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Local Heroes: The golden-hearted referee

It’s the final game of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department's Junior Warriors 8th grade girls basketball league. The SOMA Stars and the Lady Hurricanes take their positions on the court. A tall, wiry man – the referee – steps to the center. He looks at all the girls, smiles, and tosses the ball straight up in the air. Two girls jump for it, and the game is on.

This isn’t where Cardell Butler expected to be right now, shortly before his 35th birthday. He could have been playing pro ball before thousands of fans in Europe, or the NBA’s developmental league. Maybe still could.


“I still can play at a high level,” he says. “I still can play NBA professional basketball.”


Instead he’s here, at St. Mary’s Rec Center in Bernal Heights. This is the fourth championship game in a row Cardell has refereed, today. The youngest kids started at 9 a.m. Now it’s 3 p.m., and Cardell hasn’t had lunch. That’s all right. This is where he wants to be.


“He’s very loving,” says Lady Hurricane player Nicole Marie Coleman. “He knows how to work with kids very good. And he gets where you’re coming from.”


Her teammate Diamond Carter adds, “I think he’s a good ref. He corrects your mistakes so you don’t do it the next time.”


And fellow Hurricane Anne Kelly says, simply, “Yeah, he’s really nice.”


Really, you pretty much never hear talk like that about a referee. But Cardell makes the games fun. He’s joyful. He’s nurturing. He’s the kind of guy you want teaching your kids.


“Working with the kids, girls and boys,” he says, “there’s going to be that one kid who’s going to remember everything from the Rec and Park Department. Everything that’s ever done. And I know this for sure because I’m one of those kids."


A big kid


“I grew up in San Francisco,” says Cardell. “Bayview-Hunters Point. I didn’t have what the kids have. The only thing that I had was Rec and Park.” 


Cardell Butler was really, really good at basketball. Six foot 3 inches and dunking by the age of 13. He built a reputation on courts around the city. But the game was pretty much all he cared about. He says he ditched so many classes, he couldn’t play ball at Lincoln High. Transferred to Balboa. Same thing.


“I look back on it, and I just wasted two years of my high school life,” he says. “Nothing was there. No motivation. Just a blank.”


He realized time was running out on any chance to play high school basketball.


“All of a sudden, my cousin, he comes to me and tells me, ‘I play basketball,’” says Cardell. “‘I live down here in San Mateo. Come down here and play with me.’”


He did. And with guidance from his mom, the coach, and the principal at San Mateo High, Cardell turned his life around. Starting with his grades.


“Boom! My first year, I see a 2.5! For me? That’s like a 4.0 for me,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I got a 2.5. I’m eligible! What? Oh my gosh!’ Boom! And that light bulb just turned on.”


So did his game. Cardell’s senior season, he was the leading scorer in Northern California, averaging more than 30 points per contest. He says he got letters of interest from big basketball schools including North Carolina and Duke. But first he needed to catch up on some credits. So he decided to go to community college … in Southern Idaho.


“Yes,” he says, “send me someplace where there’s nothing but farms and banks. Do that. Nothing but land. Where am I gonna go?”


Nowhere but the gym and the library. Basketball and school were going great. But then, just after he turned 19, he heard horrible news. His best friend, Starvel Junious had been shot and killed while sitting in a car back in Bayview-Hunters Point.


“My friend is in the back seat on the driver’s side,” says Cardell. “The shooter got on top of the car and shot the whole car up. My friend just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I had gone back, I would have been with him for sure. More than 100 percent I would have been with him.”


While Cardell was pursuing his dreams, his friends back home passed one by one.


He visibly shakes as he recounts the memories. “‘Cardell, somebody just got killed, man.’ Oh my gosh, dude. ‘Mike, like, somebody walked up behind Mike and shot him in the head.’ What?! Or ‘Cardell, man, there’s a shooting on 3rd, and John was in the way.’ Oh my gosh!”


Out of 15 friends who grew up together, Cardell says, only five survived.


“It’s like a rope turning,” he says. “Turning, turning, turning. I need something to do instead of focusing on my friends getting killed. So I thank God so much for blessing me with basketball. I have no idea what I’d be doing otherwise. I mean I just don’t know.”


A growing man


Back in the St. Mary’s gym, the second half starts, and the Lady Hurricanes are down. They’ve only got six players, and they’re tired. Cardell urges them to play hard – it’s the championship. Point guard Alyanna Hughes picks up her game. 


“Unlike other refs, when he makes calls, he’ll take you aside and give you an example of what you’re doing wrong,” she says. “I like it when he refs, and I appreciate it, because, say if I get upset with someone, he’ll take me out and give me advice on what to do, so I don’t get as frustrated.”


He’s drawing from his own experience.


After two years of junior college, Cardell transferred to Utah State University. He helped lead the team to the NCAA Tournament in 2003. The next year, he graduated with a degree in sports psychology. He joined the And1 Mixtape basketball tour – a showcase for some of the country’s best streetballers. It was a big deal back then. He earned the nickname “Ballaholic” because he always had the ball. Cardell was traveling around the world, getting paid, and making friends. Then he got the break every kid dreams of: an invitation to try out for the NBA at a New York Knicks summer camp.


“Yeah! So, this story. I hate this story,” he says.


Cardell worried he’d lose his place on the tour if he left to try out. So he didn’t go.


“Stupid Cardell! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I thought And1 was for me,” he recalls. “I’m having so much fun. So many kids coming up to me. Playing NBA arenas, so it felt like I was there already. I thought the tour would go on for years and years and years. But it never did. It never did. I regret it a lot. I regret it because I could have been a millionaire. Probably be playing for the Warriors, who knows.” 


Instead, the And1 tour faltered. Cardell joined the San Diego Wildcats in the American Basketball Association – a smaller pro league that played in high schools and other gyms. In 2011, he joined the ABA’s San Francisco Rumble for a season. At the age of 30, he was back home. Part of the time he spent playing ball. And part time of the time he worked with the San Francisco Rec and Park Department.


A role model


It’s the fourth quarter, and the SOMA Stars are ahead by double digits. Team mom Seanda Conley, who’s been coming to games for 15 years, is cheering on her youngest daughter Jada Victoria.


“I feel like as long as she’s doing some type of sport, that’s something positive. It helps keep her grades up, it helps keep her out of trouble,” Seanda says. “Living in the South of Market neighborhood, SOMA Park and Rec Center has been the only outlet for the kids, so I utilize them to keep my kids active." 


Cardell relates to that. That was him. And it’s why he knows he can play a big role in these kids’ lives.


“This is the reason why I love doing what I do,” he says. “You see that kid, who’s never played basketball before. He gets in the game and makes a shot. It’s like, ‘Yes!’ I pay attention to it. And I look up in the stands and mom and dad are smiling. And he’s smiling. Then it makes me smile. It goes into a huge circle of electric energy, through not just me but through the kids and through the parents, and all of a sudden it’s bouncing off the walls of the gym.”


The game ends. Final score: SOMA Stars 28 Lady Hurricanes 18.


The girls come together at center court to slap each other five. Cardell Butler is right there, congratulating them all.


“I love it, man,” he says.


He still hopes to play ball at high levels.


“Trying to get back overseas,” he says. “Definitely trying to get into the NBA D-league.”


But today, he’s focused on the girls and their families. They invite him to join them for a post-game feast. It’s really easy to spot Cardell in the crowd. It’s not just that he’s at least half a foot taller than everybody else. It’s because he’s got the biggest smile of them all.

This story originally aired in May of 2016. 

Crosscurrents CrosscurrentsSan FranciscoSports
Ben joined KALW in 2004. As Executive News Editor and then News Director, he helped the news department win numerous regional and national awards for long- and short-form journalism. He also helped teach hundreds of audio producers, many of whom work with him at KALW, today.