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Jimmy Butler is changing the game by focusing on everything else

Jimmy Butler has thrived in Heat Culture by expanding his horizons beyond just basketball.

2020 NBA Rerstart - All-Access Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

Artists do it. I think of a place like New York City’s Chelsea Hotel through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with every musician, visual artist and writer you think of as formative to those decades, plus Al Pacino, living there for a time. I also think of Andy Warhol’s migrating studios, spaces that came to be known collectively as The Factory for how many artists and performers produced work and riffed off (or ripped off) one another as they went through. As different as they all were, what they had in common — especially as they ascended through the various stages of stardom — was creative and personal expansion. They worked to broaden their worlds in order to enrich them, to cultivate an understanding that went well beyond their own honed talents.

Watching Jimmy Butler spend his summer squinting in the stands at the U.S. Open, confident enough to stand in as a ballboy or serve against his friend, Carlos Alcaraz, then hop in a prop plane out to a rural coffee farm in the Brazilian Highlands, is to observe the same impulse.

What’s notable about Butler’s broad-mindedness, beyond his personality (and more specifically as a pro athlete), is that it’s a deviation from the narrowing scope we expect of our superstars.

Aside from a handful of exceptions (with the caveat that female pro athletes who exhibit a singular focus on their sport are still deigned selfish, cold, fractious, uncompromising, etc.), we insist on zen-like, obsessive focus from athletes. Look no further than the genuine turmoil Nikola Jokic caused — is still causing — because he’s said a handful of times he prefers to spend his summers at home, doing the thing that offseasons are for and taking time off.

Take a cursory glance in the comments under any NBA athlete’s Instagram posts and find scores of people scolding a perfect stranger that they ought to be in the gym, even if the photo is of that person in a gym. And the most touted prototype came from Kobe Bryant’s self-made mythology of reinventing himself into a brooding workaholic. A performance predicated on him tuning out distractions, which was the way he came to refer to being charged with felony sexual assault. ‘Mamba Mentality’ has since become a brand and colloquialism signaling the benefits of turning inward.

Mainstream sports fandom mixed with the heady desperation and pressures of late-stage capitalism has created a kind of consumption that’s at best misplaced projection and at worst, a surveillance state with grindset as ideology. We’re happiest, it sometimes seems, only when our favorite athletes are miserable.

Butler smashes that state. His life off the court, at least what we get to see, is rife with self-effacing and hyper-genuine moments. His emo bangs this past media day and the resulting photo that will be imposed on broadcasts all season may be the most iconic, but his globetrotting curiosity and earnest detours aren’t just the motions of a wealthy athlete fulfilling sponsorship obligations. Butler’s Instagram stories oscillate between him popping up in tiny coffee shops wherever he is in the world (Hong Kong, Toronto, Paris, Memphis), screenshots of songs he’s listening to, ubiquitous games of dominoes in his backyard, photos he takes while walking around cities the Heat are on the road in and, occasionally, in-game stills. The disruption of basketball is useful not as a reminder of what Butler is best known for to most people, but how open and integrated basketball is in relation to the rest of his life.

NBA: Miami Heat-Media Day
Jimmy Butler treats his love of coffee and basketball stardom as equal parts of his identity.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

On the floor, Butler’s expansive. He takes everything we think we know about what a single-minded competitor should do and, like so many coffee beans, grinds those ideas to dust. He’ll put up 30+ points and still pull down double-digit rebounds or dish out a dozen assists, or frequently both. A quiet shooting night might have him honed to the ball in other ways, plucking or pressuring steals from your favorite shooters’ hands when they in turn get a little too zeroed in, and forget about Butler and his birds-eye view of the game. He’s as much a master of waiting for the exact moment of no return — coolly composed as he sinks, somehow while falling backwards onto the court, the shot that pushes Game 5 in a playoff series to an overtime win — as he is of running right up to the moment and enthusiastically meeting it, then introducing it around.

Butler’s downplayed and denied the existence of “Playoff Jimmy”, the title given to the extra gear he seems to shift into when the postseason rolls around. The rejection makes sense when to watch Butler, no matter the game, is to see an easy idling. Will he flash by the baseline and torque the ball up and behind him for a no-look make? Does he wedge his body between two defenders planted in the paint and suddenly create a valley of space for himself to shoot? Or does he lift, lackadaisically and like he saw it coming a mile away, for the full-palm block? And then there are the no-look passes, the hope-severing cuts, the drives, the deep-corner threes, a plethora of endless options to pull while he waits, deciding which one he hasn’t done in a while.

Butler’s breadth makes the most sense if you consider his career up to now, where he pleaded with every team he played for to let him do more.

Way back with the Bulls, urging Tom Thibodeau and then Fred Hoiberg to let him lead the team, appealing to Gar Forman to build it around him and being traded for his efforts. With Minnesota, asking for a lot more than his teammates at the time were willing to give, then in Philadelphia, where he was hardly asked to do anything because Elton Brand’s Sixers were still processing.

Butler spent seasons trying to do the work he wanted to do, likely going over all the ways he would if he could. Miami, with its live-eat-breathe Heat Culture, is a lot like a purpose-built artist commune. There might not be fugue state writing free-for-alls or turpentine fumes hanging in the air, but as we’ve seen over these last few seasons, playing with the Heat has been the green light for Butler to finally floor it. To expand, to lead, to use his talents to build and flourish instead of narrowing his focus. To joyfully go out in every direction he was once denied.