TOMBALL, TEXAS – If you don’t know how four-time NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler defied the odds to get from there to here, his social media account bios will tell you.
His Twitter profile reads “From Tomball, all the way to the Minnesota Timberwolves,” while on Instagram it’s “small town to a big city = tomball to minneapolis.”
And if you don’t know where Tomball is, just drive 45 minutes northwest from downtown Houston. You’ll pass refineries, strip malls and open pasture until you come to a town that isn’t as small and not as country as the place where he grew up, not since the tollway went in.
A banner that commemorates Butler’s NBA and Olympic success hangs in the same gym where he played at Tomball High School. Any other week the teachers, administrators and staff who knew him when — Class of 2007 — cheer Houston’s pro sports teams. But this week, they find themselves temporary Timberwolves fans during a playoff series against the Rockets.
His former English teacher attended Tomball High herself once upon a time, but on Wednesday she rocked a vintage Timberwolves T-shirt.
“Well, I’m from around here, so yes, typically, I would have been a Rockets fan,” Allie Pruett said, “but Jimmy’s in town.”
An all-district prep player who averaged nearly 20 points per game but attracted few college recruiters, Butler’s way to stardom went from Tomball’s gym to a Tyler (Texas) junior college and then improbably to Marquette and the NBA, where he was the last player taken in the first round of the 2011 draft.
But it all started in Tomball, where his mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13. Homeless, he bounced around friends’ houses until a family with seven children took him in as their own.
Pruett remembers Butler as an “average teenager” whose drive wasn’t always visible to those who didn’t know everything that was happening in his life.
“He took that history and instead of putting it on his back and carrying it every day with him, he put that burden down and used it as a step stool,” she said. “It really launched him into who he is today.”
Last fall Butler said it’s a history he doesn’t talk about publicly anymore because he doesn’t want pity for a childhood that made him who he is: tougher than everybody else, he often says.
But while in Houston for the series’ first two games, he talked about home.
“Deep down, I’m still a kid from Tomball, I just might live in a different city now,” Butler said. “That’s where it all started for me. I was terrible then, by the way. I just shot the ball every time. I was pretty bad back in the day.”
That’s not the way many remember it in Tomball.
“I don’t know where he’s getting that,” Tomball High assistant principal Mark Vierkant said. “Right now, he’s an All-Star super stud, but he was a good player when he was here. I think he grew into a lot of the talent he has now, but he was a really good player in high school.”
Butler was also what Vierkant calls “straight-laced, a good kid” who never ended up in his or the principal’s office. His business teacher, Lisa Streat, remembers a teenager who knew exactly who and what he wanted to be: Rockets star Tracy McGrady.
“That’s all we heard about all the time,” said Streat, who has one of Butler’s Bulls jerseys and a signed basketball, and keeps clippings of Butler’s achievements tacked behind her desk. “He knew exactly what he wanted when he was here. He was inspired. That’s who he wanted to be and always knew he’d do something great.”
Butler said he doesn’t know if his McGrady obsession was “good or bad, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
In truth, it was so long ago.
“No one knew this would happen to a little guy from Tomball,” Streat said.