The First Amendment has been getting a work out recently. The number of high profile defamation suits seems larger than ever. All these lawsuits took my mind to the NBA and defamation. Specifically, the lawsuit I remember that came one fateful day in late April 2000, when the Knicks were about to play the Raptors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Raptors head coach Butch Carter filed a defamation suit against former Raptor and then-current Knick Marcus Camby claiming that Camby had besmirched Carter’s good name by calling him a liar and someone no players liked.
The NBA is no stranger to lawsuits relating to contracts. There are even a few lawsuits where players sue others over unpaid loans. Remember when Alex English sued Kareem? (They settled). Or when Maurice Taylor sued Eddy Curry? (I assume it settled but it was litigated extensively). But Carter’s suit was different. This was a suit where he alleged he was besmirched by a former player. Intuitively, this lawsuit seems silly. Dissing former coaches is a tried-and-true tradition in the NBA. The criticism floats around the league for a bit and then is promptly forgotten by everyone else, who just assume the two people at issue hate each other. Suing a player for defamation? That seems to be more memorable and, even if successful, the victory could prove pyrrhic. Who wants to play for someone who will sue them to resolve a personal non-monetary dispute?
On top of that, defamation suits are hard to establish in general, and much harder still for public figures to prove. But sometimes the truth matters and it is theoretically possible a defamation suit wasn’t as crazy as it seemed on its face. Let’s go back in time and see how we got to a lawsuit and whether it makes more sense in context, as well as whether we can figure out what Carter was thinking.
Butch’s NBA Career
Any examination of this kerfuffle must start with Carter’s background before becoming a head coach. Carter was the oldest of seven siblings from Middletown, Ohio. He was a high school star and a serviceable college player for Indiana (11.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.1 apg as a senior) on a good team with several future pros (Isiah Thomas, Ray Tolbert, Mike Woodson, Jim Thomas, Randy Wittman). Carter was a second-round pick in the NBA and he bounced around the NBA for six season (through 1985-86) as a decent backup/low end starter. His best season was 1983-84 with the Pacers where he put up 13.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.8 apg, which was quite respectable for a role guy in college.
Butch’s Coaching Career
After retiring, Carter returned to Ohio and coached high school basketball and worked in business. At the same time, he was helping his younger brother, Cris Carter, who would go on to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. In 1987, Cris was a wide receiver at Ohio State and became embroiled in an NCAA scandal where he took loans from some shady agents in violation of rules. A Sports Illustrated story from 1987 noted that Butch was Cris’ guardian in some respects and “wanted Cris to follow the straight and narrow” and Butch worked to disentangle Cris from the situation.
At about the same time, Butch worked his way up the coaching ranks to college assistant to pro assistant coach by 1991. In 1997, Isiah was running the front office of the Toronto Raptors and hired Butch as an assistant coach for the team. Thomas had an eventful tenure running the expansion Raptors. He drafted Damon Stoudamire, Camby, and Tracy McGrady in successive years. Stoudamire started out great as a Rookie of the Year and Camby and McGrady ended up being better (but took a little time to develop).
Thomas was GM and part owner, but attempted to purchase full control of the team. When he was unable to raise the funds for full control, Thomas abruptly cashed out and resigned in November 1997. After Thomas left, his carefully built core bristled. Coach Darrell Walker, a Thomas loyalist, was notably agitated by the franchise and the team’s bad record. In particular, he took shots at the 18-year old rookie McGrady, who was their most important building block. In February 1998, the Raptors were an awful 11-38 and they traded Stoudamire because the Raptors felt they could not re-sign the pending free agent. Walker resigned in protest, telling the AP that: “I don’t mind coaching an expansion team, but I wanted to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t see any light.”
The organization was in total disarray. Carter was hastily named the interim head coach and sounded a positive attitude: “If you look at the trade statistically, it’s very close. What we need to do now is make these new players feel wanted.” Despite the positivity, the Raptors were even worse under Carter to finish the season (5-28). The Raptors kept Carter was head coach for the 1998-99 season anyway because he had a good rapport with McGrady and because, frankly, the organization needed a positive outlook after the traumatic ending to the Isiah/Stoudamire run.
Why did Toronto trade Camby?
Camby was a star college player at UMass for John Calipari and the Raptors took him with the second pick in the legendary 1996 NBA Draft. Like everyone, Camby’s time in Toronto was shaky because of the front office turmoil. On the court, he was pretty good but had a reputation for being soft because he was not physically strong (he was decidedly lanky for a big man) and had some injury struggles.
On top of that, early in the 1997-98 season, news broke that Camby had accepted money and prostitutes from an agent when Camby was in college. It’s debatable how much Camby could’ve been faulted for being a dumb college kid who was essentially blackmailed by a predatory agent. Nevertheless, between injuries and scandal, Camby’s stock was lower than it probably should’ve been. In fact, Camby led the NBA with 3.7 blocks per game in 1997-98 (12.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg as well) and was only 23. The Raps decided to trade him to the Knicks for the much older Charles Oakley after the season anyway.
Why dump Camby for a modest return? Was it an issue between Camby and Carter? There isn’t much pre-trade friction reported between Camby and Carter except this report indicating that Camby missed a late season meeting in 1998. The real answer seems to be money. A report from Dave D’Alessandro of the Newark Star-Ledger attributed the trade to Toronto not wanting to give Camby a big extension in the summer of 1999. D’Alessandro wrote that Camby “comes at the bargain rate for the simple reason that Toronto doesn’t want to re-sign him to a long-term deal this summer, which NBA teams can do with their own free agents after they complete the first two seasons of the standard three-year rookie deal…. and the Raptors have had trouble convincing their stockholders that endowing $40 million or $50 million to a relatively immature building block was a worthwhile investment.” So, this trade probably came way above Carter’s pay grade.
Carter v. Camby
Camby had a slow start in New York but famously helped take them to the 1998-99 Finals and did great thereafter. Meanwhile, in Toronto, Carter helped develop McGrady and young rookie star Vince Carter (no relation). Toronto missed the playoffs in 1998-99 but were very competitive (23-27) and both McGrady and Vince were getting buzz as a potential start duo.
In 1999-00, the Raptors were even better (45-37). VC and T-Mac continued to improve and Butch Carter was publicly getting credit for the continued positive vibes in Toronto. In April 2020, the Knicks and Raptors were meeting in the first round of the playoffs and that is when the Carter/Camby beef blossomed. On April 19, 2000, Camby, who by most accounts is a calm and amiable guy, did an interview where he called Butch Carter “a liar” because Carter promised that Camby would have a future in Toronto, yet Camby was traded a few days later. Camby further claimed that none of the Raptors players liked their coach.
How true were Camby’s claims?
The first question to consider in defamation is the truth. If Camby’s statements were true, then nothing else matter. If they were false (or arguably reckless as to truth), then the case still might get tossed but the standard of review is different. Thus, let’s start with the truth testing…
The answer seems to lie in the details of Carter’s tenure as coach. The win totals continued to go up three straight seasons but, in reality, despite the success on the court, Carter’s job status was still tenuous. GM Glen Grunwald, who had also played at Indiana, inherited the GM job when his boss Isiah left. Grunwald and Butch were not quite so tight (Grunwald played at Indiana and was friendly with Isiah. In fact, Grunwald later became Knicks GM when Isiah left New York). Butch was outspoken in the job and had a few issues that didn’t help his tenure:
-Butch and Cris wrote a book in Spring 2000 about their lives and, in one chapter, Butch accused his old Indiana coach Bobby Knight of using racial epithets at a player. According to Chris Young who wrote “Drive: How Vince Carter Conquered the NBA,” the anonymous player was thought to be Isiah. Young wrote that Grunwald was “still loyal” to Knight and backed Knight while “Carter felt betrayed by Grunwald for not backing up his story.” Isiah also was unhappy with the story and denied it.
-In the fall of 1999, Butch invited rapper Master P to training camp in a publicity stunt. Young wrote that Carter thought that the Raptors “could give [Master P] the last spot on the injured list for the season….[and Master P could] take some of the spotlight and pressure off of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.” Grunwald aborted that plan and it was another tension point and revealed how little control Butch had over personnel decisions.
-McGrady would be a free agent after the 1999-00 season and there was a lot of intrigue about whether he would resign with the Raps. The pressure grew as the team, and T-Mac, continued improving. At one point, Butch claimed there was a conspiracy engineered by the NBA to move T-Mac and Vince Carter to the United States, telling the Globe and Mail that “I think the league wants a guy like Vince Carter up in the States.” The NBA was clearly annoyed by these types of theories.
-Butch also stated out loud that the NHL Maple Leafs were more important to the Toronto ownership group than the Raptors. This was obviously true but not a great thing to say publicly to the people who sign your checks.
Okay, got all that but did Butch lie to Camby?
What we know from all of the above is that Carter had no control over where Camby was going. Even if he truly believed that Camby would be a foundational piece, at the time of their alleged conversation, Carter was an interim coach coming off of a horrible season in the end of 1997-98. Butch was lucky to make it to 1998-99, let alone make decisions about whether management would pay Camby $50 million. Even when he was having success, Grunwald didn’t even let Butch stash Master P on the injured list! So, there is no way Carter had any hand in any trade. Camby may have believed he did but the evidence indicates Carter wasn’t involved in the trade. It wouldn’t have killed Butch to call Camby and give a “good luck” phone call after the deal but that’s about all he owed Camby at that point.
Did the players hate Butch?
There is some pretty strong evidence that Butch Carter was not loved by his many players. Young wrote that the locker room had issues with Butch: “Those older players weren’t impressed with the neophyte coach. ‘He’s a control freak who’s losing control,’ said Oakley….’The ship is sinking, man,’ McGrady drawled. Some veteran players threatened to boycott the team’s annual Rap-Up dinner and charity auction, a normally lighthearted event that key sponsors and supports of the team pay upwards of $250 each to attend, until Carter promised them he would leave after a half-hour. When the coach stayed longer, they began walking out.” That’s pretty strong evidence that many players detested Carter and that Camby was telling the truth on that issue.
Regardless of objective and subjective truth, Carter apparently was ready to sue. On the eve of the playoff series, Jackie MacMullan of Sports Illustrated set the scene: “[w]hile Camby was at practice last Friday, his girlfriend was served with the lawsuit at Camby’s Larchmont, N.Y., house. The suit demanded $5 million in damages. The following afternoon, Carter said he would consider dropping the suit if Camby apologized.” I couldn’t find the complaint online but presumably the “liar” remark and that “players hate him” were the defamatory statements.
The reactions? MacMullan broke the cast of characters down:
-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said “the players burst out laughing.”
-Grunwald refused to comment “with a pained look.”
-Anonymous Raptor: “It doesn’t bother us. We already know Butch is nuts.” (This Raptor was “smiling” when he said this).
-Cris Carter: “What do you want me to say? He’s my brother.”
-The NBA: Russ Granik NBA Deputy Commissioner: “A coach suing a player over his public comments seems unprecedented and highly inappropriate.”
This sounds like everyone thought the lawsuit was a really bad idea, particularly when your employer and the NBA are visibly unhappy.
What was Butch thinking?
Nothing particularly good but there were few explanations why this lawsuit wasn’t totally ridiculous. Let’s review them:
A. Psychological warfare and, um, book sales?
MacMullan attempted to come up with rationales for why the suit might make sense: “[m]aybe it was psychological playoff warfare, as the Knicks suggested. Maybe it was a way to drum up interest in the brothers’ book. Or maybe it was, as Butch conceded, in part a ploy to deflect pressure from his young stars, Vince, 23, and Tracy McGrady, 20.”
If it was psychological warfare, it was pretty weak sauce. NBA disputes are settled on the court, winner-take-all and the last thing the Raps needed was to give the Knicks’ more motivation. Similarly, Vince and T-Mac might not feel less pressure when they are hounded with questions about what the hell their coach was doing. The book explanation was possible but not very good. Promoting a book at the potential expense of your team is a really bad look and, arguably, a breach of his employment contract (if it was true).
B. Bobby Knight strikes?
David Aldridge wrote an article for ESPN.com positing that the Bobby Knight controversy may have been the impetus. Aldridge noted that the Knight accusation was a big deal: “my minions tell me what [the Camby lawsuit is] really about is credibility. And Robert Montgomery Knight. Not necessarily in that order….You’ll recall that Carter accused Knight of uttering a racial slur against an unnamed African-American player who people believe to be Isiah Thomas. Just about everyone has denied it happened…. Make no mistake: the General has a lot of friends in the NBA. Friends who could, one supposes, make it hard on Butch Carter. So, my spies tell me, Carter felt that Camby’s public statements accusing him of being a liar were part of a smear campaign against his credibility. How so? Well, Camby’s current agent, Rick Kaplan, used to be the Raptors’ public relations man, before he took a job working for … Isiah Thomas. “
This also seems ridiculous. I’m not questioning Carter’s Knight story one way or the other (Knight is a well-documented jerk) but the notion that Camby would care enough to coordinate with Isiah or Knight seems….far-fetched. It certainly is possible that Carter felt ganged up on because Indiana alumni uniformly rallied around Knight but there is no way Camby gave a crap about the Knight stuff or made any decisions as a result. Camby’s dislike of Butch Carter was independent of all that. Again, Butch may have felt the need to vindicate his name with Camby because of the Knight dispute but the two disputes were obviously totally unrelated to any outside observer.
C. A defamation suit once actually worked for Carter?
In “Drive,” Young gives the best explanation for the suit. Butch had actually sued for defamation and gotten satisfaction in the past: “[Butch] sued former Dayton head coach Joe O’Brien and athletic director Elaine Dredaime, contending the pair made false statements that defamed him, cost him a chance to become the school’s head basketball coach and forced him to leave college coaching. The suit was eventually dismissed after an out-of-court settlement was reached. ‘It makes people tell the truth,” Carter said of the strategy. ‘In the past for me, it’s been highly successful.’”
So, it seems that Carter went the defamation route and won before AND he was still smarting from the bad reception he got for the Knight story in his book. The problem is that not every defamation suit is the same. If someone lies about you and that prevents you from getting a job, you have a concrete defamation claim. There is a quantifiable fact to assess and quantifiable damages that resulted.
The Camby situation was totally different. Without getting into the weeds of defamation and the First Amendment, it is fair to say that more nebulous concepts about the character of a speaker are very different than the Dayton situation. Indeed, defamation cases usually breakdown through the following lenses: (a) most speech is protected, (b) speech that is opinion is usually protected, (c) public figures have a higher standard of proof in a defamation case than a private citizen, and (d) usually, there has to be showing of monetary damages from any alleged defamation. Here, Butch had little to go on with Camby. Calling Carter a “liar” about the trade might’ve been upsetting (and, objectively, the wrong conclusion based upon Grunwald’s control of personnel) but Camby was entitled to his opinion. Similarly, “everyone hates Butch” sounds like opinion (and objectively, pretty accurate). On top of all that, even if Camby had been lying on purpose, Carter couldn’t point to any damages from the statements. Really, the existence of the lawsuit hurt Carter’s career more than the statements themselves.
The NBA strongly encouraged Carter to promptly withdraw the lawsuit, which he did a few days later. The Raps were swept fairly easily by the Knicks. It’s not clear how much effect the lawsuit had on the outcome but it obviously didn’t help. Young wrote that one anonymous player said that the Raptors “just wanted the season to end” and that Butch was feuding with vets Dee Brown, Doug Christie, and Oakley. To add insult to injury, instead of apologizing, Camby “sidled over to [Carter during the game] and, sotto voce, delivered his own rebuttal: ‘You fuck.’”
Things got weirder….
Butch Carter was not immediately fired after the series. But he was not chastened either. Young reported that “the coach wanted to add the general manager title to his own and to push Grunwald upstairs into some sort of undefined, uber-boss position….Carter apparently suggested that McGrady support him in his bid for the GM’s job.” It takes a lot of…ummm…confidence to try to take your bosses job right after the lawsuit/playoff sweep. Butch seemed to think he had leverage due to his relationship with T-Mac and Vince.
But McGrady, a pending free agent, told reporters he was unlikely to return to Toronto and mentioned “we have all this other stuff going on in the organization. It’s not the time to be going through that right now. I mean the Butch stuff, I mean all that.” Vince Carter also was not enthusiastic to save Butch. If the two stars didn’t care about Butch, the Raptors really had no great reason to keep him except that he had three years and $6 million left on his coaching deal.
Young noted that there may have been a method to Butch’s madness, he didn’t want to coach anymore: “[t]hat Butch Carter may have wanted to leave was apparent—he had asked Toronto management about the possibility of doing just that as early as two days after the season had ended. Now that it was happening, Carter seemed relieved….[Carter said that:] ’I wanted out of a bad situation…I wasn’t troubled, but I could see trouble coming for the group.’” Carter and the Raptors negotiated a buyout where he received $4 million of the $6 million due on the contract and never coached in the NBA again.
So, what the hell actually happened?
It seems that Carter was not an easy guy to get along with. He was angry that he was not supported by his organization on the book controversy, that some players didn’t like him, and that his core of T-Mac and VC was not likely to remain together. Camby’s disses were the cherry on the sundae and Butch wasn’t going to take being screwed with by everyone continually.
The lawsuit was not meritorious and I’m sure his attorney told him that it had little chance of success. I can only imagine the discussions with his attorney during this process and Carter telling him to get the complaint filed anyway. Either way, Carter did get the fleeting cathartic moment when he imagined Camby’s face when he got served with the complaint. Still, it was a road to nowhere. Carter didn’t seem to totally care because he wanted out of Toronto and wasn’t particularly interested in being an NBA coach anyway. There were probably easier ways to accomplish these goals without going full scorched Earth but it left us with a crazy story to revisit 21+ years later.
-After 2000, Butch went back into the business world, running a bunch of companies and looks like he found peace, which is nice. There are quite a few podcasts available with him chatting hoops.
-The Raptors lost McGrady to Orlando, where T-Mac became a superstar. The Raps hired the calmer Lenny Wilkens as coach and the team was better with just Vince Carter in 2000-01. Alas, VC had injury issues and would also have a messy divorce with the team a few years later.
-Camby did great for the Knicks and had a very successful career through 2013.