Overcoming All Odds
Jimmy Butler is a budding star, but nothing has come easy for the Bulls’ swingman.
by Kristen Harper / @CSNKrisHarper
Overly crowded rooms crammed with reporters were nothing new for the majority of Chicago Bulls’ players, but for a 21-year-old fresh off the graduation stage of Marquette University, Jimmy Butler was anything but prepared. With hot lights beaming down and oversized lenses glowering at him, unswervingly in the face, Butler instantly recalled a statement many athletes have heard over the span of their careers.
“I was in a suit, I had never worn a suit before in my life and I’m in front of all the cameras and I just instantly started sweating like, [Expletive] what are they going to think—think this and think that,” Butler said.
“I was super nervous about what people thought, I had to say the right thing because they are always like, ‘The media are going to pick and choose at what you say so make sure you don’t say anything out of line.’ I’m sitting there like, Please don’t mess up anything, don’t say anybody’s name wrong.”
After being selected 30th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler, when asked about Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau, often referred to him as “Coach Tim” or “Tim Thibodeau” and subsequently would overhear reporters saying, “His name is definitely Tom.” From that day on, Butler consciously made the decision to refer to Thibodeau simply as “Coach,” “Coach Thibs” or “Thibs,” which was a seemingly smart decision for the young draftee.
The 2011 Draft class not only had pronunciation issues to worry about but with the NBA and the Players Union at odds, the rookies weren’t sure if they would be suiting up for their respective teams come October.
“There was just so much to learn in so little time because the lockout was coming and when the lockout hit I couldn’t talk to anybody. My teammates that I got to meet that were there, that was it but you know that was during the summer so everybody is at home. So I only had a limited way of contacting people,” said Butler.
But despite the rough start to his NBA career, he blossomed into an integral part of the Bulls’ success. Stepping into the starting lineup after teammate Luol Deng suffered a strained right hamstring, Butler showcased an array of talent and instantly became the team’s X-factor.
This long-awaited glory road, however, did not come easy for Butler. After growing up in seemingly heart-wrenching circumstances, Butler soon discovered just how much a complete stranger could teach him the meaning of love and faith.
The road less traveled
When you think of a young adolescent, images of eighth grade graduations or their complete fascination with the opposite sex are the likely associations that come to mind. But for 13-year-old Butler, dissimilar visions were his reality.
After choosing to leave the comforts of home, Butler was forced to fend for himself. With no means of income or immediate family to confide in, he sought refuge with friends willing to welcome him into their homes. Despite the ostensibly endless black hole of let-down after let-down, there was one bright spot in all his darkness: sports. Like many athletes, sports became his outlet and coincidentally—in an intensely friendly game of 21—that is exactly how he met the person who would forever change his life.
Jordan Lesile to this day hints at the fact that he beat Butler in that contest. But according to Butler, it seems Lesile’s memory is a bit cloudy in that area. After agreeing to disagree, they became fast friends and Butler soon started spending many days at the Lesile home. A few months’ worth of family dinners and card games later, Jordan’s mother, Michelle Lambert, developed a soft spot for Butler and told him he had a permanent invitation to stay. Butler quickly accepted, and the two have been inseparable ever since.
“She’s my mom, I feel like that’s the end of the discussion. She does everything that a mom does. She comes here to support me and she comes to see me as much as possible. I mean it’s like a mother and son relationship that is the same with anybody else,” Butler said with a bright smile.
As Butler prepared to graduate from high school, he expected the typical hundreds of letters from college programs to overtake the mailbox. But unfortunately living in the small, rustic town of Tomball, TX, allowed him very limited exposure to top Division I programs or even the likes of mid-major universities. So after a brief discussion with his mother, Butler decided to take his talents to Tyler Junior College—a three hour ride upstate and only an hour and a half outside of Dallas, but still in a very rural area that Butler was accustomed to.
Although Tyler Junior College didn’t carry the weight of a Duke University or Ohio State, Butler still had the normal first-day jitters many athletes experience when starting their career in a new environment.
“I was actually nervous because when I started out there, I was terrible, like I just had an off-day like my very first day there. It was like a pick-up game, I couldn’t make any shots; nothing. I questioned my ability but then as I became more comfortable it became easy. I got back to having fun. I feel like that’s what’s happening now. As I get comfortable out there on the NBA court, I start to just play basketball and start to have fun,” said Butler, who averaged 40.8 minutes and 13.3 points in 2013 postseason.
“When I was in junior college I started off terrible and then I got real close with a few of my teammates. Definitely Randall [Hampton] and then Joe [Fost] of course and then probably a guy from Tyler named Reggie [Nelson] our point guard. I feel like we got so close and we started to click on the basketball floor together and then I guess we just all started to perform at an extremely high level. We all started getting looks from different colleges.”
After a stand-out single year performance at TJC—leading the team in scoring and being named honorable mention JuCo All-American—Butler received offers from Marquette, Kentucky, Clemson, Mississippi State and Iowa State. Once again he confided in the only true mother figure he had ever known—Michelle. With her by his side they decided he would attend Marquette University, on a full basketball scholarship.
“I was hired as the head coach on April 8, the very first day of the spring signing period,” said head coach Buzz Williams. “So on April 15, I signed Jimmy, so he was the very first player that I signed, I had not hired a coach yet, so I was the only employee of Marquette men’s basketball other than my secretary. And so he’s calling me for the fax number of where to fax his national letter of intent, and I’m standing by the fax machine of which I don’t know the number to the fax machine, asking my secretary to tell Jimmy the number.”
“I got homesick a little but it was never too much. I think more if I wanted to come home it was because I thought basketball and Buzz’s coaching was extremely hard,” said Butler, as he reminisced on his playing days under Williams.
Moving from the small town of Tyler, TX to the more urban Milwaukee might be a hard pill to swallow for some but for Jimmy the toughest thing to become accustomed to was the demanding coaching style of Williams. But over time, Jimmy understood the teachings behind the madness.
“Buzz’s biggest thing was to not only make you a great player on the court but to make you a great person off the court and that was for now or in the future when you have kids and become a father, got married to be husband. He wanted you to always do right in more than just your eyes but even when other people aren’t looking, still do right. Help as many people as you can and don’t expect anything back in return. I felt like that was his biggest message he wanted to get across and then on top of that a lot of the things that he said they did happen on the court but it’s also off the court,” said Butler.
“What you put into something is what you get out of it. If you don’t work hard on the court then don’t expect to get the results you want on the court. If you don’t put time into a relationship off the court, don’t expect to get a happy relationship or a happy home. So he was always preaching to be a great person and I think that was the number one thing I learned from him.”
Butler carried that message with him from then on and applied it heavily to the way he approached life and where he desired to take his basketball career. He had big dreams but he never thought a skinny, little kid from Tomball, TX, would be heading to Chicago to play for the team that previously housed arguably the greatest player to ever play the game.
“I still remember what I had on,” Butler noted. “Well I got a haircut that day, I had on black pants, I had on red, black and white Nike Frees, I had on a black Polo shirt and some black ear rings and I had on a red watch—a black and red watch.”
The color combination that day would make anyone’s eyebrow rise. It was almost like Jimmy subconsciously knew what was about to transpire but of course he describes it solely as happenstance.
“It was crazy because I had on red, black and white. It was a coincidence. Then I’m sitting there you know first pick, seventh pick, 11th pick, 21st pick and I’m like [expletive], then the 29th pick hits and I get a phone call from my agent and he’s like, ‘You ready?’ and I was like, Yeah, I guess, but obviously I knew what he was talking about when he said, ‘You ready.’ Then he was like, ‘Alright, because Chicago is going to take you at the 30th pick,’ and instantly I ran outside and I was like [expletive],” Butler exclaimed.
“I went back inside and watched TV and sure enough David Stern said, ‘Chicago Bulls select Jimmy Butler from Marquette’ and my name came across the bottom of the screen and that’s when all the emotions set in and I cried with my mom.”
Draft day for Jimmy was strictly about family. He wanted only to be surrounded by the people who have been there since day one and sharing that moment with them is forever etched in his memory.
“We just sat there talking and everybody was at the house. It was a great feeling to have all my loved ones there and we all shared one of the biggest moments of my life together. I didn’t want a lot of people around, I feel like that was a special moment in my life and I wanted to share it with the people that I love most who are always going to be around and who are always going to be there for me. So, I feel like that was huge,” said Butler.
But for months after that phone call Butler remained idle. He anxiously waited for the announcement—like the rest of the world—that the NBA lockout was over and finally on a chilly day in December the wait was over.
December 16, 2011, was perhaps the second most anticipated day in Butler’s life. It was the day of his first NBA game. Nervousness immediately overtook his mind and flashbacks of his rocky beginnings at Tyler Junior College were at the forefront.
“Don’t air ball, don’t get dunked on, don’t fall, like please don’t get embarrassed the first time you’re on a NBA court,” said Butler, recalling his first moments in the tunnel at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse but as his skill overtook his uneasiness, he realized he had performed countless times before and this game was no different.
“It was actually my first pre-season game at Indiana. When I shot my first shot I definitely thought it was an air ball and it went in, I was like, Wow like that was easy. I feel like it’s like that for a lot of players. Once your first shot goes in, you got your confidence and so I went 4-4, I had 8 points.”
As we took a short break, Jimmy proceeded to show me an oversized poster type image of him scoring a basket in a game. When I questioned him about the significance of this image—seeing that it wasn’t the normal dunking Jimmy we have grown accustomed to witnessing and just a simple lay-up type shot—he expressed to me that this is perhaps one of the most important memories in his career which he again shared with the ones who mattered most—family.
“That first pre-season game was crazy. This is actually my first basket ever right here on the wall that he [Jordan] got me for my birthday when we played the Grizzlies on I think New Year’s Day. They were up here for that game.”
When most athletes find a particular ritual or good luck charm, they tend to stick with it. Butler followed suit by staying true to the one person who always demanded the most from him—Coach Williams.
“I wear my Marquette shorts under my uniform but that’s just because I am very superstitious now. I feel like I played well when I forgot to take them off one day and ever since then I’ve just been rocking with it. You know people are like, ‘You want to be like Mike [Jordan],’ but the crazy thing is I knew he did that, but that wasn’t what was going through my head. The one thing that was going through my head was I felt like at one point in time this year I got away from working. I wasn’t working extremely hard like I normally was,” said Butler.
“I was just like I guess I was angry and just like how basketball was going, like we weren’t winning a lot of games. Then me and Griff (Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin) sat down and he was like, ‘Man what’s up?’ I was saying, Man ain’t nothing going right, and he was like, ‘Don’t stop working though.’
“And so I wear those Marquette shorts just to remind me where I come from for the most part and you know what I had to go through to get there and what I learned while I was there and that’s to take everything one day at a time and continue to work extremely hard so I feel like that’s the main reason why I wear those now,” Butler said.
During Butler’s rookie season, he developed a close relationship with assistant Coach Griffin—who played for the Bulls during the ’04-05 season. With both having played the same position, Griffin served as a mentor to Butler, as he moved through the ups and down of his rookie and second-year season.
“I feel like his biggest thing is just to stay really level-headed. Don’t get too high when you have great games or when everybody is saying something great about you. Don’t get too low when people are bashing you when you have a bad game; just learn to stay in the middle. Then you don’t have to worry about any of that. It’s all about you and what’s going on with the coaches and players and if you just listen to them and let go all of those outside influences you have nothing to worry about.”
During his rookie year as well as up until January of his second year with the Bulls, Butler’s playing time mirrored that of his playing days at Marquette where he played behind Wes Matthews—the third-year guard with the Portland Trail Blazers—and Lazar Hayward, who played for the Minnesota Timberwolves during the ’12-13 season. But after hard work and a keen dedication to improve, Butler moved from logging insignificant minutes to almost breaking the NBA record for consecutive 48-minute games played in a Playoff series set by Wilt Chamberlain at four. Butler fell one game shy during the Bulls’ Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat, where he recorded 31 minutes.
“I started in the same role, coming off the bench, seeing limited minutes, being that hustle guy and each year I feel like I got better and better. I grew on both ends of the floor and then with the more reps the more confidence. I started to become a leader and you know if somebody needed a shot, the ball was in my hand and if someone needed a stop, I was always guarding the other team’s best player. I take pride in that because I know my teammates want me to be guarding the best player and taking that shot and I feel like I want my teammates to have that pride in me at this level also,” said Butler, referencing Bulls small forward Deng and former teammate Ronnie Brewer, both of whom Butler played behind during his rookie campaign.
With Butler having the opportunity to play under both Deng and Brewer, his game vastly improved. Learning essential skills from players who played the same position could only add value and depth to his array of talent. Not only did their knowledge and instruction benefit Butler on the court but they also developed a close relationship outside the lines that is still relevant today.
“It’s easy to connect with guys that are like you on the basketball floor because they can show you so many things and they have been in the League for so long that it can only help you with them doing it. Luol has been doing it for what nine [years], and Ronnie has been doing it for like six or seven, something like that. So yeah, I am definitely close with those guys because if I can grow the way they did throughout this League then I can be here for a very long time,” Butler said.
New shoes to fill
After All-Star small forward Luol Deng fell out of the lineup due to injury, Butler was called upon to step into the rotation.
On January 19 against the Memphis Grizzlies, he logged his first 48-minute game and contributed a then season-high 18 points. From then on Butler excelled, showing his versatility of both a three-point shooting threat as well as a driving force to the paint, where he would finish aerobatic shots at the rim. But a game that stands out in many minds is the matchup against west coast rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in January at the United Center. Butler held five-time NBA Champion and two-time Finals MVP Kobe Bryant to just 16 points on 7-22 shooting. Butler played a strong overall game, scoring 10 points, grabbing 8 rebounds, and dishing out 4 assists in the Bulls’ 95-83 victory.
“My teammates gave me confidence but they always told me that when my time presented itself to just capitalize on it so it made it easy. I mean when you are a starter you have the utmost confidence because you are coming in right off the bat. You’re warm, fresh right out of the warm-up line. You don’t have to sit on the bench so it’s just like you are ready to go. And then when you make that first shot it’s like the basket gets huge and you feel like you can make anything,” said Butler. “But when you are coming off the bench it’s just like you got to get ready, you got to warm up, you got to take a few trips up and down. So I feel like that had a lot to do with it also, just knowing you had to score the ball a lot more as a starter. My teammates would be like, ‘Hey, you got to shoot the shots when you are open,’ that’s big. That’s a confidence booster.”
But Butler remained humbled, heeding the advice of assistant coach Adrian Griffin, even after being dubbed the “Kobe stopper” in media reports following the win.
“He is another basketball player just like everyone else. He is a ‘great’ but no one can stop those great players so you just have to go out there and compete. Make everything extremely difficult for him and I mean Kobe is Kobe. He missed a lot of shots that he normally makes so it wasn’t me being a ‘Kobe stopper’ or what everyone wants to call it,” Butler said. “It was just he missed a lot of shots and my teammates helped me when I was beat, they were always there. It was a confidence booster to know that everyone thought that, ‘Aww you shut down Kobe,’ but I felt like that wasn’t it so don’t be tricked by all of that. Just keep doing what you been doing and just keep playing hard.”
Butler’s performance improved throughout the remainder of the season. His minutes and points increased each month. And in April he posted six consecutive games with double-figure scoring while playing over 40 minutes in each. He also scored a career-high 28 points on April 9 against the Raptors.
But it’s Butler’s defensive presence on the floor that has made a tremendous impact for this Bulls’ team. He has been compared to the likes of Tony Allen, known for his pesky, knat-like defense. But when questioned about only being seen as a defensive player Butler responded, “I look at myself as a basketball player. Yeah I can play defense. But with more confidence and more reps people are going to see that I can score the ball so I feel like that’s what the future is for, that’s what the summer is for; to get better in more aspects than just one.”
As Butler looks on to life after he takes his last shot at the Madhouse on Madison, he hopes to end up in a career many athletes have turned to upon leaving their respective sport.
“[I want to do] something on the radio or on TV speaking. I am always going to love basketball but when my body isn’t able to play anymore, I will let the many years that I hopefully get to play where I’ve learned a lot of stuff and be able to talk like Shaq, Barkley or Kenny Smith after the games because I would have experienced so much and seen so much,” he said.
But it seems this dream will have to wait, as Butler is well on his way to stardom in the NBA. With his continued drive and hunger to improve, Butler’s future is brighter than anyone, including himself, could have imagined.