After an off-season in which it seemed like the N.B.A. never took a break, The New York Times talked to a few of the league’s stars about some of the other important things in their lives — anything but basketball.
First is Jimmy Butler, the four-time All-Star who joined the Miami Heat this summer after a deep postseason run with the Philadelphia 76ers.
MIAMI — The day before he won a gold medal with the United States men’s basketball team at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Jimmy Butler tried a form of game preparation that was completely foreign. He watched the men’s soccer final as a fan at Brazil’s famed Maracanã stadium.
It was the first soccer match that Butler, then 26, had ever attended.
“I watched the greatest soccer player of all time win gold as well,” Butler recalled. “You know who I’m talking about, right?”
As usual with the Miami Heat’s ever-edgy Butler, there was little subtlety in his delivery. He was, of course, referring to the star forward Neymar, whose goal and subsequent clinching penalty kick in a shootout against Germany finally secured Brazil’s first Olympic gold to go with its five World Cup crowns.
“He won gold in his own country, which is even better,” Butler said. “It was the first time I really paid attention to it and he was killin’ — look at 10 go. And the crowd was just going nuts. I went that one time, and that was it.”
What he means: That initial exposure to the 5-foot-9 Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. was enough to turn the 6-foot-8 Butler into Neymar’s self-proclaimed biggest fan.
Upon Butler’s return to the United States, it wasn’t long before he started regularly wearing Neymar’s club and national-team jerseys and posting pictures to Instagram. Friends say Butler, who turned 30 in September, also will routinely throw thank yous “for the gift of Neymar Jr.” into the blessings he recites before meals.
Neymar said in an email that Butler’s support was “very special to me” and added: “Jimmy has a big heart. Our friendship is based on sincerity and honesty. He is shy and at the same time, his fun side is what makes him different.”
By the summer of 2018, Butler and Neymar were full-fledged pals, connecting through social media in what surely ranks as one of the most high-profile bromances in sports.
In August 2018, after his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Butler went to France to watch Neymar play for Paris Saint-Germain. This June, Butler prepared for N.B.A. free agency by traveling to Rio to spend time with Neymar.
“Now we kick it every summer as much as we can,” said Butler, who also was treated to a dose of Neymar on United States soil last month when Brazil played Colombia in Miami in an international friendly.
For much of Butler’s N.B.A. career, one of his signature quirks was taking an American football with him to throw around in his spare time wherever he went. Butler, in 2016, elicited incessant ribbing from his Olympic teammates in Brazil for repeatedly insisting — loudly — that he was an N.F.L.-caliber wide receiver.
But after Neymar introduced him to the racket sport padel, Butler adopted it as his new conditioning hobby. Now he travels with a professional padel bag loaded with rackets and plays frequently with James Scott, his personal performance coach.
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Butler is the first to admit that pastimes such as padel and watching soccer weren’t “in the cards for me at all.” Growing up in the Houston suburb of Tomball, Texas, he never kicked a soccer ball.
“Nope,” Butler said. “Only kicked a basketball when I got” angry.
But Butler has done a lot of changing since his arrival in the N.B.A. as the 30th overall pick of the Chicago Bulls in 2011. He blossomed into a four-time All-Star with a reputation as a hypercompetitive and demanding teammate, unafraid to also challenge coaches, team executives, whomever. In an interview with Yahoo Sports last season, Butler acknowledged that he could rightly be described as “confrontational.” He has also described himself as “a little extra at times.”
None of that, though, has prevented him from bonding with some of world soccer’s elite. In addition to Neymar, Butler enjoys a budding friendship with the mercurial Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba — whom he met over FaceTime in July after a chance introduction to Pogba’s mother, Yeo, in Senegal.
While Butler was on a trip to Senegal to visit the family of the Philadelphia 76ers’ player-development coach, Remy Ndiaye, Yeo Pogba spotted him in a hotel lobby and arranged for the basketball star to speak to her son. Within a month — while spending six weeks of his off-season in London to help feed another one of his passions, international travel — Butler made a trip to Old Trafford on Aug. 11 to watch Pogba and Manchester United rout Chelsea, 4-0, in the English Premier League.
“I’m Neymar to the death of me, and I’m Paul Pogba to the death of me,” Butler said.
The sudden manifestation of Butler’s soccer fandom has earned him some further needling from fellow players — especially since he wasn’t lured to the game through the much more common route for N.B.A. players: playing Electronic Arts’s popular FIFA video game series.
One example: Miami’s veteran guard Goran Dragic, much more seasoned as a soccer-watcher after growing up in Slovenia, doesn’t hesitate to challenge Butler’s frequent “Neymar is the G.O.A.T” proclamations by telling him Lionel Messi is the smarter choice for the greatest of all time.
But Butler makes it clear that he is serious about his soccer — no matter what anyone thinks. When a reporter sought to Americanize the conversation by asking which of Neymar’s “jerseys” he owns, Butler offered a stern rebuke.
“They’re called ‘shirts,’ by the way,” Butler said. “Not ‘jerseys.’ You sound like a rookie.”
As he prepares to begin his new work life with the Heat, Butler is pushing back harder against those around the N.B.A. who have criticized him for how much he has changed from his early days in the league. Back then, he was known as a coach-pleaser who liked to accentuate his Texas roots by wearing cowboy boots and oversize belt buckles, and listening to country music.
“I like it,” Butler said of the knock that he has changed too much. “I am different. I’ve picked up a lot of different hobbies. I don’t want to stay the same.
“I do what makes me happy. Some people just don’t like it. Some people just don’t want people to be happy.”
And some people, like Butler, think it is perfectly reasonable to sit on a balcony in Rio days before committing to join the Heat, sketching a green No. 10 inside a yellow square and then announcing to the world in an Instagram video that he’s “drawing pictures of goats.”
“I just saw him that first time and I was like, damn, damn, he’s tough,” Butler said. “Ever since then, he’s my friend, and I’m a fan.”