The first piece to fall in an offseason full of earth-shaking moves was a dominoes buff with almost as much experience waiting tables at Denny's as playing AAU ball. Now JIMMY BUTLER and the young Timberwolves are one of the many new-look, superstar-heavy squads hoping to make a serious run at the most loaded team of them all, the Warriors
THE SELF-TITLED GARBAGE GUY from small-town Texas who grew up on Spam and syrup sandwiches, who waited tables at Denny's and mowed lawns in basketball shoes, who played one game of AAU ("travel ball," he called it) and never left the bench, who received a single scholarship offer out of high school from Centenary and a partial from Quinnipiac, who started in junior college only after two regulars failed drug tests and who faxed his letter of intent to Marquette from a McDonald's sinks into a tan leather banquette on a Gulfstream III bound for Silicon Valley. JIMMY BUTLER is on the phone with his new head coach in Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau, who of course was also his old head coach in Chicago. They talk every day, often multiple times, about what food the Timberwolves should order for training-camp spreads and what hotel they should book in New Orleans. Butler prattles on about rush-hour traffic patterns.
But this August afternoon they are evaluating free-agent backup point guards, and Butler makes the case for a veteran he has been courting. "We spoke today," Butler says. "He's ready. He'll do everything I do. He can live in my house if he wants." The engine whirs, the plane rises, and Butler tells Thibodeau he will call back when his private flight from Los Angeles lands in San Jose. Butler is a bold-faced headliner now with 24-hour access to the coach and team president, two rented houses in the Minneapolis suburbs, dominoes engraved with JIMMY BUCKETS and practice basketballs etched with the question, CAN A KID FROM TOMBALL BE MVP? Chicago is where Butler became a two-way wing and three-time All-Star, but he felt like the Bulls still looked at him as the 30th pick in the draft, that anxious rookie who chirped from the bench, just loud enough to hear, "I can guard that dude! I can do this!" The Wolves, on the other hand, viewed him purely as the keystone of the NBA's next contender.
How Butler sees himself is more complicated. On a short stroll through downtown Palo Alto, in search of a caramel macchiato with an extra espresso shot, strangers whisper his name as he passes. Most hoop elites are identified by no more than two syllables: LeBron. KD. Steph. Russ. Kawhi. CP. Beard. "I'm always Jimmybutler," he muses. The formality suits him, a superstar who used to be a sideman and still grapples with the transition. "How is a star treated?" he wonders. "I don't know. I'm learning like everyone else, and it's a helluva curve." Butler flies in a Gulfstream but drives a Toyota minivan with a BABY ON BOARD sticker across the back, even though he is single with no children. He put up 52 points in a game last season against the Hornets and 40 in a half the season before against the Raptors, but his preferred final score is 2--0. His favorite time of year is "grimy season," an unspecified stretch of summer and fall when he braids his hair, grows his beard and works out twice a day, hot yoga in between. "Bandannas and buckets," he crows. "That's the heart. That's the hustle."
Butler grinds in the middle of a Western conference crucible. Instead of lying down for the dominant Warriors, several clubs geared up, the Thunder pairing Russell Westbrook with Paul George, the Rockets flanking James Harden with Chris Paul, and the Timberwolves combining Karl-Anthony Towns with Butler. While George and Paul are upcoming free agents, Butler is under contract for two years, giving the T-Wolves a rare opportunity to dent the West hierarchy.
On the eve of his introductory press conference in Minnesota, Butler stewed over reports claiming he had been a stormy presence and abrasive leader in Chicago, the kind of accusation big-market franchises traditionally leak about exiled alphas after mindless trades. "I ought to go out there tomorrow and be like, 'If you got a problem, here's my number, call me,'" Butler vented. Ifeanyi Koggu, a close friend who handles Butler's business phone, laughed nervously. "That would be funny," Koggu replied, "but not a good idea." Butler commandeered the iPhone 7 in their suite at the Loews the next morning and changed the outgoing voice-mail message from an automated greeting to a personal one. "Jimmy Butler, sorry I couldn't get to the phone, but leave your name and number and I'll hit you back. If you got any beef, definitely leave a message." During his presser at Mall of America, in front of 2,500 hungry souls waiting on the second coming of Kevin Garnett, Butler broadcast the digits to the world.
"Everybody is entitled to their opinion," he began. "But with that being said, my phone is in my back pocket. Whoever has anything to say to me, feel free: 773-899-6071." The phone was not actually in Butler's back pocket. It was in the front pocket of Koggu's jeans. "Once he got to the last digit, I could feel my hip vibrate," Koggu recalls. "And it didn't stop." Within five minutes, the mailbox was full, and within 10, he couldn't answer a call if he tried. "There were too many coming in at the same time," Koggu explains. "Calls and texts, but also cameras popping up with Facetime requests. You could never get to the main screen." The phone became too hot to hold, so Koggu shut it down before restarting it. On a private plane to Los Angeles, Butler chatted with two fans on Facetime, including a boy who spent 45 seconds running around his house hollering for his older brother. Then the device froze for good.
After the plane landed at Van Nuys Airport, Koggu rushed to a Verizon Wireless store in Westlake Village where bewildered employees eyed the bleating gadget as if it were 1985. They reported that the phone had received more than 10,000 texts, 700 calls and 500 Facetimes in a seven-hour span. Butler was expecting a couple hundred, max. "I'm moving you up in line because we need to change your number," a manager told Koggu. "But first I have to ask, 'Why is this happening?'" Koggu thought about his funny, edgy and excitable friend who once told Derrick Rose, "Don't throw me the ball because I don't want to f--- up," and is now recognizable enough to scramble a cell simply by saying the number out loud. "Man," Koggu told the Verizon guy, "it's a long story."
THE MINIVAN sets Butler apart from the NBA's superstar class, as does the sound blaring from its speakers, a foreign twang that prompts violent convulsions among his peers. When Butler was at Marquette, he grew so weary of the hip-hop leaking from teammates' headphones that one day he blasted Tim McGraw's "Don't Take the Girl" in the locker room, mainly to annoy them. Butler was moved enough by the heart-wrenching ballad that he sampled more country music, and soon he was showing up backstage at Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line concerts. "They didn't know who I was, but there aren't a lot of 6'8" black guys at country shows," Butler says. "They damn sure couldn't forget my face, especially with this dumbass hairdo."
Butler spends his vacations in tour buses across the heartland with Bryan and FGL. He disdains Miami, New York City and Las Vegas, the NBA's natural habitats. He actually considered rejecting an invitation from the U.S. Olympic team because the squad trains in Sin City. He summers in L.A., but not really. The Spanish compound he rents in Calabasas sits over a creek and off a gravel road 45 minutes from Hollywood, out of cell reception. "I like it because it gives me an excuse," Butler says. "'Oh, big party tonight, everybody's going to be there? Sorry, I'd really love to go, but I'm all the way out here in the middle of nowhere.'" He doesn't watch League Pass, doesn't know his NBA2K rating and hasn't tweeted in almost a year. He recently went 2½ months without turning on his television, which he realized only when a guest discovered that his remote control was missing its batteries.
He keeps a strict daily schedule: wake up at 6 a.m., work out at 7, turkey bacon and oatmeal with berries for breakfast at 8. Lunch is a chicken, rice and lettuce bowl from Chipotle. Before bed, Butler spends 10 minutes writing in a leather-bound journal given to him by his coach at Marquette, Buzz Williams. One entry may be trivial, about a table he spotted at Target that he might buy for his apartment in San Diego. Another is sentimental, about a mom-and-pop restaurant that served him dinner even though the kitchen was closed. (Butler invited the chef to sit with him and drink a beer.) He passes time playing touch football—although he won't take the field unless he's wearing a regulation NFL jersey with cleats—and dominoes, the game that taught him to count. He and his crew can flip tiles for five straight hours, trash-talking in a language only they understand. Put that Dak on him, a reference to the Cowboys quarterback, means somebody turned a 4. Trees fell on him is a 15 and must be followed by the refrain, On his neck.
For years Butler refused to work out alongside any pro not on his own roster, once recusing himself from a regularly scheduled session with D.J. Augustin after the point guard bolted the Bulls for the Pistons. He has relaxed his policy a bit, but his primary training partner is Mike Smith, who met Butler as a senior at Fenwick High School in Chicago during a Jordan Brand event. "I want to learn," said Smith, whose high fade reminded Butler of his own distinctive hairstyle. Smith, now a close-cropped sophomore guard at Columbia, lives with Butler in the offseason and is often behind the wheel of the minivan. "You own a Rolls-Royce and an Escalade!" Smith gripes. "Why do we always have to take this big-ass soccer mom car and listen to Garth Brooks?"
Butler seethes in the backseat. "First of all," he sighs, "it's Josh Turner."
The minivan and the baby sticker are partly aspirational. Butler yearns to start a family. "When you get to the NBA, you want the most beautiful girl you can find," he says. "But I'm thinking more about kids now, what they're going to be like, and maybe she doesn't have to be the most beautiful if she's 5'11"." He and Smith have just completed their morning workout at Pepperdine, and as Butler finished firing turnaround jumpers, the women's volleyball team trickled in for practice, their leggy presence prompting his genetic ruminations.
Butler's own itinerant childhood has been well-chronicled: At 13, his single mother kicked him out of her home in the Houston exurb of Tomball, starting a four-year couch-surfing odyssey that ended when a friend's family took him in. He is not interested in reliving many of the details, but he remembers all of them. Over oatmeal and bacon at Ollo, his breakfast haunt in Malibu, the sight of a silk tie reminds him of a clip-on he bought at Walmart for his sixth-grade basketball banquet. "Everybody made fun of me," he recounts. "I was like, 'At my 10-year reunion, I'm going to land a helicopter on the 50-yard-line of the f------ football field.'"
He didn't make the reunion, let alone rent the chopper, but he did visit Mrs. Putney. She taught Butler's first-period government class at Tomball High, and on all his homework assignments, he wrote Tracy McGrady's name atop the paper instead of his own. Alarmed, Mrs. Putney hung a poster on the wall that cited the astronomical odds of becoming a professional athlete. "Every day I had to read it out loud in front of everybody," Butler recalls. "One in a billion, or something close." After Butler reached the NBA, he returned to Tomball High and discovered that Mrs. Putney had moved to the new school in town, Tomball Memorial. When he finally found her classroom, he asked for the poster because he wanted to frame it. "She told me it was lost," Butler says. "I think she was lying."
Butler's high school team was not impressive—"Me and four guys who look like you," he tells a 5'9" reporter—but he still scored an invitation to join the Houston Superstars AAU program. His first game was against the Hoops, memorable only because one of the Hoops' best players threw his shoe at a referee. Butler took a DNP in the game, but he wasn't discouraged until afterward, when he saw his coach chatting up the shoe-tosser outside the gym. The Hoops didn't want the kid anymore. The Superstars, wary of their new wing from Tomball, were desperate. Butler's travel-ball career was over.
His freshman year at Tyler (Texas) Community College did not start any better. Coach Mike Marquis imposed a rule mandating that cellphones be turned off in the locker room, and during his first meeting the phone rang in Reggie Nelson's locker, next to Butler's. "Whose phone is it?" Marquis asked. He made both players sprint the length of the court 10 times each. Whose phone is it? He made them do 500 push-ups. Whose phone is it? Nelson never copped and Butler never squealed. Marquis was impressed, Butler shone, and a year later he was in Milwaukee swiping winter clothes from Wesley Matthews's closet.
Butler was a source of curiosity at Marquette, and not just because he arrived in the upper Midwest with nothing but T-shirts and shorts. At practice, he stood off to the side of the court when he was tired, legs crossed and a hand atop his head. Williams, then the Golden Eagles' coach, exploded at the sight of his flamingo pose. But the eruptions did not alienate Butler. To the contrary, they hooked him. He studied Williams, how the regimented coach always woke up at 4:30 a.m., used 10 colored pens to take notes, ate at Cracker Barrel on the road. A child of chaos, Butler gravitated to discipline and order. He developed his own routine, including a turkey sandwich with mustard and banana peppers from Subway that he scarfed down every day for lunch while watching video of Marquette's upcoming opponent. "How do I fit here?" Butler asked graduate manager Jamie McNeilly, over his foot-long sub. "How do I find a way to stick?"
He was a survivor, not a standout. At first McNeilly told him to grab two or three offensive rebounds per game, and he did that. Then, McNeilly told him to smother the other team's best player, and he did that. Before a game against Connecticut, McNeilly asked if he wanted to check clips of Jeremy Lamb, an obvious matchup. But the Huskies' best player was a 6'1" point guard, not a 6'5" wing. "No," Butler replied. "Kemba Walker."
"He gets obsessed," McNeilly explains, "and when he's done obsessing over one thing, he obsesses over something else." At Marquette, Butler fixated on his three-pointer to an unhealthy extent, spewing a stream of profanity after each miss. He was so eager to see the ball drop through the net that he rushed line drives at the front of the rim. The problem, coaches concluded, was not mechanical. It was mental. In shooting games, they deducted points for every expletive to chill him out. Eventually, he regained his stroke and found other areas to fret about. During practice, he'd halt a four-man fast-break drill if he caught a ball with one hand instead of two, insisting his group start over. "What are you doing?" teammates asked. "No one even saw." Didn't matter. He saw.
"It was a kind of self-inflicted pain," says McNeilly, now an assistant to Williams at Virginia Tech. "By the time Jimmy left, he was calling out mistakes just as much as Buzz. They were more than player and coach. They were like family." Williams did not know Thibodeau personally, but he recognized the telltale signs of a kindred coaching spirit: long hours, loud voices, tough love. Before the 2011 draft, Williams contacted Bulls general manager Gar Forman and played matchmaker. Butler and Thibs, he believed, would be family too. "With Jimmy, it won't work if you're proper, if you're too tactical or technical," Williams says. "You have to be hard-core. That's how he learned to eat."
THE MARRIAGE started the way so many everlasting unions do. "We couldn't stand each other," Butler says. It was December 2011, and Thibodeau had a lot on his mind: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, a lockout-condensed schedule and Miami's Big Three. Butler, the last pick of the first round, was not a priority. At practice, Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin would tell Butler to make 20 corner threes and the rookie would bristle: "Why? It won't matter, anyway. Thibs doesn't want me here. I'm not going to play tomorrow. I'm not going to play the game after that. I'm not going to play 10 games after that." He was sure he'd spend the next decade in Turkey. At halftime Butler would trail Griffin to the locker room and plead, "Talk to Thibs! Tell him I'm ready!" Once, Griffin persuaded Thibodeau to put the rook in a game and call a pick-and-roll. Butler promptly turned the ball over. "See!" Thibodeau barked at Griffin. "I told you!"
In a mid-winter game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, starting small forward Luol Deng was injured and Chicago needed somebody to defend Carmelo Anthony. "Go guard Carmelo," Thibodeau grumbled, and Butler assumed he should do nothing else. "If I just guard Carmelo," he reasoned, "I can't f--- up. So if anybody passes me the ball, I'm going to pass it right back." On one possession, the Knicks doubled Rose, who swung the ball to Butler. He immediately returned it. In the ensuing timeout, Rose told Butler, "Yo, when I give you the ball, look to score." Butler shook his head. "No," he replied, "I'm only guarding Carmelo."
Here was a rookie Thibodeau could appreciate, and a coach Butler could respect. He challenged himself to get to the team's facility before Thibodeau. "I pull up at 6 a.m.—'I'm gonna beat his ass today!'—and I see that damn black Range Rover parked out front. Next morning I get there at 5:45—'I'm definitely gonna beat his ass today!'—and there it is again. Then late at night I come back to shoot with Luol, and it's still parked in that same spot. It's like, 'O.K., forget it, I can't beat the guy. So I'm just gonna run through a wall for this motherf-----.'" From 2013 through '15, Butler averaged the most minutes per game in the NBA, and he could not complain. "Hey, you asked to play," Thibodeau reminded him at the first trace of fatigue. "So you'll play 48 minutes." Butler beamed.
He built an offensive arsenal with trainer Chris Johnson in grimy season, from June to October, miming the midrange mastery of Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant: back-to-the-basket fadeaways, one-dribble pull-ups, elbow jumpers. But at his first All-Star Game, he still pestered Chris Paul for 94 feet, lest anyone think he'd lost his blunt edge. "God made me a dog," Butler coos. God, Thibs and Buzz, not necessarily in that order. "He became an All-Star and that didn't change him," Thibodeau says. "He became an Olympian and that didn't change him. He got paid and that didn't change him. I don't think you can change him."
In the spring of '15, as Butler finally replaced Rose atop the United Center marquee, Thibodeau was fired in favor of Fred Hoiberg. Teams were trying to parrot the Warriors, with all their sunshine and rainbows. Thibodeau's style—heavy on defense, discipline and 90-minute shootarounds—was out of fashion. "Of course I missed him," Butler says. "I missed the way he went about things: 'Get up on the ball screen! I told you one time and I don't want to tell you again!' I don't need a coach who is going to be like, 'Oh, Jimmy, it's O.K.,' after I go 0 for 10. 'No! It's not O.K.! And you can tell me it's not O.K.!'" He never asked the Bulls to trade him, and up until the end he expressed a desire to stay. When Thibodeau called on draft night to break news of the deal, Butler was playing spades in Paris. He braced for a two-hour conversation about Minnesota's flimsy pick-and-roll coverage. In truth, he craved it.
"Thibs, I'm so happy to be with you again," Butler started. "I'm training. I'm excited. I'm ready to show the world. I'm ready to motherf------ go!" Thibodeau let him rant. "O.K., Jimmy," he said. "We'll talk. Enjoy your time in Paris." Butler looked dumbfounded at the phone, as if an impersonator were on the other line. Enjoy your time in Paris. "Hmm," Butler thought. "That's weird." The next day he ate dinner at Chez l'Ami Louis, a 93-year-old bistro with a dozen tables that was recommended by Mark Wahlberg. Over escargot he broke up laughing at the ludicrousness of his working life, which started back at Denny's in Tomball, where he quit on his first day after accidentally dousing a table of customers with a tray of drinks.
Now 28, Butler averages 23.9 points, shoots 45.5% and tours Silicon Valley start-ups, the kind of thing modern basketball stars do. At STRIVR, where Virtual Reality helps athletes train, Butler was uncharacteristically quiet until he glimpsed VR footage of a Stanford basketball practice. "Oh, buddy, what a terrible closeout," he groaned at a lead-footed Cardinal forward. "Thibs wouldn't like that at all. If you're closing out to somebody on the baseline, you never let them go middle. You have to force them down to the defender on the baseline. If he gets middle, everybody collapses and he kicks out. At all costs, he can't get middle!"
Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves can expect to hear a similar mantra for the next six months. Butler believes Thibodeau has mellowed a bit since the Chicago days ("He's still up and yelling, don't get me wrong, but he's gained this whole human element") and ponders whether he can do the same. Criticism of Butler's leadership in Chicago was poorly timed, but not unfounded. His tongue-lashings can actually be harsher than Thibodeau's. Butler gives an example: "What are you doing right now? What is going on in your mind? Who the f--- do you think you are? If you shoot that ball again, I'm throwing it upside your head." Butler pauses to assess his words. "O.K., that's what I'd want to hear. But not everybody is the same, and right now, you're probably scared of me and want to be left alone."
Former Bulls guard Michael Carter-Williams forced Butler to reconsider his delivery during a meeting last season, when Carter-Williams suggested that encouragement could produce better results than outrage. On the Gulfstream back to Los Angeles from San Jose, Butler tests the diplomatic approach with his agent, Bernie Lee. "If I think Bernie is ugly, I can tell him, 'Bernie, you're the ugliest thing I've ever seen.' Or I can say, 'Bernie, did you do something different with your hair today?'" Butler is proud of his progress. Regardless, it's probably good that the mild-mannered Wiggins and the fun-loving Towns already spent a year with Kevin Garnett howling in their eardrums.
Like K.G. with Flip Saunders, Butler can address Thibodeau on the sideline and channel him in the locker room. "I'm able to tell Thibs, 'Chill out, I'll talk to Karl,'" Butler says. "And I'm able to tell Karl, 'If you come off the ball screen, I need you to be up, I can't have you back. That's what Thibs wants.'" The Timberwolves, despite their glut of young talent, did not resemble a Thibodeau team in Year 1. They finished 20 games under .500 and 28th in field goal percentage defense. Enter Butler, a stopper, scorer and emerging playmaker who transforms a promising collective into a potent core. "Great intensity, great passion," Towns says. "I just don't know if I'm going to listen to the country."
By Day 3 of training camp in San Diego, Butler has found new fixations. He urges the T-Wolves to talk more on D, reminds power forward Taj Gibson to catch with two hands and begs the big men to stop inbounding the ball directly under the rim. "We're not the Warriors," Butler explains later. "We have to do the little things. It's 100--100, five seconds left, we've got possession. Our point guard is denied, he spins out, and we throw the pass off the goal. You've got to take it out to the side of the basket."
He resists the temptation to share this elaborate hypothetical with the group. "I'm not going to do what I did before," Butler vows. "I can't be like, 'Look, motherf------, here's what we're gonna do.' I was too emotional, too confrontational." He is perched behind the wheel of his white Rolls-Royce, braids tucked under a black mesh hat, Michael Jordan splayed across his T-shirt. He sings along with his buddy Luke Bryan—If you wanna call me, call me, call me you don't have to worry 'bout it baby. You can wake me up in the dead of the night; wreck my plans, baby that's alright. This is a drop everything kind of thing—as the GPS guides him along the Del Mar coastline to a sandwich shop, where he places his college order: turkey with mustard and banana peppers.
The Rolls gleams in the parking lot. The minivan is back in Minnesota. "I miss it," Butler says. "Unfortunately, we have to use this thing just a little longer." He shrugs with the slightest hint of irony.
Grimy season never ends.
NBA PREVIEW 2017-18
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54 EASTERN CONFERENCE
Scouting the teams chasing the King
76 ENTERTAINMENT GUIDE
Forget W's. Who's best at bringing the fun?
78 WESTERN CONFERENCE
Can anyone catch the Dubs?
98 GOLDEN DAYS
Jerry West's connection to two Cali dynasties
"HE BECAME AN OLYMPIAN AND THAT DIDN'T CHANGE HIM. HE GOT PAID AND THAT DIDN'T CHANGE HIM. I DON'T THINK YOU CAN CHANGE HIM."
"HOW IS A STAR TREATED? I DON'T KNOW. I'M LEARNING LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, AND IT'S A HELLUVA CURVE."