Since graduating from Eastern Washington University in the spring of 2007, Paul Butorac has made his way from Cheney to Akita, Japan – via France, Poland and Estonia.
It’s the milk run-like route most former college players not good enough to make it in the NBA must travel if they hope to prolong their careers and live their dreams of playing professionally.
Along the way, the 6-foot-10 Butorac, who was a freshman center on the 2003-04 Eastern team that won the Big Sky Conference and made the school’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament, has dealt with the normal litany of issues, from homesickness to language barriers, that American players encounter when they travel oversea.
Most of them, he was prepared for – but not the deadly magnitude 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan’s main island of Honshu in mid-March.
“It was crazy – and tragic,” said Butorac, who was midway through his first season with Akita in the Basketball Japan League and traveling home from a game in Tokyo when the quake, which set off a series of strong aftershocks and a massive tsunami that killed more than 27,000, first hit.
“When the big one stuck, we we’re on the bus, and its just started rumbling,” said Butorac, who had suffered a hamstring injury in Akita’s 94-80 road loss to the Tokyo Apache earlier in the evening. “We had no idea what the hell was going on, absolutely no clue, and it freaked us all out – including the bus driver.”
It wasn’t until one of Akita’s assistant coaches got a phone call from a friend telling him about the earthquake and the destruction it had caused that Butorac and his teammates started to grasp the enormity of the catastrophe.
“That really stirred everybody up,” Butorac said. “We couldn’t believe what had actually happened, It blew us all away.”
The team returned home to find that electrical power throughout Akita was out, a minor inconvenience, considering the devastation directly across the island in Sendai, which was the nearest major city to the quake’s epicenter.
Once back in his apartment building – where he was forced, because of the power outage that had rendered the elevator useless, to navigate four flights of stairs with a bad hamstring – Butorac and three of his American teammates also staying in the building experienced several of the quake’s aftershocks.
“The first one was really big,” Butorac said. “Nothing in my apartment got damaged, but everything was shaking like crazy, and it felt like that thing was never going to stop.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in an earthquake, and I don’t want to be in another one.”
Several of Butorac’s teammates traveled to Sendai to help with postquake cleanup efforts and witnessed the wreckage up close. But Butorac, because of his ailing hamstring, was unable to go.
In the wake of the quake, the BJL suspended play for two weeks, with teams in Sendai, Tokyo and the prefecture of Saitama eventually withdrawing from the league without playing another game.
“It was definitely a strange, strange season,” said Butorac, who used the two-week layoff to nurse his hamstring back to health, and finished the season averaging 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in the 44 games he played. “Before each game, players from both teams would go into the crowd with drop boxes and try to collect as much money as they could to help with the relief efforts in Sendai.
“And it seemed weird having teams left on your schedule that you weren’t going to play any more.”
Once the season ended, Butorac, who is 27 years old and still single, returned to Medical Lake, as he has each summer since launching his overseas basketball odyssey with Maritime Boulogne in France’s ProB League. He is working out five days a week in the recreation center at Eastern Washington, where he lifts weights, shoots baskets and runs to stay in shape while his agent is negotiating a contract renewal with Akita.
“Hopefully, a deal can be worked out,” said Butorac, who now speaks enough Japanese to feel at ease in Akita. “If not, we’ll just have to see what happens.”
When asked to sum up his first four seasons of playing professionally abroad, Butorac said, “It’s been everything I had hoped for, and more. I’m competitive and I love to play basketball, plain and simple. There were a few bumps in the road at first, but, overall, it’s been a great experience.
“If there are young kids out there interested in doing the same thing, I’d definitely tell them to go for it.”