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To Jimmy Butler, Who Rescued Bulls Fandom from post-Rose-injury Despair

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Chicago Bulls fans everywhere salute you, Jimmy Butler. Here’s mine.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

To say it has been an emotional time since the NBA Draft for the Chicago Bulls fandom would likely be the understatement of the summer.

There has been an unprecedented amount of negative energy directed towards management in the wake of the Jimmy Butler trade, even by BlogaBull standards. There will even be a billboard near the United Center voicing everyone's displeasure with GarPax. It's hard to argue against such a reaction given the slow, painful, and preventable collapse Bulls fans have witnessed over the last five years.

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." It’s an expression that has helped me in bringing me back down from my place of un-tethered rage in response to the premature end of Butler’s Bulls career.

I want to inject some much-needed positivity into our Bulls community. I want look back on Jimmy Butler's career both in and before Chicago fondly, because there is a lot to celebrate. I want to remember the indefatigable two-way ass-kicking machine that kept the Bulls passably watchable last season. But most importantly, I want to give Jimmy Butler all the thanks I can for all the inspiration and entertainment he has provided myself and countless Bulls fans with over the last half-decade.

First and foremost, thank you, Jimmy Butler, for your remarkable story of perseverance and triumph in the face of inexplicable adversity throughout the various stages of your entire life.

Apache Athletics

I remember being giddy with excitement when the Bulls selected Butler with the final pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft, because his path to professional sports reminded me so much of the one Michael Oher had to brave. Butler’s story never got the Hollywood attention or treatment that Oher’s did, but it’s a tale that everyone can draw inspiration from.

Butler’s father abandoned his family when Butler was merely a neonate, followed by his mother cruelly kicking him out of their home at only the age of 13. He had to find new places to stay and new friends to take him in on nearly a monthly basis over the next five years of his life. Prior to the start of his high school senior year, Butler finally got a shot at joining a permanent family after forming a friendship with a young man named Jordan Leslie. Leslie’s family at that time was already seven siblings deep, but Butler made an effort to earn his way in by establishing some goals and parameters with Leslie’s mother, Michelle Lambert.

Just before the NBA Draft, Chad Ford published Jimmy Butler’s story in full. One NBA executive remarked that Butler’s path to the NBA was one of the most remarkable he’d seen in all his years of basketball. But there were two quotes from the article that stood out to me above all else... one from Butler, and one from Lambert:

"Please, I know you're going to write something. I'm just asking you, don't write it in a way that makes people feel sorry for me, I hate that. There's nothing to feel sorry about. I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I'm grateful for the challenges I've faced. Please, don't make them feel sorry for me." —Jimmy Butler, 2011

"I hope someone gives him a chance. No one gave him a chance. I guess we did, and look what happened. He finally had someone to make [proud of him]. If an NBA team gives him a chance, he'll do the world for them. That's what he did for me." —Michelle Lambert, 2011

Butler set the example his new family asked of him, and on the basketball court earned team captain and team MVP honors. However, he couldn’t earn any scholarship offers because he didn’t play AAU ball or receive any ranking placements from scouts. Thus, Butler opted to continue his life as a student-athlete just three hours north of Tomball at Tyler Junior College.

JUCO athletes have razor-thin margins of error if they desire to move up to a Division I program and potentially beyond. But then Butler scored 34 points in his debut game for Tyler, led his team in scoring for the season, earning status as an honorable mention JUCO All-American. Suddenly, Division I programs such as Kentucky and Iowa State were extremely intrigued. Eventually, Butler settled on Marquette, saying that he could have a degree to fall back on in the event that basketball didn’t work out.

Butler didn’t play much early, putting him in an unfamiliar and frustrating position after having to shoulder primary scoring responsibilities for so much of his career. However, the experience turned out to be a good one for him, as he dedicated himself to becoming a more well-rounded player while learning a lot about leadership from future NBA players Wesley Matthews and Lazar Hayward. By his senior season, Butler was averaging over 15 points per game on top of becoming the team’s best and most multifaceted defender.

A big part of what helped Butler survive and eventually thrive at the Division I level was the relationship he formed with his coach at Marquette, Buzz Williams. Williams had this to say regarding how he motivated Butler to tap into his full potential:

"I've never been harder on a player than I've been on Jimmy. I was ruthless on him because he didn't know how good he could be. He'd been told his whole life he wasn't good enough. What I was seeing was a guy who could impact our team in so many ways." —Buzz Williams, 2011

Perseverance has always been an incredibly cliche character trait, but if there is one person in sports than deserves to represent the embodiment of it, it’s Jimmy Butler. I must say thank you: for proving to the world that it’s not what happens to you that matters; but rather, how you respond.

Thank you, Jimmy Butler, for constantly striving to become a better player than you were yesterday and never becoming complacent with the level of any of your abilities.

Chicago Bulls v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

It is somewhat ironic that Butler’s forced diversification of his game during his upperclassman years shaped his draft projection into a prospect that did not reflect his prior roles. Butler always had excellent scoring instincts as someone that could creatively use angles around the rim and get to the free-throw line, but his inexperience as a complementary perimeter threat coupled with his still-developing jumper hurt his NBA prognosis. Even going into his senior year at Marquette, scouts remarked that he had exciting potential as a defender given his size and wingspan, but questions remained about his quickness and strength and how those two factors would translate to him being able to guard better athletes at the NBA level.

Tom Thibodeau must have have seen the pattern of Butler consistently overcoming obstacles when given the proper support, resources, and time to develop. He also recognized how much Butler craved his superiors challenging him. Butler spent his rookie season logging just 359 total minutes over the course of 42 games, but the next year Thibs felt comfortable taking the training wheels off and tripling the amount of per-game minutes Butler played.

Of course, Thibodeau doesn’t deserve all of the credit for Butler’s meteoric rise in virtually every facet of basketball, because most of that recognition should go to Butler himself. Not merely satisfied with making an NBA All-Defense Team after the 2014 season, Butler got some of his friends together and rented an unfurnished house in Houston to narrow his focus solely on training over the entire summer:

“I wanted to be so good at the game that we didn’t have cable, we didn’t have the Internet. Whenever we got bored, all we would do is go to the gym. We’d eat, sleep and go to the gym. We’d go three times a day because we didn’t have anything else to do. We were sitting on the couch, looking at each other, saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do all day?’” —Jimmy Butler, 2014

Those grueling three-a-days, 13 hours after starting at 7 A.M., varied heavily between sessions of lifting, running track, full-court 5-on-5 games, yoga, pilates, and a plethora of basketball drills. He focused on improving his jumper, his post footwork, his ability to finish around the rim, and his ball-handling; all in the pursuit of becoming the most dynamic offensive threat he could possibly be.

Butler did all of this while re-sharpening his focus on the defensive end, where in just three NBA seasons he had already established himself as one of the very best in professional basketball. He became a film room junkie obsessed with understanding the tendencies of his matchups on an instinctual level rather than relying on metric stats and individual analytics to guide his approach to guarding the game’s best players:

“I just guard. I guard everybody like they’re the best player in this league. The dude may go right every single time. But it’s going to happen, whenever I’m guarding him, the motherf***er is going to go left. I’ve just got to guard him. I hate when people say, ‘He’s not a shooter. Don’t play him as a shooter.’ As soon as I don’t play him as a shooter, he makes a three. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world.” —Jimmy Butler, 2014

All of that work Butler did in preparation for the 2014-15 NBA season got recognized when he went on to win the year’s Most Improved Player award in an absolute landslide. Butler handily lead the league in minutes per game and blossomed into a 20 ppg scorer while making the NBA All-Defense 2nd Team for the second consecutive year. Most astonishingly, he did so while shooting almost ten percentage points better from distance than he had the year prior, and he became a more efficient player in virtually every offensive situation he performed in:

DraftExpress

And so once again, I must say thank you, Jimmy Butler, for serving as the gold standard for work ethic that can shape the talent of a raw prospect into one of the most dynamic and lethal two-way players in the NBA.

Thank you, Jimmy Butler, for accomplishing task after arduous task on an almost nightly basis for nearly the entirety of your career with the Chicago Bulls.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, a few of us at BaB offered up each of our favorite memories from Butler’s career. I immediately knew Butler’s insane 40 point half against the Toronto Raptors would be my pick, but as I was writing my share of the piece, I couldn’t help but think that just recalling a handful of Butler’s performances was doing a disservice to his career in Chicago. There were far too many spectacular games from Butler I could recall—both on offense and defense—that reminded me so much of all that he did and all that he sacrificed since he became a core member of the Bulls’ rotation in 2013. I obviously can’t list all of them, but just in case the readers have forgotten, allow me to refresh your memory on a variety of fronts.

It’s important to not focus on Butler’s offensive or even defensive singular standout feats, but first the herculean undertakings during the early stages of his career. Fans may recall Butler’s initial claim to NBA fame came during a stretch amid the 2013 NBA Playoffs when Butler played all 48 minutes of three straight games. In the last 30 years, the only other players to endure such a marathon in the NBA Playoffs are LeBron James, Dan Majerle, Nick Van Exel and Allen Iverson.

Yet, that stint wouldn’t even prove to be Jimmy Butler’s magnum opus when it came to logging minutes. During the very next season, he would play a Chicago Bulls-record 60 minutes during a triple-overtime victory against the Orlando Magic, coming off injury during a time when the Bulls desperately needed help on the wings after salary-dumping Luol Deng. Butler played so many minutes that he literally broke Yahoo Sports’ box score for the contest. Predictably, Tom Thibodeau had no remorse for his decisions, but this game served as perhaps a greater example than any other of Butler’s sacrificing for what his team needed.

From then on, Butler’s reputation as a defender firmed up when he would routinely take on and hold his own against the NBA’s very best. There were so many terrific efforts in this category that it’s hard to recall all of them in one place, but I can tell you with full confidence that one player that is sincerely glad Butler has switched conferences is DeMar DeRozan. In the last ten games the Raptors have played against the Bulls that featured both DeRozan and Butler, the former shot an unbelievably bad 83-215 from the field (38.6%). DeRozan’s stinkers during that stretch included performances of 11-25, 3-17, 7-19, 6-21, and 5-19. The one game the Raptors won during that stretch required DeRozan to take 38 shots. As good of a player as DeRozan is, Jimmy Butler was without a doubt his kryptonite for virtually the entirety of Butler’s tenure in the Windy City.

My personal favorite defensive performance from Butler last season came during an early victory against the Utah Jazz on the road that saw Butler hold 2017 free agency darling Gordon Hayward to 3-15 shooting from the field. Butler’s impact in bottling up Hayward could not be understated in a game that the Bulls only managed to score 85 points.

And I got to see, in-person, Butler’s standout defensive wizardry in holding James Harden to a 7-22 shooting performance during a Bulls’ 114-105 victory over the Harden’s Rockets in 2015. That game featured one of the most underrated moments of the entire NBA season when Butler literally stuffed Harden all the way into the floor at the end of the first quarter:

And then the offense blossomed too. It is very easy to forget that—for all of his own scoring brilliance—Derrick Rose’s regular season career high at the peak of his abilities was 42 points, and Butler had five performances over the last two seasons alone where he equaled or eclipsed that total. Eight times Butler scored 40 or more, and two games featured him dropping 52 and 53 points. Despite not finishing in the top ten for any of the franchise’s career individual statistic rankings, Butler still firmly ranks third in Bulls history for career 40+ point games, which is an unbelievable triumph when considering Butler didn’t become a 20 ppg scorer until three seasons ago.

Those two 50+ point games were impressive in their own right—namely for an outrageous 42-47 aggregate shooting performance from the free-throw line—but I found myself most impressed with Jimmy Butler when watching him facilitate an offense. During the last two seasons of his career, even on nights when his shot wasn’t falling, Butler usually still found ways to help manufacture points for the rest of the team. The best instance of this that I can recall from the last season alone came during the Bulls’ 11th straight win over the Raptors that saw Butler shoot only 2-10 from the field. The Bulls still won that game by double digits because Butler dished 12 assists to six different teammates and shot 15-19 from the free-throw line.

Regardless of whether his contribution came from individual defense, scoring, team offense, or merely just being on the court longer than anyone else; Butler did whatever he had to in the pursuit of a Bulls victory.

Thank you, Jimmy Butler, for every brief glimpse you’ve provided into your funky yet heartwarming personality over the last half decade.

Butler has a remarkably infectious personality for someone that had to experience all of the hardships he encountered during the earlier stages of his life. Butler sported ten different styles of the same fade haircut throughout his career in Chicago, all with their own unique flair. He routinely cut the sleeves off of his Chicago Bulls warm-up for pre-game shootarounds and introductions. He loved showcasing his home's 6000 lb. boom box aquarium, the first lavish purchase he made upon obtaining his post-rookie contract.

He got almost the entire USA Basketball Team to break out into laughter while singing “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton to the chagrin of Carmelo Anthony. He gifted the world of social media this glorious picture of him in a “Pussy, Money, Weed” t-shirt. He took the rear-view mirror out of his car to remind him not to look back (impressive as the symbolism may be, I do not recommend doing this). Most recently, he encouraged critics and people with beef towards him to call him up personally when he gave out his cell phone number to the public at his introductory press conference with the Timberwolves.

Of course, the city of Chicago could have done without his country music obsession or his karaoke rampages (even I find it hard to imagine that Butler’s championing of country music over hip-hop as the definitive locker room background noise didn’t unhinge a few of his teammates), but this past season's Bulls team would have been completely broken without his magical football that he also took with him to Minnesota.

Look, there has been plenty of speculation about Jimmy Butler’s overly-anxious “leadering” alongside his respect for his head coach and how it affected the Bulls’ locker room. Antoine Walker and Scottie Pippen have both been vocal critics of such within the last few weeks following Butler’s departure. But he’s appeared to be pretty air-tight in friendships with both Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan after about only a month during the Olympics. Derrick Rose bought Butler a $30,000 watch to congratulate him on breaking out as a star player amidst what I felt was a media-manufactured controversy between the two. Butler is so against holding grudges that he’s done what he can to repair the relationships with his biological father and mother. All I will ever think of him is that he’s a guy that sacrifices whatever he has to for the betterment of himself and his teammates, and I have a hard time believing he won’t make friends quickly in Minnesota.

So thank you, Jimmy Butler, for continuing to make me laugh and for radiating an aura of much-needed positive vibes during your time in the professional spotlight.

And finally, thank you, Jimmy Butler, for being the star this Bulls team and this city needed when fate robbed Chicago of its hometown hero.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I still remember everything about the moment when Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. For the prior two seasons I had the satisfaction of watching one of the best teams in basketball—by regular season standards—led by the youngest MVP in NBA history, that also happened to be a native of the city he now played for. It was beyond poetic. Sure, there was a part in the heart of every Bulls fan that believed Rose could come back and somehow be the same player as before, but it turned into just a fantasy.

Little did any of us know that the basketball hero for the next chapter of the Chicago Bulls was already sitting on the bench that night. I did not expect that in my adult life I would ever enjoy watching another player in a Bulls jersey nearly as much as I did prime Derrick Rose.

Jimmy Butler preserved my sanity as a Chicago Bulls fan, doing everything on both ends of the court to keep the Bulls from completely evaporating. He became one of the very best clutch scorers in all of basketball, much like Derrick Rose used to be. He became the long-awaited, heavily-prophesied “Mythical 2 Guard who can Defend and Shoot” (M2GwcDaS) that BlogaBull so desperately craved for so many years.

Maybe the Bulls were never really in contention after Rose went down, but Jimmy Butler still gave fans like myself some sliver of hope that the Bulls could soon be there again. At the very least, amid roster-wide regression and the front office’s habitual incompetence, Butler helped make the Bulls far more entertaining than they would have been otherwise.

So for the final time, thank you, Jimmy Butler, for stepping up following yet another setback and becoming the star that the Bulls and the city of Chicago desperately needed. Thank you for the inspiration and standard-setting when it comes to perseverance and hard work.

Thank you, Jimmy Butler, for everything.