Jimmy Butler: The Long, Winding Road

Jimmy Butler: The Long, Winding Road

May 12, 2013, 12:15 pm
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Kristen Harper

In just one season, swingman Jimmy Butler has gone from playing on the Bulls’ second-unit to being an integral part of an injury-plagued, playoff squad that is giving the vaunted defending-champion Miami Heat all they can handle. 

Butler has been tasked with guarding some of the best players in the league night in and night out without so much a look of strain on his face. After entering the starting lineup Jan. 19 against the Memphis Grizzlies when All-Star forward Luol Deng was sidelined by a hamstring injury, Butler played all 48 minutes and scored a season-high 18 points. 

Butler remembers a time when the only major minutes he logged were at the practice facility after a long, intense workout, staying positive that his day would soon arrive.

“It’s changed a lot. I feel like we always talk about it with my teammates or with my coaches that the more reps you get, the more confidence you gain. But the only way you gain confidence is through the work you do every day,” Butler said. “I’ve constantly been at the gym all summer. Before practice, after practice or off-days so it’s definitely coming along. It’s a long process. It’s a long year. The future is bright but I try to live for now, in the moment. If you continue to work even when no one is watching, when you get on the United Center floor or wherever you may be, your chance is going to come.” 

His time has come and Butler has risen to the occasion. In just his second career start, he was given perhaps one of the toughest defensive assignments to date -- the task of defending five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant. In that Jan. 21 matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, Butler held Bryant to just 16 points while shooting a pedestrian 31.8 percent from the field. 

While Butler has come a long way in a short time on the court, Butler remains level-headed and is always mindful of the tough upbringing which shaped his life. 
Although he has blossomed into a rising star, his path to success was anything but easy; more along the lines of the road less traveled. But despite a bumpy childhood, Butler found refuge with a loving family through a “friendly” shooting game of 21 against a friend, Jordan Leslie. As time went on, the bond between Butler and Jordan continued to grow. He began spending a lot of time with the Leslie family and shortly thereafter Michelle Lambert, Jordan’s mother, offered a permanent invitation for him to stay. Longing for the comforts of an affectionate family, Butler quickly accepted.

“It’s a blessing to have people that are always in your corner no matter what; to always be on your side,” Butler said. “If you need anything they’re willing to give it to you, [from] the last penny that they have to the shirt on their back. I think a lot of people would like to have that. 

“And having people in your corner like that just lets you know that you can be successful. That no matter what happens, if you fail or if you succeed, they’re always going to have your back. They’re always going to look at you as the same person; the little kid from Tomball who was ripping and running with the snotty nose.”

As Butler excelled in basketball throughout high school he received a significant amount of local notoriety, but living in such a small town offered him limited exposure to major universities. After a discussion with his “mother” Michelle, Butler decided on attending Tyler Junior College -- three hours north of Tomball, Texas. Just a year later Butler was named a JUCO All-American and received scholarship offers from Kentucky, Mississippi State, Clemson and Iowa State, but he ultimately decided to attend Marquette University under head coach Buzz Williams who made an interesting first impression on Butler.

“Buzz, he’s a country guy just like I am; from a little town in Texas. But the main thing that got me about him was whenever he got to Tyler to start recruiting Joe [Fost], he watched me play,” Butler said. “The very first thing he said to me was, ‘Jimmy, you suck.’ I was like ‘Oh, I don’t even know you.’ I just knew him as a coach. That’s not the first thing you are supposed to say to somebody.

“So you know he came around as the games came by, he was like, ‘You know what? I like the way you play hard. You’re a tough kid. If I ever had a head coaching job, I’d take you.’ Right now he’s an assistant at Marquette under Tom Crean. I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever coach. I got this school recruiting me now.’ But that stuck in my head. The Marquette job loosened up and he got the job. He called me at like 2 a.m. and said, ‘Well I got the job at Marquette and I want you to come play.’ Instantly I was like, I’m coming, because he told me the truth from Day 1, besides the fact that I sucked.” 

After a successful four-year career at Marquette, Butler decided to chase another dream and he entered his name into the NBA draft.

“I never gave up on my dream but it was like if you want it, you can have it, but you’re always going to have to work extremely hard. “There are a lot of kids out there that have the exact same dream. So definitely I wanted to be a NBA player. That was never a doubt in my mind.”

On June 23, 2011, Butler’s dream was realized when the Chicago Bulls selected him in the first round (30th overall). He received the news surrounded by the ones that mattered most -- family. 

“[I] instantly burst into tears with my mom because I just felt like all the hard work that I’ve done, all the people that tell me I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I couldn’t be an NBA player, that I wouldn’t get my degree, I wouldn’t go to college, I wouldn’t do this or I wouldn’t do that,” Butler said. “But more than anything it was I proved myself right.” 

A few hours later, he received a welcoming text message from perhaps the most notable player to play for the Bulls since Michael Jordan.

“Because his best friend is Randall Hampton whom I played with in junior college, so right after I got drafted I was getting on a plane with my mom and we’re coming up here and I got a text and it said, ‘What up man? It’s Derrick. When you get here come by the house, hang out for a little bit,’” Butler said. “I was like, ‘Oh all right, Derrick Rose just texted me.’ 

“You gotta understand I’m not a professional athlete yet. Right now I’m a draftee to the Chicago Bulls so when you hear Derrick Rose, it’s like MVP, superstar. But when you get around him, he’s just a down-to-earth guy, just like everybody else. It was just a good feeling to be wanted on the team even though he’s never met me.”

During his rookie season, Butler became fast friends with Deng as well as former Bulls power forward Ronnie Brewer. With all three of them playing the same position, Butler was able to learn from the veteran players, gaining valuable knowledge and skills that he continues to showcase. This brotherly bond ran throughout the entire team and is something Butler believes is special.

“They always tell me that there’re not a lot of teams in the NBA like the team that we have, and I can’t say that I’ve noticed it because I haven’t been around any other teams … but the bond we have it’s one of a kind,” he said. “Everybody wants to be around each other. You know we see each other so much every day on the court that you’d think when we have a chance to be away from each other that we’d want to get away from each other; that’s not the case.

“Everybody has their families to tend to, but I feel like when we do have the chance to we all do something together. Even if that’s go to a movie or go get dinner or just hang out in somebody’s room on the road. I feel like that’s a big part of team success because we know each other not only on the court but off the court.”

Even though injuries have been a continual issue all season, the Bulls have found surprising success advancing to the conference semifinals against the Heat. Regardless of the outcome, the Bulls have proven they are a team of perseverance. And with Butler’s improvement -- averaging just under 40 minutes and 13 points per game in the postseason -- he is on an already-accomplished path.

As Butler continues to further define who he is as a professional athlete and makes tremendous strides on the court, he will never forget how he got to this point in life; forever surrounded and thankful for his family. Because as many hurdles as he had to overcome, there were just as many blessings.

“I feel like the obstacles and everything I had to go through to get to where I am, that made me who I am; I wouldn’t change it,” Butler said. “I love the life I live and I love the people that I’m around. It’s a blessing to be where I am, so I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing, with the people I’ve been doing it with and we’ll keep going in the right direction.

“That’s them, that’s family. That’s what that is. And people say, ‘Oh that’s not blood,’ I feel like family is who you love, who you always want to be around; who’s there for you at the holiday, who’s there for your first game, for your first start, things like that. If you were to ask me those questions, they were always there. When you ask me about family, you’ll get those names; you’ll get those people.”