On a snowy March evening in Chicago, before a packed house at the popular karaoke joint Trader Todd's, Jimmy Butler, reluctant face but willing voice of the Bulls franchise, boldly steps to the mic and clears his throat.
As the DJ cues Butler's hand-picked song, "Nobody Knows," originally performed by R&B artist August Alsina, you could hear a pin drop on the sticky tile floor. Until tonight, only a privileged few have heard this three-time All-Star's full-throated vocals, which he's been known to share without remorse, and rarely with invitation, in locker rooms, on team flights and even on the hardwood. "Jimmy actually isn't a bad singer," Butler's fellow Olympic gold-medalist Harrison Barnes recently texted me. "But his playlist needs some work."
On that, Butler's peers can agree. The 27-year-old Tomball, Texas, native, country music devotee and Taylor Swift fanboy dances to a different beat than your typical NBA player. But there appears to be some disagreement over his pitch and tone. As Team USA's DeMarcus Cousins told me upon their return from Rio, "Great guy, great teammate -- when he's not singing."
Up to this point, I've given Butler the benefit of the doubt. If the sixth-year forward, 27, can't carry a tune, then why would he attempt a two-song set -- which would include our duet of what I can only describe as a lovey-dovey country ballad -- before dozens of buzzed bar-goers armed with smartphones, not to mention ESPN's national audience?
Before he hit the stage to make his karaoke debut, Butler and I grabbed a seat at the bar to discuss his passion for music, his future in Chicago and his desire to form a musical superteam -- in name, if not talent -- with fellow All-Star DeAndre Jordan.
For more on Butler's fledgling singing career, check out the video above. But for those who can't wait, here's all you need to know: I, an empirically terrible singer, sound like Adele next to Jimmy Butler.
Why were you interested in karaoke tonight?
It gives me a chance to do something I think I'm really good at. I actually didn't drink my hot tea, which I normally do before I sing, but I think I'll be OK. If you think you can sing, you can sing; that's all that matters. So I'm always singing around my guys, around the team, during warm-ups, because I think people need to hear this voice. I think they deserve it.
And, we actually have something to celebrate tonight. You're a Bull still.
I am. And I hope to be for a very long time as well.
How do you feel about making it through the trade deadline, still in place as the face of the franchise?
I don't like the phrase "face of the franchise." I just want to be a part of it. I think we have a really good team. When we start winning games, it looks a lot better. Of course, things are said, things happen, but I'm glad to be here. I want to be here. Hopefully the city and my organization want me to be here as well.
Do you hope to finish your career with the Bulls?
Yes. I can't see what tomorrow will bring, but I love it here. You know, they took a risk on a kid that was not very good with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft, so I feel like I owe the city the little amount of talent that I have on that basketball court. I love it here. I love these people. I want to be here.
What do your teammates think about your country music?
The majority of them hate it. Some of it's catchy, though. I play it so much my teammates might just mouth a word or two across the locker room. They won't let you know, but they definitely do it.
Granted, I'm from California, but when I think country music, I think whiskey and exes who live in Texas. Why does it speak to you?
It's really laid back and mellow. And there's always a story behind it, some truthful story that happened to you. People say it's sad, but I'm getting to learn about you through your music, just from what you wrote in the song. I'm friends with a lot of them now -- Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, Russell Dickerson. I try to support them as much as I can in the offseason, traveling to different cities. I respect the hell out of what they're doing.
The NBA is synonymous with music, but you take it to another level. You pal around with musicians. You're on the cover of our magazine with Chance the Rapper. You've led a Team USA sing-along to Vanessa Carlton's "Thousand Miles." What role does music play in your life?
Music is my way of taking my mind away from the game. When I'm singing, you don't got anything to worry about. Don't gotta worry about scoring however many points or winning the game. No matter how good or how bad you are, it's fun.
If you were to put out an album, what's your genre?
Probably R&B. Maybe my second album would be country. And I'll do a pop one.
If you could choose an NBA player to put out that album with you, who would it be?
DeAndre Jordan, without a doubt.
Because I sing so much better than he does. That's going to make me sound that much better.
Terrible band, but you'll look good?
Yeah, that's what you're supposed to do -- hang around people that make you look good. Like, all my friends are ugly. All of them. So I look like a dime piece all the time. I'm winning.
Besides yourself, I heard Kyrie Irving likes to sing.
Kyrie does like to sing. And I like Kyrie, that's my guy. But he can't sing better than me.
What's the most embarrassing song I'd find on your music player's "most played" list?
Why would I tell you that?
I'll go first. When I looked the other day, I saw Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There" from "Free Willy." And if you say a bad word about "Free Willy" ...
I would never.
Because "Free Willy" is dope.
"Free Willy" is a great movie. That's a good question. I like "This Christmas," Chris Brown's version. I know all the words. And Mariah Carey. And Mary J. Blige's "I'm Goin' Down." That was one of the first songs that I memorized.
Your friendship with Mark Wahlberg is well-documented. You got Marky Mark on your playlist?
I have "Good Vibrations."
I've spoken to him, and I always tell people, he's the movie star you want to drink with. And you actually drink with him.
That's my guy. He's been a big part of my career, just knowing that you can always be yourself off camera. He always keeps his guys around, just like I do. Wakes up early, gets his work done, and spends time with his family, like I'm trying to. He's one of the best, most genuine human beings.
If you could have any job in music, what would you do?
I'd figure out how to write songs. Then I'm a part of it, but you never see me on stage. I don't like all that fame all the time. I'm a small-town kid. Sometimes I just want to be able to walk into a karaoke bar and sing and everybody not freak out.
Clearly you also fantasize about being a singer.
I am a singer. I just don't get the opportunity to show my talent.
Who in your life enjoys your singing the most?
Nobody. I don't care either, because you're going to deal with it. If I ask for a compliment, you better tell me something nice. I could make my guys do my laundry. I can make you mop the floor with your hands. No, all I ask you to do is be my audience.
If you could join any pop artist on stage, who would it be?
Ya know, I like Taylor Swift, but I think she'd try to make me be a background dancer. And I've got moves, but not like that. I'm going with Justin Bieber. Just the fan base that he has -- of all ages. His music is hella catchy. I like his brand. You can't not like him.
Jimmy Butler is a Belieber.
You said that.
There are cameras everywhere. We have it on tape.
No, you asked me. I just said that's who I would be on stage with!
You once told "Rolling Stone" that your voice is so beautiful that if Taylor Swift heard it, she'd pull you on stage with her. So T-Swift is on your wish list of collaborators?
Yeah, but my schedule is busy, so I don't know if me and her would ever get a chance to sing together. So much going on in my life.
I don't get the T-Swift backlash.
You're a Swift-liever?
She's talented, she plays instruments, she's pretty. I'll say it: I've got a crush on her.
I think her music is catchy. She killed in country, killing pop. Who knows what's next. I support anybody that wants to be the best, and she's extremely talented, at the top of what she does for sure. That's why I'm a fan.
Well, tonight is your chance to show T-Swift what you got. What will you sing for us?
I'm going to sing August Alsina's "Nobody Knows."
I don't think this one is a baby-making song. And I'm not trying to have no babies no time soon. I just want to sing.
If I told you I'm down to sing a duet with you, what's the song?
"H.O.L.Y." by Florida Georgia Line. Country. And you have no choice. I'm the lead. I'm the boss.
What's it about?
Loving. "H.O.L.Y." is actually an acronym for "high on loving you."
Because that's what I think of when I think of Jimmy Butler. Any tips on singing country, on feeling the country?
You just got to speak from your heart. You can't go up there and think that it's about you, because it's not. It's about me.
It's not about the audience?
It's about me. Don't be high on loving me, though. Be high on loving somebody else. But just make me look good. Not you. Make me look good.
I get the feeling being in a band with you would suck.
And I'd want my own bus. You can connect your car to the back of my bus if you want to.