Jimmy Butler’s Minnesota welcome: Campfires and cold lake water
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Nov. 13 QB Crossroads Issue. Subscribe today!
On a brisk fall afternoon 30 minutes west of downtown Minneapolis, a sopping-wet Jimmy Butler sits shotgun in my parked rental car wearing only his boxers and my borrowed socks, and we’re wondering where it all went wrong.
“This is your fault,” says the Timberwolves’ prize acquisition. He dials the heater to 11. He’s not entirely mistaken. Our questionable teamwork here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes has landed the three-time All-Star in one of those lakes — shoulders first. It’s the latest twist in a welcome tour that began with Butler’s introductory news conference in June, following his trade from the Bulls, at which he broadcast his cell number and invited his critics to hit him up. That gag would fry his phone within 10 minutes.
But Butler welcomes a challenge, and he’s got a big one in leading a nascent superteam with young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — while at times shielding them from coach Tom Thibodeau, the taskmaster who drafted Butler in Chicago. Work can wait for tomorrow, though.
The original plan for this preseason off-day, as Butler put it in happier times: “Have some fun in the outdoors, as Minnesotans do.” Now? As he sits by the shores of Lake Independence, shivering, just a short drive from his home outside the Twin Cities, “It’s not going as planned,” says the half-naked guy in my car.
2 p.m. Our day in the great outdoors begins under gray skies at the edge of the lake, where I find a canoe and a 6-foot-8 forward from Tomball, Texas. We divvy up the gear, which includes exactly two life jackets.
ESPN: How much of an outdoorsman are you?
BUTLER: I built a fort when I was little, with pillows and blankets. Can’t be too hard.
Let’s start by putting on our life preservers.
Oh, yeah, I need both of them. I can’t swim.
Seriously? So if I tore the vest off you and tossed you in —
I’d sue you.
You really want my life preserver too?
Yeah, I wasn’t playin’ around. I need both.
Already we’re falling apart at the seams.
See, this “new team” thing isn’t as easy as it looks.
2:20 p.m. With our two life jackets strapped to his sternum, Butler, who is widely considered to be among the NBA’s toughest and most indefatigable ballers, claims the canoe’s stern. This reporter, who is widely considered to be a wimp, takes the bow. As we paddle out, guess who’s doing most of the work.
Are you seriously not gonna help?
I’m helping — as the captain and brains of the operation. [Screams] Ah, hell no! Agh! No!
Oh. Thought I saw an octopus. Are there any sharks out here?
Uh, don’t think so.
Because if something swims beneath me, it is complete abort mission, and I am jumping out of this boat.
How’s life as the new guy in town?
It’s cool. We got a really young team and everybody’s down to listen. And I’m likable, right?
You are a likable gentleman.
Minnesota is legit. There’s so much space to run, like back home in Texas. I’m country at heart. I love doing normal stuff, like back in my rookie year when nobody knew who I was and I could grab dinner and have normal conversations.
How did we get here, Jimmy? I mean, literally?
I was in Paris with my friends Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, and I get the call from my agent. So I look over to D-Wade and I’m like, “Yo, D. I’m out. Minnesota.” He’s laughing: “Ha-ha, OK.” Then his phone blows up: Jimmy got traded to Minnesota. He looks over and I’m like, “Yeah, I just told you that.”
Then I got a call from Thibs — he’s excited, I’m excited, then outta nowhere he’s like, “We’ll talk about it later. Enjoy your time in Paris.” I was like, “What?” I thought he’d want me to fly back and work out 16 times.
Why did the Bulls trade you?
I probably did a lot of things that they didn’t like — like maybe the way I would talk to my peers or coaches. People don’t work as hard as I do. They don’t expect the same things out of the game that I do. And I said from the beginning it was either gonna be me or the Fred Hoiberg route. And rightfully so, they took Fred. Good for them. But I got that game marked on my calendar. Feb. 9, baby — I’m back. Oh, man, they better hope I go 0-for-30, ’cause every basket I score, I’m looking over at the bench and I got something to say. But I’m so happy to be here. Sometimes you just gotta appreciate it, man.
3 p.m. We paddle back to shore and I hop out 10 feet from dry land. Suddenly I hear: “Ahhgeech!” It’s the strangest sound I’ve ever heard — and it’s coming from Jimmy, as he flips the canoe and gets baptized in the waters of Lake Independence. I rush over to yank him out of the lake. “Oh my god! That water is cold!” Anybody within a 5-mile radius can hear my laughter. “Good thing I had on my life jackets.” We’re in knee-deep water.
3:10 p.m. Back in my rental car, we wait for Jimmy’s assistant to run home for dry threads. Fans begin to gather around our ride hoping to score a photo with their local star. I exit to run interference: “Jimmy will be right with y’all, just as soon as he puts on some clothes.”
3:46 p.m. Following a wardrobe change, we attempt to set up an “instant-tent,” billed as “ready in about 60 seconds.” After 960 seconds, we ask an ESPN camera guy to build this stupid spaceship for us. He snaps the tent into place within seconds. “Well, f— us,” Butler says. Now equipped with a lighter, newspaper and ax, we’re trying to build a campfire. Jimmy, of course, goes straight for the sharpened steel, but I shudder to think of his next box score — “DNP: lost a finger; also, pneumonia” — so I pry the ax from his hands. We chat while cooking s’mores over crackling flames.
So what exactly is a timberwolf — and should we be worried about running into one?
It’s a wolf that yells “Timber!” instead of howling. And no, we shouldn’t be worried about it. You should be worried. Wanna know why?
‘Cause I am much faster than you. And if I see one, I will push you down so fast.
I take it that’s not the identity that you and Thibs are trying to imprint on your team.
In nature, it’s every man for himself. Against humans, we want to be the toughest team. Every practice, every game, you gotta be dogs because offense can win you a couple of games, but defense will never lose ’em for you. You could say that’s where I come in.
Thibs is known for a hard-charging style that can wear players down. Any concerns?
I love it, but you have to find the balance and get your point across without running bodies into the ground. I can say: “Thibs, we get it. I’m on these guys. Let’s move on to the next one.” That’s part of my role here.
In what ways has Thibs changed since your first go-round?
In Chicago, it was like, “We’re getting right into drills. I don’t care how your day’s going.” Now he’s joking around and asking guys, “Hey, how’s your wife and kids?” I’m human. Basketball’s not the most important thing in my life. I think he’s starting to realize that.
Sounds like you two have come a long way since he drafted you.
I won’t lie: Couldn’t stand him. I never use the word “hate,” but he was right there. I worked so hard, but he wouldn’t play me. Finally my time presented itself, and I got a little bit of, “What’s up, Jimmy?” I’m like, “I’m moving up!” Now he’s my guy.
What lessons did you learn in Chicago that you can use here?
That everybody may not be confrontational like I am. I feed off it. But I have to realize some people like to be told, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” Like, “You did a phenomenal job stacking the wood.” I’ve gotten better at working with the different personalities on this team.
Yeah, KAT is known as a fun-loving guy, whereas Wigs has been described as stoic.
Stop using SAT words around me. What the hell does stoic mean? Yeah, Wigs is a quiet kid — and good for him, that’s who he is. And Karl is really, really outgoing, but at times he doesn’t take everything as serious as he has to. When he gets that mentality — like, “I know that’s my friend on the other team, but right now he’s my enemy” — man, he’s a force to be reckoned with. We need those guys locked in.
Last season the Wolves were one of the least clutch teams in the league. I’m guessing Jimmy Buckets wants the last shot?
If you need a bucket at any point in the game, I’ll be the one to try to get it for you. I don’t care who you are — you can’t stop me. I can score with the best of ’em. But clutch isn’t always about offense. Maybe you need a stop to secure the game, and I don’t care if you’re a 1 or a 4 — I wanna be that guy too.
What are your expectations for this year?
To win. I want to win a championship. That’s the only reason I play this game. Now, this organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in 13 years, but f— history. It’s a new bunch of guys here, and we all say the same thing: F— history.
You have a Big 3. The Warriors have the Hamptons 5. How can anybody unseat them this season?
I don’t give a damn if you’re the Warriors. We got guys who can play. And we got constant mismatches — really big wings in me and Wigs, and Karl’s a constant mismatch. What can’t he do? Guy did a windmill the other day in practice. Hell, I almost left the gym. I didn’t know he had it. Then you got Jamal [Crawford], the score lord. You got Taj [Gibson], who does all the little things right.
Are you happy, Jimmy?
Am I happy?
Yeah, that feels like a campfire question.
Yeah, I’m happy — I’m out here in nature, baby! I’m fortunate. It’s the start of something beautiful here with a young core and an organization that really knows what they’re doing. I got a real chance of winning a championship here. God, like, I wake up smiling every morning knowing that we got a chance to be really f—ing good.
5 p.m. The rain is coming down now, so we head to the tent for shelter. Butler climbs in first.
That was fun, huh?
Oh, definitely. Now I’m gonna take a nap.
You don’t snore, do you?
Don’t worry about it, because you’ll be on the outside. [Zips the tent] You got first watch.
Yeah, just let me know if a bear mauls your neck. That’s teamwork.
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