Jimmy Butler is from a different world. Maybe it’s a place the Sixers need to be. | David Murphy
The people who have known Jimmy Butler the longest think he is exactly the sort of competitor who can transform the Sixers. For better, not worse.
This world did not make him. He is in it, but he is not of it. Maybe that is the key to understanding Jimmy Butler.
The other guys are aliens, forged by a universe of AAU handlers and recruiting analysts and information peddlers and other assorted hustlers, all of them building the blocks of their own livelihoods in the chummy wake of teenaged whales. They are products of a dystopian evolution, their lungs no longer subsisting on oxygen but on the carbon dioxide emitted by others. They are worlds unto themselves, the focal points of self-interested satellites that orbit like an unbroken ellipse of moons.
He's smart, they all tell you. Every single one. Jimmy Butler does not suffer fools. He is intelligent. He is perceptive. He is intuitive. He knows when he is being BSed, and he will not forget it for a moment if he ever surmises or perceives or intuits that he has been taken for granted. Not because he needs your affirmation, or your validation, or your money, but because he is someone who has never had the luxury of taking his own self for granted.
"If he sees or smells BS, he'll acknowledge it, because that's just the type of person he is," Joe Fulce says. "The foundation of the work that he is showing now, it came from somewhere, and it started with a no-BS policy."
Fulce is the kind of person you need to talk to if you want to prevent that sort of BS from seeping into your opinion of this newest chapter of Sixers basketball. He was not there Tuesday morning for the introductory gala that unfolded on the side-by-side practice courts at the team's Camden training facility, the entire organization milling off to the side of a firing line of television cameras that trained their lenses over the heads of the media who assembled in front of a microphoned dais. He was not there to hear the questions that Butler knew would be coming after a second straight self-published exit from an NBA team. He did not need to be, because he was there at the beginning.
"I promise you," Fulce says, "I'll never forget that day."
This was a summer afternoon, Milwaukee, 2009. Most of the NBA-bound members of his recruiting class were already counting their millions: Derrick Rose, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Jerryd Bayless. Like Fulce, Butler was entering his second year at Marquette, a few months removed from a mostly uninspiring season in which he did not start a game. He was nearing 20 years old, just a kid from east Texas feeling his way through a formative stage of existence that most of his future peers would skip.
He'd been young for his grade, talented as hell but well under 6-foot as a freshman, a sporadic and anonymous face on the Houston AAU circuit, still on JV as a sophomore, going home each night to a friend's house that became home after a falling-out with his parents.
"He's not a guy that grew up getting everything that he wanted," says Brad Ball, his head coach at Tomball High. "He's always a guy that's had to work for it. He's a self-made guy, a guy that's figured out how to be valuable and important."
Throughout Butler's two years on varsity, Ball begged the big-school assistants to come take a look, but all that materialized was a smattering of lower-level offers. Instead, Butler stayed in Texas, where he teamed with Fulce at Tyler Junior College to form one of the best juco squads in the nation.
"He was always just talking about winning games," says Mike Marquis, the head coach at Tyler. "Before the season started, there were a lot of pickup games. Jimmy almost demanded who was on which teams, because he wanted them to be the best games they could possibly be. He wanted the teams to be as even as possible. He liked to have specific teams of guys to play against. And he would challenge guys in those games. If he won, he knew. If he lost, he took it hard."
One year later, when Butler and Fulce arrived on campus to play for Buzz Williams at Marquette, then-Golden Eagles star and current Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews welcomed them with a promise. You're family now, he said. We'll always get your back. But you gotta put the time in. You gotta come to work every day.
"I really think he liked that aspect of it," Fulce says.
Yet Butler was still finding his way. On the court, he averaged 5.6 points and 19 minutes and did not start a game. Off it, he sometimes wondered aloud whether basketball was for him. Maybe sports were just a vehicle. Maybe his future was as a doctor.
There were nights when Fulce woke up in the basketball dorm to the sound of Elton John or James Earl Jones or the roar of a lion, and spot a cowboy-booted silhouette backlit by the glow of Disney animation.
Damn, Jimmy, you watchin' that [bleep] again?
"He was a big kid," Fulce says. "He was always himself. He never tried to hang out with people who weren't themselves."
Then came that moment when Jimmy Buckets was born, an early-summer open gym on the Marquette campus.
"You know when a shark's eyes go black and he just attacks?" Fulce says. "That's what it was like. I could see it. I was like, 'This mother[bleeper]'s about to go off.' "
Butler spent two hours announcing his arrival, pulling up, crossing over, attacking the rim. It was as if Butler was ready to show what all of it had been for: the pickup games, the film sessions, the time spent alone in the gym. Even then, there were people who dismissed what they'd seen, the same way all of the big-time college programs had, the same way 26 NBA teams later would. But it was real.
"Something turned off a switch that made his eye go black," Fulce says.
Ten years later, Butler's eyes are still black. Again, he finds himself a stranger in a strange land, sharing a court with the sort of natural talent that required his own maximum effort to become.
"I'll tell you right now, I'm not the most talented guy," he said Tuesday. "I'm not the best shooter. I'm not the fastest runner or the highest jumper. I just think that I just play hard. I'm up early before a lot of people in the gym, in there later than a lot of people in the gym, because I want to do whatever my team asks me to do, to help us win as many games as possible."
It's more than fair to wonder whether Butler can coexist with the rest of this roster. In Ben Simmons, the Sixers have a young, ball-dominant alpha who has long been celebrated for his individual greatness. In Joel Embiid, they have a potential all-time great who also likes to have fun. But maybe there are two ways to look at it. Instead of wondering if Butler can fit with the young Sixers, you can hope that they end up fitting with him.