The trail never has been very straight or smooth for Jimmy Butler even as he’s ridden to NBA stardom and Sunday’s true elite status as an Eastern Conference starter in the league’s gala All Star game in New Orleans. He had that famously difficult and dysfunctional adolescent experience, the journey through the rough fringes of basketball life to junior college and even at Marquette, where his coach’s instructions until his senior year basically was to get the ball and immediately throw it to one of the good players. That Butler rose to his third consecutive All-Star game appearance and likely all-NBA status with the Bulls from being a low first round draft choice and eventual spot starter remains one of the truly inspiring NBA stories of this era.
That’s actually welcomed by the cowboy from suburban Houston, whose embrace of hometown Tomball is less affectation than affection. It also explains, if possible, the paradox that is Butler, the kid who has chased the spotlight, the friendships with actor Mark Wahlberg and celebrities, the latest cover of ESPN magazine with hip-hop star Chance the Rapper, the TV commercials and endorsements.
Talk about people taking a chance on someone.
Jimmy always knew he wanted to be somebody, needed to be noticed in a world that often rejected him. But he also couldn’t stray too far away from his own morality and soul lest he lose himself to those forces.
So while he may do a red carpet, he also goes to Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago every month with pizza to feed 700 people and regularly mentors kids with Maggie Daley’s After School Matters and the Becoming a Man program. While he’ll chat with his NFL buddies, he’s also at home which remains his primary off court activity, trying to memorize the names and faces of every Bulls employee. He recently sent the more than 100 in the team offices each hand written notes to thank them for their help and support and restaurant gift cards for each one.
It’s always been important that Jimmy be Jimmy. Anyone can work, which became his passion. It’s one reason why he likes the Superman references. He calls the “S” logo hope, but also sees himself more as Clark Kent, the regular guy whose basketball jersey is his cape and tights.
He’s on the party list, but is a Chicago homebody, most often playing dominoes nightly on his days off with the same buddies in his River North apartment. Lonely in his first few seasons with the Bulls, he took to often visiting a Bulls staffer with young kids so he could play Legos with them. They didn’t know or care he was famous. He’d ask the parents to let the kids stay up later to play with him. His moods have left teammates and coaches stricken with uncertainty, and he admits he battles with them, though they also drive his competitive fire and anger. Yet when he heard about a Bulls staffer having trouble with a college loan he just got the information and paid it.
“Jimmy always accepted all our support staff as an extension of our team and extensions of our success, embracing the idea we all go on this journey together and I know you are an important piece of it and we all are going to be successful,” said Adrienne Ridgeway, who was Butler’s academic advisor at Marquette. “He really always embraced the idea people around and supporting are helping him to success.
“He had that something that even if (he was) not the star it didn’t stop that inner light from shining,” said Ridgeway, who still is at Marquette. “That’s probably where Jimmy has always been a little different. The basketball thing obviously worked out for him, but that light was going to shine somewhere doing something. I’m happy it shines for him being able to play basketball. You did early on know there was going to be that light because of his work ethic, but also because some people have that something special to say, ‘I’m going to make something work for me.’ It wasn’t so much him saying what job or career path, but saying I know that I am good and what I can do. I’m sure one day when Jimmy’s basketball career is over it won’t be the last time you see him.”
Jimmy Butler doesn’t really check the boxes the way they are supposed to be checked for a pro basketball star, or the way others do or the way you should. Perhaps that’s his gift, his unique ability to take off from the combustion of his many forces, the driven kid who had to grow up more quickly with the obvious dark recesses, the man who struggles with the responsibilities thrust upon him while also welcoming and embracing the challenges.
The Bulls are reaching a crossroads in their own maturity, so their path, in some respects, is as unclear as Butler’s has been. It’s the hope and belief for success measured against the natural factors that work against it. It’s not that Butler was so sure, but there is a core value system to him that enables him to keep up the race when others may falter.
Butler likes the metaphors he learned from his Marquette coach, Buzz Williams, the man who helped Jimmy adopt his closest friend, work. They helped clarify his vision of life and how he wanted to live even as there weren’t always enough adults around to help crystallize for him.
“Buzz,” Butler relates, “always told us these things like, ‘Life isn’t always sweet, like Kool-Aid. What you put in the bottle, when it stands up that will tip over and come out. If you put water in the bottle, when it tips over water comes out. Not soda.’ He told us every day your work is your bottle. ‘Put that in. When the game is on the line and they tip it out, that’s what comes out. You’ve done this 1,000 times.’ I live by that now. On the court and everything I do.
“I always say only your opinion is the one that matter,” says Butler. “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. Because then when you reach in for one of those what you get is someone else’s, not yours.
“Make sure all your dreams are in your pot 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; it’s nobody else’s,” says Butler. “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.”
There have been tough times for Butler with the Bulls, from rarely playing into his sophomore year to the point then coach Tom Thibodeau was so unimpressed he told management not to pick up Butler’s rookie option. Then breaking through when Thibodeau came to rely on him as much as anyone on the roster, to the breakdown of the Bulls last season, falling out with teammates, challenging the coach, breaking through to stardom as a blessing and curse. Some charged Jimmy was blinded by the bright lights; others were struck by his own guiding light.
“The people here know me,” says Butler. “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. Like Buzz taught me: You treat everyone the same whether they make a million dollars or two dollars.
“I never was going to make a million dollars back then,” Butler notes. “I wasn’t going to be a big time NBA player, an All-Star. You never could tell me I’d be in this position. But I wanted to be the person who treated everyone the same, speaks to everyone the same.
“Later, down the road I meet this guy Mark Wahlberg. People misunderstand,” says Butler. “I see Mark walk into all these hotels and speak to everyone the same way, whole conversations. I saw him pay for the guy who shines shoes to go on vacation. He doesn’t even wear shoes like that; he wears Timberlands and Jordans. He’ll sit down with the guy and have a conversation and then every time he comes back, I can’t remember his name, but Mark knows his name and his family. He treats people that way. Those are the kind of people I want to be around.
“To me if you know what it’s like to be in their position, to be in their shoes, to have to work day after day for everything you have and not know what tomorrow will bring, you can feel for that,” says Butler. “You look at things totally different when things weren’t handed to you. In high school, I said I would get a Division 1 scholarship, but I never believed it.”
Like most kids, Jimmy just started playing in the park. But he was the big kid. He actually played inside in high school as a result, even center. Which is another reason he wasn’t pursued as a recruit. Colleges saw him as a small center. He wasn’t that skilled or fundamentally coached. He didn’t play AAU. He didn’t yet have that massively powerful 6-7 frame that has players bounce off it like there is a big, red “S” somewhere there.
“A few friends were in a youth basketball league, but I was terrible,” Butler recalled. “I was fast because of football. I’d run as fast as I could, double dribble, run to other end. I’d throw the basketball and run full speed. But I fell in love with the game; don’t know why. I was such a raw talent. I was much better in football. I wasn’t thinking about football as a career. You’re in Tomball you’re not supposed to be that good. When I became good enough to make layups, I’d start under the goal and would say to myself, ‘If I make this layup, I’m going to the NBA.’ The easy stuff. I knew I wouldn’t miss. I’d make a free throw and say it was for the Hall of Fame. Just to keep giving myself confidence that I knew I could be successful. When I was a senior in high school, I was just a raw talent, tall, athletic. I wanted to be Tracy McGrady, wearing his shoes, the sleeve he wore, jersey number. Everything he did I wanted to do. Just dream stuff.”
Jimmy with his power and speed was good in high school, but really only junior college good. Sounded fine to him.
“Junior college was the only opportunity I had to get an education,” Butler says. “I was a kid. I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. They said you can go to school for free and play basketball and that was enough for me; I’m good with that. I didn’t care where it was. But it is a message I tell kids: You have to be confident in whatever you do because if you don’t believe you can do it, it doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks. I believe if you can really do something you can.
“If you have a doubt in your mind it gets harder and harder every single day,” says Butler. “It gets harder because whenever you fail, which happens, that doubt gets bigger and bigger and bigger. But when you have confidence that you didn’t get it right this time, but, ‘Yeah, I know I can get it. I got to be able to get it, then get it wrong again, OK, this time I’ll get it, the third time is the charm, the fourth and fifth.’ Eventually you are going to get it if you feel, ‘I know I can do this, I got it.’ That’s how I grew up with everything.”
It’s the work, stupid.
“I remember going to (Tyler coach) Mike Marquis my freshman year. I was never blitzed in the pick and roll. I had maybe 12 turnovers. He taught me the ways to pivot. In high school I’d just bring it up and shoot it. Now they’d come at me. He taught me reverse pivot, forward pivot, all that stuff I’d never heard of.”
Marquis didn’t know about Butler, either. But a friend, Alan Branch, who runs a scouting service, said there was this kid he thought was overlooked. Marquis trusted Branch and took a chance.
“He was well mannered, very articulate,” recalls Marquis. “But his shoulders; his basketball look was fantastic. He had the toughness. I thought he showed with his shoulders he’d get to spots on the floor, defend, post and score, shoot off the dribble; we wanted him to be more perimeter player and obviously he blossomed. He wore me out. He was so thirsty for knowledge about how to be a good basketball player. Loved practicing, jab step, rocker step, step back. Loved to work. When others didn’t want to come in and work hard it didn’t phase him; he did. He was for such a young age after everything in his background such a mature person to deal with at 18.
“I don’t want to say this wrong, but he was such a good looking kid, the way he carried himself so well physically, so polished as a person,” recalled Marquis. “Not because he’s a pro now, but from the first day. I remember I called Gar (Forman; they are old friends) in September of his freshman year and told him, ‘I think there’s something special about him. The way he conducted himself, the maturity at such a young age. Never had to worry about his academics, classroom, citizenship. Had a special mindset of what it takes to be good and wanted to know what it took to become great; it was so fun to coach him.”
Jimmy’s story is well known, sitting in a McDonald’s, filling out the papers for Marquette, not fully aware where Wisconsin was and that it wasn’t much green for much of the year. Sort of like West Texas, actually.
Butler didn’t start as a sophomore transfer, playing about 20 minutes and averaging 5.6 points. More as a junior and senior, but only averaging about 15 points, never leading the team. And this wasn’t Duke or North Carolina or UCLA, and he wasn’t nearly the elite of that program.
“Tyler is when it all hit me,” says Butler. “I wasn’t the best player on my team anymore and it’s been like that since. Marquette, had to work. Had to question, ask. I pride myself on if I don’t know, ask. I always want to be better. I always opened my mouth, probably too much at times, but if I saw something or had a question, I would ask.”
That’s perhaps a trait that’s most appealing about Butler, although it is not always politically acceptable and has led to some unpleasant headlines, if not any that have changed his approach. But it’s beneficial. The only bad question, he tells kids, is the one you don’t ask and keep to yourself.
“I didn’t know if it was the right way, the right time, the wrong way, the wrong time,” said Butler. “But I’d ask because I wanted to know. Buzz always told me until my senior year every time I get the ball to throw it to a good player. We had Wes Matthews, Dominic James, Jerel McNeil, Lazar Haywood. He’d say throw it to one of them. ‘You just go get the ball and throw it and make sure we get it to a good player and you run.’ He saw a kid scared to do wrong, but even more scared to do right because I never knew what anything could get me. Everybody took a risk on me. Nobody ever said, ‘We have to have that kid from Tomball. He’s from Tomball, he wasn’t in the AAU circuit.’ Always a doubt. He didn’t average this many points or make it to the playoffs.
“Buzz saw a kid who wanted to play basketball, get his degree and no matter what he did, I was coming back to fulfill what he wanted me to do because I wanted that degree,” said Butler. “I wasn’t really worried about the basketball part. I wanted that degree. I wanted to be an international business major. I wanted to see the world, wear suits. Out of nowhere I guess I started to take basketball more seriously and got lucky.”
Ridgeway is the academic advisor for Marquette basketball, greeting those young men who aren’t generally the super talents of the national class, young men with dreams, but also a reality. Basketball is possible, but hardly expected. Get a degree. There are many ways to be someone.
She remembered Jimmy as unusually outspoken, though he was older with that year of junior college. He had this idea of international business despite not being quite clear what it meant. He had a dream, too. It was this high flying, exciting lifestyle, looking good in three-piece suit, private plane. OK, but who are you? Jimmy talked.
“I was, ‘Hey, I want to get my degree in business, I want to travel and wear suits and look good, see all these countries, see the world. That’s what I thought international business was, go international and do business,” said Butler. “All the new athletes were sitting in a circle and I was talking, would not shut up. Adrienne asks if I ever thought about taking a couple of speech classes, communication. I said, ‘Nah, I’ll stick with international business.’ She said to try some speech. I did it and I loved it. I like speaking. I wasn’t the leader to organize the games, but I always talked. You’d never know I wasn’t good at anything because I always talked like I had done it 1,000 times. I think I always stood out because I was taller, had darker skin. I felt I was going to stand out anyway, so I might as well talk.”
They hadn’t seen many like him, but when you grow up scrambling around as Jimmy did, you have to be able to persuade, convince, appeal, engage. It’s stressful Sometimes it meant a meal or a bed. It led also to moods swings, which still haunt Butler. “I’m a moody individual,” Butler acknowledges. “When you know me you know when I’m in one of those moods because I am not walking around smiling, ‘Hey, how are you? Not joking around. You know, ‘Oh, today’s not the day to mess with Jimmy.’ But tomorrow when I’m back to being me who I am, ‘All right, that’s the Jimmy we know and love.’” Eventually, it meant an education, but also an inner being, the light, as Ridgeway would see it, coming through. Jimmy would stop by the offices of faculty members to talk. Ask what they knew; sometimes just conversations.
“He’s wasn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind,” Ridgeway said. “Normally when you work with freshman you have to pull stuff out of them; everything is a process to get them to talk and open up, likes, dislikes. Right from the beginning, we’d have conversations about everything. That’s a skill to be able to put your thoughts together and be unafraid to express them, sometimes funny, sometimes serious. I didn’t imagine him being in a stuffy career path. We had conversations about declaring a major and what life do you see for yourself and he kind of wanted to be that center of attention, wanted to be able to communicate and we settled on communication studies; he was really good being the mouthpiece of basketball.
“Not something always normal to college students,” Ridgeway said with a laugh. “’What do you think?’ Asking you questions; wanting to talk about things.”
Butler’s made it by most objective standards, a multimillion dollar long term contract, team leadership, All-Star status in the NBA. Sometimes he knows he talks too much when perhaps he shouldn’t, and it becomes uncomfortable, coach and team meetings to follow.
“Regret is not the right word,” says Butler, stubborn to the end, a common trait among the NBA stars. “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. They see the basketball, they may hear the news.
“They can’t feel this,” he says pointing to his heart, “or know what’s going on up here.” He points to his head.
It’s also why he engages as he does so much with Bulls staff, often the team’s community relations office that helps him with his projects. The Bulls do charity and community work for the organization, but when a player asks for private help they’ll also get involved, setting up the after school projects, the missions and other activities Butler does out of public view. It’s also his way of reminding himself, if ever needed, of who he was and how it was for him, and that he was them and they are him.
Butler prides himself on keeping the same counsel he has for years.
“I’m 27 years old; I’ve been in about every situation and role when it comes to being on the court in basketball,” Butler says. “At the end of the day I look at how I keep the same people around me. That reminds me of who I am and what got me to where I am. My brothers, my trainer, the so called little people of the Chicago Bulls, Tony Rokita, Hillary Thomas, Tina Brekke, Alan Batrez, Susan Goodenow. I wouldn’t be who I am without everyone you don’t see behind the scenes. When I’m at the All-Star game, I’m representing them, my brand, the Bulls, Chris Johnson and Travelle Gaines, my trainers, my brothers. That’s the best part. ”
Hey, organizations do win championships, perhaps?
They don’t get the credit like I do,” says Butler. “So it’s my job to show them you are a part of this. I’m so fortunate for those people. I want you happy and smiling every day you walk into work. I get to be around great people, a great organization; it means the world to me. Because they do so much for us they may feel it gets lost, so it’s my job to remind them it doesn’t, that we see it, we notice it.”
Not that Jimmy wasn’t a team guy, but for years on the team plane he’d sit with public relations staffer Shaun Hickombottom, who now is in basketball operations. Jimmy said he felt more comfortable. When first year public relations staffer Beth Esler was finishing up her first long, two week trip recently, her fiancée came for a stop along the way. Jimmy sent celebratory bottles of wine to their room. He’d arranged for dinner, but they got sick and had to stay in.
“It’s the human aspect,” says Butler. “They work incredibly hard, but they don’t get the all star appearances; they don’t get the millions and millions of dollars, the TV time. I just always want them to know as much as I can that your work doesn’t go unnoticed. I check in on them. I try to look every one in the eye, learn everybody’s name, everybody’s face because that’s what matters. I’m not going to be a basketball player for the rest of my life, but I can be a good human being.”
It wasn’t that long ago Jimmy was having an issue with a teammate. It was widely thought it was about a shot or play. It was about the way Butler felt the teammate didn’t regard the staff well enough.
“Those are my people,” Butler say. “You disrespect my people, you disrespect me; you have a problem with them you have a problem with me.”
Jimmy knew he wasn’t the best player even at Marquette and even if he never acknowledged it. The attitude would carry him to where he is with the Bulls.
“I understood those guys maybe at that time were better than me,” he says. “I would never say it, not show it. I’ll compete and I’ll believe I’ll whip you in anything, weight room, running, that’s me, compete. It’s hard for me to say someone is better than me. The numbers may say different, but I’ll compete. I know on any given day someone can lose and in that second technically you are better than them. Michael Jordan didn’t win every game. I guarantee people went home and said, ’I’m the best; I beat Michael Jordan.’ I know I would. But he would be, ‘I lost, I hate it. Not happening again.’ That’s why he is the fierce competitor. That’s why everyone wants to be the Michael Jordan of their craft, the Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods. I can only know how they feel.
“If I want to stay,” says Butler, “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.”