How Buzz Williams lured NBA Finals starters Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder from JUCOs to Marquette

Buzz Williams was sitting at home with his family late Sunday, like millions of other Americans, enthusiastically watching the Eastern Conference Finals, where the underdog Miami Heat upset the Boston Celtics for the fourth time in six games to advance to the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Not long after the final buzzer sounded, the reigning SEC Coach of the Year’s phone started beeping. There was a text from Jimmy Butler. There was another from Jae Crowder.

“They were texting me in the locker room when the game was over — and sending me pictures,” Williams, who is about to start his second season at Texas A&M, told me by phone. “As a person who’s not quite old yet, but is approaching old, it makes you feel good, even though I didn’t do anything other than have a front-row seat. I’m really excited for those two … What a great story they’re writing for themselves.”

Imagine watching two people you love overachieve on basketball’s biggest stage. Imagine watching two people whose basketball careers you helped launch, against all odds, comprise 40% of one of the starting lineups in Wednesday night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

That’s Buzz Williams’ life right now.

If you ask him about it, in typical Buzz-fashion, he’ll downplay his role and insist he merely had a nice seat to witness Butler and Crowder go from unheralded high school prospects to junior college players to legitimate NBA prospects to multi-millionaire professionals who are suddenly just four wins away from securing a title. But that’s simply a man deflecting credit. Truth is, Williams was instrumental in helping Butler and Crowder go from there to here. That’s why, while celebrating with their teammates, they took time to reach out to their former coach at Marquette. That’s why when Williams, after his 10th season as a head coach, then at Virginia Tech, invited all of his former players to Blacksburg, Virginia, for a three-day reunion three years ago, Butler and Crowder were among the roughly 100 players who showed up.

“And those guys were not trying to appear as though they were somebody different,” Williams said. “They were just one of us. And that just speaks to who they are and how they handle their business.”

The backstories are great.

Neither Butler nor Crowder even visited Marquette before leaving junior colleges and putting their Division I careers in the hands of a young and (at the time) mostly unaccomplished coach. In fact, the two southerners — Butler is from Texas; Crowder is from Georgia — only ended up in Milwaukee because of pre-existing relationships Williams had with people close to them.

And because Williams trusted those people.

Let’s start with Butler.

The connection between Butler and Williams is actually a man named Joe Fulce, who had committed to go to New Orleans and play for Williams in advance of the 2007-08 season. But when Williams resigned at UNO after one year to join Tom Crean’s staff at Marquette, Fulce instead enrolled at Tyler Community College, where his roommate just happened to be Butler. After the 2007-08 season, Crean left Marquette for Indiana, at which point Williams was promoted to head coach of the Big East program. Because Fulce had already committed to Marquette, Williams called him to relay the news.

“So I called Joe to let him know I’d been named the head coach, and Joe says, ‘Coach, you wanna sign Jimmy?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?'” Williams recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Coach, I think he’s good.’ And, of course, we need to sign like seven players. … So I said, ‘OK, well, tell him we want to sign him.’ And he said, ‘Well do you wanna talk to him?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll talk to him. Put him on the phone.’ And so I said, ‘Hey Jimmy, do you wanna come to Marquette?’ And he said, ‘Yessir. I wanna come.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll send the papers to you.’ Signing Day was one week later — April 15th … So Jimmy went to the McDonald’s and faxed the [national letter of intent].”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Crowder’s story is similarly unique.

Williams spent the early part of his career writing letters on a weekly basis to coaches in an attempt to develop relationships with people he respected. One of the coaches he wrote, over and over again, was Mark Adams, who is now on Chris Beard’s staff at Texas Tech. But in the 2009-2010 season, he was the head coach at Howard College. And one day, back then, he phoned Williams to tell him about Crowder.

“Coach Adams called and said, ‘Buzz, I’m coaching the best player I’ve ever coached,'” Williams recalled. “And I go, ‘Coach, thanks for calling me. But that statement can’t be true because when I was writing you letters, I used to look at the Dallas Morning News, and you were coaching the leading scorer in Division 1.’ … And he said, ‘No, I have a kid who’s better. I’d like for you to come watch him.'”

So Williams went to watch him.

“And Jae had five points, five rebounds and five fouls,” Williams said. “So the game’s over, they’re playing at South Plains [College], and I went over to talk to Coach Adams before they went into the locker room. … And he goes, ‘Buzz, man, I’m really sorry. This is the worst he’s played.’ And I go, ‘Coach, I didn’t come to see him play. I came because you asked me to come. That’s how much I respect you.’ And I said, ‘If you’re telling me he’s the best player you’ve ever coached, I wanna sign him.’ And he goes, ‘After what you just saw?’ And I go, ‘Coach, he spent more time next to you than he did in the game. And the entire time he’s on the bench, he’s the most vocal coach on the staff. I mean, he’s waving a towel. He’s cheering. … He’s running out, giving guys dap, giving them high-fives.’ I’m like, ‘We need that. That’s who we are. And you know a player better than I do.’ I guess, at that time, I was 37. So I said, ‘I trust you.'”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Butler and Crowder played one season together at Marquette and led the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16 of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Butler was then selected 30th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. The following season, Crowder led Marquette back to the Sweet 16 after earning Big East Player of the Year honors. He was then selected 34th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. And now, nearly a decade later, Butler and Crowder have reunited in Miami — where they are two of the top five scorers in this postseason for the Heat, who are 12-3 in the playoffs heading into Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals.

Tip is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET.

Buzz Williams and his family will be ready.

“Man, I’m excited,” Williams said. “Like, let’s go! Are we having pizza? Are we cooking burgers? Are we getting takeout? I’m excited like I’m a fan. I’m watching every commercial. I’m paying attention. I’m screaming at the TV. So I’m excited. I hope it goes [to] Game 7. And, selfishly, I hope the Heat win.”

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