Jimmy Butler finds a new home, hope
Homeless as a teen, Jimmy Butler lives out his hoop dreams with a new family
"I don't like the look of you. You gotta go."
Those were the last words Jimmy Butler says he remembers his mother saying to him before, according to his recollection, she kicked him to the curb.
He was 13 years old. There was no family to run to. No place to call home. No money in his pocket.
Most kids his age are concerned with school, sports, girls. Butler was just trying to survive. Alone.
Butler pauses as he speaks to me from a hotel room in Cleveland. He sounds unsure about doing this interview. For years, he's kept the story out of the headlines. Several times he tells me he's not sure it's the right time to talk.
He's focusing on NBA draft workouts. He just flew in from New Jersey, where he worked out June 8. Two days later, he tried out with the Cavs. His coach at Marquette, Buzz Williams, always told him to take everything one day at a time.
"That's literally what I live by," Butler said. "One day at a time. The NBA is a goal of mine. But I'm not there yet. I can't lose my focus."
Butler has 13 days until the draft, when he's likely to hear his name called somewhere between the late first round and early second round.
His workouts, by virtually all accounts, have been stellar. He won the MVP award at the Portsmouth Invitational. He impressed scouts with a strong performance at the Chicago pre-draft combine. He's drawn praise from virtually every NBA scout and GM who has worked him out.
But it's been the interview process that has created the most buzz. Representatives from team after team told me he was one of the most impressive young men they've ever met.
"His story," one GM said. "is one of the most remarkable I've seen in all my years of basketball. There were so many times in his life where he was set up to fail. Every time, he overcame just enormous odds. When you talk to him -- and he's hesitant to talk about his life -- you just have this feeling that this kid has greatness in him."
Butler is fine with that interpretation. But there's another one that he fears.
"Please, I know you're going to write something. I'm just asking you, don't write it in a way that makes people feel sorry for me," he said. "I hate that. There's nothing to feel sorry about. I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I'm grateful for the challenges I've faced. Please, don't make them feel sorry for me."
Pity hasn't gotten Butler anywhere in life. Courage has.
Butler finds a family
After leaving his Tomball, Texas, home at 13, Butler did his best to keep his head above water. With his father out of his life since he was an infant, he stayed with friends as long as he could. Usually within a few weeks, he was moving on to a new place -- anywhere to lay his head down at night.
Basketball became his life, and Butler showed a lot of promise. The summer before his senior year in high school, he was attracting attention as a potential star in Tomball -- but not from the usual suspects. Division I coaches had yet to make contact, but a ninth-grader named Jordan Leslie was scouting him.
Leslie was from Tomball, too, and was following Butler closely. At the end of a summer league game he approached Butler and challenged him to a 3-point-shooting contest. Butler was taken aback by the brashness of the kid. He agreed to the contest. Leslie was an athlete too, an up-and-coming hoops and football star.
After the game, the two became fast friends. Leslie began inviting Butler to his house to play video games and to stay the night. Butler's life would never be the same.
Leslie's mother, Michelle Lambert, paused at first. She had four kids of her own from her first husband, who had died. Her new husband had brought three children of his own with him. Money was tight. The word around Tomball was that Jimmy was trouble. Her new husband finally told the kids that Jimmy could stay, but only for one or two nights at a time. But each night when Butler would come to stay, a different kid would say, "Tonight's my night to have Jimmy stay." After a few months, the Lamberts gave in, and Michelle told him he could stay for good.
Butler needed a family, and Lambert was offering hers.
But not before she set some ground rules. For the first time in his life he'd have a curfew. He had to attend class and improve his academic performance. He'd have chores around the house. Most importantly, Michelle told him, he had to be a role model.
"I told him my kids looked up to him," Lambert said. "He had to stay out of trouble. Work hard in school. He had to set an example. And you know what? Jimmy did it. Anything I asked him to do, he did it without asking questions."
"They accepted me into their family," Butler said. "And it wasn't because of basketball. She was just very loving. She just did stuff like that. I couldn't believe it."
With some family support for the first time, Butler became a star for the Tomball High School Cougars. As a team captain his senior season, he averaged 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and was named to the all-district first team.
But it wasn't enough to draw the attention from colleges he had hoped. Scouting services didn't rank him. He didn't play AAU ball, which hurt his chances of being seen. He had an outside shot at playing at Mississippi State, but didn't get a scholarship offer. With nowhere to go again, Butler took the only route he could and enrolled at nearby Tyler Junior College.
Once again, with his back to the wall, Butler not only survived; he thrived. In his first conference game for Tyler, he scored 34 points.
"After that I had a few 30-, 40-point games," he said. "It gave me the confidence that I can play at a high level."
As a freshman, Butler was Tyler's leading scorer and was an honorable mention juco All-American. College coaches around the country began to notice. By April of 2008, Butler had offers from Marquette, Kentucky, Clemson, Mississippi State and Iowa State.
Once again, Lambert became a guiding force in Butler's life.
"He had a lot of offers, but I was impressed by Marquette for academic reasons," she said. "That's a great academic school. I told him he should go there because basketball may not work out long-term. He needed a good education and a degree to fall back on. "
Soaring to new heights
Butler listened and became Williams' first recruit for Marquette. But things didn't start as well as Butler may have hoped. He was used to being the man, but in Milwaukee, he had to sit and watch from the bench as a sophomore. At times, he was frustrated. He'd call Lambert and tell her he wanted to come home.
"Buzz was tough," she said. "He had never had a man tell him no. I did all the time. But often his coaches just enabled him. It was another chance for him to mature."
Said Williams: "I've never been harder on a player than I've been on Jimmy. I was ruthless on him because he didn't know how good he could be. He'd been told his whole life he wasn't good enough. What I was seeing was a guy who could impact our team in so many ways. "
Butler averaged just 5.6 points in 19.6 minutes a game for the Golden Eagles, coming off the bench behind two future NBA players, Wes Matthews and Lazar Hayward. Again, a difficult situation became a positive experience.
"I was tutored by the best," Butler said. "Those guys taught me so much about how to play and how to be a man. I knew that to be successful, I had to be more than a scorer. I had to become a leader. It's not about scoring. It's about doing what my team needs me to do. I wanna be that glue guy, I want to be a guy my team and my coach can count on. That's what I want to be."
By his senior season, Butler had shed the "scorer" label and drew attention from NBA scouts because of his versatility. He could still score -- Butler averaged 15.7 points in 2010-11 -- but he could also rebound, handle the ball and defend multiple positions. He played without ego. He was a winner.
"I saw him at a game versus Providence. He did everything," one NBA scout said. "He guarded Marshon Brooks. He was special. So many guys come into the NBA with role-player talent and think they're a star. I knew this kid could come in and fit, right away, on a good team. That's the appeal."
Scouts were coming to watch him play all year, but Butler was totally unaware. He said he had no idea he was projected as an NBA player until after the college season had ended.
"I was just so focused on our team, on us winning," Butler said. "It's not that it wasn't a dream. Like I said, I was just trying to live one day at a time."
The highlight of Butler's college career came on senior night when Lambert walked him out on the court.
"That night was a complete blur," Lambert said. "I cried the entire time. He had accomplished so much. I was both happy and proud. Everyone doubted him. His coach and principal in high school said he'd never amount to anything. And there he is, with the crowd cheering.
"But I was also sad and scared. Your baby is gone and now he faces the horrible world. Jimmy always talks about what we did for him. I'm not sure he understands what he did for us. He changed our life, too. We are better people for having him in our family."
Said Butler: "We are all attached at the hip. I give her the credit for helping me become who I am. I love her. You would think that she gave me birth. I talk to her every morning. She's very loving. That's my family. That's Michelle Lambert. She is my mom."
'I know I can overcome anything'
So don't feel sorry for Jimmy Butler. He's about to make a career out of the sport he loves. He has a loving family that's given him a place to belong. And any doubt that he had in himself is now long gone. He believes.
"It's taught me that anything is possible," Butler said. "My whole life, people have doubted me. My mom did. People told me in high school I'm too short and not fast enough to play basketball. They didn't know my story. Because if they did, they'd know that anything is possible. Who would've thought that a small-town kid would become a halfway decent player in college and now has a chance to be drafted in the NBA? That's my chip. That's what motivates me. I know I can overcome anything if I just take everything one day [at a] time."
"I hope someone gives him a chance," Lambert said, trying to fight back tears. "No one gave him a chance. I guess we did, and look what happened. He finally had someone to make [proud of him]. If an NBA team gives him a chance, he'll do the world for them. That's what he did for me."
On June 23, Butler will return to the Lambert home in Tomball to watch the NBA draft with his family. There will be no fanfare. No entourage. No fancy suits. Just his mother and seven brothers and sisters. Sharing a meal. Holding hands. Believing.
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