LAS VEGAS — Jimmy Butler does not look back, which is important to remember in the context of the following anecdote.
Back when Butler was at Marquette, he had a habit of making life miserable for Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. In January of 2011, Butler dropped 19 points on the Orange, including a late three-pointer that put Marquette ahead. Later that season, Butler’s Eagles knocked Syracuse out of the NCAA Tournament, as well. So, when Butler arrived for Team USA’s training camp, Boeheim had to remind him of his torment.
"I told him when I saw him, you beat me in your last year when you made a three that you never make," said Boeheim, who’s serving as an assistant coach for the national team. "I don’t think he even remembered it."
"I’ll tell you what, he’s a great player," Boeheim continued. "And he was really good in college but to see what he is now. He’s a defender. He’s strong. He can make shots. He’s a no frills guy. You don’t have to worry about this guy. You love to see a guy who’s a good player who busts his ass. Five years ago nobody would say he’s going to be on an Olympic team."
Butler has this way of making an impression on people. Take the night in Philly when he dropped 51 points on the Sixers with USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo in attendance. It wasn’t just the scoring outburst that made Colangelo take notice, it was the way he played both ends of the court.
"He’s a competitor," Colangelo said. "You know you’re going to get everything out of him possible that he can offer and I just knew he’d be a great addition."
Butler has spent this week making similar impressions on everyone else with his steady, consistent play and his work ethic. Several observers have suggested he’s been one of, if not the most impressive player in camp. Even though he’s already made a name for himself as a two-time All-Star and a regular on the All-Defensive team, this is arguably an even bigger platform for him to showcase his talents. Right on cue, he’s relatively unimpressed with the praise.
"I don’t think I have anything to prove," Butler said. "Not to anybody. Maybe to myself. But that’s the way I look at it. That’s for me to know. I don’t really care about what too many others think and you get too caught up and involved in that, you start to go downhill very quickly."
Butler has no intention of going downhill. Every morning long before practice, he wakes up around 5:30 just as the sun is rising over the mountains and the late-night crowd is staggering back from whatever misadventures they found during the Las Vegas night. After reviving with a protein-packed breakfast, he’s off to the gym to start his work day. He begins with skill sessions alongside Chris Johnson. Then, it’s a rigorous fitness workout with Travelle Gaines.
He hooked up with his trainers two summers ago after three promising, but uneven seasons with the Bulls. Ask him what the work has done for his career and he has a simple response: "Everything."
"A lot of people just see the basketball aspect, which is OK, but there’s countless hours that go into it," Butler says. "Whether it’s running, lifting, studying film, there’s more ways to get better than just shooting a basketball."
There has been a lot made about who’s not here with Team USA during training camp as they prep for the Olympics in Rio. From LeBron James, to Stephen Curry, to James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul, many of the league’s brightest stars elected to stay home.
In their absence, the national team has taken on an interesting look this year, with several self-made players making their Olympic debut. DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green, for example, were second-round picks who became stars.
Then there’s Butler, who’s long, circuitous route to this stage was even more complex. From a troubled childhood, to junior college to a supporting role at Marquette to the last first-round pick in his draft class, Butler has made a career out of moving on and leaving the past behind him.
"I don’t really look at how far I’ve come," he said. "I know where I want to get to, that’s my goal. That’s why I wake up and train the way I do. I’m a fierce competitor. I don’t look at where I come from because it will never define me. It never will. I know where I want to end up. I know when you say my name in a sentence: he’s a hell of player. That’s what I want to be said."
If there’s a defining trait about this team, it’s that. It’s not that there’s talent missing from this team. Look around the gym at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center and you see All-Stars everywhere. But beyond a few obvious exceptions — Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving come to mind — the majority of the national team roster have made their name by surpassing their initial expectations and transforming themselves from role players into Players, with a capital-P.
"The expectation was a lot different for Jimmy Butler coming out high school than it was for Durant, to use as an example," Colangelo said. "What really helps an athlete is when you have the right head, the right character, the work ethic. He’s a guy who just keeps getting better and he plays up. He had to fight to make his team in high school. He had to fight to be recognized in college. He had to take all these steps. That makes you pretty special."
The national team prides itself on not only winning gold medals, but in developing a culture that is handed down from one generation to the next. That kind of high-minded aspirational talk is easy to dismiss until you remember what the international experience has done for players since Colangelo took over the program following the disastrous 2004 Olympic showing. What used to be a reward is now an honor.
"I’ll tell you something I strongly believe, regardless of where a guy is in his career, when they come to us it’s a brand new experience," Colangelo said. "Because they’re here under different circumstances. This is not under the banner of an NBA team. The guys want to be here, they want to represent their country. I believe this. They’re better people for the experience. They become better players because of the exposure to the other coaches. They get part of our culture. They bring the culture back to their respective teams. Their teams benefit and ultimately the big beneficiaries is the NBA."
Perhaps this experience will translate for Butler well beyond the next few weeks. Perhaps it will be one that he will look back on some day as a transformational moment in his unlikely journey. Perhaps it will be the very thing that kick-starts the next stage of his career as he and the Bulls transform themselves from the team they used to be to the one they want to be. Butler doesn’t look back, but he does look forward.
"I think I’ve made a name for myself in this league," Butler said. "I’m going to continue to build upon it. I want my name to be in there with the greats. I’m not saying it will be but I’m not saying it won’t be."
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