IT’S SATURDAY, SEPT. 8, in Tyler, Texas, and it is officially “Jimmy Butler Day.” The chancellor of Tyler Junior College has just bestowed an honorary degree on its most famous alumnus, followed by the city council handing the key to the city to the Sixers swingman, an honor not even bestowed upon native son Earl Campbell, an NFL Hall of Famer.
Later in the day, a beaming Butler, wearing diamond hoop earrings and torn jeans, looks on as the lobby of the school’s gym is renamed in his honor, his jersey is retired and he is inducted into the school’s Circle of Honor, making him the youngest graduate to receive that distinction.
During the Jimmy Butler Day ceremonies, Butler gives what longtime Tyler basketball coach Mike Marquis says are two of the most thoughtful and impassioned speeches he’s ever heard, describing for students how, as a quiet teenager, he was able to springboard from Tyler to Marquette to NBA stardom.
“For me, when you’re talking about basketball and where you come from, there’s always going to be a lot of emotions,” Butler says later. “That s— is special.”
Later that day, while coaching in the alumni charity game, a scowling Butler paces in front of the bench, yelling out defensive assignments and pick-and-roll instructions. Marquis considers asking Butler to chill a little, then thinks better of it. It’s Jimmy Butler Day, after all. And like it or not, that red-line approach to all things hoops is a big part of who Butler is — and why Sept. 8, 2018, is Jimmy Butler Day in the first place.
Almost seven months later, while reminiscing about the day’s events and an honor long since overshadowed by his tumultuous and perhaps career-defining NBA season, Butler says: “It’s crazy to think that was just [seven] months ago. … It legit seems like it could have been two years ago.”
TWO WEEKS AFTER leaving Texas, there’s another Jimmy Butler Day — of sorts.
In 2017-18, with Butler averaging a team-high 22.2 points and 36.7 minutes per game, the Minnesota Timberwolves won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. And then, in a pattern that has come to define his NBA career — and now, the Sixers’ playoff chances — “Good Jimmy,” the aw-shucks, hard-working, small-town Texas kid, eventually gave way to “Bad Jimmy,” the moody, aloof, combative and uncompromising diva with delusions of grandeur.
In July, Butler turned down a four-year, $100 million extension from the Wolves. Then, at the start of camp, upon surveying the state of the franchise, he announced to his longtime friend and mentor, and now former Minnesota coach, Tom Thibodeau, “This s— ain’t it,” and demanded a trade. And then, on Jimmy Butler Day 2, he punctuated the ultimatum by summarily losing it in his first practice since the trade demand, in which he proceeded to challenge the manhood of young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns — and everyone else in the organization except Crunch, the mascot.
“Jimmy’s approach has always been not whether he’s right or wrong. It’s about, ‘Are you giving everything you have?'” Marquis says. “And some people don’t like to be challenged like that. Society is changing. The old days of coach Bobby Knight and Gen. George Patton being a fiery motivator are not what today is acceptable. Jimmy’s got some real old-school toughness in him. And guys don’t like to be questioned about their effort.”
But the expletive-laced tantrum worked.
A month later, Butler was traded to Philadelphia.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s this: Butler’s All-NBA, two-way greatness and his volatility make him one of the most compelling figures in this year’s NBA playoffs. The league waits, popcorn at the ready, to see which Jimmy will show up for the Sixers, both for the next couple of weeks (or months) and into the summer, when Butler will be among the NBA’s highest-profile free agents.
“I’ll be here in Philly for a little bit, and this will be the next chapter,” Butler says. “We have the opportunity to do something special. We know what we can do. We talk about it every single day with the coaches in practice and when we watch ourselves on film. We know what we can do. We know. It’s all about going out there now and supposedly showing the world, even though I highly doubt anyone on this team gives a damn what the world thinks anyway.”
BUTLER’S IGNOMINIOUS RETURN to a cold and gray-skied Minneapolis begins with him getting booed at breakfast. The friendly-fire heckling from his Sixers teammates, meant to lighten the mood and prepare Butler for the real thing inside Target Center that night, continues through his routine Pilates session and the Sixers’ shootaround at North Central University near downtown.
“Amir [Johnson] has been booing me since we woke up this morning,” Butler says after the shootaround while reclining in the bleachers, his legs extended and his elbows out. Three hours before tipoff, after finishing his pregame routine inside a mostly empty Target Center, he sits courtside, striking the same relaxed pose. It’s the forced body language of a villain who’s eager for the world to know: I’m enjoying this.
That was an attitude Butler tried awfully hard to convey during his late-March return to Minnesota and his return the next week to Chicago, where he spent his first six NBA seasons. The emotional, late-season road trip to face the franchises Butler elevated and then incinerated served as a pre-playoff barometer of Butler’s emotional state, his connection to his new teammates and, thus, the Sixers’ playoff fate.
“Whether I’m home in Texas or in Chicago or Minnesota or Milwaukee, each place played a part, a major role, in me being the player and the person I am today,” Butler says. “And I’m for real grateful for all of it.”
Moments later, the Sixers tweet a picture of Butler’s special Jordans, inscribed with the motto: You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Later, when he is greeted by a thunderous round of boos and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” during pregame introductions, Bad Jimmy smiles and shuffles onto the court like a prizefighter.
In private, though, there’s that other Jimmy: After finishing his warm-up, before he took the court, Butler camped out in front of the Wolves’ locker room, looking like a lost kid or a politician — bouncing on the balls of his feet, hands clasped together — waiting to greet his former teammates and coaches with a series of slightly awkward, conciliatory hugs.
“I’ll be here in Philly for a little bit, and this will be the next chapter. We have the opportunity to do something special.”
It was classic Jimmy, a study in contrasts. As much as we want (or need, really) to define our elite athletes in oversimplified terms and roles — good or bad, winner or loser, hero or villain — the truth is they’re just like the rest of us. Not all good and not all bad, but a combination of both on any given day. Butler’s polarities, and his unwillingness to filter or hide them, are just far more pronounced than for the rest of us. In Minnesota, this left him seemingly oblivious to the wreckage he had wrought with the Wolves, who finished the season 12 games out of the eighth playoff spot and, since the All-Star break, ranked dead last in defense. “Being loved all the time, it’s no fun that way,” Butler says before the tip. “People will pay way more attention whenever they dislike you or hate you. Everything that you do they pay attention to because they have to nitpick something. I welcome it. I embrace it. Let’s see what y’all can point out tonight.”
Turns out, it’s quite a bit. Like his personality, Butler’s performance on the court in Minnesota vacillates wildly from moment to moment. He struggles on offense, to put it mildly, passing up open corner 3s and failing to generate any significant chances on his own. But rather than lashing out in frustration or losing interest, as Butler can do, he ratchets up his game elsewhere.
With the Sixers’ best player, Joel Embiid, back in Philadelphia nursing a sore left knee, Butler takes over with 7 offensive rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals — the kind of dynamic performance on an otherwise off night that you’d expect to see from someone looking to land a max contract in the offseason. Butler finishes with 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting.
“Jimmy thrives under blankets of controversy and heat-of-the-battle type moments, and I greatly respect it,” Philly coach Brett Brown says. “If you look at high-level competitors, it’s part of their DNA, and it’s certainly part of his DNA.”
In search of a max contract this offseason and hoping to convince cash-rich teams such as the Lakers and Knicks that they could handle the unpredictable, supernatural force that is a fully vested Jimmy Butler, his Bad Jimmy alter ego was on its best behavior during the Sixers’ last extended regular-season road trip. With a roster as good as Philly’s, Butler is not required to be the face of the franchise (like he was in Chicago) or a mentor and motivator (like he was in Minnesota).
“Jimmy does seem to be having fun playing again,” Marquis says. “The Sixers are fun to watch, and he seems to be happy. I know him well enough to know that there are bigger and better things ahead still for Jimmy.”
Give Philly GM Elton Brand credit. He might have finally stumbled on a management formula that works with Butler: a $190 million carrot. Brand also has an escape clause, having made it clear that his expectations for this roster are nothing less than the Eastern Conference finals. Brown, Philly’s coach, has smartly channeled Butler’s intensity, and his need to have the ball in his hands, into the job of Sixers closer. “Whatever they need me to do, close games, guard people, I’m all for it,” Butler says.
Still, there are times when Brown sounds a bit like a hostage negotiator, communicating to Butler through the media, keenly aware of a ticking time bomb on his roster. “Right from the get-go, Jimmy came in trying to fit in and be a good teammate,” Brown says before the game in Minneapolis. “From that starting point, you’ve seen the growth of him, just putting his own thumbprint all over the place.”
Late in the Minnesota game, it is squarely on the Wolves’ windpipe. With 27 seconds left, Butler seals the win with two free throws and a self-satisfied sneer. Dejected Wolves fans boo him as they make their way out of the arena.
After the game, inside the Sixers’ crowded locker room, Butler, his teammates and the gathered media are all tuned in to the final moments of the Elite Eight game between Purdue and Virginia. Instead of watching the NCAA game together on the big-screen TV, the Sixers bunch up in several smaller groups to follow the game on a handful of phones and computer screens. Maybe it’s nothing. But the scene looks like the millennial, NBA version of the old quip about 26 Yankees leaving a team event in 26 cabs.
After Virginia seals the win, Butler signs his villain Jordans for a young fan before speaking briefly about his back — “It’s injured,” he says — and the reception in Minneapolis: “Not too bad, to tell you the truth.”
Hearing this, Amir Johnson, standing in the far corner of the room, offers one last chorus of boos. Butler smiles. Today, on Jimmy Butler Day No. 3, he’s in on the joke.
EARLY ON A SATURDAY morning in early April, the gym at Roosevelt University, located just a block from Chicago’s Grant Park, is a beehive of activity. As the school’s golf and softball teams file out of the building in their forest-green uniforms, weaving through a sidewalk crowded with tourists and toward buses waiting on Wabash Avenue, the Sixers slip in, almost unnoticed, and begin to prepare for their morning shootaround. Dressed in a funky, tie-dyed sweat suit, Butler stands off to the side, still nursing his bad back. With the Sixers nearing the end of their trip, the TV inside the Roosevelt student-athlete lounge is playing “The Blues Brothers” on a loop — just in case the road-weary team needs a reminder of which city it’s now in.
In 2011, the Chicago Bulls drafted Butler out of Marquette with the last pick in the first round. The oft-told story of Butler’s path — from homeless teen in tiny Tomball, Texas, to a three-time All-Star in Chicago — is so remarkable that it bears repeating here, even for the umpteenth time. Butler says his mother came to him one day when he was 13 and said, “I don’t like the look of you … you gotta go.” Butler spent the next few years couch-surfing with friends and relatives until a local family took him in and guided the quiet and damaged soul to Marquis at Tyler Junior College. “So many guys are ultra-talents, but they haven’t had to fight through the kind of adversity Jimmy has,” Marquis says.
“He has so much fight in him, and he takes criticism for that, but you have to walk a mile in his shoes to really understand Jimmy. Where a lot of people, when they bump into failure, would rather complain or call home or get on the Xbox or go back to their dorm and pout, Jimmy was the opposite: He went right back to the gym and went back to work.”
During Butler’s first six seasons in Chicago, that work ethic, along with his quiet, intense drive and his rare two-way skills, willed the Bulls back into the playoffs, and it appeared that Butler had finally found a permanent home in Chicago. But before the 2014-15 season, when the Bulls offered him a four-year deal worth more than $40 million, Butler balked. Something didn’t feel right. He had always thrived by gambling on himself, he explained at the time. And he was right.
That season, he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and signed a max extension worth more than $90 million, completing his transformation from last guy on the bench to face of the franchise.
Something beyond his bank account and Q-rating had changed, though. The quiet kid who had spent his formative years dependent on the hospitality of strangers was now solidly in control of where he would reside and with whom he would play. Butler was never going to give anyone, let alone an NBA team, the power to say to him again, “We don’t like the look of you … you gotta go.”
“Jimmy thrives under blankets of controversy and heat-of-the-battle type moments, and I greatly respect it.” Sixers coach Brett Brown
In his final two seasons in Chicago, Butler’s relationships with his teammates, his coaches and the Bulls’ front office got so bad that at one point he was dressing in a different room at the United Center. “I guess being called the face of an organization isn’t as good as I thought,” Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2017. “You know what I learned? Face of the team, eventually you’re going to see the back of his head as he’s leaving town, so no thanks.”
When it came time for the Bulls to rebuild, they decided to do it without Butler, shipping him to Minnesota after the 2017 season. On Butler’s way out of town, his trainer, Travelle Gaines, torched the Bulls on social media, claiming that they had the worst culture in the league and that he had “met drug dealers with better morals than their GM.”
RETURNING TO CHICAGO in the final week of the 2018-19 regular season, Butler seems to be a changed man, poised to finally make a run deep into the playoffs while playing with his third team in as many years.
“This week was special for me,” Butler says of his various homecomings. “I appreciate being able to play the game I love, and seeing all these familiar faces from every step of the way was special. We just have to go out there and play and do what we are capable of doing.”
Back at the Sixers’ shootaround at Roosevelt, watching 7-foot Embiid sink Steph Curry-like trick 3s from inside a doorway 40 feet from the basket (with his feet stuck in a pair of red canvas loafers), Butler acknowledges the Sixers’ center as “one of the most unstoppable players in the league right here.” The normally gregarious Embiid responds with a barely perceptible nod. There don’t seem to be any problems or issues, per se, but these two Sixers don’t seem especially close, either. In fact, they interact with each other like cabinmates on the first day of summer camp: polite strangers bracing for an impending adventure — or disaster.
Later that day, inside the United Center, where the 60-loss Bulls try to distract frustrated fans before the game with nonstop cat memes broadcast on the scoreboard, Embiid eats his chicken-and-pasta dinner by himself, sitting in the hallway outside the Sixers’ locker room, watching Final Four action.
Fast-forward another week, and nagging injuries continue to keep Embiid off the floor, with his bothersome left knee preventing him from playing in Games 1 and 3 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Nets.
As the intensity escalates throughout the series and Philly needs to find the edge it is missing, the Sixers don’t just turn to Butler for help — they seem to transform into him. Butler promised to fill any role the team needed — and he delivers. In Game 1, he is a scorer, with a career-playoff-high 36 points. In Game 2, he takes on more of a point guard role, dishing the ball out for seven assists. When Ben Simmons withers early in the series, Butler demonstrates to his younger teammates how to embrace the role of the villain. “Oh, I’m all for physicality,” he gleefully responds after increased contact and chirping from the Nets.
His timing couldn’t be better. In the third quarter of Game 4, Embiid knocks Nets center Jarrett Allen to the ground, going for a block. Brooklyn’s Jared Dudley, who has been under Simmons’ skin the entire series, takes exception, ramming Embiid from the side. Embiid is a force in the game, ending the contest with 31 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks. But before he can retaliate, Butler springs into action, cross-checking Dudley into the first row of seats and sparking a melee that results in ejections and fines for Butler and Dudley — and a 3-1 lead in the series for the Sixers.
Afterward, Butler, sitting next to Embiid, speaks to the media. The two giggle and finish each other’s sentences, like new bestest buddies.
“I’m just here to protect my big fella,” Butler says, patting Embiid on the arm. “If somebody runs up on him, I’m gonna push him again.”
“And I’m gonna pay the fine,” Embiid interjects, “’cause he had my back.” The Sixers swingman pumps his fist.
It is, once again, Jimmy Butler’s day.
And in that moment, with Philly one win from advancing in the playoffs with newfound swagger, the brashness for which Butler has always been criticized suddenly looks a lot different.
It’s an outcome to Butler’s season-long saga that no one envisioned.
Bad Jimmy just might be really good for Philadelphia.