Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Getting to know Jimmy Butler was never going to be particularly easy or fun for Sixers fans. Once he established himself as a ‘90s basketball movie villain during his final days in Minnesota, it was clear that whatever fanbase inherited him from there was going to have to do some minor emotional negotiating, to reconcile rooting for a guy who’d very publicly been some combination of conniving, underhanded and just kinda inconsiderate while orchestrating his exit. From there, it was a matter of accepting whatever narrative he pushed on us, swallowing the aspects we deemed swallowable and as best we could looking the other way on the rest. And that’d be fine, if he didn’t insist on pushing and pushing and pushing.
The first couple interviews he did as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers were harmless enough, even if they showed the challenges of trying to draw a compelling character out of a man who seemed to insist in defining his entire persona through a handful of aggressive character traits: a maniacal work ethic and drive to win, an intolerance for soft-pedaling, a love of country music and minivans. Serena Winters’ two-part introductory interview of Butler for NBC Sports included some admirable attempts to color outside the lines, and the results were resounding: Jimmy responded to a question about his favorite condiments by asking, “Does salt and pepper count?,” offered that his autobiography would be titled “The Jimmy Butler Story,” and said the person he’d most love to play dominoes with while picking their brain was Harvey Dent.
Then there was the J.J. Redick talk with Butler for his Ringer podcast, which was actually decently interesting, if only because Redick was a solid moderator and Butler was presented relatively unfiltered. His retelling of that fateful Timberwolves practice was transfixing, not just because it revealed so much about his perspective -- stubborn, ruthless, self-aggrandizing even in the name of humility -- but because it was also undeniably somewhat charming in its easy swagger, its unflinching resoluteness, its grinning antagonism. It was both the best and the worst of Butler as a character, but regardless of how you ended up feeling about him at the end of it, you certainly felt like you understood the guy about as well as you’d ever need to.
But the interviews kept coming. GQ hit the high points in December: Turns out, Jimmy’s not the most talented guy, but he’s the hardest working, and it frustrates him when his teammates don’t share his grinder’s mentality. (He also doesn’t give a fuck what you think of him, as illustrated by his reading of the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.) Then in January, The Undefeated: Turns out, Butler is making more money and getting more playing time than he used to, but won’t change his behavior as a result. (He also has no regrets about this or anything else, because the sum total of all of his experiences “makes me who I am.”) If there was anything remaining to be learned about Jimmy Butler at this point, these pieces did a fairly good job of disguising it.
And then, earlier this week, the piece de resistance: An Interview magazine discussion with Butler’s long-established Hollywood hero, Mark Wahlberg. You know you were going to be in for a wild ride when Wahlberg’s journalistic probing began with the following query:
Hard to even know where to start, but this is essentially the equivalent of starting an interview with Mark Wahlberg by saying “Let’s get right into it: You’ve been described as the guy who played Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. Do you think that’s accurate?” Most of the discussion sort of follows from there: Does Jimmy Butler think that being brutally honest has gotten him into trouble? (Yes, but still no regrets!) Does Jimmy Butler plan on toning it down a bit? (Not really!) What does he think about Tom Thibodeau being fired? (Bummer!) The only revelation of any degree of interest comes with Butler admitting that he only agreed to his cameo role in middling 2016 comedy Office Christmas Party because he thought Wahlberg was gonna be in it, a misconception he held right up until the shoot when he couldn’t find bro’s trailer. (Which, tbf, pretty funny.)
We’ve gotta stop with this. The last few months of this regular season are going to be trying enough without worrying which publication is gonna be publishing 1500 more words of predictable, circuitous dialogue with our most ornery and self-satisfied starter. Besides, we’re really gonna need Jimmy on the court down the stretch -- especially with the e-blast including both Joel Embiid and the word “re-evaluated” hitting us in the collective Process groin yesterday -- and while I don’t generally approve of telling any of our dudes to stick to sports… that was supposed to be Jimmy Butler’s whole deal. When he’s not bumping Florida Georgia Line in the six-seater on the way to the game, or unwinding with a case of pinot noir in the offseason, he was billed (by himself, mostly!) as the dude who spent his entire existence focused on the game, the game, the game. How did Butler became the guy whose focus was in question?
And perhaps the frustrating thing about these interviews is that they never -- will never -- ask or have answered the question we really want to ask Butler at this point. And that’s essentially: How do you reconcile your actions with your self-described reputation as being someone who only cares about winning? How can you say you only care about winning and ask out of Minnesota largely over a money dispute? How can you say you only care about winning and leak a list of teams to be traded to that’s centered around middling or subpar teams in major media markets? How can you say you only care about winning and still get into it with your coaching staff about the type of touches you get on offense, or conserve energy and take plays off on defense? How can you say you only care about winning when you clearly care a whole lot about the 5-6 other things that you can’t stop talking about? Not like he’s the only NBA player to deflect and obfuscate his true motivations in his interviews; it’s basically par for the course among the league’s stars. But most of ‘em don’t go out of their way to do it so damn often.
Truthfully, I still like Jimmy Butler a lot. I like how he seems to connect things on court for us. I like how he gets to the line, how he scores an efficient 20 without anyone really even noticing. I like how he seems to have a knack for big plays on both sides of the ball. I like how much fun he and Redick seem to have giving each other shit. I like the somewhat tense energy he adds to the locker room and the team’s overall image, making the Sixers feel a little less cute, a little more grown. I even like that he doesn’t seem to mind playing the villain. The NBA needs villains. Just not ones that spend so much time recounting the finer points of (and/or motivations behind) their evil schemes that they dull you to death before even getting the chance to enact them.