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For Jimmy Butler, family comes before everything else

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Bulls star Jimmy Butler never had a chance.

All the hours of training he had put in and all the talent he had been born with were about to be reduced to rubble.

‘‘Humbling,’’ Butler said. ‘‘Very humbling.’’

Very expensive, too.

Butler had a growing fascination with being a football player, and a Pro Bowl receiver was willing to grant him his wish.

Butler and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown first met two years ago. The friendship quickly blossomed, and the two were in a bromance by last summer. They even started working out together during the offseason, and that’s when the challenge was issued.

Butler thought he could lock down Brown, so he got his opportunity on a football field at UCLA. His challenge was to stop Brown from scoring in the red zone.

‘‘Jimmy possesses football skills out on the basketball court,’’ Brown told the Sun-Times. ‘‘Super-fast, super-explosive, big body, long. He’s an athletic man. It’s amazing to see him with a basketball in his hands. But he’s not a football player.’’

He’s definitely not a cornerback.

‘‘I thought I was better at football than what I am,’’ Butler said. ‘‘He’s a little quick and too fast. I thought I had a chance. It was bad. I now understand why NFL teams don’t want me playing defense. I think I should just stick to defense on the basketball court.’’

The cost of that lesson?

‘‘I think I’m about $20,000 in the hole to him because of that day,’’ Butler said. ‘‘I’ll take care of it.’’

• • •

‘‘Family’’ has nothing to do with blood for Butler.

It never has. It really never could.

His story has been told numerous times. He grew up never knowing his father. Then when he was 13, his mother told him, ‘‘I don’t like the look of you.’’

He was homeless and moved from house to house before he was adopted by the Lambert family. Just like that, he found himself with seven brothers and sisters.

When Butler says, ‘‘My brothers are coming to the All-Star Game with me,’’ it can mean a lot of things. His half-brothers, his trainers, Brown and good friend/actor Mark Wahlberg are all family in Butler’s mind.

‘‘I think that’s what draws each of us to each other,’’ Brown said of their friendship. ‘‘We both persevered and share similar stories as far as how we were brought up.

‘‘Jimmy had to be a man at a young age when he was forced into an unfortunate situation. He never surrendered, never gave up. He’s a self-made guy who had the odds against him and didn’t let that affect his attitude, who he was going to be.

‘‘He worked, went to college and figured out how to get things done. A guy like that needs praise. That’s what makes him attractive to so many people in the sports world. It’s not the guy on the outside; it’s the person he is within. A person who came from nothing and created all these things, while still acting like the guy who he was when it all started. That’s rare.’’

Not only do Brown and Butler have similar backgrounds, but throw Wahlberg into that mix, too. All three men could have turned out much differently, but they share a work ethic that wouldn’t allow it.

‘‘Family is everything, and I think people see that about me,’’ Butler said. ‘‘They see that I keep the same people around me. I’m not changing, no matter how much success I have. If you haven’t figured that out yet, I don’t know what to tell you.

‘‘I’m going to continue to work, no matter how much fame and success I have, no matter how much money I have. I don’t care about none of that. This is what makes me happy. This is what brings me joy. And when I can surround myself with people that have that same drive, love their craft like Antonio does, I need to keep guys like that around.’’

• • •

Butler is still bothered by the events of the last 10 days.

After the Bulls wasted a big lead and lost Jan. 25

to the Atlanta Hawks, Butler and Dwyane Wade were very vocal about the other players on the roster, questioning their heart and work ethic.

Wade singled out the younger players, but Butler’s message was to everyone wearing a uniform and in the coaching room. It didn’t discriminate.

No Bulls player has done more with the young players than Butler the last three seasons. He has invited Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott and former teammate Tony Snell to his offseason ‘‘boot camp’’ and always has put in extra work with them during the season.

So Butler didn’t appreciate some saying he was picking on the Bulls’ young players.

‘‘Those are my guys,’’ Butler said. ‘‘They know that.’’

‘‘[Jimmy] has been great with me, great with the young guys,’’ McDermott said. ‘‘He’s gone out of his way to make us better. Jimmy’s gone beyond what I could have asked of him or expected from him.’’

When Butler is bothered by distractions, he will pick up the phone and talk to someone such as Wahlberg or Brown.

‘‘He’s a guy that inspires me, and I hope I do the same,’’ Brown said. ‘‘We can talk about anything.’’’

So while outsiders might want to continue using broad strokes to paint Butler as a diva or as selfish, Butler knows who he is. His ‘‘family’’ knows who he is.

‘‘Coming from nothing, I just work hard, and I want to be around people that work hard,’’ Butler said. ‘‘[Brown] is the same way, like Mark. They just get it. They want to be the best at their craft. Do whatever it takes to be that, as long as it’s the right thing to do. They control what they can control, and I’m drawn to that.

‘‘But I don’t care if you have a million yards on the football field or make a million dollars with your movies. It’s about who you are, the guy you are around your kids, brothers, sisters. Family is everything.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com