In the summer of 2007, Jimmy Butler got out of a car at a Chevron station north of Houston for nothing more than the promise of a chance. He had a high school degree, solid grades and test scores, and no plan for college other than what he told his driver, Alan Branch: “Whoever will take me. Wherever I get a chance.”
Branch, who ran a Texas high school scouting service, pulled out of the Chevron. He believed in Butler for reasons that were hard to explain, which may be why all the college coaches he lobbied said no. They wanted players with defined positions and skills that would obviously translate, and what Branch saw, besides “efficiency and IQ,” was a kid who was “majestic.”
“He always kind of stood with as tall a posture as possible,” Branch says. “He always looked you right straight in the eye and talked to you.”
Butler’s childhood would become part of his legend: After his parents kicked him out of his house in his early teens for general incorrigibility, he bounced around until another family took him in. The natural conclusion is that desperation fueled him, but what stands out, looking back, is that he didn’t seem desperate at all. “He just never let on to be worried,” Branch says. But Butler didn’t seem to think about anything other than what was next: a box-out, a meal, a workout, a ride up to Tyler Junior College with Branch.
Branch’s son, Alan Jr., had already signed to play with Tyler, and coach Mike Marquis told Branch Sr. he could bring Butler in for some pickup games and Marquis would evaluate him.
Marquis had never even watched video of Butler playing. But early on, he watched Butler run up and down the floor a few times without even touching the ball, and then he turned to Branch and said, “I’ll take him.”
Nobody saw this coming, O.K.? They won’t pretend they knew it 16 years ago. Five All-NBA honors, a path to the Hall of Fame, leading Miami into the Finals for the second time in four years … no. But they knew there was something special about Butler, something almost mystical, like a secret passageway that some people walk past 100 times a day without noticing, while others can’t stop staring, fascinated by where it might lead.
Marquis says, “There was something in Jimmy that just caught my eye.” Butler craved contact but didn’t force it. His movements were fluid. He was relentless but in control. Everything he did, he did with confidence.
Tyler teammate Joe Fulce, who would also play with Butler at Marquette and is still a close friend, noticed it during pickup games when they were freshmen: “Athletes know athletes. Writers know writers. Publishers know publishers. Digital creators know digital creators. You could see he was just a different dude. You didn’t know if it was good. You didn’t know if it was bad. He was just different.”
Butler was more competitive than a normal teenager, Marquis says—and yes, sure, that sounds like the Jimmy Butler we have seen this spring. But the nature of his competitiveness was unusual. In pickup games, Butler was constantly exhorting his teammates, even when he had been playing poorly himself. He was not worried about how they might react when a guy who had missed seven straight shots yelled at them.
American gyms are full of players who imagine they are Kobe Bryant. They want to make the last shot because they want to be the hero. Butler wanted to take the last shot, too—because he was the one who could best handle missing it. “I didn’t know him ever to be fearful of situations,” Marquis says. “It rubs off. He doesn’t fear the miss—or the repercussions of the miss.”
Some college coaches saw Butler as an undersized power forward. Marquis watched his ballhandling and was convinced he was a guard. He was correct. But what Butler really was, more than anything else, was a success waiting to happen. He was smart and hungry and “an extremely aggressive observer,” says Scott Monarch, an assistant at Tyler and then Marquette who now coaches at Grayson College. He could assess any situation and figure out how to navigate it. This came through on the court: Butler might not be the best shooter on a team from any specific spot on the floor, but he was the best at finding a spot on the floor where he would make a shot.
“The one thing about Jimmy that I had noticed [early]: Jimmy is going to be successful no matter what,” Monarch says. “He could have walked off that basketball court at Marquette and went over to the law school, and he would have excelled there too. He could have gone [into] business, Fortune 500, and he’d excel there, too. He had an attraction to success that … magnetism, I guess, is a better word for Jimmy. He would have been successful no matter what. He didn’t need basketball.”
Marquis agrees: “I think there’s very few things that he has full interest in that he wouldn’t be successful in immediately.”
In a few months, Butler went from an afterthought to Tyler’s best player to a scholarship at Marquette. Then he went from the bench to starter to star, always attacking what was next. His ego did not distort his vision. When it was final exam time at Marquette, he would bluntly and accurately tell Monarch which exams he would do well on and which ones would be a challenge. He didn’t talk a lot about playing professionally until his Marquette teammate Wesley Matthews started for the Jazz as a rookie, and Butler realized that was next for him was the NBA.
Then he went through the whole cycle again: bench to starter to star. In 2017, almost a full decade after he went to that Chevron station, Butler made his first All-Star Game. Marquis was sitting in a Texas Roadhouse when he found out. He thought about how far Butler had come and he cried.
Butler is such an obviously independent soul that people who have known him well consistently couch their compliments by saying they can’t speak for Jimmy. They can really talk only about the dramatic effect he had on everyone else.
They do marvel, though, at how he went from getting kicked out of his own house to being the face of an NBA franchise.
“How do you find yourself when you’re not sure where you’re going to be next?” Marquis asks. “That’s what’s always been impressive to me. He never fell into the trap that he could have fallen into in that situation. He has never, ever, ever been a victim.”
It’s too easy to say Butler succeeded because he had no choice. Put a thousand talented kids in that situation, and how many would have made it this far? How many would be traumatized, have trust issues, bristle at authority, medicate through their pain or be so desperate for validation that they couldn’t bring themselves to work when nobody was watching? How many would have made it this far when there was no real indication that they had the talent to get there?
Circumstances did not create Jimmy Butler. He got where he did because of what some people saw when he was a skinny, unknown teenager: He is wired to thrive at whatever comes next, as Marquis describes. “People that are driven are in the moment, way more than most people.”
Among all the stars in the NBA, Butler has probably come the furthest since he was 18. But though his journey was the least likely, in a way it was also the most sensible. He learned to do the little things before the big ones. He kept trying to become a better player and happened to become a great one. He wasn’t trying to fulfill anybody’s long-term expectations for him, because nobody had any.
Monarch says: “He didn’t start out at McDonald’s All-American or ninth-grade phenom, as a lot of guys did. And so playing hard was the foundation of how he got to the other parts.”
Even now, he is easily misunderstood. He supposedly embodies Heat Culture, the year-round working ethos that has defined Miami for a generation. But if Butler’s excellence was simply a result of giving maximum effort every night, then logically, his production would be better in the regular season, when others coast, than in the postseason.
Of course Butler has worked extremely hard. But other players have, too. What makes Butler different is his ability, in the most intense moments, to focus on whatever is next—and the way, in those moments, that he uses his charisma and intelligence to make teammates believe.
The signature sequence of this Miami postseason came in the Eastern Conference finals. After shooting poorly for most of Game 6, Butler fearlessly took over in the fourth quarter. With one Boston possession left, he told his teammates in the huddle they needed “one stop.” They didn’t get it. They went to Boston for Game 7 of the East finals in danger of being the first NBA team to blow a 3–0 series lead, a prospect so embarrassing that it would rattle most teams. Miami won Game 7 easily because all these years later, Jimmy Butler still does not fear the repercussions of the miss.