Jimmy Butler’s journey to the NBA Finals began when he was thrown out of home by his mother as a teenager.
The 31-year-old Texan with a taste for country and western music will lead the Miami Heat on Wednesday as they take on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Orlando.
For Butler, it is the biggest sporting test yet in a life spent battling — and often prevailing — against the odds.
At the age of 13 growing up in the Houston suburb of Tomball, his mother told him he had to leave home. “I don’t like the look of you. You gotta go,” is how Butler recalls his mother’s parting words.
For years he was homeless, spending a few days or weeks at a time sleeping on the couches of friends before moving on.
In high school he finally found a permanent home, being welcomed into the family of a friend, Jordan Leslie, also a talented athlete who would later go on to become a wide receiver in the NFL.
With a stable home life, Butler was free to concentrate on his basketball, and although not regarded as a prized recruit out of high school, would eventually win a scholarship to Marquette University in Wisconsin.
‘Don’t feel sorry for me’
Despite his troubled youth, Butler dislikes his unusual backstory being framed as the classic sporting narrative of triumph over adversity.
“Please, I know you’re going to write something,” he told an ESPN interviewer in 2011 shortly before the NBA draft. “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.”
Those challenges have moulded Butler into the ferocious competitor who has helped carry Miami into their first NBA Finals appearance since 2014.
It has taken Butler the best part of a decade to find his preferred environment.
Selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 30th pick in the draft nine years ago, Butler spent six seasons in the Windy City before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017.
But tension with teammate Karl Anthony-Towns left Butler heading for the exit, and after a single season in Minnesota, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in November of 2018.
In theory it should have been a perfect fit for Butler, a high-quality addition to an emerging power complementing the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Yet after the Sixers exited the playoffs in the second round last season, Butler was also packing his bags.
In July last year he was signed by Miami in a multi-team trade. In Florida, where he has clicked with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and franchise president, Pat Riley, Butler is finally at home.
‘Happy to be home’
“I think that’s what this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table, as I’ve said time and time again,” Butler said of his move to Miami.
Spoelstra says his and Riley’s mission to lure Butler to Miami was wrapped up swiftly, recalling a dinner the three men shared last June as “one of the most amazing recruiting visits we’ve ever had.”
“It was so conversational, and you just felt like after 20 minutes we were so aligned in how we viewed competition and work and culture, everything,” Spoelstra said.
“We were talking shop and he interrupted Pat and I after dinner, probably five minutes into just a conversation, and he said, ‘By the way, I’m in.’ We’re like, ‘What? We haven’t even given you our pitch yet.'”
Butler, who had been tipped off about the team culture by Heat legend Dwyane Wade, says he needed little persuading.
“D-Wade told me about it. I wanted parts of that, the work; the culture, the word that everybody uses,” Butler said.
“More than anything, they wanted me to be here. They told me, like, ‘Yo, you’re the guy that we want. We’re coming after you.’ It was like, say no more.
“To be wanted, that’s what anybody wants in the world, not just basketball. I’m happy to be home.”