Jimmy Butler: Please Leave a Message at the Sound of the Dunk
Jimmy Butler’s cell phone broke in June. The NBA All-Star had just been traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and instead of hiding from the legions of Chicago fans who saw betrayal and disloyalty in his move, Butler held a press conference to give out his number. Unless you were one of a lucky few who got through before Butler’s phone fried, the only thing you heard was his answering machine: “If you got beef, definitely leave a message.”
At his best, Butler is everywhere on the court: ghosting into space to catch a pass for an alley-oop, spotting up behind the arc for a three- point shot, and marking his man completely out of the game. He’s strong enough to push through defenders and quick enough to make them miss, but Butler’s movements are efficient, practiced. And when he moves through the air, driving to the rim, it sometimes looks like the people tasked with getting in his way have all drifted into the ether, leaving Butler with a clear lane to the hoop.
The man they call Jimmy Buckets is indisputably one of the best all-around players in the NBA, a statement which would have been laughable only a few years ago. Butler doesn’t have the spotlight-ridden pedigree shared by many of his peers. Abandoned by his mother at 13, he was taken in by a teammate’s parents, and when no colleges came calling, Butler spent two years at a junior college in his home state of Texas before heading to Marquette University.
When Butler was drafted with the last pick of the first round by the Chicago Bulls in 2011, he was thought of as a project—a tall, lanky, long-armed player whose only high-level skill was his tenacity on defense. The Bulls, under Coach Tom Thibodeau, were a defense-first, swarm-of-bees-in-a-cement-mixer kind of team. As the saying goes, they didn’t just beat you—they beat you down. Butler didn’t play much at first, but after a teammate was injured in Butler’s second year, he slotted in easily, becoming a mainstay in the starting lineup.
Fully versed in Thibodeau’s system, Butler seemed like he’d reached his peak as a defensive specialist on a defensive team. And then he got better. Every year he got better. He wasn’t just locking down LeBron James—he was scoring in LeBron’s face. He wasn’t just hustling for rebounds and steals—he was making half-court shots. And when one star after another, and eventually even Coach Thibodeau, left the Bulls, Butler stayed, the undisputed alpha dog on a mediocre team.
The Bulls had a new coach, whose understated manner was a far cry from Thibodeau’s. The team didn’t have an identity. And most importantly, they stunk. Butler was unhappy. “If you win," he says, "you ain’t got nothing to worry about. If you lose, everyone has a problem.”
Butler’s gotten older. In Chicago, he lived in the center of town. In the Twin Cities, he’s got a spot in the ‘burbs with a group of close friends and family he’s lived with from his earliest days in the league. “I’m in the country now,” he tells me. “We’re right on the lake. We’re guys that like to fish, we like all of that steak.” He’s a self-admitted country boy, though he’s more likely to be seen in a pair of Rick Owen’s boots than the cowboy variety—Butler is a mainstay on the best-dressed lists, and passionate about style and fashion.
He also loves a good game of dominos in his downtime. But downtime is in short supply. Mostly, Butler trains—really, really hard. While he spent the off-season jet setting to Paris Fashion Week and Puerto Rico, he maintained the same dedicated off-season training regimen that propelled him from bench-warmer to All-Star. “As much fun as I had,” he cautions, “I was working everywhere I went.”
Butler’s tradition is to give up one thing each off-season—one year it was going out, another year, it was the internet—and he gets to the gym at 5:30 am, every day—a habit he picked up from long-time friend and mentor, Mark Wahlberg. His move to the Minnesota Timberwolves takes him away from the only team he’s played for. He’s going from being the only star of a franchise in decline to the elder statesmen of one teeming with young talent—a sexy Vegas pick to make a splash in the playoffs. It’s a move he welcomes.
“It’s always good to be wanted, I can tell you that,” Butler says. “And I’m wanted here.” The trade also brings Butler back together with Coach Thibodeau. “What is there not to like about Thibs?” Butler laughs when I ask if he’s happy to reunite. The two share an aversion to understatement and a passion for grueling preparation. Butler’s big ask of his new teammates: “Just to play hard man. Please play hard. If you play hard, everything’s gonna take care of itself.” And so preseason is a lot of playing hard.
“The fact that these practices are going a lot longer is because of the culture that we’re trying to bring in and the defensive mentality that we have to have.” Butler says. “It’s long and it’s challenging, but that’s what it’s going to take... I used to be in [his teammates'] position, being like, ‘What is Thibs talking about? We’ve been doing this drill for 45 minutes!’ Now the difference is I’ve been in the league long enough to understand what you have to do in order to win. So when I hear about doing the same drill for 45 minutes, I’m like, ‘Yeah motherfucker, cause we’re not doing it right.’”
Written by Nick Hurwitz.
Photographer: Brian Higbee at Copious Management.
Stylist: Ade Samuel.