DURHAM, N.C. — The tears still fall frequently for Derex Butts as the memory of his late son fills his mind, from the moment he awakens each day until his head hits his pillow at night.
“I just had a good cry this afternoon,” Butts told The News & Observer last week in an exclusive interview.
Devin Butts, 22, was supposed to finish his kinesiology degree from N.C. Central in June after one session of summer school. He was preparing for his final season of college basketball this fall and winter, with eyes on a pro career either in the U.S. or overseas.
Instead, the NCCU basketball player suffered cardiac arrest while playing basketball with teammates at McDougald-McLendon Arena on N.C. Central’s campus just after midnight on May 1. Four days later, on May 5, doctors at Duke University Hospital declared him brain dead, according to Devin’s father.
His funeral was held May 13 at his high school, Stratford Academy, in his hometown of Macon, Georgia.
“He never let a whole bunch of things worry him,” Derex Butts said. “He worked his tail off to be as good as he was in basketball. He treated people the way we should treat people and that was fair. He was not judgmental. He just gave everybody a fair shot.”
Devin’s parents, Derex and Latashia, along with family, former teammates, coaches and friends, continue to grapple with his death. Even weeks later, people continue to stop by the house with homemade food, aiming to provide comfort from the unshakable grief.
“It’s just day by day, you know?” Derex Butts said “We can’t seem to string two good days together. So it’s just up and down.”
As much as they think about his infectious smile or easy willingness to help younger players with basketball, Derex Butts said, they seek answers as to why a Division I athlete with no history of serious health problems suddenly died.
‘He never had an issue’
Derex Butts said there will be an autopsy performed on his son, but he told The N&O he doesn’t expect the results for a couple of months. He said NCCU’s medical staff has since reviewed Devin’s medical records, even from his previous college stops at Mississippi State, Louisiana-Lafayette and New Mexico Junior College.
“According to the school and the doctors,” Derex Butts said, “everything was fine on all of his yearly checkups, all of that. He never had an issue while he was here at all, so we don’t know yet.”
Devin Butts and two teammates were taking part in an off-season program developed by N.C. Central’s staff at McDougald-McLendon Arena when he fell ill. Such workouts are commonplace among Division I athletes, who are allowed access to team facilities at all hours of the day to work on their sport. NCAA rules restrict the amount of time coaches can work with players on the court in the offseason, so players regularly work among themselves.
Devin Butts began his final workout late April 30, and the group was still in the gym after midnight. Derex Butts said part of the workout program called for them to play 1-on-1 against each other.
“Working on his craft,” Derex Butts said. “You know, he could have been out at a club somewhere or whatever, but he wasn’t. He was in the gym. That’s a safe spot.”
Lack of response to public records requests
Via public records requests, The News & Observer has sought recordings of 911 calls and records of EMS responses from Durham County as well as incident reports and records of emergency responses from N.C. Central’s campus police from that night.
As of Tuesday, both the university and county have refused to provide those public records, citing exemptions to the state’s public records law. A News & Observer attorney has notified NCCU and county officials that the exemptions are not relevant to the requested records and will continue to seek the records.
According to Derex Butts and recordings of Durham Fire Department radio traffic from the early morning of May 1 published by broadcastify.com, Devin Butts collapsed sometime around 12:30 a.m.
At 12:35 a.m., scanner traffic shows a call for assistance to McDougald-McLendon Arena at N.C. Central.
At 12:37 a.m., a dispatcher called for assistance to NCCU’s gym for a “Black male, unresponsive, possibly dehydrated, possibly having seizures.”
Another automated call for help, similar to the one at 12:35 a.m., goes out over the scanner at 12:43 a.m.
About 30 seconds later, a dispatcher requests a “cardiac response.”
Four minutes after that, around 12:48 a.m., a first responder indicated, via scanner traffic, that he was on site.
Derex Butts, a former college basketball player who coaches a Georgia-based summer league team, was in Daytona, Florida, when he received a call about his son’s medical emergency.
He drove through the night home to Macon, showered, repacked and drove to Duke University Hospital to be at his son’s bedside.
Devin Butts never regained consciousness. But Derex Butts stayed by his side. He spoke to him. He turned a Los Angeles Lakers playoff game on TV.
“I was able to laugh and pray with him,” Derex Butts said. “I was able to put the game on, because he loved LeBron. So I was able to talk to him through the game. I was able to spend that time with him. And I thank God for that. I mean, I really, really do.”
By May 5, after all efforts to revive Devin Butts proved futile and he had no brain activity, his family said goodbye.
The fact that Devin Butts fell fatally ill in the gym still weighs on Derex Butts’ mind.
“I encouraged him to stay in the gym,” he said. “So I feel partly responsible because he stayed in the gym. That was his place. That was what was going to help him to fulfill his dreams. And so I encouraged him to stay in the gym.”
Derex Butts said the cooperation and outpouring of support he and his family have received from NCCU has been strong.
“They have been awesome,” Butts said.
‘Kids should know basic CPR’
NCCU coach LeVelle Moton spoke at Devin’s funeral in Macon. Derex Butts said he had not spoken to Moton or the Eagles players for details about what happened to his son. He’s awaiting the autopsy results.
Eventually, he wants to know the circumstances around the event and what kind of initial medical assistance his son received, if only to prevent any more deaths like Devin’s.
“That is one of my concerns, and it’s one of the things that needs to be addressed,” Butts said. “Kids should know basic CPR, especially if they gotta be in the gym at one in the morning without a coach. It’s just something that I’ll push for, for every school, for every kid. Because who knows? If they knew basic CPR, who knows? We may not be having this conversation.”
It’s unclear whether accessible automated external defibrillator machines were in McDougald-McLendon Arena at the time of Devin Butts’ collapse.
Six days after Devin’s funeral, Derex Butts completed his college degree and graduated from Mercer College in Macon.
Three decades ago, he left Texas Tech without his degree to play professional basketball overseas. He and Devin had a family competition about who would get their college degree first.
“I told him I was gonna finish my degree because I felt like a hypocrite,” Derex Butts said. “I would joke with him and say, ‘You know, let me finish before you.'”
It’s a competition Derex Butts was ultimately heartbroken to win.
“The world lost a good one,” Derex Butts said. “You know, we have to believe in God’s plan, and so that’s what we’re doing on this. But the world lost a good one. Devin was special. He is special. He will always be special, and we just miss him.”