LOS ANGELES – Headed to his fourth NBA All-Star Game, Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler would rather vacation in Vancouver or the Caribbean this weekend because there’s little place for a man like him driven to defend and win in such a game anyway.
It wasn’t always that way.
There was a first time for him, at iconic Madison Square Garden in 2015, no less. And as with so many things, the first time was unforgettable for a self-defined kid from Tomball, Texas, who took the road less traveled to NBA stardom.
He took it from being homeless in his hometown near Houston, through a junior college out near Texas’ piney woods all the way to Wisconsin and Marquette. That’s where he turned himself into the last player selected in the 2011 NBA draft’s first round and eventually from a determined, defensive-minded prospect into a two-way player and a first-time All-Star representing the Chicago Bulls.
Hurting before he arrived in New York City, Butler played only nine minutes alongside Eastern Conference stars LeBron James, John Wall, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving.
But it was both nine fleeting minutes and an entire weekend that validated all that time in the gym, including those nights as an NBA rookie when he drilled with mentor Luol Deng while coach Tom Thibodeau looked down from his office and noticed both the dedication and the improvement.
“First time in an All-Star Game, seeing all your hard work pay off and you’re up there with the best of the best in the league, it’s a great feeling,” Butler said. “Any time after that to me is I kind of belong here. What’s the word? It’s known that I’m supposed be here, so you just keep working the way you worked to get there the first time.”
There’s only one first time, and while Butler belongs in Sunday’s game for a fourth time, there’s almost always a first time for somebody. This time it belongs to teammate Karl-Anthony Towns.
Owners of a 36-25 record and aimed toward the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons, the Wolves sent two players to the All-Star Game for the fourth time in their history and the first since Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell went together in 2004 on their way to the Western Conference finals that year.
That’s also the last time the franchise made the playoffs, and that’s no coincidence.
“It’s good for them, it’s good for the organization, it’s good for the city,” said Thibodeau, now running the Wolves. “But the winning part is important.”
Always an All-Star
Butler and Towns have made it together as winners through their season’s first 61 games. Butler is back again where he says it’s now known he belongs while Towns will play Sunday for the first time because he always has believed that’s where he belongs.
“I mean, it’s awesome to be considered like that, but I’ve never looked at myself any other way,” said Towns, who in his first two pro seasons participated in All-Star weekend’s Friday Rising Stars Challenge and Saturday’s skill competition. “I don’t need someone to tell me how much time and effort I put into my craft. I know what I do on a daily basis to be the best I can possibly be with my teammates. It’s great to be an All-Star and to be called an All-Star, but feel like I’ve put the work into it so I never saw myself as anything else.”
While Butler took the road less traveled, Towns at age 22 has reached the first of what could be many All-Star appearances by being a nationally recruited prep player, a star at mighty Kentucky and a uniquely gifted No. 1 overall draft pick who was stung when he wasn’t chosen for the game last year because his Timberwolves were losers.
“That’s the hope,” Towns said about when asked if an All-Star Game invitation is about to become a regular thing for him. “God be with me health-wise and I find ways to continue to be successful. I’m not going to put a time stamp on it or on how many I’ll be in. Just being in one is a huge honor.”
One of the best
Butler projects ambivalence about going back to a game in which he doesn’t quite fit, in which he already has proved himself worthy. But that first time was different, even if his East team lost to the West 163-158, a score that refutes everything Butler stands for as a player.
“He was pretty excited about it,” said Thibodeau, his coach in Chicago that season. “I think all players are. For the guys who have been there a number of years — and he’s starting to become one of those guys — it may lose a little bit of its luster initially. But once they get there, they’re pretty excited about it. They’re being recognized as one of the best in the league and that’s a great honor. Anytime you have an opportunity to spend time with other players who are great, you can’t help but learn.”
Towns watched the All-Star Game “pretty much every year” when he was a kid and recalls admiring everyone from Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant to Rik Smits and won’t ever forget Vince Carter’s dunks.
“I remember a lot of things about those All-Star Games,” Towns said. “It’d be cool to be part of some other child’s memory.”
Five-time All-Star Chris Webber said he watched every year when he was young, then he shoveled off snow outside his Detroit home and recreated the dunks he saw during the Saturday night contest.
Butler doesn’t have the same sense of history because he said he didn’t watch every year.
“Didn’t have cable,” Butler said. “Couldn’t afford it.”
Turner Sports analyst Reggie Miller remembers “my knees literally shaking” at his first All-Star Game appearance in 1990 on his way to four more and induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 22 years later as well.
He played alongside Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and others for the East and played against Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton from the West that year. Detroit’s Chuck Daly coached the East and the Lakers’ Pat Riley headed the West.
“My God, I admit I was star-struck,” Miller said. “Even though you’re going against these guys in the regular season and you’re tripping, you’re hitting, you’re elbowing them, these are iconic figures in the game of basketball and you’re playing on the same stage with them and they’re actually passing you the ball and having a dialogue with you. Look, I was a kid in a candy store.”
That was another time and place in NBA history, when all but a handful of players from that 1990 game were headed to Springfield, Mass., eventually.
Wolves guard Jeff Teague played in his first — and only — All-Star Game in 2015, the same game that Butler made for the first time and doesn’t recall being nearly as star-struck playing on the same team with James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden.
The names he ticks off by memory: Al Horford and Paul Millsap, Atlanta teammates at the time.
“It was cool because a couple of my teammates went with me, and I knew what that meant,” Teague said. “It meant our team was really good that year.”
The Hawks won 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals during a season in which All-Star designation was a reward for winning.
Made for the stage?
The irony this season: The NBA changed the game’s format this season. The traditional East vs. West pairing has been replaced by playground rules in which team captain James and Curry picked players for their respective team one by one.
Each player on the winning team also will get $100,000 for the first time.
Some players are made for such a stage. Some aren’t.
Butler started last season’s game, played 19½ minutes and scored six points, which is less than half the 14 Teague scored in 13 minutes in his only All-Star Game.
“Yeah, Jimmy’s not really that kind of All-Star Game player,” Teague said. “I guess that’s more my field. I really enjoy those kind of games. I remember my year, he came in and told us he didn’t want to play too much because he was hurt. Probably the same thing he’s feeling now.”
Towns hasn’t played on Sunday during All-Star weekend, but he knows enough from all his obligations his first two years there to know this:
“The All-Star break isn’t a break,” he said. “There is no break.”
Still, it is what Towns calls both an “honor” and a “privilege” even if he’s eager to return home to prepare for the season’s final games, even if he doesn’t consider his style of game made for such a showcase.
“I’m not very flashy,” he said. “My game’s very methodical and unconventional. I don’t think my game ever looks pretty. I’m just out to have fun, try to win, make $100,000 and leave.”