Luol Deng

A happy, content, competitive Jimmy Butler is part of 'Heat culture' now

A happy, content, competitive Jimmy Butler is part of 'Heat culture' now

Jimmy Butler never wanted to leave the Bulls, who began their ongoing rebuild by trading him in June 2017.

He’s now three teams removed from that day and, this offseason, had his choice of where he wanted to go after trades to the Timberwolves and 76ers.

Butler chose the Heat.

“He always makes it a point about how the Bulls didn’t like us. One of our first conversations, I was like, ‘You underestimated how much we disliked you as a team,’” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday at the United Center. “I’m dead serious. We didn’t like them. They didn’t like us. That’s what you want in a playoff series, borne out of respect and high-level competition with type-A personalities going after each other.

“When you go through a couple series like that, you gain deep respect for what’s on the other side. When we were finally able to sign Luol Deng, that was something that grew out of respect.”

There’s a saying about 'Heat culture' that has existed since the days of the Pat Riley-coached teams centered around Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway that battled the dynasty-era Bulls. The rivalry intensified when Butler, Deng and company battled Spoelstra’s Big Three of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

And you don’t need to see the Heat’s 10-3 record to know that culture fits Butler like a glove.

“It’s our whole organization. Everybody is around the work every day. Everybody is putting their time in,” Butler said Friday. “It just makes me smile because that’s what I do. I don’t got too much to say. It makes it fun because when you put in that much work, you’re not doing it for no reason. You’re doing it because you want to win.”

Butler, now in his ninth season, has been around long enough to know every season presents challenges and adversity at some point. Unsurprisingly, Butler raised that almost certain likelihood in unsolicited fashion.

“Everything is phenomenal now. Like I tell everybody, I’m happy, man. We’re winning. We’re competing at a high level. Organization is great — people around it, teammates,” Butler said. “I want to see what happens whenever it’s not going so well for us. I don’t want to lose two in a row or three in a row; don’t get me wrong. But whenever it isn’t the way that we want it to be, how are we going to respond? That’s going to be a test for myself and everybody else here.”

Given that Butler is this team’s unquestioned alpha dog and shares the same serious-minded competitiveness that Spoelstra does, you have to like the Heat’s chances to persevere. Butler joined an organization that, top to bottom, shares the same values as him.

“He has helped us win. We’ve been looking for a guy like this for awhile,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a competitive, two-way player. And he just knows how to impact winning.

“He’s a throwback player almost, just in terms of not caring about what his individual statistics are. He’ll impose his will when he needs to. If we need a 35-point game like we did in Phoenix, he’ll do that. But he’s distributing the ball. He’s playing effectively point guard for us in a role that I’ve had Dwyane and LeBron in before. He has gobbled all that up and really helped our young guys gain a lot of confidence.

“He has a tremendous work ethic. And I think he relates to the guys who can go toe-to-toe with him as far as work ethic and competitiveness.”

Spoelstra said Butler’s talent and competitiveness remind him of Wade, and the fact that his competitiveness doesn’t have an off-switch recalls Wade, Mourning and Udonis Haslem.

In other words, Butler is 'Heat culture' now.

“That’s why we say we try to get like-minded people who share your values and standards. He does,” Spoelstra said. “We speak the same language.”

Butler’s strong friendship with Wade began when both played for the Bulls. But even Butler called Wade a “Heat lifer.” And given that Butler is in the first of a four-year, $142 million deal with the Heat, he has the makings of forming a long-term relationship with the franchise he once disliked — but respected — as well.

“I got to do what’s best for me, my family and my people. I got to do what made me happy,” Butler said of choosing the Heat. “And, like I tell everybody, I’m happy. This place fits for me.”

Butler is 0-2 at the United Center as a visiting player, losing each game by one point. One came with the Timberwolves and one with the 76ers.

Other than saying he loves the Bulls’ ownership, which he called “incredible,” he said he doesn’t much follow the franchise’s fortunes anymore. He did notice how the Bulls on Wednesday honored Deng, whom Butler always credited as a mentor.

“I wish I could’ve been here as well. Lu taught me so much about the game and being a pro. I was very fortunate to be able to learn from him. He’s just an incredible, incredible human being,” Butler said. “I’m glad he got to go out here and they honored him here. He did a lot for this organization and obviously did a lot for me. In this organization, I was able to be around so many good people, him being at the top of the list.

“It’s always special to play here. This is where I started. This is when I was a kid at the age of 21. And I was fortunate to be able to play in front of these wonderful fans in this great city and obviously all the history that went on here with the players that I was able to play with. This is always home. I still have places here. I’m here throughout the summer all the time. I’ll always have love for this city. That will never change.”

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Bulls honor Luol Deng, who takes place among all-time franchise greats

Bulls honor Luol Deng, who takes place among all-time franchise greats

Luol Deng strolled down a United Center hallway, hugging Joakim Noah one minute and Derrick Rose the next.

In some ways, it felt like a golden era of Bulls basketball all over again.

But time marches on. And Deng returned Wednesday night to be honored for his decision to sign a ceremonial one-day contract and retire as a Bull last month.

“It’s what makes sense. Chicago means a lot to me,” Deng said pregame. “When you look back, just my career as a basketball player, coming here as a young kid, a young man I should say at (age) 19, it’s a lot of history here and I wanted it to end the right way and the best way to do it is with familiar faces and with people who know me very well.”

Acquired in a draft-day trade in 2003, Deng made two All-Star games and landed in the top-10 of virtually every major statistical category for all-time franchise leaders before getting traded to the Cavaliers in his 10th season.

Deng also played for the Heat, Lakers and Timberwolves. But he’ll always be associated with the Bulls.

“It’s so many good memories,” Deng said. “When you are going through it, you really don’t see it that way. You’re in the league, you’re trying to prove a point, you’re trying to the best player you can be. Every day ‘you can do this, you can’t do that, we need this, we don’t need that.’ You kind of forget the relationship you have and what you are building.

“And then you think back and what it meant to the organization, what it meant to the fans. I know we never won a championship, but there’s a lot of good memories of how hard we played, how hard we battled growing up in front of the fans. Those are things you look back on. I can’t have it anywhere else. Everywhere else where I went and played it’s after I’ve accomplished certain things. I’m [a] grown player. I’ve been in the league for awhile. For me to be here 10 years is such a blessing.”

Deng teamed with Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni and Chris Duhon to help change the culture and qualify for the 2005 playoffs, the franchise’s first appearance since the dynasty dismantled.

Gordon attended, as did former teammates Aaron Gray, Jannero Pargo, John Lucas III, Tyrus Thomas, Nazr Mohammed and Joakim Noah.

“I think the love in Chicago is different than everywhere else,” Deng said. “Anywhere that you get drafted I think people are attached to you. They watch you grow up and they kind of know who you are, your character. You’re not just a basketball player anymore. You become part of the city. I miss that. I just miss the city. I miss going to certain places.

“I remember I lived in Northbrook, but I had a place in the West Loop. And now you drive around and you see it and you see the changes and everything. So you miss it. You miss friends, family, all that.”

Deng and the Bulls picked the night in large part because Rose and the Pistons were in town.

“What we did together  -- Jo is here also and some of the guys from that team – I think for me, it’s weird,” Deng said. “When I was playing with the Bulls, I was watching Derrick back in high school and I was actually going to the games. Derrick ends up being on the team.

“And seeing Derrick, you know, MVP, from the city, it’s almost like you’re a teammate but I was rooting for Derrick with those guys and the team. I know last year when I was with Derrick (in Minnesota) I spoke with him a little bit about it, that I’m thinking about doing this. I didn’t know where he was going to be. But it means a lot to me that you know, those guys are here and that he’s here and Derrick is from Chicago.”

Deng, Noah and Rose were instrumental in leading the Bulls to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. Deng revived an old debate as to whether or not the Bulls could’ve beat the Heat, who prevailed in five games, if they had stayed healthy or won the 2012 title if Rose hadn’t torn his left ACL.

“Everyone has their own opinion and I’m not taking anything away from the teams that won it that year,” Deng said. “There’s two incidents that happened. The first one was obviously, we know about Derrick’s injury that year. But before that, people don’t remember with Omer Asik, when we had Omer, that season I think we won 62 games. Every time we had Omer play the whole fourth quarter, we beat Miami that year (three) times during the season and we won the first game (of the conference finals). But in the last few minutes of that game Omer broke his leg. I don’t know many people know that story, but we really couldn’t beat the Heat without him after that. We all knew it in the locker room and we had a hard time doing it, and I felt like we could’ve won that year.

“And then obviously the year when Derrick got hurt I think mentally we didn’t prepare ourselves what would happen if that happened. Because you just didn’t think of it happening. You thought about maybe ankle sprains or something. But to have your best player, which your whole team was built around, go down like that, we just couldn’t come back from it.”

Deng’s favorite individual highlight came when he made his first All-Star game in 2012.

“It’s crazy because when it happened for me it was like, ‘OK, I’m an All Star, I’m going to the All-Star, I felt great about it.’ I loved it. But it means a lot when you look back.

“With people saying Thibs (former coach Tom Thibodeau) playing guys a lot of minutes---for me, I think when Thibs came to Chicago it changed my career. As well as I’ve done in the past, I think it gave me almost like a label where people started to believe in how hard I played. And because we were winning, everything I was doing was highlighted a lot more than it would be when we were losing. So I appreciated that, and those teams under Thibs, when I go back, all those minutes that I played I’m so thankful for. Because not only did I play better and perform well under it, but it also, for the city, people appreciate night in and night out how hard I was playing with all those minutes.”

Deng said he came to terms with retirement recently and has plans to do more work with his foundation, which was powerful in Chicago when he played for the Bulls. Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Deng smiled.

“I want it to be more than just the game,” he said. “I know I am a professional basketball; I was a professional basketball player. But I think I tried to be, really, the best teammate that I could be. I tried to do a lot of stuff off the court. With the stuff that I’m doing now with my life and everything, I think I tried to do as much as I can while playing.

“The stuff that we did with the organization within the city---to me, it was a lot more than just basketball. So I want people to remember it that way.”

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2-time All-Star Luol Deng signs 1-day contract to retire as a Bull

2-time All-Star Luol Deng signs 1-day contract to retire as a Bull

Luol Deng experienced plenty of highs and lows throughout his nine-plus seasons with the Bulls.

But his love for the organization that acquired him in a 2004 draft-day trade never wavered, even after it traded him to the Cavaliers in January 2014 in a move to exit the luxury tax.

That’s why Deng signed a ceremonial, one-day contract Thursday so that he could retire as a Bull.

“From the moment we made Luol Deng the seventh overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls became a better team,” Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “Luol carried himself with first-class professionalism and leadership, helping lead his Bulls team to eight playoff appearances during his time in Chicago. We’ll always remember his All-Star career and the fierce competitiveness he brought to both ends of the floor every night.”

The Bulls said they plan to honor Deng at a game later this season.

“We’re very fortunate and humbled that Luol has chosen to retire as a Chicago Bull,” Bulls COO Michael Reinsdorf said. “He was a role model on and off the court during his nine-plus years in Chicago, and he gave everything he had to help us win. I want to thank Luol for not only what he accomplished on the court for the team, but also for the leadership he demonstrated through his philanthropic efforts.”

Deng, a two-time All-Star, is all over the franchise leaderboard. He’s tied for fourth by playing in parts of 10 seasons with the Bulls. He’s sixth in games played, fifth in minutes, fourth in points, fifth in field goals, ninth in rebounds, fifth in steals, seventh in 3-pointers and eighth in free throws.

But Deng’s impact with the Bulls moved past numbers. When he arrived with Ben Gordon, one season after the Bulls drafted Kirk Hinrich, Deng helped pull the Bulls from their post-dynasty funk and transform them into a perennial playoff team. He chose to play through a torn wrist ligament so that he could represent his adopted homeland of Great Britain at the 2014 Summer Olympics.

He became a two-time All-Star as Tom Thibodeau’s indispensable, two-way forward, consistently ranking near the top of the NBA in minutes played. And his community service through his Luol Deng Foundation featured Chicago and global reach.

"He was a great teammate on the court," Hinrich said by phone in a rare interview. "But I look back and think about all the things he did in the community. As time goes on and you mature, you realize how important that was. He had a huge impact on and off the floor.

"It's cool he was able to retire as a Bull. That's where myself and him and BG (Ben Gordon) and Noce (Andres Nocioni) grew up as players together and had some fun times."

The day after the trade to the Cavaliers, Deng talked to this reporter at length while standing inside the Cavaliers practice facility.

"I had an opportunity to play for a great organization. I've been very lucky to play 10 years for the only team that I ever knew as a kid," Deng said that January 2014 day. "I only knew Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls when I was 7 years old and in Egypt. For me to be the fourth-leading scorer on that team, did I ever think a refugee kid in Egypt would even play for the Bulls? There's a lot of amazing things that have happened."

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