Jimmy Butler lights up a room. When the Chicago Bulls star and native Texan arrives at our Splash cover shoot — toting along his photo shoot essentials, including a pair of cowboy boots and a country music playlist — he’s a bundle of energy. He laughs, cracks jokes, pokes fun at himself and lightheartedly razzes our team while he poses for the camera and sings along to Luke Bryan.
Similarly, Jimmy Butler lights up a basketball court. Only there it’s with less of a buoyant energy and more of a cool, controlled intensity. The 24-year-old, in his third season with the Bulls, is a versatile player, focusing less on flashy slam-dunks and instead stepping up wherever the team needs him. Smother an opponent’s offensive drive? Done. Get the ball to an open teammate or hit a jump shot? He’ll make it happen. Play the full 48 minutes of a game? Not a problem for Butler, who did it three times against the Miami Heat in last year’s playoffs. Every game, Butler hits the hardwood and does what the team requires of him to win.
“A lot of this game is mental,” Butler says. “Some of it’s physical, don’t get me wrong, but if your teammates need you to do something, especially if they want you to play 48, they know you can do it. They believe in you. So you just push through.”
It seems to be the approach for this year’s Bulls squad as well. The team has started slow due to injuries, including season-ending surgery for Derrick Rose and Butler’s own few weeks on the bench with a toe injury. But as of late, the Bulls seem to be finding their rhythm. At press time, the team had won six of its last 10 games and was on a three-game winning streak. “We’re an NBA team and our roster is NBA players, and you have to be prepared to still win games,” Butler says. “Thibs [Coach Tom Thibodeau] always says we have more than enough to win, so as long as we keep hearing that and buy into it, we’ll keep winning games.”
That practical outlook translates to his own game, too. While a versatile player on both sides of the court, Butler shines on defense, shutting down All-Stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and garnering reluctant praise from his adversaries. “Everybody puts their shoes on one foot at a time,” Butler says. “I’m not scared of anybody. There are lots of great players in the league, but I’m not backing down from any challenge. I’m an NBA player, too, and I can keep up with the best of them.”
His confidence is partly the result of his hard-fought battle to get to the NBA. In high school, Butler was hardly the star of his team. “I wasn’t the best; I was actually kind of terrible. But I kept working at it,” he says. “My work ethic was ‘I want to be great. I want to make my dream come true.’ I took a different journey, but I made it.” That journey included a year at junior college followed by three years at Marquette, where he played for the Golden Eagles. He was drafted in the first round by the Bulls in 2011, and cites the first time his name echoed through United Center as one of his most memorable career moments. “It’s history,” he says, singing the Bulls intro music. “I’m from a small town in Texas, and in a million years you couldn’t have told me I’d be an NBA player for the Chicago Bulls, and a starter at that.”
While proud of his Southern roots, he’s found a home away from home in Chicago. “It’s a great city,” he says. “I’m country, and it’s a lot different. The weather throws me off every winter. But I love it. It’s a really good fit for me.” He’s done his best to find a dose of Southern hospitality at country-themed bars such as Joe’s on Weed Street and Bub City, but Butler is most comfortable at home, hanging out and writing in his journal. “Nate [Robinson, former Chicago Bull] taught me that, to just write my feelings and thoughts down on paper, and it makes everything a lot easier.” Country music, namely favorite artists such as Luke Bryan and Rodney Atkins, provides the soundtrack. “I like country music because it tells a story, and everybody has their own story,” he says. “Maybe one day I’ll create a country song out of my life.”
Butler has more than enough material. Much has been revealed about his backstory: As a teenager, he was homeless for several years before being taken in by the Lambert family, whose son played basketball with Butler. But Butler doesn’t look back — and doesn’t want anyone else to, either. “Let the past be the past,” he says. “I don’t regret anything. I wouldn’t be who I am without it, and it made me a better person.”
Dwelling on the past would mean missing out on how far he has come. Not only is he living his NBA dream, but back home in Tomball, Texas, Butler is part of a loving, blended brood that includes parents Michael and Michelle Lambert and seven siblings. A typical night together usually involves a big family dinner followed by a game of Catch Phrase. “Even if it’s just two of us, we’ll just sit there and guess back and forth,” Butler laughs. But most importantly, it’s the place where he can be himself. “I can forget Jimmy Butler the basketball player and I’m just the kid from Tomball that they knew since the beginning of time,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about cameras being there, or people taking pictures. It’s just me being me. I do everything that normal people do — though I don’t think normal people play Connect Four by themselves, but hey, I am who I am.”
Chicago seems to have embraced Butler for that exact reason. He’s become a fan favorite, not only garnering attention for his on-court skills but also his personal style, which Butler describes as “different.” “Not Joakim Noah different, though,” he says. “I think cowboy boots are my trademark, and I like loud colors, spikes and all that good stuff on shoes. I just feel like different is what I’ve always tried to be, and it’s worked out so far.” Early this season, fans were buzzing over Butler’s afro, and many were disappointed when he cut it off in mid-November. “I loved my hair, but I wanted something different,” he says. “Something will be back soon. You’ll see me with purple hair soon enough.”
While he’s beloved by Chicago fans, his biggest cheering squad is still back in Texas. Butler gets game day texts from Michelle Lambert, who, along with his grandma, knows all of his stats by heart. He points to Thanksgiving Day as a perfect example of their devotion. “They’re [cooking dinner] in Bulls aprons,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Don’t do that! Don’t cook Thanksgiving dinner in a Bulls apron! Cook in normal clothes!’ ” Then, like thousands of other exasperated sons across the country, Butler shakes his head with a smile. “But they’re my family.”
American idol: Growing up, Butler’s NBA idol was Tracy McGrady, who played for the Houston Rockets for part of his career. Butler was such a devoted fan that for a period in high school, he would only answer to the name Tracy. “I was like, 15 years old!” Butler says, laughing at the memory. “It’s sad to say, now that I’m a grown man, [that I was] going by another grown man’s name. But I was young, and a lot went into that story. I thought I was going to quit basketball because my high school coach wouldn’t let me wear No. 1, Tracy McGrady’s number. My high school coach wanted me to wear the team shoe, I wanted to wear Tracy McGrady’s shoe. I thought I was Tracy McGrady. If he did it, I wanted to do it. “
Then, Butler finally met McGrady:
“It was weird, because when I checked into one of my first NBA games, when he was with Atlanta, I had to guard him. We’re standing behind the free-throw line together, and he’s like, ‘What’s up, young fella?’ I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to call him — Tracy, T-Mac, Mr. McGrady, my idol, so I just kind of looked. A sigh came over me,” he laughs.
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Stylist: Favia, Ford Artists
Stylist assistant: Alexandra Bizios
Grooming: RJ Stell for Anthony Cristiano and Sarah Lukasiewicz for Amazing Cosmetics
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios