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Jimmy Butler’s path to Bulls: It’s a belong story

NEW YORK NY - MARCH 09: Jimmy Butler #33 Marquette Golden Eagles drives with ball against John Flowers #41 West

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 09: Jimmy Butler #33 of the Marquette Golden Eagles drives with the ball against John Flowers #41 of the West Virginia Mountaineers during the second round of the 2011 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament presented by American Eagle Outfitters at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** John Flowers;Jimmy Butler

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Updated: September 30, 2011 12:24AM

The celebration for Bulls first-round draft pick Jimmy Butler reached its pinnacle Thursday night with a family food fight.

‘‘I don’t even know how it started,’’ Michelle Lambert said. ‘‘We had a cake for him and then someone shoved cake in his face, and then everyone started taking cake and rubbing it all over. After the destruction, we all cleaned up. There was icing on my ceiling.’’

Lambert uttered that last sentence with a mixture of wonder and delight. And somewhere in there was awe over what a crazy world this is and how stories and lives can go in directions that you least expect.

Butler is her son. Not legally her son, but in every other way her son. The son she loves. The son she worries about. The son she laughs at when he has cake on his face.

He’s the son who overcame a rootless, parent-less stretch in high school, the son who didn’t get a Division I scholarship, the son who went to junior college and made enough of a name for himself there to get a ride to Marquette.

The son who’s finally opening up about his secret life.

She and her large family took Butler into their Tomball, Texas, home long after his mother had thrown him out at the age of 13. He had bounced around from home to home, staying with friends for a while and then moving on like a tumbleweed.

He was going into his senior year at Tomball High School, near Houston, when Lambert’s freshman son, Jordan Leslie, challenged him to a three-point contest at the outdoor basketball court down the street from the Lambert home. They became friends.

It eventually became clear to Leslie that Butler had no permanent place to live, that his was an existence of sleeping on couches and accepting meals whenever they were offered. After a friend’s father came home from a long trip as a trucker and needed his bed back, Butler was on his own again. Jordan invited him to stay the night at his home. There already were two parents and seven children at the Lambert’s. What was one more person?

‘‘He would come over and sleep here a couple nights,’’ Lambert said. ‘‘Then it got a little bit more and a little bit more. Finally, we were like, ‘Come on, Jordan, it’s a school night, you can’t have someone spending the night with you all the time.’ We told him no more than two nights together.

‘‘On the third night, I said, ‘Jordan, it’s the third night, Jimmy’s still here, what’s going on?’ One of my other kids said, ‘Oh, Jimmy’s spending the night with me tonight.’ That’s when I realized they had beat us. We were like, ‘You little sneaky people.’ ’’

‘Part of our lives immediately’

Lambert had three kids from a previous marriage, as did her husband, Michael. Then they had a child together. Then came Jimmy. She and her husband talked about the financial implications of having another mouth to feed. Michael Lambert has a construction business. Michelle is an engineer tech for a gas and oil company.

They decided the implications of not taking in Butler were greater.

‘‘The kids just loved him immediately,’’ she said. ‘‘He became part of our lives immediately.’’

He was a talented basketball player, but a wounded 17-year-old. He was extremely versatile on the court but didn’t like opening up away from it.

‘‘For a long time, he was very shy,’’ Lambert said. ‘‘He wouldn’t come downstairs and eat. He would have the kids come bring him food. I think he thought if we saw him a lot that we’d realize he was there and try to make him leave or something. So he was very, very low-profile.’’

If this sounds something like The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’ 2006 best-selling book about a black kid who moves in with a white family and ends up an NFL star, it’s because it is. Michelle Lambert is white, her husband black.

The biggest similarity Lambert sees is the vulnerability that Butler and Michael Oher, the focus of the book (and later, the movie), share. Oher went on to become the Baltimore Ravens’ first-round pick in 2009.

‘‘I had to tell Jimmy many times, ‘This is not a conditional love. This is forever. We will argue, and I might not agree with you, but there is nothing in this world that you could do that I’m turning my back on you,’ ’’ Lambert said. ‘‘I still have to tell him that a lot. He’s very conditioned that if someone gets mad at him, they’re gone.

‘‘Sometimes, he pushes people away. He does not get close to many people at all. He’s very,
very guarded. Extremely guarded.’’

He’s so guarded that most people didn’t know his story until reported it last week. In Marquette’s media guide, his parents are listed as Londa and Jimmy Butler. His father hasn’t been in his life since he was an infant.

There was a reason he kept his background a secret.

‘‘I want to be treated like a normal person with a normal family,’’ he said. ‘‘It might not look like that, but I want it to feel like that. I don’t look at it as anything else than my family, as simple as that.’’

To this day, he said, he doesn’t know why his biological mother kicked him out of the house. He does know that, as painful as it was, it helped form him into what he became as a basketball player.

‘‘That was the fuel to my fire,’’ he said. ‘‘It gave me the perseverance to push through anything.’’

He was a very good player in high school but didn’t play much AAU ball, the lifeline of college recruiting, because he often couldn’t get a ride to games or practices.

Brad Ball, Butler’s basketball coach at Tomball, knew there were difficulties in his star’s personal life but didn’t know the full extent. With more of the details emerging now, he can see Butler was desperate for structure.

“Of all the kids I ever coached, no kid has ever spent more time in the gym or watched more game film with me than Jimmy Butler,’’ Ball said. ‘‘He’d be there Saturday mornings before practice, and he’d constantly call me about getting in the gym.

‘‘You look back on it, and maybe that was part of the reason why he spent so much time with me.’’

Support at every turn

After a year at Tyler (Texas) Junior College and with more stability in his life, Butler finally was comfortable and in demand. He signed with Marquette and coach Buzz Williams. There were tough times ahead.

‘‘He never had a man get on him,’’ Lambert said. ‘‘Buzz is a tough coach. He’s a great coach. But that was hard for Jimmy to deal with. He never had all that discipline. He’d call me: ‘Mommy, I’m coming home. I shouldn’t have gone here. I hate it.’ He had to sit on the bench his sophomore year. There were many phone calls.

‘‘I said, ‘No, you’re going to suck this up. You’re going to be a man, and you’re going to go out there and you’re going to do what you need to.’ ’’

He did. He averaged about 15 points his junior and senior years at Marquette but, more important, played defense like a bodyguard. That surely puts a skip in the step of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

All the stability that had been missing for Butler was now there for him. When he was home from Marquette during the summer, he’d get up at 6 a.m. to see his brother and sister play soccer games, sometimes four or five in a row. The Lambert’s children range in age from 8 to 23.

‘‘That’s my family,’’ he said. ‘‘I support them just like they support me. If I had a game at 4:45 a.m., they’d be there to watch me play. I don’t get much of a chance to see them play because I’m always busy with basketball. When I get a chance to see them, I don’t care if I have to stay up all night to watch them play.

‘‘I’ve lived it: When you support somebody, they can do incredible things.’’

Lambert worries about him as he goes forward.

‘‘He is very, very sweet, and he’s very, very naïve,’’ she said. ‘‘I tell him daily, ‘Remember that these people coming out of the woodwork weren’t there for you when you needed them. You be polite, you be nice, but don’t give in to these people with feel-sorry stories.’ ’’

He recently shut down his Facebook page. He never knew he had so many cousins.

Lambert talks to him about living life a certain way.

‘‘I don’t want the bad images,’’ she said. ‘‘I don’t want to see him on the news and have all these baby mommas. I don’t want the tattoos up and down his arms and his neck and his face. I say, ‘Look respectful because this little deal is going to last a couple years, and then the real world starts.’ ’’

The past? That’s where it’s going to stay with Michelle Lambert.

‘‘To me, the early part of his life doesn’t exist,’’ she said. ‘‘I mean, it does exist, but I just think of him as mine and that he’s been with us forever.’’

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