My Jimmy Butler pain started with Wayne Huizenga. This was March of 1998, five months to the day that Huizenga’s Marlins won Game 7 of the World Series. They beat a real team from a real city. Had no right but did it anyway.
Huizenga was the dean of South Florida sports. He had brought the expansion Marlins to the region in 1991, followed by an expansion NHL team, the Panthers, in 1993. The next year, Huizenga bought the Dolphins for close to $140 million. He owned Miami’s NFL, MLB and NHL teams, and in the fall of 1997 his Marlins became Miami’s first major champion since the ’73 Dolphins. For Halloween, the Tribune ran a sidebar on who various sports figures should dress up as; Jerry Reinsdorf, White Sox owner, should be “Wayne Huizenga, World Series winner.”
But Huizenga was unhappy. He had, he said, spent $200 million on the team since its inception with nary a profit to show for it. In the middle of what was becoming a championship season, Huizenga announced that he would sell the club after the year. A World Series win didn’t change that. To ensure that the incoming ownership group wouldn’t be saddled with costs — he noted that the club had lost $34 million that year — Huizenga began unloading his highest paid players. The White Sox hadn’t won the World Series since 1917, the Cubs since 1908. Chicago’s most recent World Series appearance to that point was four decades earlier.
And here was this fifth-year upstart club from Miami fortunate enough to buy their way to a World Series championship (the ’97 Marlins had MLB’s 7th highest payroll at $47.7 million) that was now giving it all away. By the time my brother and I were in Miami that March, my sophomore year of high school, visiting our grandparents, Huizenga had jettisoned the team’s leader in home runs and RBI (Moises Alou), its ace (Kevin Brown), closer (Robb Nen) and Game 7 starter (Al Leiter), its 1st baseman from Opening Day (Jeff Conine) and Game 7 (Darren Daulton) and its starting center fielder (Devon White).
So they got a ring, I thought one day as we drove past Pro Player Stadium, the ballpark where just five months earlier Edgar Renteria had knocked in Craig Counsell to win the World Series in the 11th inning of Game 7. So what. Their heroes are gone. Their team is dead.
They’ll never have what we have.
My Jimmy Butler pain started with Don Shula. The 40-year-old was already a veteran NFL coach when he took over the fifth-year Dolphins, a hapless club that won just 15 games in its four AFL seasons before the merger kicked in. When it did, Shula took over and launched the franchise into greatness. 10-4 and the postseason in 1970, the year after the Bears lost the coin toss for Terry Bradshaw.
Our first ever game against the Dolphins was in 1971, a must-win game for Jim Dooley’s 6-4 Bears. We were a real football team from a real city. We played real football. Shula’s Dolphins waxed us 34-3. By the time we played again in 1975, the Dolphins were a two-time champion and the only team in NFL history to complete a season undefeated. Before the ’72 Dolphins, only two NFL teams had gone undefeated, though both finally lost in the NFL championship: the 1934 Chicago Bears and the 1942 Chicago Bears.
The Dolphins won that game in ’75, and the next one in ’79, and the next one in 1985, the game that prevented the ’85 Bears from joining the ’72 Dolphins in the undefeated ranks. Shula’s Dolphins didn’t even have the decency to reach the Super Bowl and grant us our revenge. We finally beat the Dolphins in 1988, but we lost again in ’91. The indignity continued in 1993: Don Shula won his 325th game as a head coach, breaking George Halas’s career record as the NFL’s winningest coach.
And that’s pretty much how it’s gone with the Dolphins. Our only consecutive wins against them came in 1994 and then in 1997, that game at Pro Player the night after the Marlins won the World Series. They beat us in 2002 and broke our undefeated streak again in 2006, this time at Soldier Field, the day before my 25th birthday, myself and two friends at Soldier Field to witness the slaughter. No matter, I thought. They haven’t won a championship since 1973. We have ’85 and another coming this year.
Got back to Miami alright. A Super Bowl in Dolphin Stadium, what in 1997 was Pro Player. We were a real football team that played in real weather. Lost the first true weather game in Super Bowl history. We’re 1-3 against the Dolphins since then, for a 4-10 lifetime record.
So they’ve got our number, I thought. So what? We’re the Bears. A real team in a real city. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
My Jimmy Butler pain started with Pudge Rodriguez. The Marlins were the National League’s wild card team in 1997, and the very next year, the Cubs held the same distinction. Sammy Sosa became one of the two biggest stars in baseball. Frank Thomas had a de facto MVP season in 2000. Sammy put up perhaps his best numbers ever in 2001. Through it all, the Marlins sputtered, remaining under .500 the entire time.
Until 2003, that is. The Cubs were peaking, and the Sox, whom Jerry Reinsdorf had once threatened to move to Florida, were climbing to resptability. And then out of nowhere, up popped the Marlins, jump started by future Cub Derrek Lee and future Cub and Sox player Juan Pierre and former Cub draftee Dontrelle Willis. The missing piece: Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez, who fueled the Marlins to 91 wins and an upset over the 100-win Giants.
They caught the Cubbies in the NLCS, and after the Cubs took a 3-1 series lead and a 3-2 lead to Wrigley, a foul ball drifted toward ex-Marlins outfielder Moises Alou…
Eleven days later, that fake ballclub from that fake city had two more World Series rings than both Chicago teams had combined to win in my grandparents’ lives. And didn’t have but one grandparent left by then.
I wasn’t laughing that time.
But really, my Jimmy Butler pain started with Pat Riley. The Heat became an NBA expansion team for the 1988-89 season, the year the Bulls, under the stewardship of fifth-year owner Jerry Reinsdorf, began its ascent to championship status. MJ hit the shot in ’89, we took Detroit to 7 in 1990, we won our first championship in ’91. The next year the Heat made their first ever postseason. We swept them in three. A real team from a real city that played real basketball. In the clincher, MJ scored 56.
The next round we played the Knicks and their new head coach Pat Riley. They took us to 7. The year after, Riley’s Knicks earned home court in the East. We took them to 6 and won. Three-peat. Riley had it copyrighted but we got it first. We took Riley’s Knicks to 7 in 1994, the year the Heat made their second ever postseason, losing in the 1st round again. The Heat missed the playoffs in 1995, Riley’s Knicks lost to Indiana and the man who once ran Showtime took his talents to South Beach. Riley negotiated a deal that named him not just head coach but team president in total control of basketball operations.
Here’s what the Miami Heat had done to that point: seven seasons, two playoffs, both 1st round exists. Its best players were Glen Rice, Steve Smith and Rony Seikaly.
Two years into his tenure, Pat Riley had the Miami Heat with a franchise-best 61 wins and a hard-fought five-game loss to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. That summer, as White Sox owner, Jerry Reinsdorf famously made The White Flag Trade, but he came close to waving the white flag a month earlier when he nearly submarined the greatest dynasty in professional sports, coming thiiiiiis close to letting Jerry Krause set off a chain reaction that could have ended with Scottie Pippen in Boston, Phil Jackson retired and Michael Jordan I don’t even know where. We finished out the three-peat, took a bow and exited stage left while Riley kept building in Miami.
Reinsdorf’s Bulls missed the playoffs six straight seasons. That’s twice the length of the Heat’s longest playoff drought ever, which was their first three years in existence. Since then, their longest playoff drought was two seasons, which only happened once, in 2002 and 2003. The Bulls had the 7th pick in 2003. We were going to take Marquette’s Dwyane Wade, a Chicagoan.
In Miami, Riley had the 5th pick. He wanted Wade. Bulls GM John Paxson considered trading up to 4th in a deal with the Raptors, but he didn’t want to part with forward Donyell Marshall. We stayed at 7. Riley picked Wade at 5. Six months later, Pax traded Marshall to the Raptors. Wade led Miami to the franchise’s first championship in 2006. Four years after that, the Heat and the Bulls were, it seemed, in competition for the free agency signings of Wade, LeBron James and perhaps Chris Bosh.
“I think the biggest question (about the Bulls) that you think about has to be loyalty,” Wade said in May of 2010. “I see Michael Jordan is not there, Scottie Pippen is not there. … You know, these guys are not a part (of the franchise). That is probably one of the biggest things for me, because I am a very loyal person.”
Wade stayed in Miami. Bosh went to Miami. LeBron went to Miami. Riley had a dynasty in the making. In their first season together, they knocked us out in the Eastern Conference Finals. In their second, they won a championship. In their third we played them in the second round. I wrote two articles about why Heat fans were lame, and giggled when they left their stadium during the waning minutes of Game 6 of the Finals only to try to run back after Ray Allen forced overtime.
Real fans of a real team in a real city would never, I chuckled. The Heat won their 3rd championship.
Last night, the Heat outscored the Celtics 36-22 in the 4th quarter to go up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and their star was a man who should still be in Chicago, a man who was so Chicago that it’s extra embarrassing that a Chicago team got rid of him. Jimmy Butler was made to be a Bull. He was made for Chicago. We drafted him in 2011, a guard from Marquette. He played sparingly his rookie year but was pressed into action in 2013 when Derrick’s injury stretched beyond the infinite.
Jimmy played all 82 games that year and then pulled off one of my favorite under-the-radar stretches of Chicago sports: three straight playoff games clocking 48 minutes each, in wins over the Nets twice and a Game 1 win over LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Riley’s Heat. He became “Jimmy Buckets” that year. Became NBA All-Defensive the next. Became a 20-point scorer and an All-Star the next. Became an Olympian the next. Became All-NBA the next. Became an ex-Bull the next. They cast him out. Started to pretend he was “Hollywood” and not worth the money. Started to pretend he was not Chicago.
He went to Minnesota and turned the Timberwolves into a playoff team. Minnesota let him go to Philadelphia; Minnesota won 11 fewer games. The 76ers lost in the 2nd round in 2019. They had a player logjam and decided Jimmy Butler was the one to leave. The man waiting for him: Pat Riley. He brought Butler to Miami; the 76ers won eight fewer games. The Heat went from out of the playoffs to division champs and the NBA Finals. They’ve been to two more conference finals since then and are two wins away from making the franchise’s 7th NBA Finals. To even reach the playoffs, they had to go through the play-in round. They lost their first game but won their second — against the Bulls.
Here is what the Heat have done since Riley took over in 1995:
- 3 rings, with a possible 4th coming
- 6 Finals, with a possible 7th coming
- 9 conference finals
- 16 division titles
- 22 postseasons
- Only one playoff drought of 2+ years
- Acquired Mourning, Hardaway, Wade, Shaq, LeBron, Bosh and Butler
Here’s what the Bulls have done since 1998:
- 0 Finals
- 1 conference finals
- Playoff droughts of six years and four years
- 9 seasons above .500
- Lost 4 players who had their first All-Star appearance after leaving the Bulls (Brand, Artest, Brad Miller, Markkanen) and a future 3x 6th Man of the Year (Crawford)
Pat Riley took over a nothing organization and turned it into one of the most stable and successful franchises in American sports. He’s doing it again with a head coach from Evanston, of all places, and a superstar who could still be in Chicago if only we realized how Chicago he was. Riley saw it. Saw the real player from the real city trapped on the team that heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” and did the opposite. Took him away to a city where fans only show up when you win. Where they sell your World Series champ and build another. Where the free agents actually want to play. Where the football team broke one of our records and personally stopped us from breaking theirs.
Took him to a city that wins. Often. With fans that don’t show up if you don’t show up. Took him to a franchise with heart and guts. With focus and discipline. With history. And tradition. Took him to Miami where he plays what we like to say is Chicago ball.
“We’ll see you in Miami, Jimmy,” a reporter told Butler after the Heat wrapped Game 2.
“Oh yeah,” the Chicago guy said. “Going home.”
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.