Jimmy Butler on Singing for Taylor Swift and Winning in Chicago

The Bulls' breakout star just re-signed for $90 million, but what he really wants to do is impress T-Swift: "I have a beautiful voice," he says

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Jimmy Butler
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Eight months ago, Jimmy Butler was determined to bounce back from the worst regression of his career. He had slipped to new lows in efficiency and averaged just 13.1 points per game, then baffled fans when he rejected the Chicago Bulls' four-year, $44 million contract extension.

By now, you know the rest. Butler scored 20 points per game this season, garnered his first All-Star appearance and won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, converting "gambling on myself" from a throwaway phrase to career mythology en route. And, after quietly rejecting his heightened stature all season, Butler is finally willing to respond to the question of whether he's a star – of course, it's with a tepid, "Sure, I guess."

But when he hit NBA free agency, the interest surrounding him provided a more definitive answer. Teams like the Sixers, Celtics and Lakers hoped to sign him, but in the end, Butler stayed in Chicago, signing a five-year deal, $90 million contract with the only franchise he's ever known. President Obama was pumped. And the kid from Tomball, Texas is diving headfirst into his new life. He's joined the Jordan Brand, jetted to Paris with new best friend Mark Wahlberg and has done so many interviews – 1,000,309 this month alone, by his count – that he now feels confident enough to stop reporters mid-question to wonder, "Hey, is that the house from Home Alone 2?!?" (we can attest to that last fact ourselves).

Prior to his decision to stay in Chicago long-term, Rolling Stone caught up with Butler to talk about his friendship with Marky Mark, his love of Taylor Swift and why he's got the best singing voice in the NBA.

So how did you meet Mark Wahlberg?
He was shooting Transformers in Chicago. He wanted to play basketball so he came to practice. The facts are skewed. Some say he won, I say I won. It's all about whose word you're gonna believe. From there, it just became a budding friendship. We talk a lot, hang out, especially in the offseason.

You got to attend the Entourage premiere in L.A., right?
Yes, and in Chicago. It's crazy to see everyone who comes out to support Mark, the bond he builds with people. The way he treats everybody with the utmost respect is very admirable. Everybody can learn from that. The way he handles his family, the way he's always stopping and talking to all of his fans, signing everything and the way he gives back to the community is a much bigger thing than any movie he could put together. He's changing a lot of lives, starting with mine to tell you the truth.

Really?
Seriously. He's teaching me no matter how famous you get, no matter how much money you make, to still be who you are. He's had his entourage – the same people around him – since he was young. I don't have as big an entourage as him, but I've got my people. 

Jimmy Butler
Mark Wahlberg and Butler Gonzalo/Bauer-Griffin/Getty

What's the first thing you're gonna do when you sign your new contract?
Go back to San Diego and work out. That's where it starts.

I mean, what's the first purchase?
After I sign my big contract, I'm gonna make my brothers buy me dinner. They need to buy me something for a change. I think I'm gonna get me a house. That's gonna be first. Probably get some new socks. Need some socks.

When the season ended, there were reports that you had issues with Derrick Rose.
I don't think we have any issues. I think we're fine. I think we're two basketball players that want to win games. That's where I'll leave it at. I think we just wanna win, bring a championship the city, to the organization. I think that's our job. And I think we're gonna do whatever it takes to make that happen. I have a lot of respect for the guy.

So there's no truth to the reports?
I never read the reports so I couldn't tell you what they said. To tell you the truth, if you read it, something's going to piss you off, so I really don't. There's a lot of people that think I'm a terrible basketball player, so it's just gonna piss me off. And if it's people who think I'm good, I'll be happy. I'm just not gonna read it at all and stay content in my own mind.

Have you gotten a chance to talk to new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg?
Yeah, I talked to Hoiberg. He's a really good coach. He knows what he's doing. He has some great offensive schemes and a great coaching staff. I think he's gonna be good for the Bulls. I think Chicago will like him. He's a very likeable guy, very successful at the college level and hopefully he can bring it to the Bulls.

Did you get a chance to talk to Tom Thibodeau after he got fired?
Yeah, I talked to Thibs. I still talk to a few of the assistants also. On a personal level, I think Thibs is a great coach. He did a lot of good things for Chicago. He was my first coach in the NBA so I will always have love for Thibs. He made me come along as a player. I owe him a lot and I really respect what he's done for me as a person and player and for Chicago. I've talked to him and, you know, he's doing some stuff on TV now. I don't know exactly what he's going to do so I couldn't tell you that, but I know he did the best he could do while he was here.

You're also a Taylor Swift fan, right?
I am a T-Swift fan. I'm going to see her in San Diego in August. I'm not going to say I'm gonna be in the back screaming but…I didn't say I wouldn't.

Will it be the first time you're seeing her?
In concert, yeah. She's a Knicks fan so whenever we play the Knicks I just go up to her and say, "Hey, you know, I listen to your music" and she's like, "Oh, well I watch you play basketball."

Do you play a little harder when she's in the house?
Nah, I just play no matter who is there. The hardest people to play in front of are my brothers and friends from childhood, because I can never take them seriously. I know when they're sitting in the stands; it's constant jokes. They're just waiting on me to shoot an air ball or dribble the ball off my foot so they can laugh. If it's another celebrity, I'm just out there doing what they do, putting on a show.

You grew up listening to country music, right?
I actually picked up country in college. You know those Beats by Dre headphones? Everybody had them in the locker room. Everybody's listening to warm up music, hip-hop and this and that. I would say, "Turn it down," because the headphones are so loud there's music coming from every direction. They're like, "Don't tell me what to do, put on your headphones unless you want to hear this." The next game, I came in listening to Brad Paisley's "Whiskey Lullaby" and everybody says, "Oh man, don't listen to that. Turn that down." I said what they said to me: "No, you listen to your headphones. I listen to mine." Then I actually started to get into it. Ever since, I've been a huge fan. It has a little pop, a little hip-hop within it, and I've built a couple of relationships with country artists. I just try to support those who are really great in their class. I love music as a whole. Country music, hip-hop. I just like people being passionate with what they love to do. 

Jimmy Butler
Butler attends the Country Music Television Awards in 2014. Michael Loccisano/Getty

I saw you holding a guitar once in a video. Do you play?
I used to, until I met Garth Brooks. When you play guitar, your hands are gonna be calloused. While we were talking I was looking at his hands and asked, "Man, your hands are still calloused. Did you just start playing guitar?" He was like, "No, I've been playing the guitar for 50 years." You mean to tell me that my hands are going to look like that for 50 years? I've never played since.

You asked Garth Brooks if he just started playing guitar?
Like, obviously I was joking but I was like, "Man, your hands don't get used to it?" He said, "They get used to it, but they're still calloused." I already bite my nails so my hands look terrible as it is. I need my fingertips for basketball. I wish I stayed with it because I love music. I have a beautiful voice as well. That's my true calling. This basketball thing is nothing. I'm telling you, T-Swift's gonna say, "Oh I heard you can sing, you should come on stage." When I grab the mic and start singing, everybody's gonna be like, "Oh my gosh, if I didn't know any better, I would think he's a singer." It's the vocal cords. My singing career's gonna take off. Make sure you buy my EP.

So basketball's a day job?
Yeah, basketball's just a day job. I'm like Batman, except for singing. No, Superman. I dress up in a basketball uniform by day. I mean night, because I play at night. But after the game, I take off my uniform and it's the Superman of singing outfits. I don't think that was a good comparison now that I've thought about it.

You really own the country identity, cowboy boots and all.
Yeah, it's who people think I am, because I'm from Texas. Now though, I wear more Jordan's because I'm with the Jordan Brand and I love Jordans. Michael Jordan's an incredible person, an incredible athlete. I got a chance to meet him plenty of times. He's a hell of a guy – a fierce competitor – but a normal guy. You probably won't catch me in too many cowboy boots now. I think time has changed the way I dress. Not too many low-cut jeans, more straight-legged stuff. Suits with Jordans. J's on my feet, as people say.

You've spent a lot of time doing charity work in Chicago, right?
Yeah. I love kids. They look up to guys that play sports. They're going to take what I have to say into account. If you tell them your story, growing up, how you got to where you are, how hard you had to work, how you gotta do things the right way, you can change lives. That's bigger than basketball. I try to use basketball to show them how important it is to set your mind on something and dream big. When a parent says, "Hey, my kids want to be just like you, and they couldn't have a picked a better person," that's deep. That's the ultimate sign of respect. That really touches my heart. It's very humbling. It's a great feeling to know they accept their kids idolizing me. I love that. I would never tell them they can't be a professional athlete. By all means, shoot for that. Chase your dreams and be great at whatever you're aspiring to be great at.

There's a kid that works for the Bulls, Sherdell Mallett, a really good kid from the South Side of Chicago and the Urban Alliance really changed his life. Every time I see him I make sure I give him a hug and say what's up. He really respects me because I talk to him like a normal human being. We'll sit down, catch up. It's the type of stuff that really goes a long way. I think everything has been put in perspective for him. He knows if he puts his mind to something, he can make it happen. He's in college, he's gonna graduate and I'm so happy for Sherdell because he deserves it. He's the smartest, brightest kid and he wants to do well in everyone's eyes and I just continue to remind him, "Do what's right for you, because that's what's gonna go the furthest. Be who you wanna be."

So what are your plans for the rest of the summer?
Traveling. Working out. I'm very passionate about what I do and I want to be the best. It's all about perfecting my craft so as soon as I get to San Diego, I'll start working out and hopefully come back even better next season.

You're talking about singing, right?
Of course. What'd you think I was talking about? I told you: Basketball's a day job. The singing stuff is natural. I would hit you with a few notes, but I can't sing for free no more. If I sing for you, you're not gonna buy my EP.

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