The reality of Jimmy Butler never being able to escape his past came in a moment of levity during the announcement of his max contract signing with the Bulls, when a reporter’s deep voice sounded like the booming one from his previous coach.
“That sounded like Thibs for a second there,” Butler said.
Even Tom Thibodeau’s former combatant, Bulls GM Gar Forman, had to chuckle at the irony. But as the newfound wealth surrounds Butler, evidenced by his picture displayed on a screen outside the United Center on Madison and Wood, and having the entire NBA world know he’s deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as a Finals MVP (Kawhi Leonard) and Pacers swingman Paul George, Butler insists he won’t lose sight of his roots.
As he sat on a dais in a VIP room inside the renovating United Center, his college coach, Marquette’s Buzz Williams was 15 feet to Butler’s left, proud but not satisfied with the player who turned out to be his biggest recruit a handful of years ago.
“It’s not about the deal anymore. Let’s get toward your legacy,” Williams said. “That’s the thing that get misconstrued. He was the first player who signed. He sent his national letter of intent from a McDonalds. That doesn’t sound good so nobody talks about it.”
What Butler did talk about was a text message he received from Williams early Thursday morning, hours before he was to sign a contract that would provide him wealth and security beyond his wildest dreams, telling him that Forman has signed far better players than Butler, a playful reminder of how far he has to go.
Not far from Williams was his trainer, Chris Johnson, a man who quit his job with the Houston Rockets to work almost exclusively with Butler on his game and his body, keeping him in tip-top shape.
Not long after that text message from Williams, Johnson was running Butler through a strenuous workout, the first of two they would have Wednesday, on the third day of a five-day workout set they’ll have this week.
“If there’s 10 stages to his potential, he’s at about a stage three,” Johnson said afterwards. Confident comments to be sure, but best believe the hard-driving Johnson won’t allow Butler to forget where he came from or how far he has yet to go.
“We feel it’s a big win for both sides,” Forman said. “He’s getting a max contract that he’s worked for. He’s earned it. We’re getting one of the better two-way players in the NBA.”
Butler developed into that last season, after he and the Bulls couldn’t agree on a contract extension that would’ve been a bargain in hindsight. Turning down an eight-figure contract showed Butler’s ability to bet on himself, but given his hardscrabble past, some sleepless nights were sure to follow before he proved himself.
“I was extremely nervous and I talked to everybody about it,” Butler said. “But I was confident enough to know the work I put in last summer, where my place would be in the league and on this team. I had to prove myself and I felt I did a great job this season.”
“Everybody” being his two brothers, Jermaine and Ifeanyi, Johnson his trainer and his agent, Happy Walters. The season that ensued couldn’t have turned out better for the man who won the award for being the Most Improved Player, and he came back to the bargaining table with every possible chip in his favor.
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And if the rumors about Butler wanting out were to be believed, he showed his effective business sense in signing a long-term deal, not long after the Bulls were perhaps spooked enough by the threat of Butler leaving by giving him a maximum offer sheet, essentially limiting his options, preventing other teams from coming in to swoop down to present Butler with a deal containing early termination options.
“He never wavered, and said he wanted to be in Chicago,” Forman said. “We were always very confident Jimmy would return to the Bulls. When July 1 came and we gave him the max qualifying offer, that showed our commitment to him, how much we believed in him and how important he was to our future.”
And Butler is critical to the present. As much as the Bulls have been caught up by other franchises this summer, losing Butler would’ve been a death knell to the “right now”.
“I know where I wanted to be,” Butler said. “I knew I was wanted and that’s all anybody wanted, was to be wanted.”
As Butler enters the next phase of his basketball career, he won’t be hard-pressed to find a few in his corner who’ll remind him of how great he isn’t and how far he has to go: Johnson and Williams will make sure of that.