NBA Finals 2023 – A one-finger salute and the deep bond that binds Jimmy Butler and the Miami Warmth

  • Nick Friedell, ESPN staff writerJune 11, 2023 11:00 PM ET


      Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls’ beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined when it launched in April 2009.

AS JIMMY BUTLER and Max Strus prepare for every Miami Heat game in the 2023 NBA Finals, they have a ritual. It’s something Butler has cultivated with all of his teammates. Sometimes it’s a handshake, sometimes it’s a series of handshakes – but in the case of Strus, it’s just one finger.

When Butler and Strus meet on the floor, they pretend to shake hands — then quickly raise their middle finger to show, believe it or not, their mutual admiration. Like many others in the Heat, Strus has an origin story for the gesture.

“My first year here, we played a lot of one-on-ones and it just got more intense, and we just started saying ‘F You’ to each other a lot,” Strus told ESPN. “One time he just wouldn’t shake my hand and I turned him down.”

As he walked away after his defeat, Butler turned and witnessed the one-finger salute.

He loved it.

In a team full of players just as talented as himself, Strus earned Butler’s respect even more.

“That was our handshake,” said Strus. “It’s just our thing.”

Not everyone was thrilled by such repeated profanity.

“My agent [Mark Bartelstein] “I wasn’t particularly excited about it,” Strus said. “He was like, ‘If you get a fine for that, I’m not going to help you at all.’ But no, they’re jokes. Everyone knows it’s our thing. My parents don’t care, they were fine with it, but Mark didn’t like it that much at first, but now he gets it.”

They all do. Butler’s meaningful routines with his teammates have forged a deep camaraderie within the Heat — a teamwide trust that will be tested to the ultimate test with a 3-1 loss in Monday’s Game 5 in Denver (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC). .

BUTLER IS A Routine man, especially before games. He goes through a carefully crafted ritual that includes individual moments for almost everyone. Coaches and staff are usually given double fists and a quick hug. Veterans Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry receive a more formal handshake.

“We’re all on business,” Love told ESPN. “It’s like a direct contract change.”

Lowry, who landed with the Heat in 2021 largely because of his relationship with Butler, repeated a similar story.

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“It’s me,” Lowry told ESPN, describing how the pair struck up their routine. “I’m just the pro. I’m the absolute pro. Just a handshake. Go out and be a pro. I’m not cool enough to have one.” [more involved type of] Handshake – I don’t have such a memory.”

Heat Warden Gabe Vincent doesn’t exactly know when he shook hands with Butler.

“I think it was my rookie year,” said Vincent. “It just came to us by itself.”

When Butler sees Vincent, both men extend their right index and middle fingers and then touch them for a few seconds before sliding their fingers under their noses and then patting their chests.

“It’s kind of like a thing that just clicks,” Vincent said. “It just happens. You’re like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re just going to keep going.’ And here it is, some are more planned, some are more conscious in that way, but I don’t think that was the case for us.

Every interaction, regardless of time and effort, is another way for Butler to connect with his teammates.

“You talk about the travels I’ve done with so many different people,” Butler told ESPN. “It’s about making us smile, making sure everything is flowing, no pressure, you don’t worry about anything. Just two people, two brothers, two teammates, two guys who are in the trenches together and you just come up with something from nowhere, but it’s us.

Whether it’s a double punch or a quick hug, almost everyone has a personal butler ritual. For their part, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love keep it simple. “We’re all on business,” Love said. “It’s purely a contract shake-up.” Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

FOR MANY HEARTS In the Heat locker room, Butler embodies all the hallmarks that define the organization’s renowned Heat culture.

“I learned so much from him,” heat guard Caleb Martin told ESPN. “More than anything, how to approach and navigate my journey since I’ve been here, especially since I’ve come two ways, and – it’s crazy with him because he’s just a reminder of where you can be, also through the fights.”

Like some of the older veterans, guard Duncan Robinson gets a firm handshake from Butler on his way to the field, but Martin’s moment comes with a little more pizzazz: A right-hand handshake, then a left-hand handshake, and a nod — with some exchanged words.

“We were just messing around and screwing things up a bit,” Martin said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be our s— now.’ In the end it was just like that. It was just coincidence.”

Martin said the pair practiced the routine in the dressing room and over time it stuck. For Martin, the handshake represents the path he’s come down to this moment, a similar path that Butler originally embarked on over 12 years ago and that many of his younger teammates want to follow.

“There’s a lot to do with the heart for us,” Martin said of the importance of his handshake with Butler. “He says all the time guys like me, Gabe, Max, of course all down the line, but these uncast guys definitely have to be the heart. You have to be the heartbeat of the team. And that’s why we’re always typing twice and then hanging up, so a lot of the time we’re just patting each other’s hearts.”

NO PLAYER HAS more heart in the heat than Udonis Haslem. The 43-year-old and 20-year-old Heat member has poured all his professional soul into the organization and is usually the last person in line for Butler to get in touch with before heading off to take a lead admit. He also rightly has the most coordinated exchange with the Heat star.

It’s a series of six handshakes with some motivational words in between, words Haslem wanted to keep between the two.

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“One, one, two, one, two, three taps,” Haslem told ESPN. “It’s just something we’re saying. What we say goes hand clapping. It’s in the rhythm. I can’t tell you what we’re saying, but what we’re saying fits.”

Heat center Bam Adebayo’s handshake, on the other hand, has a unique reason why the pair decided to swap quickly.

“If you watch Finding Nemo, you’ll find out,” Adebayo told ESPN.

In the popular Disney film, Crush the sea turtle tells his son Squirt to “give me some fins!” after the young turtle excitedly asks if his father saw what he just did. Crush then says “Noggin” and nods his head at the baby turtle so they can butt their heads in celebration.

Before each game, Butler and Adebayo mimic the cheers, smacking each other with the fronts of their forearms and then touching heads. “You do it once,” Adebayo said. “And then after a while it becomes routine.”

Love, who signed with the Heat in February and has been in the league for 15 seasons, knows it means something when a handshake gets stuck at Butler.

“When he got here, he understood very quickly that it was all about one thing,” Love said. “So for me it’s an understanding that he knows he has to call the shots and guide us and if you see us it’s fine, it’s just that understanding on an equal footing. Unspoken language.”

HOURS BEFORE GAME 2 Strus described what it felt like to play with Butler as he celebrated the Eastern Conference Finals and gave a finger salute to one of the players he used to cheer for as a kid in the Chicago suburbs.

“He gives us all confidence,” Strus said. “The way he approached every day and every game. We have all the confidence in the world that we can win every game with him. He’s one of the best players in the world right now, if not the best, and we just are.” I’m happy to be a part of that.

Veteran center Cody Zeller, another member of the Handshake team, summed things up similarly.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Zeller told ESPN of playing with Butler. “You just let him go to work. You just enjoy the show.”

And this show starts long before the tip.

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“It’s huge,” Love explained to Butler’s routine. “It’s that commonality. I think with what we have in our locker room and how special the locker room has become, I think it goes a long way to have that with every single player because you want to put in the extra effort, you want to go the extra mile for that teammate and you want to sacrifice for him.”

“He’s one of the most selfless stars I’ve ever been with,” added Vincent. “I think in general. On the field, off the field, I just think he’s selfless – he has a lot of faith in his teammates. He has no problem playing an extra pass or just getting the interpretation right. I think he has great respect for the game of basketball and wants it to be played clean.

He also wants the ties that bind the Heat to be pure. That’s why he’s taken the time to cultivate the handshake that defines his routine – and is a new pillar of the Heat culture.

“We are through and through,” Butler said of the handshake. “And we don’t worry about nobody, like I always say. If some of our handshakes bother people, that’s it, man, we smile and have fun.”

ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.

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