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By Sam Smith | 5.7.2015 | 8:50 p.m.
Often we wonder who are these guys, these NBA stars, like Jimmy Butler, Thursday in the United Center receiving the NBA’s 2015 Most Improved Player award, yet another accolade in a career arc probably too great to even be in his dreams. Butler wore a tuxedo-like suit, gray with matching handkerchief, cable vest with white button down shirt buttoned to the top with no tie as he thanked friends, family members, mentors and teammates. Fancy, impressive, star stuff.
It’s a crucial time for Butler’s Bulls, now tied 1-1 in the Eastern Conference finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James, the James whom Butler is assigned to manage if not control. Butler and the Bulls won the Game 1 battle; James in Game 2. Game 3 is Friday in the United Center.
But who is this Jimmy Butler, officially now an NBA star, winner of a major league award, the first Most Improved Player winner in franchise history, the guy we see defending the greats like LeBron and Kobe Bryant, with stars like actor Mark Wahlberg, who befriended Butler and has played one-on-one with him at the Bulls practice facility.
Oh, what a life it must be of parties and shoulders rubbing and hobs to knob with.
So what is Jimmy doing in the basement of a Bulls employee friend he’s gotten to know these last few years, playing trains with a four-year old. It’s Jimmy, too. Not all of Jimmy. Though all these guys live life like everyone else, bored, burdened and passionate.
Every so often Jimmy will ask to stop by, ask how everyone is doing and lose himself with the kids, four and two, playing with toys that aren’t basketballs, with people who don’t much know who he is or what he does or where he’s been or what he’s been through. There’s life beyond the crowds and the adulation, life to be savored, enjoyed and experienced.
Jimmy’s life story is almost a cliché now, one he doesn’t much discuss though also doesn’t retreat from.
He was abandoned by a single mother at 13, certainly a hard screen from life. The work ethic of Butler that’s enabled him to personify the award—Most Improved—perhaps flows from a lifetime desire to prove himself good enough. After all, when something like that happens when you are 13 you may look outside. But the internal reflection is the sharpest. What’s wrong with me?
Butler survived through hard work. Not the kind he talks about now to improve as a basketball player, but a certain focus only someone in his circumstance could understand. He flopped with friends and acquaintances until being taken in by a welcoming family. You don’t much have long term goals in that life but a mattress and a meal.
Jimmy had athletic talent, but so do millions of others swallowed up by the vagaries of life and the streets. He made it to junior college near his Houston, Texas start, to Marquette U. with the smallest of hopes and expectations and surprisingly not only to the NBA, but to NBA stardom, a 2015 All Star, leading scorer on his team, one of the most sought after free agents this summer.
It would be too easy to suggest Jimmy makes those excursions for a night of Lionel trains as a yearning for his own lost childhood. I suspect it’s much more than that, a kid who lacks pretentions because he’s lived on both sides of the tracks and knows the same person resides in either place. Nature or nurture?
Life gave Jimmy Butler a chance and he showed it’s not mistaken to do so with others. Because he is just another guy, just Jimmy.
“Those of us who are around Jimmy each and every day, what we see is a great will and determination Jimmy has, an outstanding work ethic and an inner drive to succeed,” said Bulls general manager Gar Forman in opening the award press conference. “It is amazing we are here today: High school non recruited, junior college, still somewhat under radar, Marquette. We select him with the 30th pick. He comes to the Bulls and goes from being a role player initially to becoming a starter to becoming today the Most Improved Player in the NBA and an NBA All- Star.
“He remains genuinely humble,” said Forman. “If you know Jimmy, it isn’t about individual awards and accolades but competing on a daily basis and winning basketball games. He goes out of his way each and every day to interact with everyone he is around and he’s always willing to give of himself before others. He comes to work each and every day with a positive attitude and ready to go to work.”
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau added: “When you get to watch him play you realize and recognize how special he is. I believe he is one of the best two-way players in the league today. It hasn’t happened by accident. The way he’s worked, it’s testament to his character and who he is as a person. To get where he is today you have to have a lot of talent, which he does have. But when you combine that with his intelligence and his drive you get something special.”
Butler thanked teammates, several of whom were at the ceremony on the basketball floor, coaches, especially assistant Adrian Griffin, whom Butler said had to put up with the impatient rookie’s demands to play, the Bulls and Butler did say Chicago is for him: “This is the place for me. I love playing with the guys we have; they continue to bring in high character guys that fit the team role. I love it here; I’m happy to be here.”
Butler also called his decision not to sign a long term extension last fall to become a free agent a win for both he and the Bulls as his value increased and the Bulls see an improved player.
“I feel I’ve come a long, long, long way from Tomball, Texas and I couldn’t be more proud,” said Butler. “I feel the Bulls are just as proud of me. Back in Tomball, my family, my brothers, two right here, they deserve a lot of the credit because they have to put up with me being moody when we lose and I don’t play well.
“And then you move forward to Tyler Junior College, seeing something in myself I didn’t see at that age,” Butler said. “Moving onto Buzz (Williams, Marquette coach) who taught me your confidence, it only comes from your work and this summer put in an incredible amount of work to get to where I am today. But more than anything I just want to continue to improve because I feel there is so much I can get better at. I just want to help my team win. I just want to get another trophy and I want to win that championship; I think that’s the final goal.
“It truly is a blessing to stand here and be the Most Improved Player, but I wouldn’t be here without all (those) I named and I’m grateful and thankful they are all in my life,” said Butler.
Butler also credited his trainer, Chris Johnson, who first told Butler he could be an NBA All-Star.
“Of course, I didn’t believe it and as I said I’m not worried about any of that, but it happened,” noted Butler. “I feel like any level I was at whether junior college or Marquette, I don’t think I was supposed to be there from Tomball. But somehow, someway with the people that were in my corner I found a way to get there. So now that I’m here I’m just as confident as I was; as long as I continue to work I’ll continue to stay and get better.”
Butler credited former Bull Luol Deng, whom he replaced, for lessons in professional life and the Bulls for their support.
“They have a lot of confidence in me; so it makes it easier to have confidence in myself,” said Butler. “I think I have to show that night in and night out. There’s a bright future ahead if I continue to grind, if I continue to get better. I don’t take no for an answer. I’ll continue to do what I’m asked to do here.
“I think our team has a team full of leaders,” said Butler. “Everyone leads in their own unique way whether it’s vocal or you are showing it with your game. It’s easy to follow in the footstep of Derrick, or Jo, or Pau or Mike, all of those guys. Our young guys are leaders, too, because we are going to need everybody especially now because the playoffs are here.”
Jimmy Butler’s lead is as good as any to follow.
Not because he’s an All-Star or a major NBA award winner. But because of a leadership lifestyle that demonstrates with belief, commitment, hard work and trust in the decency of human nature there’s a chance for everyone to succeed.
Because from the vantage point of a child, anything is possible.