With his Air Jordan sweats and t-shirt drenched in sweat, Jimmy Butler holds a kettlebell in his right hand and slowly bends forward at the waist. Keeping his chest up and toes pointed down, Butler hinges at the hips and raises his left leg behind him as he lowers the kettlebell to the ground, performing a Single-Leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift. Nearby, Butler’s new trainer, Travelle Gaines of Athletic Gaines in Las Vegas, watches closely.
“The biggest thing Jimmy has gotten better at is his single-leg strength,” Gaines says. “He’s trying to work on staying healthy on the court and making sure he is able to play at a very high level. [He wants to] be a player that plays over 40 minutes a night.”
Gaines has a long history of training NBA athletes, from former Portland Trailblazer Brandon Roy to Atlanta Hawks All-Star Paul Milsap, and he’s set a goal of helping Butler make it through 82 games without an injury, something Butler has been unable to do for the past two seasons.
Buoyed by their All-Star backcourt of Butler and point guard Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls entered each of the past two seasons with dreams of a championship bouncing around in their heads. Each year, injuries have broken those dreams, making hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy impossible for the Bulls.
Rose’s lengthy injury history is well-documented. During his seven-year career, the former league MVP has suffered multiple ACL tears, a meniscus tear, hamstring and ankle injuries and (just this week) an orbital fracture. But it’s been Butler’s inability to play 82 games that may have hurt the Bulls’ recent championship aspirations the most.
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After being selected by the Bulls with the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler has played a full season just once in his four years in Chicago—although as a rookie, that was due to his coach’s decision not to play him in every game. During the 2013-2014 season, Butler dealt with turf toe, a nagging injury that caused him to miss several weeks. The Bulls were 6-3 when Butler went down. They promptly lost the next four games. When Butler returned, the Bulls sat at 8-12. Their slow start pushed them behind Indiana in the Central Division, causing them to fall to the fourth seed in the East and bow out to the Washington Wizards in the first round of the Playoffs.
Ahead of the 2014-2015 season, Butler injured his thumb in a pre-season game, causing him to miss the Bulls’ first two regular-season games. Later, in March, he sprained his elbow, sidelining him for 11 more games. Again, the Bulls’ record slipped during Butler’s absence, allowing the once-struggling Cleveland Cavaliers to surge past them in the Central standings and giving the Cavs home court advantage in their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup, which the Cavs ultimately won.
Before he sets his sights on the Playoffs and another run at the NBA Finals in 2016, Butler simply wants to stay healthy for a full season, like he did during his sophomore year, the 2012-2013 NBA season, when he was still a fairly raw basketball player.
“One of the main goals this off-season is to maintain my health for a whole year so I can help my team win as many games as possible,” Butler says. “But it feels great that I can go in 100 percent every day and get better.”
Born in Tomball, Texas, Butler was raised without a father (he left when Jimmy was young) or a place to call home. His mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13 years old. He hopped around from home to home, moving in with a childhood friend for awhile before finally settling in with Jordan Leslie, a freshman whom he met at a summer basketball camp when Butler was beginning his senior year.
Even when you’re 6-foot-7 like Butler, it’s hard to grab national attention in a place as small as Tomball, which boasts a population of just over 11,000. It’s even harder when life’s struggles drag you away from focusing on basketball. Despite averaging 19.9 points per game his senior season at Tomball High School, Butler wasn’t offered a single scholarship, forcing the budding star to attend Tyler (Texas) Junior College. The lack of interest in his services left Butler questioning his ability. “I don’t think anybody saw my talent, even myself,” he says. “I never really bought into the work like I was capable of. I was all talk, no show. But then I got better. I learned what hard work can do. I bought into it, and look where I am today.”
Butler blossomed at Tyler, averaging 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, good enough to grab the attention of Marquette University coaches, who offered him a scholarship after one year at Tyler. Butler says his time at Tyler was invaluable, because it taught him how talented he could be. And though the move to Marquette was exciting, he essentially had to start over again as low man on the team totem pole.
“I went from being one of the best on my high school team and my junior college team to the very bottom of a Marquette team, behind the likes of Wesley Matthews and Dominic James [who now play for the Dallas Mavericks and overseas, respectively],” Butler says. “I had to start all over again. But that really taught me what it was going to be like if and when I made it into the NBA.”
Butler grew close to head coach Buzz Williams, who was aware of his backstory and pushed him to recognize his talent, according to ESPN. During his time at Marquette, Butler steadily upped his game each season. In his final year as a Golden Eagle, he averaged 15.7 points and six rebounds a game. He could shoot, hitting his field goals at an almost 50-percent clip. He could slash to the hole and score. His size let him guard almost anyone. Still, Butler admits his work ethic wasn’t where it needed to be.
“In high school, I was just a raw athlete, and I was just better than everybody talent-wise. I really didn’t work on my game in college,” Butler says.
When the Bulls drafted him, they envisioned a project, a guy who could blossom into an elite defender and enough of an offensive threat to take some of the pressure off Rose. What they got was a guy who tirelessly worked on his craft, honing his once-ugly jump shot (former teammate Rip Hamilton once called Butler’s shot a “dart” for how little arc it possessed) and turning it into a weapon. Butler says entering the NBA made him finally realize he could no longer rely on his talent alone.
“The way I train now since I’m a pro is way harder than I ever did in college or high school,” Butler says. ” Now I work hard. I work on my game on the court and off the court. Being explosive in the weight room, quick movements, making sure my body is working mechanically the right way. If I was doing all of that in college and high school, who knows how much of a better player I would be now. But better late than never.”
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After four years in the league, Butler also eats smarter. He completely overhauled his diet, curbing his candy addiction and chowing down on things like eggs, turkey bacon, salmon, mashed potatoes and collard greens.
Working with Gaines, Butler also focused on improving his ball handling so he can be more comfortable dribbling in the open floor. He also worked on sharpening his floater. He says he added 15 pounds of muscle, a result of spending much more time in the weight room over the past two summers. He’s up to 235 pounds from 220, while lowering his percentage of body fat to a measly 4 percent.
To achieve all of that, Butler woke up at 5;00 a.m. five days a week this off-season to arrive at the gym at Poway High School in San Diego by 6:00. He started his days performing skill work with trainer Chris Johnson before Gaines put him through a series of performance-training exercises, which included a blend of upper- and lower-body lifts. Next, Butler spent time in the film room with Johnson before getting back on the court to work on areas of concern that were exposed during the film session.
Gaines had Butler perform Lunges and Box Jumps, which he says are his favorite exercise. Single-leg moves like Kettlebell RDLs are helpful, since so many athletic moves are performed on one leg rather than two. It’s just another step toward improving the durability of Butler’s body.
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With stronger legs and a revamped diet, Butler hopes his health holds up and he can finally lead the Bulls to where they’ve dreamed of being the past two seasons: the NBA Finals. With Rose already dealing with another injury before the season even begins, Butler’s health has become more important than ever, and he knows it.
“Yes, I want to score X amount of points and get X amount of rebounds, and I want to help my team win,” Butler says. “But you can’t do it if you’re not healthy for the entire season.”