The art of turning heel can befuddle so many great athletes. Hulk Hogan was so likeable that even his roots and his wrestling style couldn’t overcome being the hero he was to so many, as WWE savant David Shoemaker explained for Grantland in 2012. Hogan simply couldn’t be a villain.
In the NBA, it can throw players off their game. Take the 2010-2011 season. What many thought would be the second coming of the Boston Celtics big three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, in terms of popularity and likeability, turned into a tour of booing cities when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami.
James’ boxscore numbers were solid but the number of wins he personally contributed to was lower than previous years. You could say that’s because he had better talent around him, which is true, but the percentage of win shares he earned that season were also the lowest of his tenure with the Heat.
The team also failed to win the championship that year and James’ reputation took a hit. He was no longer the beloved NBA star that rose to prominence with the Cleveland Cavaliers, instead he was the player who betrayed his hometown to join forces with two other elite players for a conference rival. Whether it was because of the move at large or the way it was done, via an hour-long TV special on national television, being part of the self-proclaimed Heatles took its toll on the best player in the NBA.
James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols during the summer after that first year: “I play the game fun, joyful, and I let my game do all of the talking and I got away from that. That’s what I lost last year. Going through my first seven years in the NBA I was always the ‘liked one’ and to be on the other side – they call it the dark side or the villain or whatever they call it – it was definitely challenging for myself. It was a situation I had never been in before, and it took awhile… it took a long time to adjust to it.”
Arguably the most popular professional wrestler of all time, and most definitely in the past 20 years, is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. When he first joined the WWE (then WWF) in the 1990s, he was billed as the grandson of the legendary High Chief Peter Maivia with the clean-cut, smiling, confident character to show it. But the dawn of the Attitude Era had begun, and fans were more supportive of new rule breakers and people with a modern middle-finger-up mentality who were making their own way – not someone with an inherited reputation.
Johnson said as part of Oprah Winfrey’s Oprah’s Master Class series a few years ago: “It wasn’t me personally that they didn’t like. It’s that I wasn’t being me. I wasn’t being real. I wasn’t being authentic. Who is this guy in wrestling who’s smiling when he’s getting beat?”
While James wasn’t smiling much when the Miami Heat lost games during his year as a heel, he wasn’t smiling much at any other time. He wasn’t being his true self.
The best villains are those who love taking on the role. When you look back at the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys years in the late 1980s and early 1990s – held up as the greatest NBA villains ever – they were led by the conniving, smiling assassin Isiah Thomas. But the poster boy of brutishness and dirty play at the time was Bill Laimbeer. People hated him.
During the 1990 NBA Finals, the great Jack McCallum reported on Game 3 for Sports Illustrated. The title of his piece about Detroit’s victory, in which Laimbeer scored 11 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and fouled out after 40 minutes of shithousery, was ‘The Villain Was The Hero’. The Pistons center helped his team go up 2-1 in the series, in which they eventually beat the Portland Trail Blazers.
Before leaving the arena, McCallum wrote: “Laimbeer left the locker room wearing a black Blues Brothers-style hat that [Mark] Aguirre had given him. ‘I figured I might as well wear the hat that fits the role’ said Laimbeer.”
This is a hat that Laimbeer continues to wear today and, according to an espnW feature by Kate Fagan in 2013, the Bad Boy has continued to don the metaphorical look as a coach, even with the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces today. One NBA general manager tried to explain to Fagan why Laimbeer had never been a head coach in the NBA.
A draft workout Laimbeer had previously run as an assistant to Kurt Rambis, with the Minnesota Timberwolves, showed what type of villain he still is today. “Once the drill started, though, the players occasionally forgot the whole ‘outlet the ball’ part, and Laimbeer, as he is known to do, called them out in a sarcastic manner. The next time around, the players remembered to outlet the ball but forgot about the chest pass. Laimbeer became visibly agitated by their inability to run the drill correctly. ‘By the end of the workout, we all thought there might be a fight on the court’.”
Even the greatest women’s baller of all time, and one of the toughest basketball players on the planet, Diana Taurasi, recognised Laimbeer’s villainy this season when her Phoenix Mercury played the Aces. She said: “Bill’s teams are always tough.”
That’s the key to being a heel. It needs to remain within you, not be a fleeting thought or decision as part of one training session or game.
In the modern NBA, Kobe Bryant is considered one of the league’s greatest villains, partly because he had the talent to back it up. Since he’s retired, few players have had the ability to be truly hated because of their lack of talent on both ends of the floor. Draymond Green is a key part of Golden State’s offensive engine, but he is loathed by opposing teams because he locks up their best player and trash talks them with the level of respect the American people afforded Alexander Hamilton as a founding father of the country, prior to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit musical.
Green’s teammate Kevin Durant turned heel when he joined the Warriors at the start of the 2016-2017 season, but NBA Twitter’s jokes about him signing in Golden State are beginning to get old. Fewer people like him than they used to, because the remarks he previously made as part of the young Oklahoma City Thunder were feisty, and now they seem arrogant. But Durant is a complex person. He’s been in front of enough cameras with the Warriors circus the past two years and on the Bill Simmons podcast enough times that people are unfazed by him. He’s not a villain. He just made a dick move in some fans’ eyes.
So, we need a new villain.
At the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason training, Jimmy Butler went full-on evil dude spouting his third-act monologue about how his world takeover plan is coming to be realized. It was the pinnacle of a heel turn. In the WWE, he would have just beaten the babyface at Wrestlemania, holding the belt aloft in front of thousands of booing fans. In Hollywood, he will have just cocked a gun and pointed it at Doc Emmett Brown in the year 1885, but no one has yet thrown a frisbee at his hand and said “lighten up, jerk”.
Instead, he just got dapped up by a young talented player in Andrew Wiggins, a sure sign of a challenger ceding victory to be the leader of the pack.
In the first home game of the season, Timberwolves fans booed him every time he touched the ball versus the Cleveland Cavaliers. By the end, Minnesota was chanting “MVP! MVP!”
Like Durant, Butler is a complex personality. His back story is an inspiring one, of essentially pulling himself out of broken homes in rough neighbourhoods to reach where he is today. Since becoming recognized, he has been a comedic, engaging presence in public and on TV shows, but rumours have also swirled around the league that he has been a bad teammate or a negative locker room presence.
First, he was the hard-working teammate who was a great addition to a strong defensive line-up in Chicago. Then he went from being a help on the offensive end to being a great scorer. He then (rightly) wanted the Bulls to move on from certain players so he could be the leading man. When they left, Dwyane Wade joined a young core but with little success and there wasn’t enough talent on the roster to reach the next level.
After some friction with other teammates, Wade and Butler wanted out. When the latter first got to Minnesota, he was going to be the respected veteran who taught the younger players how to behave, then he showed them how to lead by example, and soon took over the team. This offseason, he apparently requested a trade four days after the end of the team’s final game, did so again two weeks before the start of the 2018-2019 campaign, and then arrived at the now famous preseason training session.
Butler has worn many hats, but he has picked the black one.
As there have been so many sides to Butler’s personality, it is tough to figure out whether villainy suits him. Not every personality can handle being a heel, but early indications suggest that this is where Butler thrives.
In the first two games of the season, Butler averaged 28 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists with the second highest plus-minus of his career. It’s still early, but he also averaged 34 minutes per game, the lowest of the past six years, and he has remained efficient: shooting 57% inside the arc, 40% outside.
While personal productivity will be important for Butler as he aims for another big contract at the end of this season, he will ultimately be judged on wins. Bryant eventually got his own way after turning full heel, demanding trades and stamping his feet, and his Lakers ended up winning two championships with him as the face of the franchise. This is what secured his legacy – despite arguably being the second best player on the team for at least one of those titles – and this is what will secure Butler’s reputation.
Does he want to end his career in the same category as Latrell Sprewell, a supremely talented individual, marred by hotheaded outbreaks in pressure filled situations that costs wins and broke up relationships on the team? Between 1993 and 1998, Sprewell averaged more than 20 points per game, but his Golden State Warriors won more than half their games in one season just once.
Or he could end up with a career similar to the likes of Ron Artest, who NBA players and fans hated unless he was on their team. In a career where he was also known as Metta World Peace, Artest fought, frustrated and annoyed other players, but rarely his own teammates, and he eventually won an NBA title as part of the 2009-2010 LA Lakers.
To determine Butler’s success, he needs to be true to his nature, but realise that regardless of his talent, the game is more than just his place in it. Whether he plays with the Minnesota Timberwolves, in LA, New York or elsewhere, the NBA needs a heel and Butler is primed to be the player fans want to root against. But just because they’ll boo him like a pantomime baddie, this doesn’t mean he can’t still be one of the best players of this era. How he, and his Minnesota teammates, respond to being the NBA’s new heel could be a turning point in his, and their, career.