WAY BEFORE JIMMY BUTLER BECAME JIMMY BUCKETS, before he'd take a play-in No. 8 seed to the NBA Finals, before his voice could take over practices, games and news conferences, he was just a frustrated sixth man for a fringe NCAA tournament team.
Then everything changed.
It was 2009. Butler was a junior at Marquette when Darius Johnson-Odom arrived. Almost immediately, Butler noticed the way assistant coach David "Aki" Collins bonded with the sophomore. Collins called him "DJ," and he went from pushing DJ hard to putting his arm around the new kid when he struggled.
It was warm. Parental, almost. Butler hadn't experienced much of that in his life.
To be sure, it was not unusual for rookies to be put through the crucible with that rugged Marquette group. Butler had gone through it the year before with a roster full of grinders and juco castaways like himself. But there was something different about Johnson-Odom. When his teammate would struggle at the brutal 5:30 a.m. practices, hands on hips as Butler powered the Golden Eagles through a series of full-court runs they called "22s," Collins would swoop in with a pep talk or a kick in the butt.
Butler noticed every time.
"You guys seem like family," Butler would say. He'd pause for a moment and smile. "So how do I get in the family?"
Both of them would laugh and shake their head. "You're not in the family yet, Jimmy," they'd say. They'd joke around about it every day. But there was a twinge of pain underneath Butler's ribbing.
By that point, Butler was on OK terms with what he's described as a difficult upbringing; neither of his parents were present for large chunks of time. He ended up bouncing around living situations in the Houston area before heading off to Tyler Junior College for his freshman year. When he arrived at Marquette as a sophomore, he entered into the most stable three-year period he'd ever had.
He didn't talk much about his background; he didn't have to. "You don't need to know how he grew up," Johnson-Odom says. "You can feel it when you're around him."
But it wasn't family yet for him at Marquette. Butler's first year in Milwaukee in 2008-09 was bumpy. He couldn't get on the court early in the season, but eventually -- through his willingness to bang the boards and defend with a vengeance -- he carved out a role as a sixth man, averaging more rebounds (3.9) than shot attempts (3.1).
The next year, top recruit Johnson-Odom arrived at the same time that Butler, now a junior, had been asked to take a leap forward. Coaches still wanted the 6-foot-7 Butler to guard the best player on the other team -- some nights that was a guard like Scottie Reynolds, others it was 6-foot-11 Andre Drummond. But they also wanted him to look for more scoring and leadership opportunities. Butler was thrilled ... but also a little intimidated. He'd been the No. 73 recruit in Texas as a high school senior, then needed a year of junior college. This was the first time anybody had asked him to be the man.
"He was unsure of himself," grad assistant Jamie McNeilly says. "He was finding himself. He had a ways to go upon arrival."
He did have a ways to go. But he got there; nothing would stand in his way. And where he has gone over the past 15 years is almost without precedent. An unrecruited four-year American college player who used to not score but now is known as Jimmy Buckets? An athlete/coach who both constantly drags teammates and yet is beloved by them? A superstar who wasn't a superstar until he was in his late 20s and now feels damn near inevitable? That blend doesn't really exist in sports, and it didn't exist in Jimmy Butler.
Until that 2009-10 season.
IN THE FALL OF 2009, Canadian guard Junior Cadougan arrived at Marquette. When he told teammates he was going to be living with Butler, he didn't understand at first why some of them exchanged side glances.
The looks were because older Marquette players had begun to see a new Butler trying to make a leap from being the best bench guy to just being the guy.
It wasn't an easy transition. Marquette's top scorers the year before, Wes Matthews and Jerel McNeal, were off to the NBA. But future first-round pick Lazar Hayward was entrenched as the likely top offensive player on the 2009-10 team, and Johnson-Odom immediately entered the lineup as a double-digit scorer. Many of their plays were drawn up for those two, with Butler as a third option. He would have to do all the rebounding and find points in the couch cushions of the Marquette offense. His new role was actually more of an expansion of the old one.
That's what Butler is so good at, though. Monarch, the assistant who discovered Butler at Tyler, uses an interesting phrase to describe him: "an extremely aggressive observer." He says Butler recognized that he often wouldn't have the most explosive first step, or most accurate 3-point shot. Even the best aspects of him now, as an NBA superstar scoring 22.9 points per game, aren't really coachable or transferrable. "You didn't have to have a lot of meetings with him," Monarch says. "He'd figure it out. He was going to figure out that he was going to score in transition and on offensive rebounds."
Cadougan tore his Achilles almost immediately, so he watched from the sideline as Butler started to put the screws to his teammates. The team motto was "Grind together, shine together," and that preseason was all the grind with none of the shine, with Butler being a nonstop voice in everybody's ears.
As the season got closer, Butler amped up what teammates had already been seeing in off-season workouts. Butler declined an interview request for this story. But in interviews with seven former players and coaches from that season, they describe what sounds a lot like the origin story of the guy who'd eventually take over a Minnesota Timberwolves practice 10 years later, telling his teammates he'd beat them with the third-stringers ... and did, as he yelled at coach Tom Thibodeau, "You f---ing need me. You can't win without me."
In preseason practices that fall, Butler was relentless. During full-court sprints, Marquette players would be partnered up with a few other teammates and take turns doing timed runs. Butler would sometimes spot someone cut off their run a few inches before touching the end line. Sometimes he would bust his own group, forcing him to rerun the sprints, too.
At first, eyebrows were raised from both players and coaches. But even back then, as a 20-year-old, Butler had a commanding presence, bordering on scary, and he knew how to weaponize his voice in a way that it felt inarguable -- a final decision had been reached, and now you would do it.
As the season opener approached, coaches were impressed enough to bestow an unlikely honor on their best bench guy from the year before: Jimmy Butler was given full autonomy to stop practice any time he wanted, and he wasn't shy about using it.
He would grab the leadership task by the throat. But the question still remained -- could Butler actually score?
IN SEPTEMBER, MARQUETTE announced that Cadougan was expected to miss the season. So he rehabbed as the team practiced, and he and Butler ended up spending almost no time together other than in their room. But woo boy, living with Jimmy Butler is quite memorable.
Marquette players lived in Humphrey Hall, in the corner suites of every one of the six floors -- rooms 161, 261, 361, 461, 561 and 661, with a set of stairs that they used to zip up and down between rooms. Butler's room often became the place to hang out, and Cadougan would help set up blackjack games in the room.
Butler famously loves country music, so he'd cue up Lil Wayne followed by Tim McGraw, followed by Young Jeezy, followed by more country. And teammates were often surprised when a certain musician popped up more than you'd expect. "He had a thing for Miley Cyrus," guard Maurice Acker says. "A big-time thing."
Butler loved "Hannah Montana." A lot. He'd watch the show in their room, to the point where some teammates would stick their heads in, groan and turn around. "Jimmy's watching Disney Channel again," they'd say, and they'd find another room with a 61 in it.
Almost everybody got cornered at one point or another to listen to Butler talk about what a young megastar Cyrus was. Cadougan chuckles about the time Butler packed up his stuff and left carrying his brand-new Hannah Montana backpack over one shoulder. Or another time, when Butler first pulled out a pink bunny costume that he'd sometimes cruise around campus wearing. "Jimmy genuinely did not care what people thought about him," Cadougan says. "Not many people would actually ever make fun of him. But even if you did, he never really took it seriously."
Butler somehow balanced those plates -- free-spirited Hannah Montana guy along with wannabe player/coach -- in a way where the season began with teammates wanting to see him succeed once the games started. And Butler did.
In Marquette's opener, Butler scored 10 points in the first six minutes, finishing with a career-high 27 points to go with a team-best 13 rebounds. He kept it going, hitting 33-of-51 on field goals (65%) and scoring 100 points as Marquette opened 6-0. Cadougan had begun light workouts with the team and ... well, they weren't light for very long. His relationship with Butler began to change from roommates to teammates. Which meant that Butler constantly dogged him to push himself. It was never mean-spirited. When Cadougan was able to gut out one sprint, Butler would wonder, why not two? Or three?
Butler was usually right. Cadougan found himself ignoring the urge to quit a difficult rehab, then Butler would then signal his approval in his own modest way. "Jimmy isn't a hug guy," Cadougan says. "He's a hard pat-on-the-back guy."
The question was the same back then as it is now. Butler's relentlessness clearly works, for himself and for his teammates. But do his teammates like it? Nobody interviewed for this story said they enjoyed it. But they all appreciated it. When asked several questions about whether he liked Butler's prodding, Cadougan would pause and let out some version of, "Well..." before talking about the benefits of having somebody who sees more in you than you see in yourself.
After the 6-0 start, the Marquette ship got wobbly, especially on the road. As the team headed for Syracuse to face the No. 5 Orange on Jan. 23, the season was looking like an NIT-level disappointment. The Golden Eagles were 11-7 overall and 0-4 away from home. They would get so frustrated that a bunch of players and coaches, including Butler and Buzz Williams, had stopped shaving and getting haircuts. They wanted to match the season's ruggedness.
The ruggedness didn't end that night, either. Butler scored 13 and Marquette fought Syracuse to the bitter end of a 76-71 loss. But Williams had begun to see sparks -- he thought the Golden Eagles were close. After the game, he told the team, "Keep fighting. I don't know when it's going to all come together. But it will."
One minor victory buried in that box score? A young point guard had made his college debut and played eight scoreless but miraculous minutes. Yep, Junior Cadougan was somehow officially in the lineup months ahead of schedule. Just in time for the biggest game of his roommate's life.
A FEW DAYS LATER, Marquette beat Big East doormat Rutgers 82-59, led by Butler's 16 points. That set the scene for essentially a bubble-buster game at UConn on Jan. 30. The Huskies were No. 19 in the country, with a signature win a few days earlier over No. 1 Texas. That Kemba Walker-led team was a year away from winning the NCAA title.
The week of that 2010 game, Williams ratcheted up the pressure in practice, aided by Butler. Everybody knew the NCAA tournament stakes of ending January in a tailspin. This trip to Connecticut was essential, and Butler wouldn't let anybody forget it. "We needed that game bad," guard Maurice Acker says. "Jimmy knew he couldn't let us lose."
Butler had a routine every day leading up to a game back then. He'd go to Subway at lunchtime and get a 12-inch sub, chips and a drink and head into McNeilly's office. For Butler's entire time at Marquette, he'd always ask the same question to McNeilly: "What do you have for me today?"
Then McNeilly would tell him who the coaches wanted him to guard and what they needed him to do. It was very prescriptive from the coaches to Butler. No questions asked.
Something was different the day before the UConn game, though. McNeilly told him they wanted Butler to guard Stanley Robinson, UConn's 6-foot-9 senior who had torched Marquette for 19 and 10 the previous year in an 11-point win. Butler ate his Subway and watched Robinson's tape for a while, but then said, "Put Kemba Walker up."
"Why?" McNeill asked.
"Just put him up," Butler said.
Walker was UConn's best player, and he was a year away from being the best player in the country. He was also a 6-foot lightning bolt that Butler wouldn't be guarding. McNeilly eventually shrugged his shoulders and put on some Walker tape.
In the game, Marquette took a 34-29 lead into halftime. But the entire first half, Walker was getting to wherever he wanted on the court and UConn was killing Marquette on the boards (the Huskies finished the game with a 44-25 rebounding edge). There were bad vibes about where the game was headed.
"Let me guard Kemba," Butler told McNeilly as they headed into the locker room at the half.
"I can't make the case to Buzz to switch you to Kemba Walker," McNeilly said.
But Butler started doing hand motions and mimicking Walker's game -- "right to left, pump fake, shoot," for instance. He ended every Walker imitation by saying, "I'll be there." By the end of Butler's pleading, McNeilly agreed with Butler. So did Williams. The aggressive observer had done his homework.
The switch worked -- sort of. Walker played a good second half and UConn surged ahead at the 8:08 mark. Butler was relentless and effective in spurts. Walker still got his points. But it sure seemed like he would have gotten more if they hadn't put Butler on him after the half.
"He didn't lock down Kemba," says McNeilly, now an assistant at TCU. "But the effort he gave -- kind of like he gives with the Heat now -- it's infectious. It makes guys play harder and better than they should be."
With less than 30 seconds to go, the score was tied 68-68 and Walker tried a runner that rattled out. Butler got the board and called timeout. On the ensuing play, the inbounds went to Butler. But he didn't have many options as the clock wound down. He drove to the right, down into the lane, and with three seconds left, took an off-balance jumper.
It was a low-percentage shot. But it's the kind of shot that young Jimmy Butler would slowly come to master. With a hand in his face and his body fading away out of bounds along the baseline, the ball dropped right through the net.
Marquette 70, UConn 68. The first road win on an opponent's home-court that season. "That game was really, really, really his staple game," Cadougan says. "That was the time when Jimmy arrived."
The team celebrated at half court. The last image of the broadcast that night shows three players -- Acker, Johnson and baby-faced Jimmy Butler, chomping gum -- walk off together, happy but still looking a little rugged.
THE END OF THAT season wasn't exactly storybook for Marquette as a team. The Golden Eagles ripped off seven wins in eight games. Three of the wins were in overtime, including a thriller at St. John's, where Marquette had the ball on the final possession. Williams didn't have to think long about what to call -- he dialed up the exact play the Golden Eagles ran at the end of the season-turning UConn win. And it went the same exact way: Butler drained an impossible, ugly shot to win at the buzzer.
Marquette finished 22-11 to nab a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even though Washington upset Butler & Co. in the first round, it felt like a minor miracle to have gotten there. The UConn game had ignited the season, the program and it had planted the seeds of what we now know as Jimmy Buckets. It's not so much that Butler became Buckets that year. It's that he discovered that Jimmy Buckets was possible.
The next year, Butler had fully grown into the best version of his college basketball player self. He was the team's best point finder on offense, a wet blanket on the best opposing offensive player most nights, and he was absolutely fearless in driving his teammates.
That especially was true for the new kid Jae Crowder, who transferred to Marquette for the 2010-11 season.
Crowder had a great first year (11.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG). But Butler and Crowder got into it regularly during practices, culminating in an NCAA tournament run-in where it took the entire Marquette roster of coaches and players to keep the two separated at one practice. After a scraggly regular season, Marquette had gotten an 11-seed and pulled two straight upsets over Xavier and Syracuse to get into the Sweet 16 against No. 2 seed North Carolina. "Jae was going through the motions a little bit," says assistant coach Tony Benford, now at TCU, "and Jimmy said, 'Hey, we're trying to win a national championship here!'"
Crowder didn't love the feedback and wouldn't back down. The two needed a few minutes to cool down but eventually fist-bumped and went back to work. Years later, when they played on the Heat together, Crowder and Butler renewed their chippy friendship. "We always had some guys that weren't getting along with Jimmy," Benford says. "He wasn't always loved and revered at every moment. But the respect never left. And guys usually tried to meet his challenge."
UNC blew out Marquette that night to advance to the Elite 8. If you look at the box score, Jimmy Butler's college career appears to have ended in a whimper. But he was just getting started on a professional career that eerily mirrors the slow rise he made in college.
The details are well-known NBA lore by now. The Bulls took Butler 30th overall in the 2011 draft. He started zero games as a rookie, averaging 2.6 points per game, so the Buckets part of him he'd found at Marquette was in storage for a while.
Then the rise began, using the same basic framework of doing the grunt work to get minutes, then slowly becoming the offensive force we've seen for the next decade. "Jimmy was a build," Johnson-Odom says. "He took steps each year. He did whatever he had to to get on the floor. Every year, he has kept building and building to become what he is now."
Other parts of his story are less known. Like how after his rookie year, he went back to Marquette. He asked his old roommate, Cadougan, to dinner. Cadougan thought Butler had invited a bunch of former teammates, but when he got there, it was just Jimmy. As they ate, Butler told Cadougan, "If you stay healthy and work hard, there's a place for you in professional basketball. You can do it. I'm proud of you."
Butler paid the tab that night, and Cadougan left feeling a sense of belief in himself that he hadn't before. Butler was right: Cadougan took Marquette to the Sweet 16 as a junior and the Elite 8 as a senior, then played 10 years in Canadian professional leagues before recently taking an assistant-coach job with the Vancouver Bandits.
On the walkout that evening in 2012, Cadougan said goodbye to Butler and braced for the hard back pat. He was a little surprised when Butler pulled him in for a big old hug. "That was a whole different vibe," Cadougan says. "That was big brother. This was heartfelt Jimmy."
A YEAR OR TWO AGO, during the NBA offseason, Collins' phone rang. It was Butler. He's risen steadily through the coaching ranks, from Marquette, to Memphis, to scouting for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and most recently on Micah Shrewsberry's staff at Penn State. He just took a new job at Overtime Elite as director of recruiting and retention. And through every stop, Butler still likes to check in and say hello.
They usually chop it up about life in the NBA, and Butler asks about coaching and Collins' family. He's grown especially close over the years with Collins' 14-year-old son, Daniel, who goes by DJ -- just like Johnson-Odom back at Marquette. Sometimes Butler will send a video to Collins for DJ where he says, "You gotta act right so your dad lets you come hang out with me sometime."
Collins remembers one exchange during Butler's rookie year in Chicago. Butler wasn't happy that coach Tom Thibodeau had him guard LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and other elite offensive players while not getting many scoring opportunities himself.
"On offense, I'm just standing in the corner," he told Collins. He scored all of 109 total points in 42 games.
"What does your paycheck look like?" Collins said.
Butler was confused. "What do you mean?"
"Is it signed?" Collins asked.
"Yes," Butler said.
"Does it have a Bulls logo on it?"
"Yes," Butler said, still perplexed at where this was going.
"Does it have a big dollar amount on it?"
"Yes," Butler said.
"And what does it say in the memo section?" Collins asked. He paused for a second as Butler racked his brain for what was in the lower left corner. "Does it say you get 20 shots a game? Does it say you get 10 shots a game?"
Butler said no, and he finally understood the point Collins was trying to make. "So essentially that memo is blank, and that's because you're supposed to do whatever your coach asks. Why don't you just be quiet and stay on the court by playing defense the way you know you can?"
And that's exactly what Butler did. He started 20 games the next year, pounding the boards off the bench most of the year. He scored 8.6 PPG as a super sub, and that started an ascension that has continued for the next 10 years.
By the time Collins' phone rang about a year ago, Butler had officially finished his metamorphosis into Jimmy Buckets. On that day, Collins answered and was surprised by what Butler had to say.
"How are you?" Collins said.
"I'm fine," Butler said. "But I actually called to talk to DJ. I wanted to see how he's doing. Can you hand him the phone?"
Collins' eyes bunched up a little in surprise. But his feelings weren't hurt. In fact, the longer the conversation went on, the more Collins felt something else. His kid was talking to Jimmy Buckets, NBA star, and he realized that, finally, after all these years, without them ever saying it out loud, Jimmy Butler was in the family.