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The legend who said ‘no’ to the Celtics

In the past 64 years, three outstanding southern Indiana High School Basketball stars have been drafted by the NBA’s Boston Celtics.  

Most recently, Romeo Langford, who starred at New Albany High School and played a one-and-done season at Indiana University, was drafted in 2019. The Celtics signed Romeo to a four-year contract worth $16.5 million. 

Of course, most everyone knows about Larry Bird, the legend, who signed with the Celtics for $3.25 million after his Indiana State Sycamores finished runner-up to Michigan State and Magic Johnson in the 1979 NCAA Final Four. Bird played his high school ball at Springs Valley High School in French Lick. 

And then there’s Jack Butcher.

After an outstanding high school career for Loogootee, Butcher went on to Memphis State where he developed into a fine NBA prospect. The Celtics drafted Butcher in 1957, right before their dynastic run in the 1960s and 1970s.

The difference for Butcher is he said no. 

Hard, humble beginnings

“I was about as poor as you can be,” Butcher, now a retired high school basketball coach, told me while we were sitting in his living room in December, less than a mile away from the gymnasium where his legend was born. 

When Butcher was just three months old, he lost his father. He was struck by a car while crossing a street. 

Photo courtesy of the Butcher Family

His mother worked in a local factory to support the family. 

“It was pretty hard for her to raise two boys and two girls, I guess,” he says now.

None of Butcher’s siblings finished high school, and his prospects were similar, with one exception: He played basketball.

He also knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to coach basketball. Call it an epiphany, or destiny, but Butcher knew he was going to be a coach. 

But if he was going to coach basketball, Butcher knew he would need a college degree. And he knew he would need a full scholarship just to attend.

“There was really not a lot of thought on going to college,” Butcher said. “I didn’t know whether I had applied myself well enough to go to college.”

If he was to go to college, basketball would have to get him there.

Enter Memphis State

A recruiting trip with a high school teammate to Indiana State was nice, but it ended without a scholarship offer. Western Kentucky showed some interest but, again, no offer. 

Fortunately for Butcher, his high school coach Leo Costello worked with new Memphis State head coach Eugene Lambert to arrange a workout for some graduating seniors in the area. Butcher made an impression.

Later that day, while Butcher was popping and selling popcorn at the local movie theater, Lambert dropped in and asked him to come play basketball for him in Memphis, Tennessee.

 Butcher recalled the discussion in his 2004 book “Butcher Ball”:

“There was no formal letter of intent offered. I had no idea what the scholarship included. All I know is we had consummated the deal for me to play ball at Memphis State between popcorn sales. It took only a few moments to accept his offer, yet it was to have a profound effect on my life. I was about to go from popping popcorn for a living to spending the next fifty years playing and coaching basketball.”

College, the army and marriage

The Tigers finished Butcher’s freshman season 22-9. He didn’t play much that year, but that did not keep him from enjoying some of the benefits of being on a major college basketball team. 

Memphis State traveled to Hawaii that year. Later, on the same trip out west, the team visited Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Butcher and his teammates met Bob Hope on one of the movie sets.

Later that season, Butcher’s mother suffered a heart attack. It just so happened that Memphis State was playing in Murray, Kentucky, just a few hours away from Loogootee at the time. Coach Lambert allowed Jack to go and see his mom in the hospital.

The next season the Tigers regressed to a 10-14 record. The highlight of the season for Butcher was a trip to New York where the team scrimmaged against the NBA’s New York Knicks.

After a pretty uneventful sophomore season for Butcher, big changes were on the horizon. That summer he was drafted into the Army. 

Butcher, a man who has a basement full of memorabilia from his life, said to me, “Gosh, I wished I had kept that letter.”

While on leave from Fort Knox, Butcher married his high school sweetheart, Rita Jones, in the summer of 1954. And after completing two years of service, he returned to Memphis State. 

In his junior year, the Tigers improved to 20-7 and made the NCAA Tournament but lost in the first round. Butcher scored 10 points in that game, but again, he really did not play much that year. 

Over the summer Butcher considered leaving school. A coaching job at a parochial grade school was an option, but coaching at that level was not his destiny.

Then Memphis State hired a new coach, and things changed for Butcher his senior year. He earned more playing time and had found his game. The team played so well they were looking for a bid into the then-more desirable National Invitational Tournament (NIT).

“It was a pretty famous event back then,” Butcher told me. “That was the first time Memphis State had arrived on the national scene. Our school officials were kind of stalling around because they were wanting to go to the NIT as opposed to the NCAA. They were waiting for an invitation to the NIT and they eventually did get one.”

Butcher starred in the NIT and was named to the all-tournament team. In the final game at Madison Square Garden, the Tigers fell 84-83 to Bradley. Butcher scored 21 points.

Butcher keeps his draft letter

A couple of months later, Butcher received another draft notice – only this one was from the Boston Celtics. The Celtics had selected Butcher in the 1957 NBA Draft.

But by this time Butcher had two children. And he really had no interest in playing basketball anymore. 

Butcher explains in his book:

I know people are curious about why I did not at least explore the possibility of playing professional basketball. To be honest, I have asked the same question of myself at different times over the years. The lure of big money was not the issue in 1957 as it seems to be today, and professional basketball was not what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a coach. And I felt I was born to coach.”  

To be honest, some of the motivation for writing this article was because I am one of the people who is curious about why Butcher didn’t explore the opportunity with the Celtics. The Celtics! The Celtics that won the NBA Championship in 1957. The Celtics who would win eight consecutive championships from 1959-1966 – plus titles in 1968 and 1969 for good measure. 

Butcher could have been right there in the middle of it, running up and down the parquet floor at the old Boston Garden alongside Bill Russell, playing for Red Auerbach, in what is still the NBA’s greatest dynasty.

When I brought up the issue of not meeting with the Celtics and how much he questioned his decision over the years, Butcher admits he has thought about it.

“I wonder sometimes myself why I didn’t go ahead,” Butcher said. “Because in a way I think somewhere along the line it was suggested maybe I was going to be the heir apparent to Bob Cousy who was small. 

“Hell, I don’t know.” 

After a long pause, he started telling me about a conversation he had with his wife a few hours earlier about how bad he was walking.

We both laughed.

Sam Jones says yes

The top draft pick for the Celtics in 1957 was Sam Jones. While they never met, Butcher and Jones shared a lot in common.

Both experienced the loss of a father early in life. They were raised by their mothers. Both were poor, and basketball scholarships changed their lives. And both Butcher and Jones wanted to be basketball coaches.

Butcher’s coaching career started in the fall of 1957. Jones, who played for North Carolina Central, was set to begin his career in coaching at the same time. He had a job lined up coaching for West Charlotte High School and, like Butcher, he was hesitant to go to Boston. 

Jones would have coached that fall if the school could have increased his contract by another $500. Jones told the Washington Post in an interview from 1998, “The guy said, ‘We’d like to give it to you Sam, but we don’t have it.’”

Jones did eventually coach after spending 12 years with the Celtics. During his career, he was a part of 10 NBA Championship-winning teams.

Photo courtesy of the Butcher Family

What makes a legend

As a player and a coach, there is no doubt William Jackson Butcher is a legend. During his high school career, Loogootee won three sectional championships. (Indiana did not have class basketball until the 1997-98 season.) 

Butcher set a sectional record for most points in a game, 31. The record stood for seven years before being broken by one of his Loogootee players, Wilmer Wittmer, who scored 45. While playing at Memphis State, his senior year he was selected to the 1957 NIT All-Tournament team. Memphis State inducted him to the university’s hall of fame in 1995. And an automatic legend status should be given to anyone drafted by the Boston Celtics.

Butcher coached his beloved Loogootee Lions for 45 years. He states in “Butcher Ball: 

“I doubt my record of 45 years at one school will ever be broken. Surviving six superintendents, eight different principals, and many times that many school board members at one school, is a record which will be very difficult to equal.” 

In 1968 Loogootee moved from their “old gym” into a new arena. Seating capacity went from 1,000 to 4,571. It is important to note that enrollment in Butcher’s first year at Loogootee was around 150 students. For his last year in 2002, the number of students topped out around 310.  

The population of the town in 1960 was 2858 and in 2000 the population was 2741, obviously, not a growing community. It wasn’t like Coach Butcher had a large pool of players to draw from. Yet the results he achieved are truly amazing.

Loogootee won 17 sectionals, 6 regionals, 2 Semi-State titles, 1 Class-1A Elite Eight and 1 Class-1A State Runner Up. He coached 11 players that scored more than 1,000 points in their careers. Junior Gee and Bill Butcher (Jack’s oldest son) were both selected as Indiana All Stars. 

Butcher was named Indiana High School Basketball Coach of the Year in 1970 and 1975. He was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991. His 806 wins made him the winningest coach in Indiana High School Basketball, an honor he held for nearly 17 years. 

He’s also been awarded keys to the cities of Loogootee, Indianapolis and Memphis. He is a Sagamore of the Wabash. The “new” gym at his high school has been named The Jack Butcher Sports Arena, and the street leading up to the arena is called Butcher Boulevard.

Jack has been married to Rita for almost 68 years. They have seven children. The three Butcher boys all had outstanding careers playing for their dad. Butcher is proud of the fact that all seven of his kids have college degrees and master’s in their chosen fields. These seven have provided Jack and Rita with more than 15 grandchildren and even a few great grandchildren. His family alone could make him legendary. 

As our visit came to an end, the coach seemed to get a little nostalgic. 

He solemnly said, “I left what I always thought was a dream job and in a sense it kind of broke my heart.” He paused for a few seconds and then quickly changed the subject.

Legends have a way of controlling situations and making positive outcomes. William Jackson Butcher has done that all his life.

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