Jimmy Butler returns Friday to play against the Bulls for the first time since last June’s trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves. So there will be discussion about who won the trade that yielded the Bulls Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. Though Butler responded well to the deal, he clearly wasn’t happy about it. There will be talk about how he and Dwayne Wade last season distanced themselves from teammates with a midseason condemnation and subsequent suspension. There will be comparisons of Butler’s first two years with the Bulls as a reserve when the team won more than 60 percent of its games. And then his last four seasons with him as prime scorer when it won 55 percent of its games and was 9-14 in the playoffs with just one series win.
Perhaps it will be noted you can find former and current teammate, Taj Gibson, more often on all-time franchise statistical lists with Gibson among the Bulls top 10 in seasons, games and blocks. Butler sneaks onto all-time franchise lists mostly in minor categories, like free throws. Too often there was drama, alleged feuds with Derrick Rose and then Joakim Noah, headlines about whose team it was, who was the man, whether the coach was tough enough.
But the picture of Jimmy Butler is more like one of those autostereograms, the wavy and unclear images that force you to step back for perspective to see the entire figure and truly remarkable, artistic parts that make up the whole.
“Because I'm from Tomball, I never was supposed to be starting in the NBA,” Butler told me a few years back, though very few conversations with him about his life do not include multiple references to his hometown near Houston. “I wasn’t supposed to be helping an NBA team win games, get a contract like that, become an All-Star. But I did. Everybody has their own story. Mine is different. But I don't think mine is any more important than anybody else's. I work. When you work, good things happen.
"It taught me that anything is possible," Butler said in a familiar refrain to those around the Bulls. "My whole life, people doubted me. People told me in high school I was too short and not fast enough. They didn't know my story. Because if they did, they'd know that anything is possible. Who would've thought that a small town kid could become a halfway decent player in college and then the NBA. And even an All-Star. I know I can overcome anything.”
Sometimes with Butler, it seems disingenuous, prepared remarks offered in a nonchalant way.
But don’t ignore the substance and depth.
Jimmy Butler’s story is one of the greatest, most unlikely and special in Bulls franchise history, certainly in recent decades. There have been hardly any to match his achievements with so few expectations. Perhaps Bob Love, the three-time Bulls All-Star and current team ambassador who was a fourth round draft pick with a severe stutter that made it almost impossible for him to speak. There was Norm Van Lier, the feisty 165-pounder, that era’s Allen Iverson, who fought men double his size and also was a three-time Bulls All-Star. But those players were both in the 1970s when scouting was mostly done from basketball magazines and the draft was a dart board.
Jimmy was overlooked in high school, when hardly anyone is anymore, failing to get a Division I scholarship and going to junior college. Then in almost caprice he ends up at Marquette, where the skinny kid who by then was filling out to about 6-6 was merely a defensive oriented role player. Throw it to the good players, his coach regularly commanded.
Intense, committed, hard working, sure. But with a shot that looked like he was squeezing plum pits.
Which makes Jimmy’s story that much more special. He never should have. How could he have? He symbolized what everyone, all those cities that claim blue collar roots say they are about or aspire to be. He’s the Horatio Alger hero in Nikes. Life was a Gilded Age to Jimmy, and he rose through and above it. That’s unique.
What the heck. The Bulls took a look with the last pick in the 2011 draft, and no one really thought much of him. Really. Even coach Tom Thibodeau, now the Timberwolves coach who invested heavily to bring Butler to Minnesota and is reaping the rewards with one of the best teams in the Western Conference, had serious doubts. He recommended the Bulls not pick up his third year option after Butler that first season averaging 2.6 points constantly pestered Thibodeau to play. Tom said he needed scorers, shooters. He had guys who ran around a lot. Butler was healthy and sat out entire games 23 times.
"When I came to Bulls, I didn’t know I’d even make it past the first two years,” Butler once told me. “I’m looking at Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, guys I grew up thinking were the best players in world. I adapted and found a way to stick around and become decent, keep my head above water. I said, ‘If I want to stay, I have to continue to work and continue to live and act like I’m just trying to keep my head above water and do whatever it takes to stay there.’”
Adrian Griffin, now an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, was Butler designated coach his rookie season. Jimmy was relentless in his pleas to play, but always showing why he deserved to. “Some players fall in love with the result," Griffin would say. "Jimmy loved the process.”
Work always has been Butler’s anthem, often to the point of it being like some personal elevator music, background noise everyone had heard before. Everyone works; what’s the big deal? You don’t get to the NBA on your smile. Though Butler would make it his business card and the way he finally got into the NBA.
There were few guarantees this long shot kid was going to be around long.
His shot was brutal, and Luol Deng stood in front of him, and Deng didn’t leave the court much. Heck, none of Thibodeau’s starters left the court much. A few years sitting behind a guy like that with no discernibly special skills and Europe will be calling.
Then Butler got a chance in the middle of the 2002-13 season when Deng got hurt and Butler got his first start at the end of January. Rose was out for the season after his knee surgery and the Bulls were just coming off consecutive overtime losses. Butler would score 18 points in his first start to actually lead the team. But he’d be back on the bench after five games with one start after that the next month and a few more later in the season. But then came the playoffs and the ironman competition.
Butler closed out the first round Brooklyn series, one of the most exciting seventh game wins in franchise history, with back to back games playing 48 minutes and then 48 minutes to open with the win in Miami against LeBron’s Heatles 36 hours later with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Who was this guy? Even as the Bulls lost the next four games to LeBron and Wade, Jimmy again stunned the doubters.
“I always said only your opinion is the one that matter,” Butler told me one All-Star weekend when he suddenly was elite the world around. “If you think you are going to do it, that’s the only one that matters. If you start listening to other people, their doubts, and you start to doubt, that can throw those mixed signals in the pot. All your dreams are in your pot (an image he got from college coach Buzz Williams), so when you reach in there now and you pull something out it’s, ‘Hey I’m happy,’ Because that’s all you. The dream you pull out of there is your dream. This is my life. I have to go about it like this is mine, this is not ours, and take with it the good and the bad.”
It’s sort of a life ideology that was more lived than articulated before he met Williams.
Butler’s story is familiar, the basketball Blind Side, though the details always were somewhat murky and without much explanation from Butler. Butler told ESPN in a predraft interview about being kicked out of his single parent house at 13 because his mother didn’t like the looks of him. He eventually settled in with the Lambert family, a friend whom he met before his senior year. Though Butler corrects people when they say he was homeless and has reconciled with his birth mother and father. He never discusses his youth. Butler jokingly talks about having gone “Hollywood” with friend, actor, Mark Wahlberg. But Butler also lives in unpretentious comfort with a half dozen friends he calls brothers, though none apparently are by birth mother, preferring stay home board games and dominoes, tossing around an ever-present football, morning workouts and afternoon workouts and evening workouts.
Having remained single, it was not unusual for Butler to spend holidays or weekends with a team employee who has small children and playing with them. He regularly volunteered at local homeless missions and schools.
Though there is a dark, moody side of him, as well, that Butler readily acknowledges. Some days it is smiles and laughter; some days—generally always with a country music background—a gruff grunt and a stare. Sometimes it would drive him to regret, like the night he indicted rookie coach Fred Hoiberg for not coaching hard enough, an unfair reputation that stuck for a long time. It was the second of a back to back after a four overtime loss. Butler later would explain to friends he initially was upset Noah took more shots than he did that night. Then didn’t quite understand why he said it.
“Regret is not the right word,” says Butler, perpetually stubborn as well, which also enabled him to rise above others’ expectations. “I don’t regret anything, I don’t take back anything. What I do is I feel bad. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me as a player. But I do care what they think about me as a human being. I may rub people the wrong way at times, but you know me. I never mean anything malicious by it. I want everyone to be happy, have people respect one another because then things run smoothly. Because so many people have taught me.”
Jimmy then points to his heart. “They can’t feel this,” he says.
Because that’s where a lot of it comes from with Butler. That “all heart” thing is a sports cliche. Maybe it should be all blood cells or all brain because Butler is bright, having earned that college degree in communications. Maybe he’s all kidney for maintaining strength.
Butler is athletic, but he isn’t the greatest of athletes. It’s why he plays at that deliberate pace, using power more than speed and explosion. He doesn’t have that lightning first step or the quick jump, though he can get the lob. It’s why when the Olympians got together, and Jimmy was on the 2016 team, he wasn’t one of the featured scorers. Like the line from the Clint Eastwood Magnum Force movie, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”
Butler knows what he can do; he just needed to do it better.
That summer of 2014 was when he became Jimmy Butler, NBA star.
But it was more than the work; it was the ascetic commitment. Jimmy went home to Texas and turned off all the electricity. No cable, no internet. Three workouts each day, down from almost 250 pounds to about 230. Endless film study of footwork, Jordan, Kobe, McGrady. Ball handling drills, shooting drills, more ball handling, footwork. More workouts.
Jimmy the skinny role player became a star. See, you can do it, too, if you just work at it and believe. It’s always been Jimmy’s message, though mostly to himself.
The 6-7 Butler averaged 20 points, made his first All-Star team and was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2014-15. And then he took off in 2015-16, a 40-point second half to beat Toronto and comparisons with things Michael Jordan did, 53 points against the 76ers, more points in a Bulls uniform than everyone but Jordan and Chet Walker, the Olympics. And then even greater heights the next season, averaging 23.9 points per game last season, 52 points against Charlotte, some triple doubles, but also some uncertainty. The Bulls led by Butler failed to make the playoffs in 2016 as Butler, Rose and Noah often got cross ways; then in 2017, it was four straight to lose to the Celtics after Rajon Rondo was hurt, Wade ineffective, Rondo not likely to return, few ways to add the talent around Butler to make the Bulls a contender. It was four years with Butler the prime figure and the Bulls were just barely better than a .500 team, eighth or ninth in the weak East the previous two seasons.
The Bulls decided on change, and Jimmy was all they had on their roster who was hard currency. It wasn’t easy for either side, Jimmy kicked out again, in a sense. Butler was on the move to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he’s again an All-Star, one of the league’s leading scorers, especially in the fourth quarter, and arriving in Chicago Friday after one of the great shootouts of the season with LeBron James in a Wednesday overtime loss in Cleveland. Not surprisingly, Butler, 28, leads the league in minutes played again, Thibodeau rarely able to take him off the floor even surrounded by No. 1 overall draft picks in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
“I feel like I've never been the best player," Butler said during one of his Bulls milestones. “I wasn’t highly recruited. I've always had all the chips stacked up against me and I've always found a way to make things happen. Everybody has their journey to get where they are going or where they already are. My thing is you are going to have those hiccups, those obstacles. But you can’t let those break you. Do whatever you have to do, get through it and move on. Maybe it is a setback. So, ’Oh well, there’s always time to improve. get better and push forward.’”
Credit the Bulls for seeing what few others in the NBA did. But mostly credit Jimmy Butler for one of the most remarkable life stories in NBA history, though less for his often troubled youth than his aspirational insistence. He always will have a special place in Bulls history.