Sunday, June 25, 2017
Goobye Jimmy Butler
The idea of being intentionally bad is anathema to sport.
Or so I thought.
Isn't putting together a crummy team almost like throwing a game? Worse, like throwing many games? Entire seasons of games.
When I offered condolences to my 20-year-old son over the Bulls trading away his longtime hero, Jimmy Butler, he coolly replied, "They had to."
"They had to?!" I replied, amazed.
"To build a new team," he elaborated.
"Why couldn't they build it around Jimmy?" I asked. True, Jimmy's excellence appeared in flashes. He's be a superstar for a game or two, then back to being a regular, very good player for the next stretch.
But I am old-school, having grown up in the day when players stayed with a franchise and were identified with it. Jimmy certainly thought he was the face of the Bulls, as he told my colleague Joe Cowley, in Joe's exclusive interview after tracking Butler down in France.
"I guess being called the face of the organization isn't as good as I thought," Butler said, from Paris, where he was vacationing.
My son explained that it is all about draft picks. That a team in the middle sinks itself to the bottom by trading away its stars, getting both top draft picks and—he didn't say this, but I surmise it—saving money needed to assemble a winning team down the road. You go up, eventually, by going down now.
Hard medicine, a kind of pro sports chemotherapy for an ailing team.
Necessary or not, I'll still miss Jimmy. He was good with promise of even better to come, a class act and part of a certain period in my life.
The first time I ever heard Jimmy Butler's name was uttered from the sofa where my 14-year-old son sprawled watching the Bulls games.
"Put Jimmy in!" he'd cry at the television.
At first I thought it was some kind of joke, the way Cavs fans in the 1970s would chant the name of Luke Witte, the team's token white player, as a kind of half affectionate razzing. The name meant nothing to me.
But each year Butler got better. We became acquainted with his inspiring back story—a hardscrabble upbringing from a broken home in Texas. He went to Marquette, and we visited the school, not so much because my boy was considering it, but as an homage to Jimmy.
I suggested to the folks at Splash, then the celebrity magazine for the Sun-Times, that if they needed someone to profile the Bulls' shooting guard, I was their man. I had already written a cover story on Joakim Noah for Michigan Avenue magazine, so had a track record as a sports writer.
My real goal was to introduce my kid to him.
Why? Because I could. Because I figured the lad would like it. And I might, for a moment, sparkle a little, as a connected dad who not only kept track of his kid's likes and dislikes but did what he could to embellish his world.
It turned out that somebody else was awarded the plum. But I would be allowed to tuck myself and my boy in a corner of presidential suite at the Hilton when Jimmy was posing for the various fashion shots that would accompany the article.
We headed downtown gravely, pilgrims to the shrine, stopping at a sports store to pick up a Bulls baseball cap for him to sign.
We waited a long time, sipping little bottles of mineral water. Finally Butler arrived with his entourage, tall, soigne. He was taken to a bathroom to get his make-up for the photos, and we were summoned. My boy was mute, so I explained that this kid was vastly familiar with him when I didn't know who he was.
"You didn't know who I was?" Butler teased, eyes sparkling.
In the years that followed, my boy and I didn't speak of the encounter much, though I took the trouble and expense of framing the jersey that Butler kindly signed for him. Now what do we do with that? The thing seems almost a reproach, a cumbersome token of the guy who will be tearing up the court for the Timberwolves, under the sage guidance of Tom Thibideau, the true coach of the Bulls.
Why couldn't we build the team by firing Fred Hoiburg?
It feels alien to care about these things, but the Bulls are my team. Or were. I guess we'll have to wait until the fall and see just how awful they are. The fact that they are supposed to be awful, well, that's cold comfort. What are fans supposed to do—root for the team to lose so they have a better season in 2020? Root for the Timberwolves? That's tempting...
As for Jimmy Butler, I'm convinced his best days are ahead of him, which is good, though not in Chicago, which is bad. Except I suppose for those days when Minnesota is here, kicking our ass at the United Center.
"Whose team is it?" Butler asked Cowley. "All that means nothing."
Tell me about it.