Jimmy Butler used to tell us all the time, a bit of the down home corn pone that you kind of knew was a mask for the bursting confidence and relentless striving that enabled him to rise from the most unlikely of environments to star in the NBA.
“I never was going to make a million dollars back then,” Butler would say. “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 he was, and he earned his way there, a three-time NBA All-Star, gold medal winner with USA Basketball in the 2016 Olympics, perennial all-defensive team player, owner of some of the highest scoring games in Bulls franchise history, friend to Hollywood stars like Mark Wahlberg, late night TV show guest, commercial endorser, celebrity, multimillionaire.
Jimmy had to pinch himself. And he probably said ouch Thursday night—or early Friday morning--vacationing in Paris when he found out he’d been traded by the Bulls to former coach Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Butler had no comment, though he’d apparently been hoping to remain with the Bulls amidst rumors of a trade, perhaps even to the 2016 champion Cleveland Cavaliers. But the Bulls could no longer see a way forward even with Butler, and Butler had become so valuable that the only way the team believed it could start again with a new foundation was to sacrifice Butler.
It thus was a bittersweet parting for Butler, whose climb out of the disarray of the suburbs of Houston—Tomball, not Houston, Butler always corrected—was one of the great American sports stories. Heck, really the American dream when such things really did seem achievable.
Butler's story is well known of a good but uncertain kid, run out of his home at 13, getting by thanks to the kindness of strangers, bunking in with friends until finding a reliable space. Moving on to community college where he just played ball. Getting some notice and filling out the application to Marquette at a fast food restaurant, not even sure where it was, certainly not that it was that cold.
Jimmy was just a role player at Marquette, never leading the team in scoring, a smaller college and a kid in a smaller role, just trying to find a bigger life. Not a fortune. Trying just to find himself. But his decency transcended even his ambition.
I tracked down Jimmy’s counselor at Marquette earlier this year and this is what she old me.
Butler was just the 30th and last pick in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft, hardly a position of prominence or expectation.
He rarely played his rookie season, often literally begging coach Tom Thibodeau to put him in games. It was to no avail. So Jimmy just worked. He carved that slim, 6-7 body into a powerful machine, and then when Luol Deng got hurt midway through the 2012-13 season, Jimmy got his chance.
He attacked it like he did everything else, straight on without the least doubt and again against the odds and surprising everyone.
By playoff time not only was he starting, a rugged defender learning to become an offensive threat, but he played all 48 minutes in three straight playoff games and five of the 12 in the Bulls surprising run the season after Derrick Rose was hurt. Jimmy, like many times before, went from unnoticed to essential.
“I've never been highly recruited,” he explained. “So I've always had the chips stacked against me and I've found a way to make things happen.”
Butler began to break out in the 2013-14 season, averaging 13.1 points. By the next season, he was selected to the All-Star team, averaging 20 points for the season, even raising his three-point shooting from 28 percent to 38 percent. It was work for Jimmy. His trainer became his best friend. He was determined never to go back. Or backward.
“I always say only your opinion is the one that matters,” Butler told me once. “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 what you get is someone else’s, not yours.”
Butler likes to use some of the old metaphors from his college coach, Buzz Williams, to explain his life.
“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,” Butler explained. “The dream you pull out of there is your dream; it’s nobody else’s. This is my life. Take the good and the bad.”
It’s been a remarkable run of good for Butler, his star rising in the NBA fast and bright.
First came that Most Improved Player designation after the 2014-15 season and then the continued breakthroughs, averaging 20.9 points in 2015-16 with some of the most amazing games in franchise history. There was 53 points against the 76ers, a 40-point second half against Toronto to beat Michal Jordan’s record for a half, 21 points in a first quarter against Oklahoma City, a run of 44 games with at least one steal, a pair of triple doubles and then the Olympics.
And back to the Bulls last season to become a starter in the All-Star game, averaging a career high 23.9 per game along with 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists, one of the league’s most versatile players, regarded as one of the elite two-way players in the game. Three times conference player of the week, a pair of triple doubles, scoring at least 20 points in 15 straight games, the longest streak since Jordan had it 20 years before.
And it wasn’t just basketball. Jimmy’s work in the Chicago community earned him finalist honors for the 2017 NBA Kennedy award for citizenship. He’s been a regular his six years in Chicago delivering pizzas to the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago or mentoring kids with Maggie Daley’s After School Matters. Jimmy walks the red carpet and the streets. Tomball and the NBA share space.
“Everybody has their own story, their own journey to get where they are going or where they already are,” Butler told me. “You are going to have those hiccups, those obstacles. But you can’t let those break you. You have to hit those, do whatever you have to do, get through it and move on.
No one predicted it, but no one should have doubted. Jimmy moves on again, and he won’t be soon forgotten.