When Jimmy Butler appeared on ESPN’s First Take on July 15, he not only answered questions about the alleged “beef” between he and Derrick Rose, he gave America a small lesson in how to not feed trolls.
First Take is hardly journalism. It’s a debate show. Or, as my wife calls it, it’s the show “where those two guys are always yelling at each other.” Those two guys being Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
Athletes appearing on the show will occasionally make news because of something they said being taken out of context or slightly twisted to mean something other than what the athlete intended. It can take some fairly adept landmine navigation skills to get through it unscathed:
Butler handled himself beautifully. While remaining cooler than Nick Young a.k.a. Swaggy P on his swaggiest of days, Butler was civil and respectful while also handling difficult question with the dexterity of a seasoned diplomat.
The fun started when Bayless asked Smith, “Do you want to ask him (referring to Butler) about Derrick Rose?”
And Butler quipped, “I knew this was coming.”
“I’m gonna tell you what I hear from a lot of people I know in Chicago, where I once worked. That Derrick Rose is a little threatened by you because you have emerged — at this point in your career — as maybe a little better all-around player than he is given his knee issues, which are ongoing. And that he’s just a little threatened.
Now, you’ve been quoted as saying that you have no issues, and I believe that 100 percent. Have you felt — or how much have you felt — a little friction on his part back to you?”
Here’s the problem with the question. It assumes that the rumors are true. There’s no question about whether Bayless has heard these stories. Nor do you need to know “people” in Chicago to know that they exist. All you have to do is read their anti-Rose screeds online or in the paper.
Bayless doesn’t ask Butler if there is friction. He asks Butler if he’s felt friction. That distinction may seem like word parsing, but it’s a big difference. Strictly speaking, by answering yes, Butler acknowledges there’s friction. By answering no, he still tacitly admits that there’s friction, but denies that he felt it. And in this way he also acknowledges the premise of Bayless’s question, which is that Rose feels threatened by Butler.
In logic, this is called a “loaded question.” It’s also a main staple of journalism. It’s the “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” question. And Butler handled it brilliantly:
“I don’t think it matters. If we win, this isn’t an issue, but since we lost, it’s an issue. I think it gives y’all something to talk about to tell you the truth. If we win a championship, nobody’s worried about any of that. The only reason that it came up is because we lost.
I don’t think we have any beef or whatever you want to call it. I think we just wanna win. But we didn’t win so now we’re (supposedly) ‘beefing,’ now we have problems with each other, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Butler’s answer was spot on because he didn’t get straight to “answering” the question. First he exposed the problem with its foundation. This is media being media, fishing for an offseason story.
Bayless pushed, though, trying to get an “admission” of some sort from Butler, “Have there been any minor incidents on his part back to you? Little things that he would say?”
Butler was quick to respond, “No. I think he’s always been supportive of me being aggressive, especially on offense. We all know I’ll be the aggressor on defense. From what I can tell, the guy’s always been in my corner.”
That’s when Smith stepped in to play “good cop” to Bayless’s “bad cop” by declaring he didn’t believe the rumors for one second, and then recounting how Rose was inconsistent and was outplayed by Matthew Dellavedova in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Rather than throw shade on Rose, though, Butler smiled and responded:
“Agreed, agreed. I don’t know, I think we came out flat, and at a certain point in time, that was the game. I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but that’s what happened…
I’m confident in the group of guys we have. We’ve basically got the same team with the addition of Bobby Portis, our new rookie. I’m comfortable with where we’re at.”
Butler didn’t take the bait and take a swipe at Rose. He put the responsibility on the whole team (himself included) and changed the subject to what was going to happen next year.
Butler handled other questions well too. When Bayless asked him “Do you think the Cavs should be favored to win the East?” he answered, “Do you really think I’m going to say yeah to that question? I think I like our chances. I don’t think anyone plays this game to lose.”
When asked about playing under Tom Thibodeau, Butler responded, “It was great for me” and added “I still have a relationship with him, and I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Later, Bayless asked Butler to elaborate on why Thibodeau was fired, though, requesting Butler give “us some insight into why that (relationship with the front office) decayed and finally ended for him in Chicago.”
“I really don’t know. I don’t think that’s my job. That’s the general manager’s job. My job is to play basketball…help win games. Obviously, I didn’t have a problem with Thibs.
I think we have another great coach in Hoiberg. Sitting down with him, listening to what he has to say and his plan moving forward. I mean, I think he knows what he’s doing.”
It’s not that Butler avoided the legitimate tough questions, though. When Smith asked about the window seemingly closing on Chicago, Butler’s response was honest and reflective:
“I think we have to prove ourselves. We have to win. We can’t keep saying, ‘This is our year, this is our year, this is our year’ and not make it happen. It’s a concern. But I really think we’re capable of it. If everyone stays healthy and we play together, we really can win. But we have to make it happen.”
When asked if he wanted Hoiberg to play him fewer minutes, he said:
“I want to play. When I was a rookie I was always nagging, “I want to play, I want to play.” And he (Thibodeau) gave me more minutes than anyone in the league. I can’t complain and I never will complain. I love this game. If that’s what my team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
When asked who had the best offseason, Butler — who signed a five-year $95 million deal — joked, “You’re asking me that question? You’re asking me?”
The only time he got a little defensive was when he was asked about his fandom of Taylor Swift. “Don’t judge me!” he bristled (with a smile on his face).
Butler answered all the questions sincerely and respectfully. He got to the heart of the issues without fanning a non-story into a story. And he was smooth while doing it. It was the textbook way for how to not feed the trolls. It’s not like we needed another reason to like Jimmy Butler, but this interview is certainly worth adding to the pile.