ON THE REBOUND

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble

After surviving a near fatal car accident, local basketball star Josh Butler is fighting his way back to the court.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 1.48.52 PMWhen Josh Butler strolled into my office two years ago, he radiated undeniable swagger. Six-foot-seven with an electrifying smile, Butler was bound for the big time. The twenty-two-year-old Nantucket native had just inked a contract to play pro basketball in Spain, a feat made all the more dazzling by the fact that he was one of the only islanders to ever make it to the pros. “I invented the slam dunk on Nantucket,” he joked with me, reminiscing about his days playing center for the Whalers. Cool and confident, Butler left my office with a firm handshake, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was destined to be a star. But a little over a year later, instead of fighting for a spot on the starting lineup in Spain, Josh Butler was fighting for his life in a hospital bed.

On a frigid night in January 2015, Butler was driving through South Dakota en route to Florida where he was going to train with another team. He lost control of his car due to icy conditions and collided with two other vehicles, one of which was a semi-truck. Butler suffered traumatic brain injury, as well as a broken ankle and broken sternum. When news of the accident reached the island, the Nantucket community held its collective breath as Butler underwent extensive surgeries. There were candlelit vigils and a flood of support around the Butler family. Thankfully, Butler pulled through, but the road to recovery was going to be long and painful. He was lucky to be alive. “Please keep the prayers going,” Butler’s mother wrote to the Nantucket community. “We are witnessing a miracle. God is not done yet.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 1.49.06 PMFast-forward a year and a half and Josh Butler is doing crunches on the floor of the gym in the Nantucket Hotel. His trainer Jonathan Rodriguez counts out the reps slowly. “Breathe Josh, breathe…8…9…10. Okay, relax.” Butler flops back on the mat. “What are you tired?” Rodriguez teases.

“Hey! Don’t you forget,” Butler fires back, “I can still dunk on you!” The two men break out in laughter that echoes off the gym mirrors. “For all I went through, I still haven’t forgotten my goofiness,” he says, pushing himself up to his knees. Indeed, Butler’s body and brain may have been put through hell, but his ebullient personality seems to have emerged from that car wreck completely unscathed. The star quality that beamed in my office two years ago is just as blinding today as it was then.

Making his way around the gym with one hand on Rodriguez’s shoulder for balance, Butler makes small talk with others lifting weights and stretching. “Working hard?” he asks one, before bursting out in booming laughter that’s too infectious not to join with your own. Every now and again, he stops abruptly in his tracks. “Wait, wait, wait…quiet for a second,” he says dramatically. We all hush, thinking maybe something is wrong, but then Butler starts singing the chorus to the song playing overhead. He laughs out again, “I love that song!”

Watching Butler move playfully about the gym reminds me of clips of Ali floating around the ring in between his legendary training sessions, when he would joke with trainers, reporters and fans. The prizefighter was the sun, and everyone else in the room were just planets drawn by his gravity. So it is with Butler — he’s a star unto himself.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 1.49.21 PMLying on his back and bringing his knees up to his chest, Butler follows Rodriguez’s directions for the next exercise. “We’re really focusing on Josh’s hips and his core,” the trainer explains. “This will help with his walking and his balance.” The damage to Butler’s brain has impacted the use of his right arm as well as his ability to walk. “We’re just trying to get him back on his feet,” says Rodriquez, however, Butler has something else in mind: He wants to get back on the court.

Before his accident, Butler had just wrapped up a season playing in Spain and was exploring playing for another professional team. Today, he’s eager to regain his strength and get back on the court in some capacity, and he’s been making great strides toward doing so. When Butler was wheeled into Nantucket High School’s gym for a benefit game last May, he was a shadow of his former self. Today he’s getting back in form, and standing tall, strong and muscular. More importantly, that unfailing confidence that impressed me back when we first met continues to radiate. Perhaps therein lies the truth behind a champion: physicality and talent are nothing without the power of the human spirit.

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