Mike Marquis had never seen Jimmy Butler play basketball — not even on video — when he strolled into a Texas high school gym in the summer of 2007.
Marquis, the longtime head coach at Tyler Junior College, really knew nothing about the youngster. He was there at the request of a local recruiting analyst who suggested Marquis take a look at Butler, who had no Division I offers.
Marquis watched Butler run down the court twice and offered him a scholarship on the spot.
“He said, ‘Coach, I haven’t even shot the ball yet,’ ” Marquis recalled. “I told him I’ve been doing this long enough to know when there’s a player in the gym.”
From that humble start sprouted an unlikely journey of a kid once overlooked who developed into one of the top players in the NBA. Butler’s self-made mission continues in Minnesota after the Timberwolves acquired the former Chicago Bulls All-Star in a blockbuster deal Thursday on draft night.
A three-time All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, Butler is widely regarded as a top-15 player who excels as a two-way talent and is entering the prime of his career at age 27.
Those who trace his career to the beginning express no surprise that Butler has carved out this success because he displayed burning desire back when no one knew anything about him. Everything he has earned comes from sweat equity.
“He had a lot of determination, a lot of fire trying to be great,” Marquis said.
It seems almost unfathomable that an NBA All-Star could have zero Division I scholarship offers in today’s culture of AAU basketball and social media recruiting promotion.
‘Outskirts of the outskirts’
Butler grew up in the small town of Tomball, Texas, about 35 miles outside of Houston.
“We like to say he lived on the outskirts of the outskirts,” said Alan Branch, a recruiting analyst who recommended Butler to Marquis.
Butler played in the post for his high school team, leaving recruiters skeptical about how an undersized power forward would fit in college. Plus, Butler was more blue-collar than flashy on the court, and never was one to purposely draw attention to himself.
He was a good student, a full academic qualifier for Division I. He ended up in junior college purely because basketball scouts ignored him.
“If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make any noise?” Branch said. “He was just unseen.”
Marquis saw him at that open-gym workout and had no doubts. Once on campus, Butler floored the coaching staff by how hard he worked.
“The first week he was wearing me out,” Marquis said.
Butler kept asking for more hands-on instruction. He never wanted to leave the court. Marquis called Chicago Bulls General Manager Gar Forman, an old acquaintance, that first semester to give him a tip.
“I told him I thought [Butler] was special,” Marquis said. “I didn’t think it would be very long before he would be ready.”
Butler excelled in his one season at Tyler as a guard/wing. His impact on the program extended beyond the court.
“He was a rock in everything,” said Scott Monarch, a Tyler assistant coach. “He didn’t miss a single practice, didn’t miss a study hall, didn’t miss a bus. He was a rock.”
Butler refused to allow a difficult childhood to derail his dreams. He revealed to ESPN.com in 2011 that he had little contact with his father growing up. His mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13 for unexplained reasons.
He stayed with friends for short stints until finding a family that took him in and provided a stable environment.
“There’s nothing to feel sorry about,” Butler told ESPN. “I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I’m grateful for the challenges I’ve faced.”
Marquis said Butler “never, ever” talked about his upbringing with coaches at Tyler.
“He never conducted himself in a manner where he was seeking attention over that situation,” Marquis said.
From role player to star
Butler’s success at Tyler attracted interest from high major Division I programs, including Clemson and Iowa State. He chose to play for Marquette, becoming Buzz Williams’ first recruit after he was hired.
Monarch, the Tyler juco assistant, joined Williams’ staff that season, too. Williams pushed Butler tirelessly as a newcomer to the program. Williams told the Chicago Tribune after Butler was drafted that he was harder on Butler than any player he had ever coached.
“Buzz just annihilated him,” Monarch said. “Jimmy, at first, had a wall and that was as far as he was going to push himself. Buzz just wasn’t having it. He pushed himself beyond that wall, and Jimmy was great at figuring out where he could fit in.”
Butler accepted that tough love and became a two-year starter and All-Big East performer. The Chicago Bulls selected him with the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
He started his NBA career as a role player before blooming into one of the top players in the league under current Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who engineered a draft-night trade to reunite with his former star.
“His work ethic was always there — how he practiced, how he prepared, how driven he is,” Thibodeau said. “Wherever he goes, basketball is very important to him. It’s the first thing he takes care of every morning. He never loses sight of that.”
Butler was that same way when his basketball journey started, when everybody largely ignored his talent, until a junior college coach acting on a tip showed up to watch a pickup basketball game.