The NBA star discusses his career and recent trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Professional Basketball Player Jimmy Butler
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Jimmy Butler. The three-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist is widely regarded as one of the top players in the NBA. He joins us to discuss his recent trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves and how he’s giving back to the next generation.
We are glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with NBA All-Star, Jimmy Butler, in just a moment.
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Tavis: Jimmy Butler is an All-Star and widely regarded as a top player in the NBA in the prime of his career at the ripe old age of 27. He’s now taking on a new mission to deliver the first ever championship for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But before he embraces that fight in the Twin Cities, he’s enjoying some off-season sunshine here in Southern California. And as a result, I begged him to come on the show and here he is, Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Butler: I am here.
Tavis: What’s up, man?
Butler: I’m good. How are you?
Tavis: Nice to see you, man.
Butler: Thank you.
Tavis: How you feel about this Minnesota thing?
Butler: I like it. It’s new. One and the same from Chicago. It’s really cold. Not too much sunshine in the wintertime like it is here, but I’m okay, I’m okay.
Tavis: Y’all got a good squad next year.
Butler: We’re all right. Young. It’s crazy because I’m the old guy at 27 [laugh], yeah. It’s scary like 27 and you’re old, so now I can officially tell people I’m old. I can do that.
Tavis: All jokes aside, are you ready? I mean, you had some of that in Chicago anyway. It became your team even before Dwayne Wade acknowledged it was your team. But you are the old guy in Minnesota at 27. You ready for that role?
Butler: I think so. You grow with time and you learn. I’ve played with so many phenomenal players, whether it’s D. Rose or Joe Cam. You know, Taj is back with me now and Dwayne, Rondo. So you pick up a lot of different things from the way that they lead in different ways on the court, what you say, how you act. It’s a lot, but I’ve learned and I think I’m ready for that, yes. I’m ready.
Tavis: I’ve always wondered whether or not — so let me just ask you — whether or not this notion of leading on the court is overstated. I ask that because, I mean, I understand the value of leadership.
And yet, when you’re paying guys the kind of money y’all are getting paid, I would hope [laugh[ that if I’m a coach or if I’m a GM or an owner, that I’m paying some guys who are invested, who are going to be self-starters, who don’t really necessarily need me to have to pump them up for every game. I mean, I hope you’re here because you want to win.
Butler: Of course.
Tavis: So is on the court leadership, are we making too much of that?
Butler: You have to have it. You do have to have it to win, but I think if everybody’s in sync and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, I think some people may put a little bit too much emphasis on leadership. Because not one person can do it by themselves. I think everybody has to fall in line and play their role. I think everybody’s role is to lead in a different way.
If you’re the vocal leader, then you be that vocal leader. If you’re the I’m gonna lead by doing, then you be that. It’s like when people come into our league and they’re a scoring two guard, like that’s what you’ve been your entire life, there’s no need to come into the league and try to be a passing point guard. Like that’s not who you are.
If you’re not the really vocal, rah-rah leader, you don’t have to be that. You can be who you are. If you lead by example, that’s your way of leading. What’s wrong with that?
Tavis: How do you define your leadership on court?
Butler: Definitely leading by example. I think I do what I do every single day. At the same time, I have a rhythm and routine about it. But I speak up at times and, as you may be able to tell from things I’ve done in the past, it’s not always the best way to go about it. But I am who I am and I’m myself and I’ll take fault and blame whenever I mess up.
Even at that point in time, I might think that I did right, but then looking back on it, it was like maybe you didn’t handle it the right way. But I’m learning just like everybody else is and I’m me. Yeah, I make mistakes. Yes, I’m angry and I want to win, so I may say things. If you catch me at the wrong time, you’re gonna get the raw emotional me, but that’s me.
Tavis: Since you went there, Jimmy Butler, and we were teasing you when you walked on the set, you just can’t call you Jimmy. Everybody says Jimmy Butler. I mean, here I just said it now, Jimmy Butler. I guess you get that all the time, huh?
Butler: Every kid I’ve ever came across, whether they ask for an autograph or a picture, they’re just like surprised to see me, even my trainer’s kids. If you ask them my name, it’s never Jimmy. It is always first and last name.
Tavis: Jimmy Butler. It just…
Butler: I don’t even have — it’s like I don’t have a middle name, but my name is Jimmy Butler III. But I still don’t think they’d even add on the III. Jimmy Butler just fits, I think.
Tavis: Yeah, it works. You got those dual syllables too. Jimmy Butler.
Butler: Yeah, it’s nice.
Tavis: When I say Jimmy, you say Butler. Jimmy…
Butler: I’m done.
Tavis: There you go [laugh]. It just works that way, man. But since you went there, I want to follow you in. That is, again, I wouldn’t have gone to — maybe if you hadn’t, maybe I wouldn’t, but let’s go anyway. So in Chicago or any place else, it’s not about you or the Bulls.
But when that notion of team breaks down and the locker room, all Hades has broken out in the locker room, because you’re human, I totally get that that happens. You know, nobody says that — there’s no guarantee that every day in a team setting everything is gonna go perfectly.
Butler: Of course.
Tavis: And if you’re losing, that obviously makes it more difficult. But when that thing breaks down, how do you get it back?
Butler: Like I’ve said over and over again, winning takes care of everything.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Butler: If you win, it doesn’t matter the relationship that you have with everybody, even though you probably have to have a great relationship in order to win. But if you’re winning and you’re exceeding expectations, nobody’s questioning what you’re doing. Now whenever you’re losing or you’re mediocre, so to speak, that’s when everybody has something to say.
Everybody comes out of the woodwork. People you thought you were okay with has something to say. I’m okay with it and it’s like I always say. I’ll take that blame. I don’t have a problem with that, but at least say it to me. Don’t pretend like we’re okay and then you have something to say. That’s the part that I can’t honor.
I want you, if you have a problem with me or the way that I handle things, to tell me so we can have conversation instead of going through a third party and I got to hear it through a third party. So now I feel a type of way and I want to say something to you, but I can’t get hold of you.
I have a problem with that. But with that being said, I’m okay. People say, hey, why did he get traded? This was the reason why, whatever it may be. I’m okay with it. I am.
Tavis: So that’s the question about how you handle it inside the locker room with other players. When you believe or at least you keep reading every day that management has an issue with you, that’s a different kind of dynamic. That’s a different kind of relationship.
How do you stay focused? How do you handle that reality when you believe or at least when you’re, again, reading every day that management has an issue with you, whatever the issue may be?
Butler: I don’t think that management had an issue with me, but I’ll never forget. LeBron James told me after one of the games…
Tavis: Who’s this?
Butler: I think his name’s LeBron.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, yeah, okay [laugh].
Butler: He told me just control what I can control. You know, me and my guys talk about it every day like when you have a problem with something, go in the gym and work out. Go lift some weights. Go train. Because, you know, that’s all that you can control. If somebody doesn’t like you, there’s nothing that you can do about it. If somebody has something to say, let them say it. There’s nothing you can do.
So we live by that. Just control what you can control. Go get better every single day. Give them a real reason to not like you because you’re getting better every day. That’s how I handle almost everything now, okay? Say what you want, I’m going to control what I control.
Tavis: I like that. For those of us who are big fans of yours and those who are fans of the NBA, at least, we know that you are being reunited with your former coach in Chicago.
Butler: I am.
Tavis: How does that feel? What are your thoughts about that relationship?
Butler: I love Tibbs. If you read all the articles, I’ve always said great things about him and I mean it. I mean, I was a kid, literally a kid, when I entered this league. I didn’t know what to expect with the 30th pick in 2011. I just wanted to be able to tell everybody I was an NBA player.
I’ll tell you like I tell the rest, I wasn’t that good coming out of college. Like I was just a hustle guy, a garbage guy. I worked on my game and became okay, but Tibbs pushed me. I’ll never forget, you know, I came in during the lockout and he had me like working out like three or four times a day in a three-day span.
I was like, “Really, Tibbs?” He was like, “Yeah. This is what it’s gonna take to make it.” I guess I could say I’ve made it a little bit, so I’m thankful for him.
Tavis: You had to have something, obviously. You had some talent because, if you didn’t have the talent, you wouldn’t be the All-Star. You wouldn’t be the great NBA player that you are now. Like what happens? What were people not seeing? What were you not doing?
I mean, nothing happens magically. I know you worked at it, but it’s like when a guy is 30th or some of these cats don’t even get drafted, I mean, you know the story. For those of us, again, who are fans of the NBA, you look at the way Golden State put their roster together.
These were not guys who were number one, number two, number three draft picks. Like how does that happen when you’re in a world where everybody’s watching? You got scouts. Everybody’s looking for that next big thing and yet sometimes they still miss it.
Butler: Since I was high school, everybody’s missed me, you know. Junior college to Marquette, 30th pick. But you just got to find guys that want to win, that’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. I think how I get it done is the people I have around me every day.
Like they don’t get the credit because they’re not seen. They’re not the one with this hairdo on national TV or on a billboard or a commercial, but they’re the ones that make sure I have food when I need food. They’re the ones that make sure everything is running smoothly to where all I have to worry about…
Tavis: Is focus on the… yeah…
Butler: Is the game of basketball. So, you know, they have so much to do with it in making sure I’m still me at the end of the day that it makes it so much easier to just focus on basketball.
Tavis: Let’s talk about the folk around you, not by name. That’s up to you, but what I’m getting at here is that when you see players who spin out of control, so often what we hear, what we believe, is that the people they were hanging around were watching them, maybe even aiding and abetting them, exploiting them, taking advantage of their largess, as they spun out of control. So how is it that you’ve been able to put the right people around you?
Butler: I mean, the majority of my people have been with me since the beginning.
Tavis: They usually are. That’s the point I’m making. The people still spin out of control.
Butler: But the difference is everybody has a job. If you’re not doing your job, I try to keep business and personal so far apart that, you know, if you’re not doing your business, we still family, but I can’t have you working with me or working for me anymore.
And it’s happened, but with that being said, I have two trainers that started with me, what, three or four years ago. They make sure my body’s working correctly, I’m doing all my stuff that’s I’m supposed to do on the floor, a chef, and I do have friends that I just keep around because they remind me that you’re still a kid from Tomball.
Don’t change. Be that person. And they don’t take advantage of me. They probably want to go, “Hey, you’re doing too much. You need to chill out. You don’t need that. Leave it alone.” We’re content where we are when it comes to what we do every day. We train, play dominoes, play some cards, that’s it, literally.
Tavis: Video games?
Butler: I don’t really play video games.
Tavis: You don’t play video games? You’re like the only one that doesn’t. I was waiting for you to say video games.
Butler: I don’t play video games.
Tavis: How is that possible that at your age and your generation, you are not a video game guy?
Butler: We don’t even have a video console in the house. Now we’ll watch all types of movies like over and over and over again. It’s like movies, dominoes and playing some cards and working out.
Tavis: I’ll put you on the spot. Give me three movies that you just love, the kind you watch over and over again.
Butler: Friday, we actually did just watch “The Lion King” the other day [laugh]. It’s a good movie. It’s a great movie.
Tavis: I’m not laughing. I love it.
Butler: It’s teaching you about life, family…
Tavis: Simba is my boy.
Butler: And go get what’s yours.
Tavis: I’m with you, I’m with you, okay, all right. “Lion King” Friday. Give me something else. I’m just curious.
Butler: “Coming to America” is another classic. Come on now.
Tavis: You get a pound for that. You get a pound on that. Every time I run into Arsenio or Eddie — I see them every now and then in town running into them, particularly with Arsenio — we just start running lines and they tease me like, man, you act like you wrote the screenplay. I said I could have [laugh].
Butler: You can with that movie.
Tavis: You can. I like know that thing top to bottom like every line. It’s a classic funny film. I love it. I absolutely love it. Let me ask you this. Because, again, earlier in this conversation, you referenced your own immaturity and the growth that everyone — that’s true. Whether you’re an athlete or not, we all have to go through that.
The thing that always troubles me, and I feel sorry on a certain level — I shouldn’t say sorry. It’s not sympathy, it’s empathy.
Butler: There you go.
Tavis: I don’t feel sorry for y’all, but I do try to put myself in the shoes of these young athletes who get thrust into the spotlight because they’re just more gifted than the rest of us. But you’re still 27. You’re still 25. You’re still 24. We judge y’all like y’all can’t make mistakes when all the rest of us are making mistakes.
We’re just not on national television every night and we’re not being dragged through the media in that regard. So tell me about the journey when you get to the NBA making that kind of money. Tell me about the journey to mature.
Butler: It’s different. It’s really hard because everything you do is literally under a magnifying glass. It’s gonna be blown up and now you look at it with the Twitter and Snapchat, all of that social media stuff, that’s going on. Anything you do, somebody’s got a camera on you, no matter if you’re going to dinner, if you’re out at a club, if you’re walking the street.
So it’s kind of like you got to be on your best behavior at all times because you don’t want to slip up. And when you do, you kind of got to understand that it happens. Even though people might judge you for it, it’s definitely okay, but then you learn. You learn everywhere you go, you are that person that they’re pointing at.
Like we know he’s gonna do something wrong. And if you’re looking at it like that, you might slip up because you’re worried about it and you’re thinking I’m not gonna do it, I’m not gonna do it, and then you happen to do it instead of just living your life the right way.
Because it’s okay. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s just now you can be 19, you can be 29, 39, there’s gonna be a phone on you. But you learn, you grow with it and you learn through these vets that you have that, hey, just be you. Calm down. I know it’s new to you, but just be you. Be true to yourself and you’ll be okay.
Tavis: I’m gonna pull this tape out 20 years from now. Hopefully, you’ll come back on again, of course.
Tavis: But in 20 years, I’m gonna play this show again and I hope I’m playing it because of something wonderful that you’ve done and I want to brag to people that I interviewed Jimmy Butler 20 years ago versus pulling this tape out because I’ve just read on ESPN that you are broke [laugh].
Butler: I’m broke. Got it. 30 for 30. Don’t do that.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That’s my point. I do not want to see you on a 30 for 30 because it all fell apart. Now I’m raising this now being somewhat facetious, but there’s a serious point here, I think, which is my curiosity about how — I know the short answer. When you spend more than you make, you end up being broke, no matter who you are. That’s true for me, you, Brian, anybody.
When you spend more than you make, you’re gonna be broke. But how can you disabuse me of the notion that I should not be afraid that 20 years from now you’re gonna be broke? Because we look at these athletes all the time and so many people just can’t understand how is that possible?
Butler: Well, I can tell you 20 years from now, I’m not gonna be broke. I put enough money away. Yes, I have spending habits like…
Tavis: Like them studs in your ears, and those are nice.
Butler: Yeah, yeah, those are — that’s a gift to myself for winning the Gold Medal.
Tavis: I ain’t mad at you. It’s a nice gift. Two nice gifts, yeah [laugh].
Butler: I had to argue with my financial adviser. I was like, “Ken — that’s his name. Ken Cavanaugh. He just got a shout-out. “Don’t want to hear this.”
Tavis: My guy’s name is Ken too.
Butler: Ken’s a good guy, right? We had to argue. I was like, “Ken, I just won a Gold Medal. I’ve been training since forever. I didn’t really have a summer. I want some earrings.” He’s like, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” [laugh] So I didn’t ask you if it was a good idea. I’m telling you…
Tavis: I’ll say, “I’m getting me some studs.”
Butler: “I’m telling you I want to get these earrings.” He finally gave in and let me get them [laugh].
Tavis: Ken, we love you!
Butler: Yes, we do. Ken! We love both the Kens.
Tavis: Yeah, we love you, Ken, oh, yeah.
Butler: But I have my habits that I spend money on, but I put so much money away and I’m doing it the right way. Like I figure, truth be told, if I invest in my people enough, let’s just happen to say that I do go broke, they been there with me from the jump. So I’m putting my faith in them that they’re gonna take care of me anyway.
But I don’t plan on going broke. I really don’t. I don’t know exactly how, but I know Ken is doing the right things with my money and he’s letting me know. I’m putting a lot of faith in him, but, Ken, now that I think about it, I’m watching you.
Tavis: I told you my guy’s name was Ken, but I didn’t tell you I got five Kens and this Ken watches that Ken and that Ken watches that Ken [laugh].
Butler: That’s a good way to do it.
Tavis: Now that y’all know that, unfortunately, but anyway…
Butler: But I’m going where I’m just not gonna be that. And I’m hoping when the time presents itself that I’m fortunate enough to play another couple of years to where I can get another contract. You know, I’m already secure now, but that’s just added to the security. I mean, I’m fine where I’m at right now and I love basketball. I love the game. Everything will take care of itself.
Tavis: And I wasn’t asking to get in your business…
Butler: I know, I know, I know.
Tavis: I’m just — my heart just breaks every time I see guys who make that kind of money and then 10, 15 years later, you know — as long as you know that you’re being wise and making good decisions with your money, I’m good.
Butler: I mean, a lot of it, you know, it comes from gambling a lot of the times, clubbing all the time, flying private, all of that good stuff. No, I don’t do too much of that. I’m in the house. I want to stay in the house. I’m a country kid. We stay away from everybody like dominoes, cards and…
Tavis: And movies.
Butler: And movies. That’s it. If I can lose money playing dominoes, cards and movies, something is for sure wrong, something is for sure wrong.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. And if you’re losing that much money playing dominoes with your boys, then you need to stop playing dominoes if you’re losing that much money.
Butler: That means I’m not good anyway, but I am the best. For anybody that’s watching this, I’m definitely the best. I’m definitely the best!
Tavis: Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Challenge! Challenge [laugh]!
Tavis: Yeah, you’re gonna get a bunch of emails now.
Butler: That’s fine.
Tavis: Your Twitter’s about to blow up. Say, “Jimmy, hit me over here if you’re the best dominoes player.” I wrote this down. Speaking of Twitter, I cracked up. I said that’s why I love Jimmy Butler. Because I’ve never seen anybody do this. So Jimmy Butler leaves Chicago, goes to Minnesota. As I said earlier, they got a great roster…
Butler: I know where this is going.
Tavis: You know where it’s going, don’t you? They got some young guns. They’re gonna be good next year. I can’t wait to see them play. So Jimmy gets to Minnesota and one of the first things this Negro — I mean, this brother — does is to give everybody in Minnesota his phone number…
Butler: In the world, not just Minnesota.
Tavis: In the world! I mean, he puts out his phone number. And the quote — I wrote this down to get it right. “If you got any beef, definitely leave me a message.” What athlete do you know who goes to a city and says here’s my number. If you got a beef, hit me. Leave me a message? I know your phone must have blown up.
Butler: It broke, actually.
Tavis: See [laugh]?
Butler: It did. It literally did. We had the phone on vibrate and it was ringing because there was literally like thousands of text messages…
Tavis: All your fans, I’m sure, yeah.
Butler: Text messages, phone calls, and I have changed the number since. But I want to find a way to where I can give my fans my number to where they can call, text, face time, but all at one time. I literally couldn’t pick up. I might have answered like three calls. They finally got through.
I got to talk to a kid for maybe like five minutes. I talked to another kid. Had to be like eight years old and I pick up and he’s like, “Oh, my gosh!” and just took off running around his house [laugh]. The kid had to be in the biggest house in the world because he was running for about three straight minutes. He was talking to somebody, but he never showed that person on the phone, but was just gone three straight minutes.
I was like I don’t even get to talk to my man. So I said, “Next caller, please” and it was crazy. But, yeah, I love my fans. I wouldn’t be who I am without them, so I figured, you know, I got to text back with a couple of people and a face time here and there. It was fun.
I’m sure on my Instagram soon, I got to figure out how to make sure I can actually get in touch with everybody. Another phone number will pop up somewhere.
Tavis: So you got your brother or somebody running your social media for you.
Butler: Yeah. I do it every once in a while, but I got people that handle it.
Tavis: That’s good, that’s good. So let me close where I began. You excited about this opportunity in Minnesota?
Butler: Am I? Am I excited?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Butler: It’s new. Like I always say, it always feels good to be wanted. You know, we have a really good opportunity in front of us. These young guys we have, everybody else we’re bringing in, you know, you have the young guys who are really talented. You got the vets that’s done it for a while.
When you mesh that together and you get Tibbs’ raspy voice every single morning, evening and night, we’re gonna be all right. We are. We’re gonna be okay.
Tavis: Let me offer this as an exit question. How do you — I’m not being funny about this. I’m being serious. How do you stay focused, believe you can win, believe that you can be championship caliber, when all you hear every day is that the rest of the league ought to just go sit down for a few years ’cause these guys on the West Coast, they’re just gonna run the table?
How do you get yourself — I mean, you’re making a nice piece of change, but beyond the money, like how do you — I mean, when I get into a fight — I mean, I box every morning to work out. When I’m sparring in the gym, I want to at least spar with somebody who I know I got a shot. I’m liable to get killed. I’m not sparring with Floyd Mayweather. You know what I’m saying?
Butler: But you’re not going to back down.
Tavis: You’re right. I wouldn’t back down, yeah.
Butler: Not going to back down. That’s the way I look at it. Everybody’s human in this league. Anybody can have a really, really, really good night and a really, really, really bad night.
Tavis: Fair enough.
Butler: When it comes to winning championships, yeah, you got to have a really good team. But at the end of the day, it’s all about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time. We all play this game to win. If you ask every person in this league right now what’s your goal this upcoming season, everybody would say to win a championship. You know, we don’t wake up every day just like we got to go against these guys. We can’t beat them.
No, we’re all fierce competitors. We all want to win. So that’s how you go about that. Every day you wake up to get better, do what you can for your respective organization to put them in the position to win a championship, and it all will play itself out. But you can’t look that far ahead at the same time. You got the right now, the today. That’s what you can control. That’s what you have to take care of.
Tavis: I take your point. Jimmy Butler, I’m honored to have you on the show for the first time, not the last.
Butler: Not the last, for sure. 20 years, remember.
Tavis: Well, you’ll be back before then. I may not be here in 20 years [laugh].
Tavis: I probably won’t be here in 20 years, but I look forward to seeing you in the next few months or so. When you get a chance, come see us again.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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