You already know this scene. Even if you’re not a basketball player or a fan, if you’ve ever watched a basketball movie or just certain TV commercials, you’ve caught a version of it: in a deserted gym, air hazy with dust and vaporized sweat, a lone athlete dribbles, spins, shoots. All the sounds are amplified for effect—the thundering bounces, the squeal of rubber soles against finished wood, the exhale of the ball through the net.
Familiar as it is, the image of that solo hooper still gets to people, at least some people, that is to say me. Part of the draw is the generic romance of intense physical effort, the Rocky-montage romance. Then there’s another basketball-specific shot—call it man (or woman) versus rim.
I’ll say more about that, but first let’s put Jimmy Butler in the empty gym. Not present-day Himmy, as fans call him, but a relatively unknown 21-year-old Butler, a young guy working on his game. The Himmy of today is the star of the Miami Heat, and in recent weeks he has improbably and willfully compelled his eighth-seeded team into the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. The Jimmy Butler in the gym had yet to play his first pro game.
It was 2011, the summer of the most recent NBA lockout. Butler had been selected by the Chicago Bulls, the last pick of the first round of the draft. Days later everything ground to a halt. Instead of playing in summer league and training with pros, Butler went home to Tomball, a small town on the far outskirts of Houston. There he spent most of his waking hours practicing on his old high school court.
He’d played at Tomball High School, for a head coach named Brad Ball, in two strong but not especially heralded varsity seasons. (Back then, maybe the only foreshadowing of what lay ahead was the weird recurrence of ball in the name of the town and the coach.) That summer in 2011, Ball would let Butler in the building, then lock him in the gym so that no one would know who was inside. He was there all the time, arriving early and staying late, practically a captive of the Tomball High gymnasium.
Ball had already seen him put in more work in high school than any player he’d ever coached. Butler did the same during the year he played at Tyler Junior College, where he would go one-on-one for hours with a teammate and stay in the gym after practice to perfect his footwork: jab and stay, jab and go, rocker step, pivots. One word people use to describe Butler’s play, honed by all that disciplined repetition, is “efficient”—not flashy or risky but controlled, tactical, smooth.
Nearly all NBA players work very, very hard, but some have had an advantage from the get-go, because they were even taller or even more preternaturally gifted than the tall, extremely athletic NBA norm, and/or they’re the sons of retired pros. Others had to strive and plot their way to stardom. While he is a great athlete, Butler is a paragon of the second category. His vibe is less workhorse than elite mercenary, someone who during all the years when he was not a McDonald’s All-American, not a top recruit, not a major college star, not yet an NBA household name, wasn’t just working on his game but executing a plan, one that is still unfolding.
“Calm and measured and also angry and vicious” was how Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra characterized Butler’s domination of the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Four of Miami’s first-round playoff series against the Bucks. During the final quarter of that game, Butler scored, and scored again, and scored again, fixing a sidelong smirk on an opponent as he ran back down the floor. Unlike many of the league’s stars, Butler is a two-way player, meaning he also excels at defense—the less glamorous, demanding effort crucial to a team’s success—and so when he wasn’t scoring, you’d see him guarding the likes of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, a man who in a couple of strides can cover the distance from the three-point line to the parking garage. On another Heat possession—after nailing a step-back three over Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s top defenders—Butler burst into ecstatic hollers of “This is my shit! This is my shit!”
It was also the jubilant result of a long, dogged climb. When he was a senior playing for Tomball, a Houston Chronicle blogger praised Butler in a post titled “Under-the-radar stars”—but not, to be clear, as the blogger’s favorite lesser-known male high school player in the Houston metro area. Someone else was listed first, while Butler was one of a handful of runners-up. Ball would call college coaches and plead with them to take a look at his best player. “Just come down and watch, just come down and watch,” he’d say. “If you don’t like what you see, what have you wasted?” Looking back, Ball told me, he wishes he had done better by Butler, but at the same time he thinks the harder road Butler took—“he had to be a guy that kept having to prove himself over and over and over again”—helped toughen him.
All those hours locked in the gym, competing with himself, taking apart his game and polishing each piece: the ritual of solo practice reduces the sport of basketball to its core element, namely that at its core there’s a hole. More than one, if you include the cavern of the gym and the spherical cavity being dribbled and shot, but first and foremost there’s the hole, the rim the ball is supposed to go through, which is out of reach, and usually guarded, so that you have to fight and jump to gain access to it, this thing we also call a basket but it’s not a basket, because baskets have bottoms. This is a hole, a metal hoop with an open net attached, and as soon as you put the ball in the hole, the hole is empty again.
If each sport is its own kind of vessel for desire, in basketball that takes the form of a hole you can never fill, which corresponds to the hole in yourself that you can never fill. You can never really do it. And so, if the desire runs deep, if there’s a big enough fire down there, you go back to the gym over and over and over again. You keep working.
“I’m Jimmy Butler. I’m from Tomball, Texas. What I do is beat everybody at everything,” he declares in a video posted on YouTube. When he’s not playing basketball, Butler will look to trounce people at dominoes or cards or tennis, a compulsion to compete reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s. Another thing Butler has in common with Jordan is that they both have brothers just one year older than them, brothers who also played basketball but who never grew as tall—and maybe weren’t quite as wildly driven—as the younger ones. Butler and his brother, Terry, were eleven months apart, in the same grade in school and on the same basketball team. (Terry came off the bench their senior year.) Stories of brother rivals are universal, woven into our oldest texts and myths, because they narrate a primal dynamic, and while I’m not suggesting that Butler’s competitive intensity is wholly a product of birth order, when a kid arrives right on the heels of an older one, inevitably he’s going to want to catch up and unseat him. It may well turn into an organizing principle.
Butler found his way to Tyler Junior College after a scout who’d seen him play recommended him to the head coach there, Mike Marquis. The coach invited Butler to spend a day in Tyler, starting with a campus tour and moving on to a gym workout. “He didn’t run up and down the floor but two times before I was ready to offer him a scholarship,” Marquis told me. “He was almost like a track runner running a hundred-yard dash. . . . He was very, very natural. Basketball movements were natural to him.” Marquis also liked the way he sought contact with other players, using his thick shoulders to bang into defenders.
When Butler returned in the fall, Marquis saw that he’d recruited a guy with an uncommon mix of strengths: He was unusually driven and smart and physically gifted, and at the same time he was unusually eager to be coached, to learn more. Butler noticed things that other players didn’t: for instance, he would quickly catch on to how a game was being officiated and adjust his play to the referees’ tendencies. “I’ve had many kids who were great players here, tons of all-Americans, but he had all of it,” Marquis said. “He didn’t know, thank god. That’s what kept him churning.” In September, just weeks into the school year, the coach called a friend who worked for the Bulls. “I said I know this is going to sound crazy, but I have a guy who I think has a future in the league.” Butler wasn’t ready yet—he would go on to play for Marquette University—but Marquis, of course, would be proved correct.
People obsessed with winning are not always easy to be around, and in his early years as an NBA player Butler sometimes clashed with teammates who weren’t wired the same way he is. It took a while for him to find the right team, until in 2019 he joined the Miami Heat, attracted by its ethos, known to the faithful as “Heat Culture.” It’s a somewhat vague term that refers to a collective emphasis on accountability, hard work, unselfishness, and other team-y stuff. But I like that it also has the sound of something from a biology experiment, as if the roster might be proliferating in a petri dish somewhere inside what at the beginning of the season was still known as the FTX Arena (it’s now the Kaseya Center) while Heat president Pat Riley watches hawk-eyed over the lab.
Riley was once a tough, storied coach and is now a white-maned, still tough godfather figure, while head coach Spoelstra is the NBA version of a wonky, workaholic tech startup founder, a crafty strategist in a polo shirt. The team also has a holy ghost figure in twenty-year veteran Udonis Haslem, now in his final season, who serves as boss of the locker room and who lurks sagely at the end of the bench during games. Different as the three men are, each has sworn himself to the cause of the Miami Heat, and you get the sense that none of them would have much tolerance for a drama queen or a flat-earther in the lineup.
Enter Butler, with his straightforward mastery of the game and his appetite for the grind. Even in his stardom he has retained some of that under-the-radar quality. It’s there, at times, in the very way he plays. He doesn’t shoot from the logo or get fancy with his dunks. He’s stealthy, expert at moving without the ball; he knows how to time a cut or a screen, tracking when defenders turn their backs to him so he can slip to the open spot. The team uses him like a knight in chess, one NBA writer said during the Bucks series, talking about Butler’s angled attacks.
This year’s Heat barely made the playoffs. They had an inconsistent season, finished eighth in the Eastern Conference, and were almost knocked out of contention by the Bulls. In the postseason, the entire team has stepped it up, in particular by improving its three-point accuracy, while Butler has delivered performances ranging from very good to absurdly, impossibly good. He already had a reputation for morphing into “Playoff Jimmy”—it’s as if regular-season Jimmy collected a power-up. Butler himself denies this, stats be damned, maybe because his response to a higher level of competition is so instinctive he doesn’t recognize it. The harder the game, the bigger the stakes, the more energized he becomes.
Throughout his life, it seems, Butler has been emerging from obscurity, out from a so-so regular season, out from the weak side, almost as if he needs time to observe, to gather himself before he strikes. He’s now 33, which means he has entered a new phase of competition—the pro athlete’s late prime—when he may not be quite as fast as he was ten years ago and has to get smarter and stronger to seize any advantage. A year ago, with fifteen seconds to go against the the Boston Celtics in the last game of the Eastern Conference Finals, Butler had an open look at a three-point shot that would’ve put his team in the lead and potentially advanced the Heat to the NBA Finals. Instead the ball struck the front rim . . . and then it was time to start all over again, to aim for better next season. Starting tonight, the Heat will face the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years. The bookmakers’ odds favor the Celtics, which makes it all the more likely that we’ll see Butler—calmly, viciously—go off.
Blessed with great raw material, Butler fashioned himself into a basketball hero through intense effort, which puts him squarely at the intersection, in professional sports, of the old Protestant work ethic and contemporary celebrity culture. This modern-day Gospel of Grind, which reflects the fused legacies of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie and MJ and Kobe Bryant, is as irresistible as it is odd. It’s thrilling to watch these superior athletes play. And yet once they’re earning tens of millions of dollars a year, the devotion to self-improvement seems less about success, per se, and verges on a kind of moral performance art, fueled by the desire to keep going, to beat the clock.
Because Butler loves to compete so much, Marquis said to me, “I think he’s going to be 45 years old and stop by Lifetime Fitness for a pickup game.” (Those Lifetime Fitness guys had better start preparing now.) After he retires, Ball told me, Butler could become a TV personality; he could go into business or politics—he’ll succeed at anything he decides to do. The future of Jimmy Butler: semidivine gym rat, governor, winning at whatever. For now he’s the star of the Miami Heat, second team all-NBA this year, still climbing.