Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler’s decision to join the Heat can be traced to Wade’s final game in Miami

Jimmy Butler after April tour of Little Havana

Jimmy Butler took a tour of Little Havana on April 9 before the 76ers’ game against the Heat in Miami. Video courtesy of Marvin Tapia (@mrmiamimarvin on Instagram)
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Jimmy Butler took a tour of Little Havana on April 9 before the 76ers’ game against the Heat in Miami. Video courtesy of Marvin Tapia (@mrmiamimarvin on Instagram)

Whatever Jimmy Butler is doing right now, he’s probably trying to win.

Whether it’s trying to prove he’s better at parallel parking or racing to be the first to confirm a random fact with his smartphone, the four-time All-Star wing player who chose to sign with the Heat as a free agent earlier this month can make just about anything a competition.

“He’s by far the most competitive human being I’ve ever met,” Butler’s agent Bernie Lee said. “You can’t have a conversation with him that doesn’t involve some aspect of competing, and he’s not going to give you an inch, whether you’re talking about who’s better at parallel parking or whatever. It’s crazy kind of the way he lives his life.

“I hate to admit it, but he actually is pretty hard to beat. And if you do beat him, he’s going to make you do it again and again and again until he beats you.”

On April 9 during a tour of Little Havana, Butler was looking forward to proving he was a better dominoes player than those at Domino Park that day. Not aware that double-nine dominoes were used at the park, Butler was thrown off because he grew up playing with a double-six set.

“The thing he was mostly focused on was dominoes,” said Little Havana community representative Marvin Tapia, who gave Butler a tour through the area. “He said the way he learned how to count was by using dominoes.

“They pulled out the double nine. He took a step back and he said, ‘I don’t know how to play double nine.’ He was super scared.”

The group ended up playing double-six dominoes. And of course, Butler won.

“He loves basketball and he loves playing and he loves competing and he loves winning,” said Brad Ball, who coached Butler at Tomball High School in Texas. “He wants to be as good as he possibly can be. He just has an intense drive that most people just don’t have. He loves it.”

THE BASKETBALL FIT

So, for those asking the question: Why did Butler choose to force a sign-and-trade transaction to the Heat this summer, with seemingly better win-now options in the Clippers, Lakers, Rockets and 76ers out there? It’s important to understand the competitive mentality Butler approaches life with.

While Butler might have been able to win more games this upcoming season with one of his other free agent options, the Heat’s mantra of being “the hardest-working, best-conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked team in the NBA” aligned with Butler’s personality.

A league source said Butler left his June 30 meeting with the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena convinced Miami was the right fit for him because of its proven track record of putting winning ahead of everything else. Butler, who turns 30 in September, had other free agent meetings scheduled, but they were quickly canceled once he met with the Heat on the first day of free agent negotiations.

“I think the culture that this organization is about, obviously the players that they have, the players they have had in the past, it fits who I am, what I’m about, how I think, how I go about what I go about every day,” Butler said earlier this month after signing a four-year, $142 million maximum contract with Miami.

Heat president Pat Riley made a strong impression on Butler during the four-hour meeting, and Riley was determined to get a commitment from Butler before it was done.

Heat officials at the meeting included owner Micky Arison, CEO Nick Arison, general manager Andy Elisburg, coach Erik Spoelstra, team executive and former All-Star center Alonzo Mourning, vice president of basketball development and analytics Shane Battier and Riley.

“He has always said how nice Miami was,” Butler said of the recently retired Dwyane Wade’s influence, with the two becoming close friends during their time as Bulls teammates in 2016-17. “Obviously, the weather and all that great stuff. But I’m talking about the organization and the people that’s in it and how they go about everything. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around him for a couple years now since my days in Chicago and it always seemed to come up one way or another of how great the people were, the culture that was there and obviously him winning championships and what that took.

“He would always say, ‘It would be a place for you. The type of guy you are, the mentality you have, the Heat culture, it just fits.’ We laugh about it now, but looking back it’s like: Damn, he kind of called how it could happen and how this would be a place that just fits me to a T.”

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Jimmy Butler took a tour of Little Havana on April 9 before the 76ers’ game against the Heat in Miami. Courtesy of Marvin Tapia (@mrmiamimarvin on Instagram)

What’s the Heat’s long-term pitch to Butler? Miami’s front office has a blueprint of building championship teams and it’s aware that it will take multiple stars to win at the highest level, just like when the Heat traded for Shaquille O’Neal to pair with Wade to win a title in 2006 and when the Heat brought the Big 3 together to win titles in 2012 and 2013.

The Heat pitched Butler on becoming the first established star to join the current roster, with the understanding the organization would be aggressive in trying to add another. The Heat was in on a possible trade for Russell Westbrook recently and the price just ended up being too high, but the belief is that it’s easier to add a second star with one already on the roster.

Miami sees Butler as somebody others want to play with because of his versatile style and the way he competes.

But Butler’s relentless competitive drive has gotten him in trouble in the past. He has questioned teammates’ effort and commitment to winning before, and that has rubbed some the wrong way during his previous NBA stops, especially with the Bulls and Timberwolves.

The Heat welcomes Butler’s competitiveness, though, which is one of the big reasons the fit felt right for both sides.

A TOUR OF MIAMI

As for Butler’s fit with the city of Miami, he started exploring that in April with a tour through Little Havana. With the 76ers in town to take on the Heat in the final home game of Wade’s career on April 9, Butler used the first part of that day to learn about the area.

Butler was determined to experience “the real Miami” and settled on Little Havana as the neighborhood to tour. The day began with Cuban coffee at a fruit shop called Los Pinarenos.

“We started with cafecito,” Tapia said. “We needed something to give us a kick start to our day. So I went, he wanted to learn how to order one. The differences between a cortado, colada and cafecito. ... He ordered it without sugar because his diet didn’t allow him to consume sugar. I said, ‘You’re doing it all wrong.’ ”

But Butler stood firm with his no-sugar mandate, and he went on to buy a guayabera, a Panama hat and a cigar before spending the rest of the tour playing dominoes at Domino Park.

“When I say he was incredibly genuine as far as how he embraced the culture, he was 100 percent genuine,” Tapia said. “I was kind of shocked to see somebody of his caliber being that humble and open to new things. Putting two and two together, it makes sense that he would want to see how Miami would react to him before coming here.

“When I say that he was incredibly open and genuine, that’s what it was. It didn’t seem forced, it didn’t seem like it was a gimmick. It really seemed like he wanted to embrace it all.”

During the tour, Butler asked questions like: “Do you think they know who I am?”, “Do people watch a lot of basketball?” and “How do people feel about Wade?”

“I feel like he wanted to see how Miami welcomed him or how he felt here,” Tapia said. “He loved it. He had a blast. He thanked me after. His manager was telling me, ‘Jimmy hasn’t stopped talking about Little Havana.’ ”

The basketball fit is obvious to Butler, and the city certainly appeals to him. For the next phase of his NBA career, Miami just felt like the right place.

“He’s at a point in his career where he’s going into his ninth year in the league. It’s time for him to put all of the experience that he’s had into action,” Lee said of Butler. “It just feels like everything has come together for him at a really ideal time and in a really ideal way. Now he’s joining an organization that seemingly makes it very, very clear what the agendas and goals are of the group. They match Jimmy’s pretty closely.”

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.
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