Along with Stephen Curry and Nate Robinson, who’ve been scoring like the basket’s locked and they’re the only ones with the keys, Jimmy Butler is the breakout star of the 2013 NBA playoffs. A second-year player out of Marquette, Butler started off the season slow but showed signs of becoming a force starting in January; since the new year, he’s averaged 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds a game and shot over 40% from three-point range. He’s also established himself as a terrifically talented defender, making it easy to understand why he’s a favorite of coach Tom Thibodeau, who prizes defense uber alles.
If there was any skepticism regarding Butler’s place in an NBA starting lineup, it’s disappeared this postseason. As a badly-needed asset for the heavily-depleted Bulls, who stole Game 1 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals despite lacking three of their top players (Derrick Rose, still sidelined with the Most Controversial Knee Injury In The History Of Mankind; Luol Deng, leaking spinal fluid; and Kirk Hinrich, ordinary calf thing) Butler has played 144 straight minutes in the team’s last three games, or all 48 minutes of action in three close contests. (To give you some perspective on how impressive this is, the highest minutes per game average this season in the NBA was held by Butler’s Bulls teammate Deng at a mere 38.7 MPG.)
Because of the clandestine way in which Butler became an important NBA player — impressive but unheralded college career; last pick of the first round in 2011; slow, steady rise as a bench player over two years — he’s an unknown quantity for most NBA fans. But as far as professional players go, his pre-college path was incredibly unusual. He transferred from a junior college to Marquette after going largely unrecruited out of high school, partially thanks to his inability to play AAU ball, as revealed in this Chad Ford profile.
Why didn’t he play AAU ball? Because he was kicked out of his mother’s house at age 13. His father left him when he was an infant, meaning that he was homeless in his early teens. And after bouncing around friends’ places, he was eventually taken in by a woman named Michelle Lambert and her family, which already included seven children. Butler’s new family helped guide him through the process of reaching the NBA, and, most importantly, overcome this remark, which is what Butler told Ford was the last thing his mother ever said to him.
10 years later, he’s guarding LeBron James in the NBA playoffs, with the support of millions of people. There’s something superficial about the public’s love of athletes — there are many things superficial about the public’s love of athletes — but at the same time, it’s a pretty clear repudiation of such a terrible rebuke from the person who’s supposed to back you most unconditionally. Butler once completely lacked confidence; now he has it. That might be the best thing that sports can do for a person.