Among the millions of sports fans glued to their TV screens during the NBA playoffs, Tyler Junior College men’s head basketball coach Mike Marquis has a special interest in the action.
Miami Heat star player Jimmy Butler got his start at TJC, and Marquis hasn’t missed a minute of his former Apache’s dominance on the court.
Butler has ridden a wave of success since being picked 30th overall in the 2011 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls: Six-time NBA All-Star. 2015 NBA Most Improved Player. 2016 Olympic gold medalist. 2023 Larry Bird Trophy for Eastern Conference final MVP.
His life wasn’t always as stellar as it is today. Born near Houston, Butler’s father abandoned his family when he was an infant; and his mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13. Bouncing between families as a student at Tomball High School, he began playing basketball, becoming team captain and voted the team’s most valuable player. Although he averaged 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a senior, Butler wasn’t heavily recruited by college scouts.
His life took a significant turn for the better in 2007, when Marquis invited him to TJC for a visit.
“I fell in love with his personality,” Marquis said, “and after watching him play, I realized not only was he a great person, but he was also a wonderful talent.”
Butler led the Apaches in scoring that year, with 19 points per game. With a strong work ethic and ability to communicate with others, he quickly became a team leader. The next year, Butler went on to play for Marquette University and was drafted in 2011 by the Chicago Bulls, who had been watching him for several years thanks to the suggestion of Coach Marquis. There, he exhibited the same drive and focus to become a starter and eventually be named the most improved player in the NBA and an NBA All-Star.
He spent the 2017-18 season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and 2018-19 with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Butler joined the Miami Heat in 2019, and the team is now appearing in its second NBA Finals in Butler’s four years with the team. The series begins Thursday when the Heat tip off against the Denver Nuggets.
When Jimmy Butler does big things on the basketball court, Marquis’ phone starts ringing. He’s been fielding a lot of media calls in recent days.
“So far, there’s been The Washington Post, The Ringer Podcast Network, Sporting News, Texas Monthly and The New York Times,” he said. “There isn’t any former player I wouldn’t do this for. It’s fun. I love it.”
Marquis describes Butler’s transformation from a fledgling TJC freshman into an NBA powerhouse.
“When he got here right out of high school, he was a bit more insecure,” he said. “Then, as more success came his way and his confidence grew, the natural leadership abilities came out. I thought he had a chance to be very special early on.
“There were three things about him that I noticed right from the start, that he still exhibits today: 1) He always seeks contact. He’s a very physical player. He was like that even as a freshman. Most players are avoiding contact, but he liked it. He wanted to mix it up; 2) He craves knowledge. He wanted to learn about the game and his position — and how to get better; and 3) He was maybe the most competitive person I’ve ever been around. There have been a few others, but he was competitive in drills, in one-on-one situations, in practice and in games. He doesn’t let up.”
Butler recalls TJC as a pivotal time in his life.
“It was the first time that someone took a chance on me,” he said in a 2022 New York Times interview.
Marquis said, “He signed his jersey to me, ‘Once an Apache, always an Apache.’ That pride and loyalty goes all the way back to Coach Floyd Wagstaff. People who played for Coach Wagstaff want to talk to me about Jimmy. People who are coming here next year as freshmen want to talk about Jimmy.
“Apache Nation is absolutely behind him all the way. He is an amazing story, and obviously we couldn’t be prouder or love him more than we do. TJC has thousands and thousands of success stories in all walks of life. It’s just that in Jimmy’s particular walk of life, there’s a lot of publicity that goes with it.”