eric Hinrichsen. This was not how it was supposed to go.

“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.” — Napoleon Hill

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my basketball journey had really just begun. After graduating with a degree in psychology, I got a little help from the UBC Alumni network when JD Jackson set me up with his former team in Paris. My girlfriend (and now wife) Lesley and I headed over to France in the summer of 1997.

It was a huge leap to go from being a forward (4) in the CIAU to playing a shooting guard (2/3) in Europe against much older, more experienced professional players.

The next 8 years was a long series of highs and lows as my journey took me from France to England, to Austria and eventually to the German Bundesliga.

LOW- getting knocked out cold on a sucker punch by former Philadelphia 76er Ron Anderson (apparently he didn’t like the way I blocked him out)

HIGH- winning 25 straight league games in France

LOW- having to go to European courts to collect money that teams owed us…twice

HIGH- being awarded all the money owed to us…and a bunch more for a penalty

LOW- spending 6 weeks in England where our home basketball court was created by laying down linoleum and electricians tape

HIGH- playing with 2 UBC Alumni Dominic Zimmermann and Kyle Russell in Bayreuth, Germany

LOW- having our coach bet on our games (he says he only bet on us to win, but I’m skeptical to this day)

HIGH- winning the Austrian Cup with Canadian team-mates Joey Vickery and Richard Anderson

I’m often asked whether it was worth it and whether I’d be happy to have my own kids pursue this path. The answer is a definite YES….but unless you’re making as much money as JD Jackson was, or Conor Morgan will be, don’t stay too long.

Without the foundation I had learned at UBC, I would have never lasted more than a year or two in Europe. The lessons I had learned in how to deal with the pain, struggle and failure before eventually finding success was crucial for me being able to play basketball into my early 30s…and navigating a path for myself in the decade and a half since returning.

I came back to Vancouver in 2005 with 2 young daughters and a son soon to come…but had missed a decade of establishing my life in Canada getting furniture, cars, cell phones, jobs…all the things most people do in their twenties…or at least before they have kids. After a couple years of getting my feet on the ground back home, I was hired as a Firefighter in Delta, where I worked from 2008 to 2019.

In 2010, I also started a basketball training club called Split Second and brought in my former T-Bird teammate John Dumont to partner up with me. It was great to be back in the gym after a few years away from the game and to work with kids just starting out. John and I shared a strong belief in the importance of teaching the fundamentals and character development, John passed away in 2016, but this became the foundation of Split Second that lasts to this day.

The last decade of running Split Second, firefighting and raising 3 kids has been a whirlwind for me. I’ve loved the challenge of running my own business and the growth that it has demanded from me. I am learning a lot more about marketing, accounting, contracts, human resources…and of course, leadership and coaching basketball, than I would have ever thought.

However, my real passion is watching and helping kids find their path in life through basketball.

I suspect that for you, like me and most alumni reading this, basketball played an integral role in the person you’ve become. For me, basketball represented a passion, something that I could pour every ounce of myself into and see how much I could get out. I never became the best player, hoisted the biggest trophies or made millions of dollars playing…but I do know I became a better person through my involvement with the sport. To help other young athletes along this journey is something I get really excited by and why Split Second Basketball exists.

I’ve now stopped firefighting and lead a team of 6 full time coaches trying to deliver on this promise. We have a huge UBC connection, with David Wagner being one of our full time coaches, Jess Hanson a regular coach currently working about 25 hours a week, and more than a dozen current and former UBC players coaching with us on a part-time basis. We also have many T-Bird alumni who have their kids training with us and our Cobra club teams often come out to play at half-time of UBC games.

We run training programs out of 8 gyms in Vancouver, plus the Olympic Oval in Richmond and Southpointe Academy in Delta. We are currently navigating our way through COVID, a challenging time for anybody involved in youth sports. However, the lessons I learned as a young man more than 25 years playing for the T-Birds give me great confidence that we will get through this and come out even stronger on the other side.