Success doesn’t look the same for everyone, but there are some things most can agree would count. Signing a $141 million contract with the Miami Heat, for instance. Same for being picked in the first round of the NBA draft or playing ball for Marquette. But for basketball star Jimmy Butler, his greatest self-made successes aren't the money he’s made, the teams he’s played for or even the records he’s broken. They were the wins he’s had on his personal journey—a long path to find a place in a world where he didn't belong.
The tale of Butler’s rise is something of a legend in basketball circles. His climb from homeless obscurity to national fame sounds like a story written for a movie. It was a story Butler didn’t even want told for years. It wasn’t until a 2011 article in ESPN, while he was preparing for the NBA draft, that he began to tell it. It was a fitting moment when he was in the gap between his college and pro careers—just as he had been in between families when his story began as a teenager.
Then, just as it would happen many times later in his life, someone believed in him enough to give him a chance. And when Jimmy Butler is given a chance, he takes it and doesn’t look back.
That refusal to regret the past, even in spite of his struggle, is part of the mindset that makes Butler so impressive. Where many people would become bitter facing homelessness and abandonment, Butler actually expresses gratitude for the experiences he's had.
In his eyes, it was all worth it. The hardship he endured in his early years was a crucial part of what makes him a success today. Like all the self-made greats, Butler used his obstacles as an opportunity to improve himself and become better, earning the things that he gained along the way—from an adoptive family to those NBA contracts that now turn heads and ensure that everyone notices the kid who, once, no one seemed to want at all.
His story is one of the most remarkable I've seen. 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…you just have this feeling that this kid has greatness in him.-ESPN, “Jimmy Butler Finds a New Home"
How Butler Became Homeless
As a child, Jimmy Butler III had the same kind of frenetic energy that he displays on the court today. Now it's expressed as a dynamic utility player but then it manifested as a competitive desire to be the fastest. At everything. It didn’t matter whether it was math problems or in a play on the football field, Butler wanted to be the best.
That drive was not something he was taught as a kid. In fact, the people in his life didn't offer much support at all. His father, the man he was named after, left when Butler was only a child, and the “third” in his name would be a constant reminder that the man he was named after didn’t seem to think enough of him to stick around.
Butler describes his childhood hometown of Tomball, Texas, as “mellow” and “family-oriented," but there was still a struggle to feel accepted. It’s a white town, where Caucasians outnumber African Americans 15 to 1.
That sense of being an outsider would get a whole lot worse when he was 13. That's when Butler remembers his mother just saying to him one day, “I don’t like the look of you. You gotta go,” and kicking him out of the house.
With that, Butler was officially homeless. None of his extended family stepped up to give him a place to live. He was officially on the outside of everything.
Making it Alone
True to his optimistic reputation, Butler sees the whole story as blown out of proportion. “Times one thousand,” he says. “I was not living under a bridge. That’s homeless. That's not what it was. I'm not going to say it was the easiest of times, don't get me wrong, but I had a home. Or homes.”
Because that was Butler’s solution—not to have a family, but to find a way to create one for himself.
Over the next several years, his home was a rotating assortment of couches at his friends’ places. For a while he moved in with his friend Jermaine Thomas, whose truck driver father was often gone and left the boys to fend for themselves. Butler remembers there were times when they had to stretch $10 to feed them both lunch every day for a week.
Then, in the summer just before his senior year in high school, Butler attended a basketball camp that would change everything. Already seen as a potential basketball star in the area, the camp ended up leading to a bigger break in his personal life than on the court. That summer ultimately provided him with a home—and a family that would challenge him to improve himself on his path to greatness.
Finding a New Family
The break came in the form of Jordan Leslie. One day after a game, the freshman had the brashness to challenge the older Butler to a three-point contest. It got Butler’s attention. They quickly became friends, bonding over a shared love of sports—they both played basketball and football—and the shared trauma that they had in common. Leslie was also without a father, his having died when he was hit by a car.
The two became close friends, as Leslie invited Butler over to play video games and stay the night. But what began as an occasional place to crash became something more when Leslie’s mother, Michelle Lambert, found out that Butler had nowhere else to go. The house already had seven children, and finances were tight. Lambert had also heard that Butler was trouble. But she couldn’t stand to turn him away and opened her home to him—with conditions. He had to work harder at school, follow a curfew and play by her rules.
I told him my kids looked up to him. 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.-Michelle Lambert
Butler became a part of the family and worked his hardest to keep his place. He did his chores without complaining, was as quiet as a mouse and tried to be invisible to the family—a habit formed from years of crashing on couches.
But as time went on he got more comfortable and, as part of his new family, Butler succeeded. He became a star on his high school team, named to the all-district first team. But that didn't translate into immediate college success. Butler wasn’t scouted out of high school and missed a scholarship opportunity to play at Mississippi State.
Instead, he did what he had for years, keeping his belief in himself strong and continuing to push forward. He enrolled in a nearby junior college and continued to play with the same passion he always had.
Butler's Persistence Pays Off
It worked. His play got him noticed and he received offers from the types of colleges most would only dream of, ultimately accepting one to play for Marquette. During his time there, he was challenged by a new team family and his coach, Buzz Williams. Butler admits that, in his earlier years, he had an “ego problem," but at Marquette on a roster with other incredibly talented players, he learned he didn't have to play as the loner he had been his whole life.
Rather than work on his own points, Butler started to focus on helping his teammates score and managed to stay in the games because of it. He worked on his weaknesses, taping a picture of one of the biggest losses of his college career to a door to remind him every day to become a better defender. And in the process, he became too good for the pros to ignore.
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.-Jimmy Butler
In 2011, all the hard work paid off. Butler was drafted to the Chicago Bulls as the final pick of the first round. Those years of work on any weaknesses in his well-rounded game have made him a fixture on the floor. He led the league in minutes played from 2013 to 2015. He’s been named Eastern Conference player of month, and player of of the week multiple times. In 2016, he broke Michael Jordan’s record for points scored in a half.
It’s an incredible place for anyone to have reached, but especially an incredible journey going from a family that didn't believe he'd amount to anything to greatness everyone can see. There were no guarantees that it would work out this way for Butler. He earned the family that he has today on the court and off, because he had one of the greatest qualities of the self-made: the ability to see what he wanted and never let up until he got it, no matter what stood in his way.
It's taught me that anything is possible. 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…That’s what motivates me. I know I can overcome anything if I just take everything one day [at a] time.-Jimmy Butler