Back in February, 24 of the NBA's best played in the All-Star Game in New York City. The rosters featured one-time high school prodigies, sons of former NBA players and No. 1 overall picks.
Only one player played on a junior college roster. Only one player spent part of his high school life homeless. Only one player came from Tomball, Texas, population 11,124.
The 2014-15 season was Jimmy Butler's time to tell his underdog story, and his acceptance of the NBA's Most Improved Player Award on Thursday was the freshest chapter.
"I feel like I've come a long, long, long way from Tomball, Texas, and couldn't be more proud," Butler said at the start of speech at Chicago's United Center. "I feel like the Bulls are just as proud of me."
Butler's father, Jimmy, left Butler's childhood before it began in Tomball, which is approximately 40 miles from Houston. When he was 13, Butler's mother, Londa, kicked him out of his house. In 2011, Butler told ESPN.com she put him on the streets because "she didn't like the look of him."
Butler moved in with a friend, Jermaine Thomas, whose father spent most of his time on the road as a truck driver. Before his senior year of high school, Butler met Jordan Leslie, a freshman, at a basketball camp. Leslie, who was born to a white mother and African-American father, previously lost his father in a car accident. Before his senior year at Tomball High School, 16-year-old Butler and Thomas moved in with Leslie, his three siblings, and his mother, Michelle Lambert. Lambert is the woman Butler calls, "Mommy."
Although Butler found a mother figure, his basketball game still needed work. He lacked college offers and resorted to stay close to home below the NCAA level.
"You look back at Jimmy's story and it really is amazing that we're here today," Bulls General Manager Gar Forman said. "You go back to high school where Jimmy was basically a non-recruited player, he goes to Tyler Junior College. Jimmy swears that it's the garden spot of Texas, but I've been there 3-4 times and I don't know."
Butler averaged 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds in his one season at Tyler. That was enough to catch the eye of then-Marquette coach Buzz Williams. Williams brought Butler to Milwaukee to play behind such Golden Eagles stars Wesley Matthews and Lazar Hayward. He did not start a game in his sophomore season. Getting minutes was Butler's goal, not making the NBA.
"Buzz brought me to Marquette and he taught me your confidence, it only comes from your work," Butler said. "This summer, I put in a lot of work to get to where I am today. Without Buzz constantly challenging me and pushing me to be great, I don’t think I'd be standing here."
Butler progressed at Marquette. After averaging 5.6 points his sophomore year, Butler bumped those figures to 14.7 and 15.7 points in his junior and season seasons. His visible and statistical improvements at Marquette put him on NBA radars. Forman grabbed him with the Bulls' first-round pick (30th overall).
In Butler's rookie year, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, he only played in 42 games with no starts. Butler averaged 8.5 minutes and just 2.6 points.
Butler attributes Luol Deng and Adrian Griffin as two of the individuals who helped him push through a frustrating rookie season. "Luol had a lot do it to tell you the truth, teaching me to be a professional and teaching me the ropes," he says of the former Bull, whose role as the team's go-to swingman was essentially handed to Butler.
Griffin, the Bulls assistant coach, worked on Butler's isolation play. "I beat him one-on-one a lot my rookie year and he can't beat me to this day," Butler says of the Bulls assistant who he says absorbed Butler's "unbearable" complaints for more playing time.
Butler had his coming-out party in 2012-13 when a Deng injury allowed the second-year player more playing time. He averaged 8.6 points in 82 games (20 starts) and 26 minutes a game. As time has passed, Butler's role has widened. He started all 132 regular-season games he played in from 2013-14 to 2014-15. Butler averaged 13.1 points in 2013-14 and 20.0 points (and 5.8 rebounds) in his All-Star 2014-15 campaign.
"He comes to the Bulls and he continues with the same focus, the same energy" Forman says of drafting Butler in 2011. "[He] goes from being a role player initially to becoming a starter to becoming today, the most improved player in the NBA and an NBA All-Star."
When Butler was drafted, the Bulls were rich with talent. Derrick Rose had won the MVP award the previous season. Deng and Carlos Boozer were still there, and Joakim Noah was continuing to develop. Butler was not supposed to be the guy. Four years ago, imagining Butler being the leading-scorer on a Bulls team with a shot at an NBA title would have been ludicrous.
But rapid progression is a recurring theme in Butler's basketball life.
"I felt like at any level I was at, whether it be junior college or Marquette, I didn't think I was supposed to be there," Butler said. "Being from Tomball, and somehow, in some way, with the people in my corner, I found a way to get there. Now that I'm here, I'm just as confident as when I was in junior College or when I was at Marquette. As long as I continue to work, I'll continue to stay and I'll continue to get better."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau thinks Butler can get better too. "I don't want to put a lid on it," he says. "I don't think any of us do. We don't know where it's going. All I know is if you study his career, every year he's gotten a lot better."
Thibs himself is a bit of an underdog. After 21 years as an NBA assistant under coaches such as Jerry Tarkanian, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, Thibodeau finally got his head-coaching shot in Chicago in 2010. His first season, was highlighted by Rose's MVP, an NBA-high 62 wins and the Coach of the Year Award for Thibs, But the past four years have been a challenge. Rose, Noah and Deng all suffered injuries that hurt Bulls' playoff chances. Boozer fizzled out and the Bulls shipped off Deng. Remarkably, Thibodeau still has an overall win percentage of .647.
"We wouldn't be in the position that we are today without him," Thibodeau says. "Whatever we've asked him to do, he's excelled in that role. He came in primarily as a defensive player, a great effort guy, and he's made himself into a great scorer, and most importantly, a winning player. He's very, very unselfish and very, very efficient. He scores in a lot of different ways and he'll guard anybody and he's a fierce competitor."
Beyond physical appearance -- they both look more like NFL linebackers than basketball coaches -- Williams and Thibodeau share the ability to inspire Butler. Butler attributes both of them for pushing him beyond his talent love. The coaches have led Butler to focus on the mental aspects of the game just as much as the physical aspects.
Last summer, Butler turned off all Internet and cable services in his home in Houston. He shut out the non-basketball aspects of his life–something he had done so well already despite the hardships life has given him–and worked day-in, day-out with trainer Chris Johnson.
"He was the first one who said I'll make you an All-Star," Butler said. "Of course, I didn't believe it."
Butler's summer focused worked. From day one of the 2014-15 season, Butler has been among the top players in the league. It is what got him an All-Star nod and has made him the Bulls' No. 1offensive (and defensive) option.
"I believe he's one of the best two-way players in the league today," Thibodeau says. "It hasn't happened by accident. The way he's worked, it's a testament to his character and who he is as a person. Obviously, to get where he is today, you have to have a lot of talent, which he does have, but when you combine that with his intelligence and his drive, you get something special."
Forman adds that Butler's presence on the court is far from his only positive. He works similarly as hard off the court.
"Jimmy is a very special person," Forman says. "Anybody who's been around him knows he goes out of his way each and every day to interact with everybody that he's around. He's always willing to give himself before others, which is really a great trait."
These are kind words from a general manager who lost a lot of money with Butler this past fall. In October, Forman tried to finalize a four-year, $40 million contract. Butler chose to bet on himself. Now, he is in the running for $70 million over four years. As a restricted free agent, the Bulls can match any offer sheet Butler signs, which Forman and Bulls' VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson have insisted the team will do.
"Do I feel like I won the bet?" Butler asked Thursday. "I think it's a tie. I think we both won. I did my job and what I'm supposed to do and I think they are happy with where I am right now."
This is a diplomatic answer, but it is false. Butler's humble confidence earned him an All-Star season in a contract year. It also propelled the Bulls into a title run, although it will cost the team financially, come this summer.
While it is not all in Butler's hands, the Texas native suggests he wants to stay in Chicago. Asked about his future as a Bull, Butler smiled and gave a straight response.
"To be a Bull [next year], I think so," he said. "I think this is a place for me. I love playing with the guys that we have. They continue to bring in great high character guys that fit the team role. I love it here and I'm happy to be here."
He'll be even happier with the Larry O'Brien trophy.
"I want to help this team win," he said. "I want to get antoher trophy and I want to win a championship. That's the final goal."
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.