Monday 17 February 2020, 15:45

Butler: Any team with Neymar has a shot

  • NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler is a huge football fan

  • He expresses his admiration for Neymar and Paul Pogba

  • Brazilian football, the USWNT and Liverpool are also on the menu

Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Jennifer Hudson, Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, Lil Wayne, DJ Khaled, Ninja, Ludacris, Queen Latifah, Chris Tucker, Common, Chadwick Boseman, Bad Bunny, J.Cole, Spike Lee and Chance the Rapper must have wondered if they’d mistaken the United Center for Soldier Field.

Courtside for the 69th NBA All-Star Game, they expected to see players from Team Lebron and Team Giannis practise step-back threes, Euro steps and alley-oops during their warm-up routine. Instead, Bam Adebayo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid began soccer showboating and a keepy-uppie routine – all with a classic 22oz, leather basketball. Luka Doncic, from the other end of the paint, noticed and suddenly he and Nikola Jokic were trying to out-dazzle their rivals in red.

The ringleader? Butler. Jimmy ‘Buckets’ came back from the Rio Olympics in 2016 with two new loves: a 500-gram, laurel-leafed gold medal and football. Just moments before taking to the court in Chicago, for what Embiid described as “probably the best All-Star Game ever”, the 30-year-old Miami Heat forward and five-time NBA All-Star chatted to about his love of Neymar, Paul Pogba and Brazilian football, the battles to win the UEFA Champions League and Qatar 2022, the USWNT and what Kobe Bryant meant to him. When and how did you get into football?

Jimmy Butler: My friends played soccer growing up, but I wasn’t too much into it. I’ve really got into it since I went to the Olympics in 2016. We could basically go and watch whatever we wanted to, and I’d never seen a soccer game on any type of real level. I’d watched little-league soccer before, but never watched a professional game. What better place to watch it than at the Olympics? So we went and watched Neymar and Brazil win. I knew it was going to be crazy, because it was Brazil playing in Brazil in the final. I knew it was going to be on a completely different level to an American football game or a basketball game. It was a high-level game and the crowd was just so into it. It felt like nobody ever sat down, nobody was ever quiet. It made me love the game and my curiosity about soccer grow a lot. From then on out, I have loved Brazilian soccer. Neymar’s been one of my favourite players ever since.

How did you and Neymar become friends?

I met Ney in 2017. I was always wearing Brazil jerseys and I would go to Paris for fashion week. Somehow, some way we just ended up connecting. We sat down for dinner, we hung out in Paris, and our relationship has grown from there. I’ve visited him in Brazil a few times.

What do you think of Neymar as a player?

I think he’s the greatest of all time. Obviously he’s a really good friend of mine, but I see what he can do on the field, how he can make anybody and everybody better, so he has my vote on being the G.O.A.T.

And Kylian Mbappe…

I think he’s really good too. I know all about young talents because I have plenty of young talents on my team here in Miami. It’s definitely fun to watch him play alongside Neymar at PSG. They complement each other well. He’s just won the World Cup and has a big future.

How closely do you follow Paris Saint-Germain?

I love PSG, but I’m really a fan of players. Neymar’s at PSG, Pogba’s with Man U – he’s another I’m really close with – so I watch their games. I always try to watch the games, and if I can’t watch the games, I’m always checking in on the scores. I pay attention to Barcelona because of [Antoine] Griezmann. Man City, because one of my best friends, that’s his favourite team. And I kind of have to watch Liverpool, just because they’re so, so good right now. So I keep up with a lot of different teams.

Do you think PSG can win the UEFA Champions League this year?

They have Neymar on the team. With Neymar on the team, you’ve always got a shot. Liverpool are very strong, but I think anybody can get beat on any given day. It’s two games, home and away – it can definitely happen. Liverpool is really good – don’t get me wrong. They have a lot of key players who work together well, but I’m never doubting the ability of Neymar.

Brazil have lost just two of 22 games since Russia 2018 and won the Copa America last year. Do you think they can end what will be a 20-year wait for FIFA World Cup™ glory at Qatar 2022?

I definitely hope so. It would be huge for Brazil. It would be huge for Neymar and all those other young guys that they have. I really respect what Brazil does for football. All of their players are so talented. They live, breathe football. Everything's football over there. They have some really good young players. It’s fun to watch those guys grow up and follow their careers, because sooner or later they’re going to be on the same team playing in the Olympics or the World Cup.

What did you make of USA’s campaign at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™?

They played an incredible tournament. They put on a show for the fans. They’re without a doubt the best. That’s not even up for question. They’ve got so many players that are really, really talented. I’ve actually watched them play before, and they’re fun to watch because they get it done and they’re exciting. In women’s football, USA is the team to beat at the Olympics.

Finally, can you tell us what Kobe Bryant meant to you?

Kobe meant a lot to everybody. Part of being the best that you can be every single day – whatever craft you’re in – it’s all about being the greatest, competing at the highest level, not settling for anything else. That was Kobe. Then you look at who he is as a father. I think that’s really, really incredible that he spent so much time coaching Gigi, always attending her games, being around with Vanessa and all his girls. That’s important to me, because obviously now I have a daughter. When you look at how great he was at basketball, you have to figure that he was as great off the floor with his family as he was on the floor. He was more than just a great basketball player. He influenced so many people in so many incredible ways.