Jimmy Butler’s story – How an abandoned child climbed the ladder of NBA All-Star

Jimmy Butler

When Jimmy Butler re-signed another four-year contract with Miami Heat worth $184 million in August 2021, President Pat Riley called him the “anchor and face of the Heat franchise along with Bam and Kyle”. Today, Butler is not only a six-time NBA All-Star but also an Olympic gold medalist.

While it may seem as though Butler has achieved significant milestones in his 10-year career, one would be surprised to know that odds were stacked against him when he was a child. As an abandoned kid, Butler made the most of his passion for basketball and eventually established himself as an NBA player.

Key Takeaways

  • Jimmy Butler was abandoned by his father when he was an infant and disowned by his mother at 13 years old.
  • To survive on his own, he couch-surfed with friends and developed a passion for basketball in school.
  • Butler became friends with Jordan Leslie in high school, whose family (The Lamberts) eventually took him in and provided for him.
  • He maintains a very close relationship with his surrogate family and at the same time holds no grudges against his biological parents.

At only 13 years old, Jimmy Butler was kicked out of home by his mother following a dispute

Jimmy Butler was born and raised in suburban Houston, Texas, and lived with his mother. Growing up, he never fully knew his father who had abandoned him when he was a mere infant.


His mother would go on to abandon him as well. When Jimmy was only 13 years old, she kicked him out of the house after a dispute and left him to navigate the world on his own. In a 2011 interview with ESPN, Jimmy recalled that his mother’s last words to him as she cast him out were:

“I don’t like the look of you. You gotta go.”

Jimmy’s story was deemed “one of the most remarkable” by an NBA general manager who said that he had never seen as rare a case as Jimmy’s in his entire career. He said:

“There were so many times in his life where he was set up to fail. Every time, he overcame just enormous odds. When you talk to him – and he’s hesitant to talk about his life – you just have this feeling that this kid has greatness in him.”

Despite all of this, Butler has always been reluctant to share this grim side of the story and has managed to keep it out of the headlines for the first few years. After all, he was not keen on being pitied based on his upbringing or lack thereof.

“There’s nothing to feel sorry about. I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I’m grateful for the challenges I’ve faced. Please, don’t make them feel sorry for me,” said Jimmy.

In high school, Butler met fellow athlete Jordan Leslie and formed a friendship that would change his life

All on his own, a teenage Butler stayed with his friends and hopped from one couch to another every few weeks to survive. This went on for almost four years. At school, he consumed his passion for basketball and became a promising player when he reached high school.

During the summer before his senior year at Tomball High School, Butler was approached by Jordan Leslie, a fellow athlete in his freshmen year, who had been observing Butler’s skill on the court for a long time.

Leslie challenged Butler to a 3-point-shooting contest and the two became close friends immediately. They spent time together in Leslie’s home, playing video games and staying the night. Butler crashed at Leslie’s place for a few nights, which later turned into weeks.

Jordan Leslie and Jimmy Butler | jimmybutler/instagram

Initially, Leslie’s mother, Michelle Lambert, was hesitant to take Butler into their home as she already had four children from her late husband and her new husband had three children of his own. Moreover, the family’s financial situation was tight, and adding another kid was not ideal.

But the seven kids had formed a good bond with Butler and wanted him to stay at the house. Hence, the Lamberts finally gave in and took him in after a few months.

“I told [Jimmy] my kids looked up to him. He had to stay out of trouble. Work hard in school. He had to set an example. And you know what? Jimmy did it. Anything I asked him to do, he did it without asking questions,” said Michelle.

Butler accepted an athletic scholarship at the Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Living with a proper family for the first time, Butler excelled in basketball for the Tomball High School Cougars and was even made the team captain during his senior season.

“They accepted me into their family. And it wasn’t because of basketball. [Michelle] was just very loving. She just did stuff like that. I couldn’t believe it,” said Butler.

However, after finishing high school, Butler did not receive scholarship offers from colleges he had hoped to enroll in and was not scouted. With limited options, he chose a nearby institution – Tyler Junior College – to try his luck.

Soon enough, he became the college’s lead scorer in his first year and caught the attention of other prestigious universities. As of 2008, Butler had received scholarship offers from Marquette, Kentucky, Clemson, Mississippi State, and Iowa State. Under Michelle’s guidance, Butler chose to go to Marquette University.

“He had a lot of offers, but I was impressed by Marquette for academic reasons. That’s a great academic school. I told him he should go there because basketball may not work out long-term. He needed a good education and a degree to fall back on,” Michelle said.

Jimmy Butler became the 30th overall pick by Chicago Bulls in the 2011 NBA draft

At Marquette, Butler was coached by Buzz Williams who, in his own words, has “never been harder on a player than he has been on Jimmy”.

“I was ruthless on [Jimmy] because he didn’t know how good he could be. He’d been told his whole life he wasn’t good enough. What I was seeing was a guy who could impact our team in so many ways,” said Williams.

Jimmy spent his sophomore year at Marquette University as a bench warmer and did not get the chance to play until his junior year. During that time, he suffered from homesickness and often wanted to return home.

But things picked up eventually and by his senior season, Jimmy became a versatile player capable of rebounding, handling the ball, and defending multiple positions. He did not simply play as a scorer and learned that he had to be more than a scorer to be successful – he had to become a leader.

“I had to become a leader. It’s not about scoring. It’s about doing what my team needs me to do. I wanna be that glue guy, I want to be a guy my team and my coach can count on. That’s what I want to be,” Jimmy said.

His versatility caught the attention of the NBA scouts, who observed his matches the entire year unbeknownst to him. After the college season ended, Butler was selected as the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls.

Jimmy Butler
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Jimmy has gone on record and said that he “does not hold grudges” against his biological parents for leaving him

Although Jimmy prefers not to talk about his past as he does not “want that to define him”, he has stated that he keeps in touch with his mother and father. In a 2015 interview with Chicago Magazine, he explained.

“[My past] hasn’t gotten me to where I am today. I’m a great basketball player because of my work and the people I have around me. If I continue to be stuck in the past, I won’t get any better. I won’t change, I’ll get stuck as that kid. That’s not who I am. I’m so far ahead of that.”

He also said that he “does not hold grudges and still talks to [his] family”.

“We love each other. That’s never going to change,” Jimmy added.

At the same time, Jimmy is grateful to his surrogate family, the Lamberts, for taking him in and is extremely close with them.

“We are all attached at the hip. I give [Michelle] the credit for helping me become who I am. I love her. You would think that she gave me birth. I talk to her every morning. She’s very loving. That’s my family. That’s Michelle Lambert. She is my mom,” he told ESPN.