Inspiration is a funny thing. One can find it in the most unexpected places. But no matter where, if it works for you and helps make you successful, makes you better, then take advantage. Maybe it’s from an athlete, though we often eschew that. Perhaps a doctor, scientist or president. Jimmy Butler often talks about those who have inspired him, like the Texas family who took in the homeless, distrustful and wild teenager and the Marquette coach whose tough love helped push Butler to places he dared not dream.
Jimmy Butler was awake at 5 a.m. Wednesday working out, some six hours before USA Basketball’s informal practice session. So much for the famed Las Vegas night life.
Butler would after that USA practice head for another work session, some weight lifting this time. Much of the discipline would be inspired by his good friend, Mark Wahlberg, the accomplished actor whose reckless and felonious childhood behavior in some respects mirrors Butler’s tough and unfortunate adolescence.
“We do compare (with difficult childhoods), yeah,” Butler conceded in a lengthy and convivial session with reporters after the USA Basketball light practice. “But more than anything that makes you who you are. You don’t forget where you come from; he damn sure doesn’t and I damn sure don’t. Yeah, we do have that in common. But the past is the past; you have to move forward some time.”
Jimmy Butler is doing it with remarkable and unexpected success, his invitation among 34 players to try out for the USA Basketball 2016 Olympic team just the latest topping in a layer cake of sweet rewards for the Bulls All-Star guard. But this is a guy who never wants the icing, who isn’t likely to have a satisfied smile.
“Just having an opportunity to represent our country, being out here with all these amazing talents,” Butler said almost with a sigh. “You see guys who have made their mark on the league, guys who have gold medals. Just an honor to be out here competing with them. I never thought I’d be in the NBA. I damn sure never thought I’d have a chance to represent Team USA. Now that I’m here I have to make the most of it. I think I’ve got a shot at it; we’ve got to see.
“You hear guys making jokes they don’t want to be guarded by me and they honor how many minutes I play and still how hard I play,” Butler added with some pride. “That’s really cool. But more than anything I feel I am out here with some of the best players in the world. It’s humbling, but it also makes me smile because maybe I am a decent basketball player.”
The All-Star team, all-defense consideration, team leading scorer, a maximum salary contract. Yes, the 6-7 Butler has made his mark.
Like the former Marky Mark?
That was what Wahlberg called himself with a successful kid band in the early 1990s after a shockingly brutal adolescence in Boston where he was a street hoodlum and drug user, a convicted felon charged with attempted murder after numerous racial assaults. But from misguided youth, if one survives that, can come life lessons to pass on. Wahlberg has become a devoted churchgoer and father of four with one of the more successful Hollywood careers, from foolish and misguided youth to rich and famous.
Perhaps Jimmy Butler can identify most with someone like that.
“From where he’s come from, he’s taught me so much,” Butler said. “What he’s been through to where he is now, we are kind of on the same path, just a little bit different. All this adversity where he is now.”
Butler doesn’t get into much detail about his shadowy youth, but kicked out of your home at 13 to drift on the streets isn’t that common. Butler has opened up more around the team and media in the past year, though he retains his wary shell. He doesn’t let people in easily, surely the product of those dark youthful experiences. But when he met Wahlberg by chance at the Berto Center a few years back, they clicked. Wahlberg is a basketball nut who got himself a role in the 90s movie, The Basketball Diaries. He wanted to shoot some baskets with some free time while working on a Transformers movie in Chicago. The Bulls invited him and Jimmy found some unlikely inspiration.
“More than anything he doesn’t care I am an NBA player,” said Butler. “He just wants me moving in the right direction. He’s a role model for so many people. But I look up to him for the way he is with his kids, his family. And the way he treats his entourage (the successful HBO series and later movie was loosely based on Wahlberg). Everybody respects the guy because he treats you with respect. That’s how I want to be known. I want to treat you all with respect.
Yeah, I won’t run out of the locker room anymore.”
Butler had to laugh as he knew Chicago media last season was growing impatient with Butler frequently bolting from the locker room without speaking to anyone. It, in part, led to speculation about even a feud with Derrick Rose, which Butler labeled ridiculous. But, again, this is Butler watching the 44-year-old Wahlberg and learning.
“The dude is an incredible dude,” said Butler. “He is one of the most genuine people you can be around. He works hard, studies the scripts. He just finished up Deep Water Horizon, but he’s probably on two scripts from now because that’s how his mind works. He’s actually the one (that) got (me) waking up at 5 o’clock and working because that’s what he does, wakes up 4:30, 5 and he reads (scripts) and then he goes works out and starts his day.”
Whatever it takes, and that’s where Butler is now as one of the team’s leaders. He says he and Rose could emerge this season as the league’s best backcourt and—yes, he said he knows they say it every year—and the Bulls, really, really, really, could be in the Finals.
First the Rose stuff.
Butler says it’s all nonsense. He says he and Rose would laugh about it, but it is becoming tiresome having to field the questions again. Butler Wednesday was in a jovial mood, though he is skipping Thursday’s scrimmage for personal business back in Chicago. He was wearing a No. 50 practice jersey and said to call him the Admiral. It used to be 33 back home in junior college. “I thought I was Scottie Pippen back then,” he said with a laugh. He then tossed the jersey at me and said I could play Thursday. Someone would notice.
When asked about he and Rose, Butler stopped abruptly and asked, “What do you think?”
“We didn’t win; that’s it,” Butler said in a cut-it-out tone. “When you don’t win somebody has to find something to blame it on because we had a very good team and we were supposed to win. So why not throw out a guy like myself, who had a pretty decent year, and Derrick coming back and say they were clashing. That was a story everyone wanted to talk about and it worked. Everybody is fine. We just want to win. I laugh at it. I know what’s really going on. Everybody doesn’t. He knows. We’re fine. Whenever we win all of this is going right out the window. We start winning at the beginning of the season it’s not an issue anymore.”
But will they? Can they? After all, the conventional wisdom goes, they couldn’t beat Cleveland then with all their injuries. How are they going to do it now? But Butler said he likes what he’s heard from new coach Fred Hoiberg and has incorporated Hoiberg play sets in his workouts. Butler says he’s enthusiastic and optimistic about what he’s seen with the faster style of play. Hoiberg has been visiting players, and Rose’s trainer, Rob McClanaghan, said he and Rose were blown away with Hoiberg’s offensive innovations.
But before anyone takes that as a slight at former coach Tom Thibodeau, Butler is having none of it.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Thibs, vice versa,” Butler said with Thibodeau a USA assistant coach. “He has on shorts today so you know he’s in a great mood. It’s cool to just talk to him. It’s a different relationship now because he’s no longer my coach. We joke around and have fun. Everybody (on the USA team) hears about the practices (with Thibodeau) and how many minutes and how he does things. But I tell them, ‘Look, it’s real with him, but he knows what he is doing.’ If you look at the numbers he’s won games. I think everyone has faults, but I think Thibs was great in his role. He won. That’s what the city of Chicago wants. He brings the best out of his players; he’ll let you play but you have to hold onto that team first mentality. Obviously, we didn’t win a championship, but I think if we continue to stay healthy and moving forward we have a good chance at it.”
Yes, the coming season. Here we go again.
“We say it every year we are confident; we think we can win a championship, yadda, yadda, yadda,” Butler went on. “You have all heard it before. But we have to go out there and do it. It’s time to stop talking and actually be about it. I think that we can, but like I said, we’ve got to go out and do it. He’s (Hoiberg) going to give you a lot of freedom. I think that works better to our abilities, myself, Derrick, Doug (McDermott), Pau (Gasol), Jo (Noah), everybody. It only makes it better when we are moving faster.
“I’m confident about every season,” Butler said. “We’ve got the same exact team; we had a chance, obviously, last playoffs. We can change it now. So why not try it again? We were right there. If everyone stays healthy, does what they are supposed to do with their bodies we are going to be back in the same position. You’re going to have to go through Cleveland no matter what; we’ll be ready for it. We’ve got the same team; is that enough? I don’t know. I guess we’ll all find out. Was it enough last year? It wasn’t. The only thing that really changed was the coaching. We’ll see.”
Even a Thibodeauism.
But sometimes there’s also internal change, which is what the best ones do in the summer. They add to their game, a shot, a move. Their games become the players you didn’t add. We saw it with Michael Jordan and that baseline jumper, Magic Johnson with his outside shot. They’re the same; until they are not. Rose and Noah reportedly have had healthy summers, and Butler continues to work on his own secret weapon.
“First off, I think I am a point guard,” Butler said without joking. “So I’ve done a heck of a lot of ball screen work, ball handling, getting into the paint and still handling, floaters, all that stuff point guards do. If I get a chance, high pick and roll more. I want some triple doubles. I’ve got to get my handle right so I can pass and get it to guys where they can make shots. I told Fred. You ask what position I play, I say point guard.”
It sounds like a joke for the guy who was supposed to be a small forward replacement for Luol Deng. But having another guard who can handle the ball and allow Rose to play off the ball with Butler’s defensive prowess provides a potentially exceptional and previously unknown element to the Bulls arsenal.
“I’m very excited because I think a lot of people think my last season was a fluke,” acknowledged Butler, who is the 32nd lowest drafted player on the USA roster. “I really don’t care what they think. But I want to prove to myself it wasn’t. I want to show I can get better from last year to this year. That’s my goal, continue to get better every year like I have.
“The main thing is confidence,” Butler continued. “I’m gaining more and more confidence to do whatever I want to do on the basketball court, whether it is shooting threes or sprinting to the rim and finishing or ball handling. I’m confident enough because I have worked on it that I am going to do the exact same things in the game. I’ve been overlooked my whole life. I’m used to it. It’s nothing new to me. We don’t need to worry about what other people think because as long as we are playing the way we are supposed to play and we win as many games as we can win I see us getting to the Finals.”
So his favorite Wahlberg movie?
“Shooter,” Butler says without hesitation.
And soon to bring that to the basketball floor as well. Don’t ever discount this guy. His life, like a movie, continues to be something of a fairy tale come true. Very inspiring.