By now, many are familiar with the story of how Jimmy Butler grew up: how his mom kicked him out of their home in bedraggled Tomball, Texas, at age 13 before he was finally taken in by a surrogate family in high school.
Jimmy Butler hates that story. Not just because it describes him as once homeless, a tag that he now says was blown “out of proportion, times one thousand. I was not living under a bridge. That’s homeless. Or standing on the corner asking for change. That’s not what it was. I’m not going to say it was the easiest of times, don’t get me wrong, but I had a home. Or homes.”
Nor is it because he’s still haunted by his childhood and would rather not reflect on where it took place. He lives, after all, in Houston during the offseason; Tomball is on the outskirts. “Me and my family are on great terms now,” he says of his biological mother, whom he spent time with in Tomball last summer. “I’m good. I’m OK.”
Nor is it because he doesn’t appreciate the Lamberts, the blended family with seven kids that parented him through high school after he couch-surfed for a time. “I had people,” he says. “I wouldn’t change that for the world. I love Tomball for that.”
He hates that story because he doesn’t believe what happened in Tomball shaped him into an NBA All-Star shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls, and someone sure to be one of the most attractive restricted free agents on the market this summer.
That is how the old Jimmy would’ve described himself, anyway, because the old Jimmy was all about personal accolades. Today’s Jimmy would rather talk big picture, about where he is in his journey and who has helped get him there.
“I would call it the step before a new beginning,” the new Jimmy says. “I’m not going to say this is the beginning. This is the step right before.”
As gut-wrenching as it is to imagine a kid rejected by his family and having to fend for himself, Butler believes moving away from his hometown—first to junior college, then to Marquette University and finally to Chicago—was infinitely tougher. While his mom told him he wasn’t wanted, the coaches and everyone else who loved basketball in Tomball always had, which helped fill the void. Butler filled some of it himself, boasting that he could drop 40 on anyone in the country.
No one picked up the chorus. Two hundred miles up the road at Tyler Junior College, no one knew him or seemed to think much of his game. Later, at Marquette, he received the same empty reception. Butler was a portrait of teenage bravado, a kid who didn’t have anything else to buttress his self worth.
“He was ranked 73rd in the state of Texas coming out of high school,” says Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams, who coached Butler at Marquette. “Not in the country, in the state. No. 72 went to the Citadel. No. 74 went to a Division II school. He was an afterthought in every possible way. He didn’t go to play at a junior college because a Division I program sent him there to prepare him. He went because he didn’t have any other options.”
He wound up at Marquette only because Williams scouted one of his Tyler teammates, Joseph Fulce. Williams took over the program for Tom Crean, who left to coach Indiana, a week before the spring signing period, which left the Golden Eagles scrambling to fill out their roster. Fulce suggested they bring in Butler.
There were no recruiting trips or sit-down pitches made in anyone’s living room, and there certainly was no press conference when Butler arrived on campus—without a winter coat or any other cold-weather clothing—for the first day of school.
Marquette’s offer was the only one Jimmy received. He was in the car when he showed it to Tyler assistant coach Scott Monarch, who understood the golden ticket Jimmy had been given. Monarch immediately made Butler sign it, drove to the nearest McDonald’s and asked to use their fax machine.
Butler, meanwhile, sat in the car outside the McDonald’s, thinking his greatest wish had come true. “I was going to be able to go to college and get a degree,” he says. “There was my dream. That was my goal.”
Butler was Williams’ first signee as head coach, and the two had a lot in common at that point in their lives. Like Butler, Williams hailed from a small Texas town called Van Alstyne in the northeast part of the state. After more than a decade as an assistant, Williams served a short tenure as the head coach at the University of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina left the school unable to run a Division I program. So he returned to the assistant-coaching ranks after one year, joining Crean’s staff at Marquette.
Williams, while asking that this story focus on Butler, joked that he was just “trying to delay my inevitable return to hauling hay.” Inside the joke is the reality of being from a small town and the fear of falling short in the bigger, wider world. Butler harbored that same fear and Williams knew it.
“There was symmetry between where he was as a player and where I was as a coach,” Williams says now. “I coached him in a manner that bordered on inhumane. Because of his background, he had no plan B, no escape route. He was willing to do whatever I asked him to do.”
Williams knew Butler was his best athlete, had more potential than he realized and, as a 6’5″—now 6’7″—shooting guard, might be able to take it up a notch. But he routinely told Butler what he couldn’t do, knowing Butler couldn’t resist trying to prove him wrong. Pushing Butler to the extreme also set the standard for everyone else and prompted the veterans and fellow future NBAers such as Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward to close ranks around Butler. The first year had Jimmy on the verge of going home, but Marquette’s support staff, which included a newly hired Monarch, kept telling him how good he could be.
Hence, the same Butler who once only cared about points became the ultimate utility player. “Buzz would say, ‘You’re not very good’ or ‘You can’t guard this guy,’ and that’s what got me and he knew it,” Butler recalls. “That’s why I will love him to death for the rest of my life because he knew the buttons to press that could get me going. I had to find a way to fit in, to contribute to winning games, to eventually work my way into Buzz not being able to take me off the floor. It wasn’t because I was the best player. It may have been because I played hard every possession or I took a charge or I defended. It was never because I was the best player.”
Butler’s role on the floor evolved, but he remained Williams’ standard-bearer for effort. As a senior, Butler had the dubious honor of running solo in sprints, which meant he ran twice as many as his paired-up teammates. Williams held something called boot camp, which consisted of preseason conditioning drills at 5:30 a.m. On the last day of camp, by far the hardest, Williams pulled out their upcoming schedule and assigned sprints based on the difficulty of the opponent.
Playing Seton Hall on the road? Brutal, deserving of a particularly challenging timed sprint. “You make the time or you keep running,” Butler says.
On the last sprint of the last day, Butler hit the far touchline, pivoted and went down as his foot exploded through the bottom of his shoe.
“The shoe came up to, like, mid-calf, still tied,” Butler recalls. “I laid there and said, ‘Damn, I can’t believe I just ran through my shoe, thinking Buzz was going to be like, ‘Yo, you went hard, we’re going to count it.'”
Instead, Williams barked: “Didn’t make it.”
Butler: “Buzz, I just came out of my shoe, what would you like me to do?”
Williams: “Don’t care, do it all over again.”
Butler not only had to get the shoe off, he had to get a fresh one on in the normal rest time before the next sprint started.
“That’s what Buzz taught us,” Butler says. “No matter what happens, finish. Nobody cares. It made me so much stronger, so much better, so much tougher, to where, the ball rolling down the court, there’s no chance you could get it but you’re going to chase that ball down. You’re going to try to get it.”
If you’re wondering how Butler can log the second-most minutes in the NBA last season, jump to No. 1 this year—just a tick under 40 a night—and not only never complain but still blame himself for the Bulls’ defensive lapses, start there. Or how, with the Orlando Magic leading by six with the ball and less than 30 seconds left last weekend, Butler calmly picked off a pass, drew a clear-path foul, made the free throws and helped Chicago eke out a one-point win. The same Magic team Butler played a franchise-record 60 minutes against in a triple-overtime loss in January.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has taken heat for not paying minute totals much mind, but he’ll never hear it from Butler. “He never complains,” says his agent, Happy Walters.
“He does whatever the team needs,” Thibodeau has said on more than one occasion.
As much as Williams worked on Butler’s game, he also helped the young player with his psyche. Williams saw the anger and resentment still eating Butler up, the emotional anguish wrought by being abandoned (the reasons for which Butler keeps private to this day). They talked through how it’s not up to an individual to judge others.
“There weren’t many two-way conversations that first year,” Williams says. “We spent a lot of time trying to scrape out his hurt and pain. He watched what I said publicly and privately and if it matched up. He began to trust me, but it was a process.”
Keeping a lid on his childhood and surrogate family for their three years together did a lot to build that trust. Williams also suggested Butler might find some direction in the Bible. One day before a game, Butler borrowed one and asked, “What should I read?” and disappeared into the team manager’s closet. That became a routine.
“This was a kid who didn’t believe in a God when he got here,” Williams says.
Taking direction may be Butler’s greatest strength. Williams gave him a journal for Christmas with a specific set of instructions: 1. Read more than you think you should. 2. Write down everything about everything. 3. Build trustful relationships for 10 years from now. 4. Give God 10 percent, save 30 percent, live on 60 percent. Signed: I love you, Buzz.
“Everything about that man is real,” Butler says.
The feeling is mutual. Williams calls Butler “pure,” because he allows himself to be coached, a quality he finds increasingly rare. Part of the Bulls’ homework before drafting Butler with the last pick of the 2011 first round included a video breakdown of every ball-screen coverage involving him. The team saw a player Marquette used in every capacity to guard every position—centers to guards to everything in between. Sometimes he defended the screener, sometimes the ball. Matt Lloyd, then the director of scouting for the Bulls and now with the Orlando Magic, loved what he saw.
“No matter what we were doing—trapping, switching, downing the ball screen—Jimmy’s coverage was as efficient as it could be,” Williams recalls. “Jimmy picks up what you say when you say it.”
Butler, nevertheless, took nothing for granted. He went to the Portsmouth Invitational, a pre-draft workout camp that top players now almost make a point of pride to avoid. His team won every game and he earned tournament MVP. He still worked out individually for 17 teams, the most of any player that year, Williams says. No one told him to approach it any other way.
The challenge for the Bulls has been to get Butler to expand his view of himself as more than the ultimate utility player. Enter former shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who played alongside Butler during his first two seasons in Chicago, and proved an invaluable tutor.
“I’ve always been nervous about stepping on people’s toes,” Butler says. “Rip said, ‘Hey man, play. You’re only going to make everything easier for everyone else if you’re making shots and guarding. It’s a team. Everybody needs to contribute. Play like you play when it’s one-on-one.’ I was, like…but. He was, like, no buts. Rip really helped me in gaining confidence.”
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The next step in Butler’s evolution came at the start of last summer, when former Bulls guard Mike James introduced him to his personal trainer, Chris Johnson, who believed Butler could be as versatile offensively as he was as a defender. Every offensive counter Johnson told him to develop made sense as a foil to what Butler, the consummate defender, wanted to do, and with each move came a greater sense of trust in Johnson. “If I didn’t understand something, he would explain to where I would say, ‘OK that makes sense.'”
The notion that Butler feels he is “at the step before a new beginning” might raise some tingling hairs among Bulls fans and front-office executives alike. Chicago offered him a four-year, $42 million extension last summer, but he turned it down. It was considered below his market value even before he was named the league’s Player of the Month for November and an Eastern Conference All-Star. What the Bulls should understand is that while Butler has worked through the issues that kept him from ever trusting anyone, he still has the razor-sharp awareness of whether someone is being honest with him.
“It’s not quiet or distrustful,” Williams says. “He just figures no matter what someone’s title is, at some point they’re going to show their hand.”
Butler, by all accounts, doesn’t need money for validation or to maintain his lifestyle. He just spent the summer in a house without cable TV or Internet access to avoid distractions while working out. When the 2011 NBA lockout left him property of the Bulls without a contract or salary as a rookie, he refused to accept a line of credit from his agent or anyone else. Living off the kindness of others as a kid taught him the difference between needs and wants.
“He’s old school that way,” says Walters. “I don’t think he has any kind of debt.”
He’s also very much his own man. He eats dessert first, whether he is at home or in a restaurant, simply because he loves sweets—apple pie, in particular—and all too often finds himself too full at the end of a meal to indulge. He drives a black pickup truck—complete with a pair of steel bull’s testicles below the back bumper—and makes no apologies for wearing cowboy boots or listening to country music, although he’ll throw in a little Ludacris these days now that he’s had a chance to meet the rapper, aka Christopher Bridges. He doesn’t work out with other NBA players he knows he’ll face during the season, and if they happen to walk into the same gym, he’ll leave. “He feels like it’s a war out there and they can be friends when they retire,” says Walters.
Bereavement absences from games are usually reserved for blood relatives, but those Butler calls family are a little different. He refers to Jermaine Thomas, a friend from Tomball who helped him through tough times, as his brother. He left the team earlier this season to attend the funeral of a fellow Marquette undergrad who died suddenly. She was one of two young women on campus who, while he wasn’t romantically involved with them, helped shape the new Jimmy. “She believed in me and instilled that I was good enough,” he says.
And there is, of course, Buzz. Butler was preparing for his second season with the Bulls when Williams turned 40 and received a happy wishes text from Jimmy. Then he got a call, asking what he planned to do. “What I always do on my birthday,” Williams told him. “Nothing.”
Then there was a knock on the door. Jimmy had driven over from Chicago to their house north of Milwaukee and wound up spending the day. When Buzz’s wife suggested they go out to dinner, Jimmy went with them and their four children, all under 10, to a local pizza joint. When they returned home, he offered to put the kids to bed.
He counts his biological mom as part of his family as well.
“You learn everybody makes mistakes,” he says. “I make mistakes. That means you don’t hold a grudge against anybody. I’ve grown up so much because this game has taught me you don’t take anything for granted. You respect everybody. You make sure everybody feels wanted. That’s more than Tomball could give me.”
Instead, he has brought it to Tomball. He went back and shared a meal with the woman who sent him away. “You gotta go,” were the last words she said to him at 13. Williams helped him understand: You gotta go back. Her last words to him now: “I’m proud of you.”
Maybe that’s why, when asked what his next goal is, he’s not quite sure yet. He only knows that it’s no longer behind him, as far as carrying the weight of where he lived or whom he did and didn’t live with.
“It’s right here, right now,” he says. “It’s like a new beginning for me. Every day.”
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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