Because NBA Finals moments such as these require the most polished of narratives, the cleanest way to explain the genesis of Jimmy Butler’s path to the Miami Heat is to turn toward franchise icon Dwyane Wade.
It was Wade who was part of the lineage that Butler followed at Marquette. It was Wade’s time alongside in the Chicago Bulls locker room in 2016-17 that further planted the idea of Heat culture into Butler’s psyche. And it was the raw emotion of Wade’s final Heat game at AmericanAirlines Arena in April 2019 that captivated Butler, as he watched while in Philadelphia 76ers colors.
And yet, the Butler-to-Miami trajectory arguably started well before. Before Butler made it to Marquette or even to high school in Tomball, Texas. But, rather, when Butler was 12 years old. Yes, 12.
To appreciate the connection of what is playing out in these NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, with the second of Butler’s triple-doubles in the matchup on Friday night drawing the Heat within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series that continues Sunday at 7:30 p.m., is to consider Butler’s relationship with agent Bernie Lee, and Lee’s relationship with the Heat.
In 2001, with Lee beginning to make his way in the business, his client Mike James, then a 26-year-old journeyman guard who already had toiled in Austria, France and a variety of minor leagues, received an invitation to a participate in the pro-am summer league in Miami run by Ed Pinckney, the former Villanova and NBA forward who at the time was working as the Heat’s television analyst. Among those James competed against in those games was current Heat television analyst John Crotty.
The Heat were struck by James' play, offered a camp invitation.
To Lee, the rest is Jimmy Butler history.
“This all started, Jimmy winding up with the Heat, because of Mike,” Lee said to the Sun Sentinel amid this playoff run that now has the Heat and Butler within two victories of a championship. "It started with me and Pat Riley having a relationship.
“There is a direct timeline between Mike James and Jimmy Butler.”
James, who went undrafted out of Duquesne in 1998, did not make that cut in his initial Heat tryout. But that moment allowed Lee to build relationships with Chet Kammerer, the Heat scouting director, as well as with Riley, general manager Andy Elisburg, assistant general manager Adam Simon, even a guy buried at the time in the video room by the name of Erik Spoelstra.
Eventually James was invited back, signed by the Heat on Dec. 18, 2001. He would last two seasons with the team, before moving on to play with the Celtics, Pistons, Bucks, Rockets, Raptors, Timberwolves, Hornets, Wizards, Bulls and Mavericks.
All the while, Lee was pitching the Heat for a reunion.
“Pat and Andy and Adam Simon and Chet are essentially these foundational figures in Mike James' life,” Lee said.
“Pat became like a father figure to Mike and has always been. So from then, I’ve been having these conversations with Pat Riley, when I was an agent that not a lot of people knew. But because of Mike, Pat would always treat me different.”
The relationship would be further solidified in 2009, when Heat 2008 first-round pick Michael Beasley was required by the league to enter rehab, due to a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. During that period, Beasley worked out at Mike James' gym in Houston, again bringing Lee and the Heat together.
“Pat was flying there every weekend to watch Mike work out,” Lee said.
Later that summer, another Lee client, John Lucas III, would receive an invitation to Heat camp.
“It made it feel like Pat and I had a hundred different conversations,” Lee said.
And then along came Butler and the emotional, prideful forward’s simmering discontent over the years in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia.
It led Lee back to his safe space, and those 2019 offseason free-agency negotiations with the Heat that led to the All-Star’s four-year, $142 million contract, the one that is paying off so handsomely for all involved.
“By the time we got to functional conversations with Jimmy,” Lee said, "me and Pat had had this decades-long relationship. I knew who I was dealing with, with Pat, and they knew that with me. And then more important, just knowing Andy’s ability to creatively build out a team when nobody else really sees a path.
“Jimmy was going through a spot in his career where he was so exact about what he wanted to find. And with my dealings, Spo was the video guy when Mike was there. My dealings with Spo and Pat and Andy and Adam Simon, I knew that they were what he was looking for. I didn’t know what the path to be able to figure it out to get him there was going to look like. But because I had spent essentially the first years of my career really dealing with these guys, at the really high level, yeah, I knew. So it was always, for sure, in the back of my head.”
Now, not far from Riley, Lee finds himself taking it all in at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, Butler in Heat colors, playing for a championship, in part because of ties established during Butler’s adolescence.
“It all started,” Lee said, “because of Mike James. No question.”
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