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Understanding Jimmy Butler

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He walks with passion in his lungs and fire in his eyes, but there is a method to the madness.

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

If you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.

When Jimmy Butler steps out onto a basketball court, he is not simply playing a game. He is demanding success for himself. The same way his lungs demand oxygen. The same way his body demands strength with every play. The same way he has overcome adversity on and off the court, time and time again. Success must exist, because there is and has never been an alternative for Butler.

What sometimes can accompany this sort of alpha mentality, however, are actions or demands that often rub people the wrong way. Like demanding to be traded from an NBA team, for example.

After many heated locker room arguments, uncomfortably tense practices, and a demand to be traded, the Timberwolves finally said their farewells to Butler and sent him to the 76ers just two weeks ago.

When word broke that Butler would be coming to Philadelphia, it was safe to assume that Sixers players and management were a little nervous about how he would fit in with the team. Rightfully so. On the one hand, Butler’s sheer basketball talent could be the third pillar of greatness in Philly and potentially lead them to a championship. On the other hand, his domineering personality could very well clash with the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and tear the team apart.

Of course, this is something that has to be lived through before the lessons become fully clear, but so far things appear to be working out quite nicely…for both teams.

Since Butler’s Sixers debut on November 14th, Philadelphia has gone 6-2 and ranks sixth in offensive rating in the NBA. The Timberwolves have also won six of their last eight games with Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the lineup.

One of the appealing qualities Butler possesses is how little he turns over the ball. Thus far in the 2018-19 season, Butler only has a 2.1 turnover percentage. Additionally, Butler provides a second outlet in addition to Embiid who the team can pass to for shot creation. That’s huge.

From a technical standpoint, Butler has done really well fitting in to the Sixers’ offensive strategy, which is structured around dribble handoffs, not the pick-and-roll-centered attack of the Timberwolves. Butler should continue to flourish in Philly, as he is someone that is able to score in just about any way and provide closure in late-game situations.

But in order to hypothesize how Butler will continue to blend with the team on a personal level, one has to glance backward. For Butler, understanding why he walks and talks with passion and a hunger for greatness is crucial to understanding and getting along with his personality.

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At the age of 13, the kid from Tomball, Texas was homeless. His father was not present and his mother kicked him to the curb. Just 13 years old. Homeless.

With no family to turn to and no money in his pocket, Butler (now 29) was forced to couch hop between friends’ houses for several years, before finding a more permanent stay during his senior year of high school.

For the majority of his life, Butler was met with “no” at almost every turn. You won’t graduate high school. You’re not going to make it to the NBA. You can’t stay here. You got to go.

By the time his senior year season came around, Butler was finally garnering attention as a star for the Tomball High School Cougars, but it wasn’t enough to interest college recruiters.

Unsure of where to go next, Butler enrolled at Tyler Junior College some three hours away from Tomball and quickly became the team’s lead scorer. The national attention began to follow. It was Buzz Williams and Marquette that ultimately snatched him up.

But once again Butler faced adversity. The once big fish in a small pond was now a medium sized fish in a large pond, watching anxiously from the bench for a chance to prove himself.

In part, this is why Butler works so hard. To prove other people wrong. Constantly being told that he wouldn’t amount to anything made Butler all the more hungry. He learned to fend for himself, both literally and emotionally.

It was his willingness to grind and become a versatile and valuable player that ultimately landed Butler with the Chicago Bulls in 2011. His hunger for greatness and respect would also be the driving force behind leaving the Timberwolves and landing in Philadelphia.

Some folks will call him irrational. Some brash. But if there’s truly one thing that Butler “is”, it is self-made. It is because of where he’s been that Butler is the man he is today, and the man he will be in the tomorrows to come, alongside the Sixers.