Why the Heat are such a natural fit for Jimmy Butler

It’s hard to say when the pitch began.

Maybe it was on the evening of April 8, when, dressed in all white, Jimmy Butler entered Prime Private, an exclusive South Beach steakhouse, for Dwyane Wade’s retirement party. Beyond the talismans of Miami opulence, beyond even the championship trophy at the center of Wade’s table, he saw a community celebrating a journey that spanned 15 years. The next day, when Butler’s Philadelphia Sixers took on the Heat at the American Airlines Arena, Butler bore witness to the sweet symbiosis between the fans and the man.

Maybe it was two years ago, when Wade joined the Chicago Bulls and reminisced about the bare-knuckled, no-nonsense Miami Heat, the family bound by sweat equity and brutal honesty, where body-weight percentage is strictly monitored, where jerseys stayed tucked in, even during practice.

Maybe it goes as far back as 2013, when Butler infamously swore he’d never wear a Heat jersey, not knowing how hatred could morph into begrudging admiration.

By the time Butler greeted Heat president Pat Riley at the American Airlines Arena on June 30, 2019, the first time in his nine-year career Butler had become an unrestricted free agent, he knew what to expect. Three hours later, in Riley’s office, he agreed to become a part of the lineage splattered across the room: the case with the championship rings and the photographs with presidents.

“We’re in this meeting, we’re in the room, and it’s just like ... the sky just opened up. You know what? Easy. Easy. This is where you’re supposed to be at,” Butler told Yahoo Sports before notching a triple-double in the Heat’s overtime victory against the Raptors on Dec. 3. The Heat, at 17-6, are third in the East, with a franchise-record 10-0 start at home.

They cracked open bottles of luxury wine, Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon and Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Butler’s favorite. Riley poured wine into Butler’s glass, until he stopped him.

“I was a little bit overzealous,” Riley told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “I poured too much in it and he said, ‘Hey, Coach, come on, man. I don’t need that much.’ He was right. You don’t pour that much. You just pour enough to where, when you put the wine in the goblet, it’s a nice splash, and what you do is you sniff, and then you sip and you swirl and you swallow.”

“It’s like ... he did that,” Riley continued. “He sniffed that wine. He had a little taste. Swirled around a little bit and said, ‘Ah, man, that’s good wine.’”

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) passes as Chicago Bulls guard Coby White (0) and forward Lauri Markkanen (24) defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Miami. The Heat won 110-105 in overtime. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Jimmy Butler fits right in with the grinding, detail-oriented Heat. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Butler, whom Riley refers to as a “connoisseur of nice things,” enjoys the spoils of success as much as anyone. But here, finally, was a place that saw it his way, where, despite the surroundings, asceticism reigns. “It’s not about palm trees,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “If you want a quick trip to South Beach, then the Miami Heat is not for you.” In Miami, everything nice is better when it’s earned. Joy is not the product of discipline, it’s the practice of discipline.

Butler grew up in poverty in Tomball, Texas. At 13, after getting into an argument with his mom, she kicked him out, and he went from couch to couch, perpetually at the mercy of the good graces of the adults in his life, always careful not to draw attention to himself. Basketball led him to Marquette, where Butler kept a sleeping bag in the locker room and picked up coach Buzz Williams’ tenet that transcendence is achieved only through work. “I always had to work whenever I was in Tomball, I had to work whenever I was in junior college, I had to work when I was at Marquette, all the way up till now, so that’s all that I know,” Butler said at his opening press conference with the Heat. “I don’t know how to turn back from that.”

After spending the last two years on three different teams, searching and clashing and learning, Butler finally got to control his destiny. “I just know how happy I was [to join the Heat], how it was a new start, how I got to pick where I wanted to go,” Butler told Yahoo Sports. “I think that’s what I was thinking about more than anything: I’m choosing this. I’m in control of my immediate future moving forward.”

“I hope he gets his championship,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “I hope he gets that last thing here. Because what else is there? Your career is gonna be over by the time you’re 37, 38 years old. You want to make the best of it. You want to enjoy it — with true joy too, and deal with the ups and downs.”

That hope is contingent on things not going the way they used to.

In the summer of 2017, the Bulls, not wanting to pay Butler like a star, effectively chose Fred Hoiberg — the coach with whom Butler had reached an impasse — over him, shipping Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was reunited with Tom Thibodeau, his former Bulls coach and kindred spirit, but he only stuck there for just over a season. The Heat tried dealing for him when he demanded a trade, but the Sixers swept in. “I thought once he got traded to Philly, it would be over with, that he would probably end up signing a long-term deal with them,” Riley told Yahoo Sports, “but we were very fortunate.”

Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner dropped in after the fourth bounce in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, eliminating the 76ers on May 12, and on June 30, after the Heat met with Butler, the Sixers reportedly chose not to offer Butler a five-year max contract.

Butler and his agent, Bernie Lee, emerged from a black Escalade and walked through the locker-room entrance in the American Airlines Arena. They toured the facility, absorbing the day-to-day operations, until reaching the weight room, where Riley stopped by the scale and told Butler that’s where he’d be weighed.

That’s when Riley decided to jump on, weighing, at 74 years old, close to his playing weight, before turning to Butler: your turn. Butler handed his phones to Lee, untied his shoes, and stepped onto the scale.

They eventually made their way to a room occupied by the Heat braintrust: Shane Battier, who won two titles with the Heat, was hired as the head of analytics; Alonzo Mourning, the franchise’s first great star, runs player development; GM Andy Elisberg and head coach Erik Spoelstra graduated from the video room; and Nick Arison, son of Heat owner Micky Arison, started as a ballboy.

Riley believes that continuity has allowed the Heat to modernize while maintaining their core values. “There is an institutional knowledge there. There is a reservoir of depth that they know, they’ve experienced, they can articulate.”

At one point, Spoelstra, smiling, posed a question about last year’s rotation, and Lee filled the silence, suggesting it needed more shooting. Spoelstra turned stone-faced, pointing directly at Lee, cutting through the moment like a knife, and telling Lee he was wrong, that he should have pointed out the lineup’s diversity.

“I’ve watched Jimmy closely his whole career and he’s an ultra-competitive guy, ultra-honest guy, very truthful,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “His truth isn’t always your truth, so you might have a disagreement on competitive truth, and that’s OK with me. If you’re going to argue with me or somebody about basketball philosophy or what our program is and you win the argument, that teaches me something, why I’m doing something wrong, and I think that’s OK to have that kind of exchange.”

That’s how it was supposed to go in Minnesota and Philadelphia. When something was wrong, Butler had no qualms saying it, and something always felt wrong. When the Wolves made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years in the 82nd game of the season, the confetti that dropped from the floor bristled him. The postseason should be an expectation, not a celebration. Eventually, he forced his way out in a fashion only he could: forceful, intense, leaving a mess in his wake. Thibodeau lost his job two months later. Yahoo Sports’ Vince Goodwill asked Butler if he felt all of his Sixers teammates worked as hard or were as dedicated to a championship drive as him. “No. But everybody don’t do that,” Butler replied. “Everybody don’t work like that. I’ve learned that over the years.” Butler pointed out that external factors like wealth and fame can motivate players as much as winning championships.

The Heat may prove to have a stronger appetite for Butler’s terminal honesty. More importantly, Butler might not feel as compelled to bend anyone to his sensibilities. “He has his own idiosyncrasies in how he goes about doing things, but when he hits the court he’s going to be playing with these other players who are like him in that manner,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “And if there are some that are the exception, they’ll likely be gone.

“[Butler’s] what I would consider to be somebody who is very organized, things in order up to almost probably obsessive compulsive with certain things. There’s nothing wrong with being OCD as long as you wanna be around other guys who are OCD. That makes for a good mix. You can handle one another.”

The Heat, for their part, would rather Butler focus on the future.

After Butler made it clear he wanted to be in Miami, Riley pulled out a laminated blue card he’s had for 20 years from his credit-card holder and handed it to him. “Warriors do not live in the past,” it reads. “The past is dead. Your life is now and your future is waiting.”

Before the Heat’s unexpected success — they are 10 points per 100 possessions better with Butler on the floor — vindicated Butler’s decision, Riley was trying to impart to him a lesson from his experience with LeBron James: Don’t succumb to pressure to justify a decision the world doesn’t like or understand. “If you’re a great player in this league and you create this kind of change, it’s what I call the peripheral opponent, OK? The opponent is not the team you’re playing against,” Riley explained. “The opponent is going to be a very eye-balling media, and social media, and all the prognosticators out there, all the people on Twitter, wherever — writers on the NBA, ESPN, etc., etc.”

Why leave the Philadelphia 76ers, who might have been a couple of bounces away from the NBA Finals?

Why not team up with Kawhi on the Clippers?

“I didn’t want him to get into really what went on, or have to think about or have him explain what happened in the past,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “We all have a past. We all have a story.” While Butler told his, Riley cut in, and turned the room’s attention to a video scored to “Power Over Me” by Dermot Kennedy, a 27-year-old Dubliner who’s one of Butler’s favorite artists. The Heat’s social team scoured Butler’s Instagram and heard the song in the background of one his posts.

A sharp, raspy voice cut through the guitar.

I wanna be king in your story

I wanna know who you are

Butler immediately recognized the song and smiled, as he watched himself in a Heat uniform, enraptured in the action, making all the plays he’d soon be making in real life: clawing out of a double-team and finding a teammate in the corner for a three; swarmed by three opposing jerseys, tipping a loose rebound off his opponent’s body, turning to the referee to forcefully gesture that it’s Heat ball, before diverting his attention to the crowd and amping them up.

“He decided to become, maybe, the king of the story here,” Riley told Yahoo Sports. “I hope he is.”

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