DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Jimmy Butler was at the airport in Houston on his way to Chicago when he got the text message from Derrick Rose.
A few hours later, they were hanging out and watching the BET Awards on Sunday. How soon it will be before the Bulls’ MVP and their first-round draft pick are on the court together remains to be seen.
With the collective bargaining agreement about to expire and a lockout looming, a huge cloud of uncertainty is hovering over the NBA.
General manager Gar Forman insisted it’s business as usual for now and on Monday, that meant introducing Butler.
Taken 30th overall last week, the former Marquette standout joins a Bulls team that won a league-leading 62 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Miami Heat in five games. It’s another big turn in the dramatic story of a player who was homeless for a while after being kicked out by his mother when he was 13.
With his father out of the picture since he was a baby, Butler bounced between friends’ houses before finally settling in with the family of friend Jordan Leslie and his mom, Michelle Lambert, going into his senior year of high school in Tomball, Texas.
On Sunday, he got quite a welcome to the NBA when he was at the airport.
Rose’s text message was quick and to the point: “Congratulations. Welcome. Come by tonight and just chill out a little bit, get to know each other.”
Turns out, Butler played with Rose’s friend and Simeon Career Academy teammate Randall Hampton at Tyler Junior College. All three got a chance to reminisce Sunday night.
“It’s crazy to know I used to watch him on TV,” Butler said of Rose. “Now, I’m a teammate. I try not to let that show too much, to tell you the truth. He’s a good dude. He’s just like me for the most part. He just wants to win.”
It would help if the Bulls added an outside shooter, something they were sorely lacking last season, particularly in the playoffs. Butler’s strength is his defense, and although that should make him a good fit for coach Tom Thibodeau, he vowed to extend his jump-shooting range.
The Bulls believe he can do just that after hitting 36 of 94 3-pointers in his three seasons with Marquette. He averaged 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals as a senior and was honorable-mention, all-Big East for the second straight year.
“We felt he had all the attributes that we feel are important to help the team become successful,” Thibodeau said. “I think he showed great progress through his career.”
Considering his story, that’s hardly a surprise. Now, look at him.
There was Butler holding up his No. 21 jersey while posing with Forman and Thibodeau at the end of the news conference. Off to the side was Lambert, the woman he calls “mom,” unable to contain herself.
She’ll probably be grinning, too, when he gets his communications degree in a few weeks.
“It’s been a long road,” she said. “As you can see, I can’t stop crying. But it’s amazing.”
Butler’s hard-scrabble story has been one of most compelling of the NBA draft. He said last week that he was glad to get it out, to discuss it, and that he “wouldn’t change anything for the world.”
“It was hard, but I had friends that helped me cope with that,” he said. “Then, I finally met the Lamberts and they accepted me for who I was and gave me a chance at life, turned me into a better person, taught me a lot of things that I didn’t know growing up. They supported me and always believed in me through the ups and through the downs.”
Lambert has seen him grow from a shy teen to a confident young adult, and she simply marvels at it.
Butler’s life turned one summer day when Leslie, who’s three years younger, challenged him to a shooting contest, and they quickly struck up a bond. He started staying over, and it soon became a more permanent arrangement even though there already was a full house.
Lambert had three kids with her late first husband. She then married Michael Lambert, who had three from a previous marriage, and they had one child together.
That didn’t stop them from taking in Butler, and pretty soon, he was calling Michelle “mom.”
“I saw that my kids – we had to share anyway because there were so many – that they were willing to share,” she said. “Jordan wanted to give up his Christmas presents to go to Jimmy. … I knew that my kids loved him.”
NOTE: Forman called 6-foot-10 F Nikola Mirotic, the 23rd pick, a “lottery-type talent.” The Bulls acquired his rights through a draft-night trade with Minnesota. Mirotic is under contract with Real Madrid for four more years.
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