We’ve all seen the movies. A struggling athlete deals with painful life struggles. We wonder: how do they rise? For Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, his life follows that script. From homeless to junior college, to Marquette, all the way to the NBA. Teams have overlooked the 30th pick in the 2011 draft during his entire journey. Now, he has the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of his basketball career, competing in his first finals appearance against the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s a milestone nine seasons in the making for the star of this cinematic-like story.
A Struggling Childhood
Born in Houston, Texas, Butler encountered hardships at a young age. His father left his family when he was an infant, leaving a gaping hole in that type of role model he could’ve had. At 13, his mother kicked him out of the house because she didn’t “like the look” he had, according to a 2011 Butler interview.
By his senior year at Tomball High School, Butler got close with schoolmate Jordan Leslie through a friendly three-point shooting contest. This instant connection led to a mutual liking. Shortly after, he began to stay at Leslie’s house, as he had nowhere to live. Leslie’s mother, Michelle Lambert, took the young Butler under her care full-time. This is where his life found a turning point.
“They accepted me into their family. And it wasn’t because of basketball. She was just very loving. She just did stuff like that. I couldn’t believe it,” he said in an ESPN interview.
The future draft pick closed out his high school career averaging 19.9 points per game. Refreshingly, his peers voted him the team’s most valuable player. Unfortunately, this accomplishment wasn’t enough to get any division one offers from big-name colleges.
JUCO Product Turned NBA Prospect
This outcome led to his one-year tenure at Tyler Junior College from 2007-2008. It’s rare for a player to find success at this level, especially in hopes of playing in the NBA.
According to a report by Inside Higher Ed, only 1.2% of college basketball players make it to the NBA. This stat does not include divisions below division one, nor junior college.
The chances to play professionally were discouragingly minuscule. However. that didn’t stop Butler.
He averaged 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game in his single year playing for a community college. Not only did this grow the interest of division one recruiters, but it made him a two-star prospect as well.
Butler put himself on scouts’ minds. For his sophomore year, he accepted an offer from Marquette University, a first division school in the Big East Conference, where he played from 2008-2011.
He didn’t become part of the starting lineup until his junior year. It was his senior year, where he blossomed his game at the highest collegiate level. In the 2010-2011 season, Butler averaged 15.7 points per game and was an honorable mention for the All-Big East team.
At that point, he already beat improbable odds by getting to this stage. But it was just the beginning.
Last Pick, Lasting Impact
As the last pick in the first round of the NBA draft in 2011, Butler became part of a rising Chicago Bulls team, a franchise with the reigning MVP Derrick Rose.
Butler became the 1.2% that made it. Unfortunately, adversities persisted for such an enduring individual.
With Rose facing career-altering injuries, Butler needed to step up for the team that trusted and needed him desperately. He had to develop quickly and did so under then-head coach Tom Thibodeau’s guidance.
2014-2015 was his career breakout year. Butler transformed into the team’s leader, earning his first All-Star appearance and Most Improved Player award.
His points per game average leaped from 13.1 the season prior to an average of 20.0 a night. He also increased his field goal efficiency and led the Bulls to a 50-32 record and a second-round playoff appearance.
After this incredible surge, Butler continued to succeed. He is a 5x all-star, 4x NBA All-Defensive Team, and 3x All-NBA Team member.
Even though he eventually moved on from the Bulls (2011-2017), he impacted any team he went on.
During his time playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves (2017-2018), he became the final piece the team needed to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
In Philadelphia, he pushed the Sixers (2018-2019) to seven games against the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the playoffs.
Right Place, Right Time
Now, he plays on his fourth team, with the Heat. It’s a squad full of guys others also harshly overlooked.
Butler became the heart and soul of a fifth-seed that is the higher seed in every series they are playing this year, beating the Indiana Pacers, Bucks, and the Boston Celtics. Note that those facts don’t matter to Butler and his ultimate goal.
The Houston native now encounters the ultimate challenge of his career. The Heat is set to face the Lakers in a competitive Finals series. For the journeyman, his perception of his team is the only one that matters, regardless of nay-sayers.
“I just don’t think that we’re underdogs,” he stated in a press conference this past Tuesday. “So what that nobody picked us to be here. That’s okay. Pretty sure nobody is picking us to win either. That’s okay. But we understand that, we embrace that. At the end of the day, we truly don’t care…At the end of the day, we’re gonna do this our way. The Miami Heat way. That way has worked for us all year long.”
Butler has the ultimate chance not just to prove everybody wrong, but most importantly, prove himself right. He is the writer of his script, and his story has years to continue. This script is more than a feel-good movie come to life, but an example that reality can be just as poetic and cinematic.
Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals is on Wednesday.